FISH THE SOUTH RIVER WITH WILD WATER FLY
BY: DALLAS HUDGENS
Winter is when only the gonzo fishermen come out to play. Everyone else is huddled by the wood stove, but a few enjoy standing in the water when the air temperature is below freezing. If you’re looking to be one of those anglers, look no further because this is the guide to winter fly fishing in the South River and Virginia.
THE SOUTH RIVER
The South River runs through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley at Waynesboro, Virginia. This spring-fed river maintains the perfect temperature for trout year-round, never getting too hot during the hot, humid summers and never freezing in the middle of winter.
Fishing at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you may see snow-capped peaks as the sun peeks through the clouds. They will glow in the background as you fix your flight line and break the ice on your guides.
If breaking the ice in your guides doesn’t seem like a good time, don’t worry. Virginia winters are mild compared to the rest of the country, with high temperatures generally in the 40s. Lows can drop below freezing so avoid fishing before mid-morning as this is the best way to weather the worst of cold weather. However, you should be careful with the weather. Freezing temperatures are possible during the day, so make sure you always have a layered clothing system stowed away.
You can wear neoprene boots in sub-zero temperatures, but you usually need tracksuit layers and compression tops and bottoms to keep warm under your boots. The good news is that the water will not be as cold as the air.
In winter, the South River flows about 2.5 to 3 feet in the width of the river, which is ideal for wading.
Just because the water doesn’t freeze doesn’t mean you fish it like you would in the spring, summer, or fall. Bug hatches are minimal and you only need a handful of flies to be effective.
My first winter fishing in the South was easily the coldest winter in ten years. There were several weeks in a row with highs that stayed in the single digits or in the teens. The middle of the river was flowing a lot, but a foot of ice had built up on the banks. I have not seen this before or after.
The first trip was early in the morning. The high that day was supposed to be 17F and was sitting at 6F when I woke up. Waiting until the temperature stabilized wouldn’t have made much of a difference to fishing with how cold it was, so I decided to go early and be back at the house around noon to make some chili and watch football while I warmed up.
I live on the other side of Blue Ridge, and as I was driving up and over the mountain, I looked down at the basin and saw that it had snowed overnight. The valley can have a completely different climate than where I live despite being only twenty minutes away. The snow didn’t affect the fishing but added a nice aesthetic.
I had bundled up in the house and drove to the river in my boots. I had also assembled my Wildwater 5-6 Weight fly rod and tied flies to my leader. Finger dexterity is minimal in cold weather, so having everything tied up beforehand can save time and improve knotting.
The easiest part of fly fishing in the winter is that you only need one style of fly, mosquitoes. It is best to have a few different colors that you can experiment with to see what the fish like best. The 20 size is a great place to start.
I tied a size 10 Black Wooly Bugger and a size 20 black midge as a dropper on the hook bend, using 6x Flourocarbon Tippet. It was a cloudy morning, and the snow must have previously been falling as rain because the water was not as clear as usual.
I stick with dark colors when the water is dirty and conditions are cloudy. The larger woolly insect acts as an attractor that the trout can see. They may not be interested, but it will cause them to search the area where your mosquito will soon be floating.
INHABITANTS OF THE SOUTH RIVER
The occasional native brook trout finds its way into the river; however, it is quite rare. Most of the time, you will be fishing for stocked rainbow and brown trout. Thanks to increasingly strict conservation laws, the state is now seeing some wild trout begin to gain a foothold in the river. There aren’t many, but hopefully they will continue to flourish.
I only caught rainbows this morning, and they were all knitters. The four I caught weren’t huge, but they floated in the foot-long range. Each took the mosquito. Of course, it’s impossible to tell if they only took it because they saw the bugger first, but I can attest that I have better days as a nymph when I drop a smaller fly from an attractor.
After releasing the last fish, I decided to go. My hands were red and had begun to feel numb to the point where pinching the fly line required concentrated effort. It was the first of many days I spent fishing in the south during the winter, but it was easily the coldest.
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