Text and photography by Garhart Stephenson
Life is always full of interesting options during Fremont County winters. My days are dominated by bird hunting and fly fishing. However, variety is good and a hot tip around the holidays developed into a great new experience: catching bass and perch through the ice on flies.
A friend told me about good sized perch his neighbor had just encountered on Bass Lake. Good sized perch in Bass Lake? I listened intently and one tidbit in particular got me thinking. One of the perch regurgitated a bunch of “hellgrammite looking” bugs. Hmmm. There are no hellgrammites there, but damselfly nymphs are prevalent.
I dashed out there, found the spot and used normal ice lures. I caught fish, but not many. The place was a wasteland: endless sandy lake bottom. If those fish gorged on damselfly nymphs, they didn’t do it here. A plan was formulated on the spot, but I needed different tackle.
The next day I stopped in at WROC (Wind River Outdoor Company, Lander WY) and picked up a package of olive tungsten beads to make my own nymphs for fishing deep under the ice. A simple design with marabou tail and side “wings” made for lively imposters. A few strands of olive Krystal Flash adorned the marabou as well.
Soon I was back out at the lake. I turned on my sonar and went searching for a weed-line by pouring a tiny puddle of water on the ice to make a seal for the transducer, enabling the sonar signal to pass through. This old trick allows rapid search without drilling holes. Within minutes I found clean sandy bottom out past the weeds, then it was a matter of backtracking toward the last location where a thick bottom line on the sonar indicated weed growth. It didn’t take long to find the exact edge, a critical detail. I drilled a few holes with a cordless drill/ auger conversion and went to work.
Fish showed on screen as my fly neared the weed growth. Perch. Catching them was a lot of fun, but I also hoped for bigger fish, namely bass. They did not disappoint. Some of the perch have been nothing to sneeze at, but the bass are a riot! Contrary to popular belief, even the larger specimens feed under the ice. My best tally has been 26 largemouth in an afternoon, certainly worth the effort. All bass have been released.
There are a few keys to making this work. First and foremost, the fly must ride horizontally, like the real thing. Originally, weighting the hook with a short strip of lead so the fly rode hook point up was the method of choice. I soon went back to WROC and picked up a package of size 8 Daiichi #4660 jig style hooks. Either way, it is still imperative to adjust the tippet knot so the line is perpendicular to the hook shank. If the fly rides vertically, the fish seldom touch it. I reset this orientation after each fish, even missed strikes. It’s that important.
Speaking of line and tippet, 2lb or 4lb test Fireline works by far the best due to lack of line coiling. This is a must or the light nips by fish go undetected. For tippet I still swear by the same Trout Hunter fluorocarbon tippet I use when fly fishing with normal fly tackle. The Fireline is vastly stronger than the test rating and I have found 4.5X (6lb.) to be the perfect match to 2lb. Fireline. Always add a short section of slightly heavier flouro or mono in between since Fireline’s thin diameter tends to cut the knot; this buffer solves the problem.
One final tackle tidbit is to add small “crumb” of Gulp or Powerbait waxworm, wiggler, etc. makes a noteworthy difference. Which flavor you choose seems to matter very little, as long as there is something tipping the fly. I use a chunk maybe the size of a BB. I use these durable versions so re-baiting isn’t a constant nuisance.
Technique is mostly a spastic “machine gun” quivering with about one inch of vertical movement. Perch tend to go for a slightly rising presentation and bass often prefer to take a dropping or level presentation. When aggressive, bass will sometimes charge up several feet from the bottom! When the fish are in a slow mood, keep it in their face.
Five weeks of solid action has me hooked on this program. It’s hard not to be addicted when something is working. Winter isn’t so bad when there are fish to catch and it’s a pleasant change of pace from hitting the river every time out. Flies under the ice, it’s different but oh so much fun.