The mid-winter storm had blown in viciously from the south and deposited nearly a foot of snow on Bald Mountain’s ski runs. Locals and visitors alike spent an unforgettable morning arcing turns through the soft January fluff, and the vibe on the world-class ski mountain was electric.
Exhausted, many skiers and riders were making the mid-morning return trip across the River Run bridge back to their vehicles. Terms like “epic,” “unforgettable” and “awesome” were being thrown around with a passion that even non-skiers could appreciate.
Matt Curci, veteran Sun Valley ski patrolman and former ski racer, had the day off. After carving several hundred beautifully shaped non-work-related turns, Curci decided to pack it in. A short walk to his black Toyota 4Runner and he was ready to embrace the remainder of a well-deserved break from work.
Placing his skis in the trunk, he glanced around quickly. Noting that no one was present in his corner of the parking lot, Curci dropped his ski pants to the snowy ground, and, in the same motion, pulled on his Gore-Tex fishing waders. He slipped into his felt-soled wading boots and was soon on his way back toward the ski hill or, more exactly, to the river that meandered along its base. The morning of spectacular skiing was over, but the afternoon of fly fishing on the Big Wood River was about to begin.
Soon after, Curci’s brightly colored fly line was sailing through the air in a tight loop with a small imitation fly tied to the end of its translucent leader. As rainbow trout sipped insects off the surface of the recirculating back-eddies, Curci waited for his black and white midge to be targeted. A few casts later, his fly suddenly disappeared in a swirl. Lifting his rod tip delicately upward toward the downward spiraling snowflakes, Curci felt the tension. “Fish on,” Curci muttered to himself.
Winter recreationists in the Wood River Valley are blessed to have an assortment of pursuits to choose from when considering what to do with a day off from work or while on vacation. Skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, paragliding and now fat tire snow biking are some of those options. And another, winter fly fishing, is an activity that has a strong following in the Wood River Valley.
“I love fly fishing in the winter,” offered George Rizzo, longtime local fishing guide and owner of Starbucks in Ketchum. When pressed to explain why, a thoughtful smile appeared on his face. “What I appreciate about winter fly fishing is the solitude. It’s almost like a painting. With a little mist in the air and the white snow-light reflecting off the water and the leafless trees … it’s peaceful, it’s solitude, it’s serenity.”
Winter fly fishing equipment varies little from its summertime counterparts, though the addition of fingerless gloves, multiple insulating layers, fleece pants and a warm hat certainly doesn’t hurt. A few old-school anglers don neoprene waders during the coldest winter stretches. This is a good idea if you plan to be on the water more than a couple of hours.
“The main difference in the wintertime is that I’m generally throwing smaller flies than in the summer. Other than that, and a total lack of crowds, it’s very similar,” said Rizzo. Asked what he considers to be ideal winter fishing conditions, Rizzo added, “I prefer cloudy skies, a little humidity in the air and temps in the 36 to 40 degree range, with no wind. In fact, I’ve had some of my best days fishing midges on the Big Wood during snowstorms.”
Scott Snebly, owner of Lost River Outfitters, leads groups of fly fishermen in pursuit of steelhead during the late winter months and has been introducing fly fishermen to winter “steelie” fishing for over 40 years. The anadromous fish he pursues begin their life cycle in the headwaters of the Salmon River, an hour north of Sun Valley. Descending 7,000 vertical feet and over 900 river miles through eight massive dams to the Pacific Ocean, these fish generally spend one to three years in saltwater—some travelling as far as the coastal waters of Japan—before returning to their home waters to spawn and initiate the cycle again. Theirs is the longest sea-running journey of any fish in North America.
“I like the challenge of fishing in the winter,” the mustachioed outfitter said with a stoic but heartfelt sentiment. “I like the challenge of the inclement weather. I enjoy sharing the challenge of overcoming whatever impediment is thrown at you. I like the challenge of fishing when the odds are not in your favor. You can fish places in the summer that are crowded but are empty in the winter. There’s a unique beauty to it … the ice, the icicles, the boulders covered in snow with fish hiding nearby. You have to believe in it. You have to believe in yourself.”
After a two-hour session that included multiple fish landed and a few lost, Curci reeled in his line with numb fingertips. As silently as he entered the clear, cold water of the Big Wood River, he exited it. After jumping into his frigid truck, cranking the heat and turning on the radio, Curci heard the local DJ announce that another storm was expected to hit the Valley with warm temps and significant snowfall, abating by noon the following day.
“Perfect fishing weather,” he thought to himself as he headed for home. “Maybe I can fit in a little skiing, too.”