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Take Me to the River

While winter trout typically aren't as jumpy as they are in the summer, it’s a great time of year to work on your technique for hitting the water in warmer months with more confidence.

John Tranchina
January 29, 2018

If you can stand the cold weather, winter can be a great time of the year to get out of the house and do some fly fishing. And as an added bonus, winter is when the trout are most plentiful throughout most of Oklahoma.

Fly fishing is a challenging sport that requires finesse and knowledge, but also practicing the proper casting techniques, including the traditional arcing, looping motion most people are familiar with. You can improve all of those skills at the Illinois River Fly Fishing School Feb. 24, on the banks of the Illinois River, by the dam at Tenkiller State Park in Vian, which is about 80 miles southeast of downtown Tulsa.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and by the way, that’s before A River Runs Through It,” says Mark Patton, the school’s fly fishing instructor, referencing the Oscar-winning Brad Pitt movie from 1992 that sparked a surge in fly fishing popularity.

Patton reports that fly fishing may be less pleasant when it’s cold out than in the summer, but it isn’t harder or fundamentally different.

“The water temperature is colder, and what that does is it slows down the fishes’ metabolism, just like you,” Patton explains. “The other factor with that is that insect activity, which the trout feed on, changes. Typically, when it gets colder, we don’t have as many hatchets, the bugs coming off the bottom and becoming adults. But as far as everything going on underneath the surface, the same thing’s going on no matter what the temperature is.”

Most of the time, the only deterrent is how much you can stand the cold. On a day when it was 38 degrees outside, Patton says the conditions were good. Put on a good pair of hip waders, bundle up, and you’ll be fine.

“Without wind, that is fairly comfortable,” he says. “You can gear up for that, with all the outdoor clothing now. Without getting into too much of the scientific basis, what my dad said forever, is we can expect to see insect activity on the stream when it’s the most comfortable for you. In the summer, when is it the most comfortable for you? Early and late. And in the winter, it’s most comfortable midday.”

A lot of scientific analysis has gone into establishing the guidelines behind successful fly fishing, but as Patton points out, it isn’t necessary to head into the water with that knowledge. One can be a productive fly fisherman without possessing a scientific background.

“It’s extremely scientific, but you don’t have to fish knowing that,” he says. “Fly fishing got an incredibly bad rap for that for years, trying to make it too complicated. You had to know which species of mayfly was hatching at 2 p.m. Aug. 31. You don’t have to do that. And we approach it that way [during the clinic]. We assume that everybody is a recreational fly fisherman. How we define that is, you go on vacation and you just go fish. You’re not basing it on a certain insect hatching at a particular time. That’s how we approach it.”

Patton and his group of fellow instructors will have you fishing like a pro in the course of a single day, lasting from 8 a.m.-10 p.m.

“That’s a long day, but we didn’t want to stop halfway through,” Patton says of the immersive schedule. “We tell people that we’re trying to give them 50 years of experience in one day.”

They begin in a classroom discussing the very basics of fly fishing.

“Everybody comes to us with different levels of experience and different levels of knowledge,” Patton says. “So we tell them up front, ‘We start as if you know nothing,’ and that gets everybody on the same course. We also understand that people pick up a little bit from a book, a little bit from a friend, a little bit from a guide, a little bit from a video and they can’t put it all together. So we give them a solid base of information where they can progress.”

Patton and his group discuss gear such as fishing rods, reels, line, leader, tippets, knots, and flies, throughout the morning, then go outside after lunch and practice casting fundamentals. After that, everyone goes to the river and tries it out themselves, although people without their own hip waders don’t have to get wet. There are places to stand on the shore and fish.

“I get in the river and show them how to fish a dry fly, upstream, downstream, across stream and how to nymph fish,” Patton says, citing a number of different techniques. “We give a demonstration, and then we have about an hour and a half to two hours that they can go fish on the stream. We provide rods and reels and flies for them. Typically, we always have somebody who catches a fish.

“Then, after dinner, we go back to the classroom and we cover fly selection, how you pick out a fly. That, for the most part, is the entomology part of it. We talk a little about where to fish, the needs of a trout, and then we stay and answer questions about our techniques, our situations, or whatever anybody wants to talk about.”

It will be a long day, an intense day, and a tiring day, both mentally and physically. But also a fun and informative day.

Illinois River Fly Fishing School
Tenkiller State Park | OK-100 | Vian
Feb. 24

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