Winter fly fishing is a different animal.
Fly fishing in the winter is a different animal altogether than spring/summer fishing. It requires different preparation and forethought than getting out in the warmer months. Snow, ice, and cold air and water temps are safety concerns, so you should never go out alone. If it’s your first time trying, it’s best to get out with someone who can show you the ropes.
Something to understand right out of the gate is that when rivers have ice on the banks it is the toughest time to catch trout. Trout are cold-blooded, so their metabolism slows down the colder the water gets. When the water temps get below 40 their activity is just maintaining a comfortable lie. Since they are not moving much they don’t require much energy, so they stop chasing food and eat mostly what comes right to them in their position. As water temps get to freezing and below, this activity slows even more. Finally, the water freezes over the entire river, so you have to wait for warmer days and water temps.
Winter is the toughest time on the angler as well. Once you’ve decided you up for the challenge of trying to catch very lethargic fish. You need to prepare! In February you can’t just jump up off the couch and say you’re going to go fishing as you can in July. A little more effort is required for an enjoyable day outdoors.
The first thing you need to do is scout the section of river you want to hit. Parking could be a problem. The parking spot you had in the summer may be a snow removal site in the winter. don’t venture too far from the car for safety sake and to warm up if needed. The nice garden path you take to get to your honey hole could be thigh deep with snow, and by the time you trudge your way to the river, it could be sealed up tight with ice or has shelf ice along the bank.
Once you’ve found a safe place to fish, it’s all about gear. You have to dress with enough layers that you can fit into your waders. standing in 32-degree water feels colder than standing on a frozen lake. I put my waders on at the house, this way when I get to my destination, I don’t have to stand out in the cold putting on cold waders and boots. You should wear studded boots, or some strap on cleats this time of year. Pocket warmers are a must because there will be times that you have to remove your gloves. Toe warmers don’t work very well. They require air to be effective, so putting them way down the bottom of your waders and standing in water that presses your wader against your leg is not going to help.
As far as fishing gear goes, you can use the same rods, reels, lines, leaders, and tippet as you did during the rest of the year. The problem is when the air temp is below freezing. Anything that gets wet is going to accumulate ice. The eyelets on your rod are the first to start clogging with ice. If it’s cold enough your leader will accumulate ice making for some interesting casting technics. On many occasions, walking to the next spot, my fly has been frozen and frozen to the hook holder.
For me, Fly selection during the winter is minimal. No need for dries or emergers as there are no hatches and the trout are typically not moving much for food. So it’s down to nymphs, egg, and streamer patterns. Fish will move after a streamer pattern that is fished dead drift or slow retrieved because the size of the meal is worth the move. Streamers I like are tied in black, white, or brown. Woolly buggers, 3 River streamers, drunk dad’s, and muddler minnows are my favorite. I like trying them with a sparse amount of flash and the addition of a pink, red, or orange hot spot can be killer. Nymphs and eggs should be dead drifted because you mostly have to bounce them off their nose to get take. Takes are usually subtle, so the use of a strike indicator can help. My go-to nymphs are Pheasant tails and copper Johns, #10 black and gold stoneflies, princes, and Picket Finns. with these, I like purple, chartreuse, and red tread hot spots or thoraxes. Egg patterns that produce the most for me are peach, pink, and light yellow.
Fly fishing in the winter is a challenge, but on the right day, it can be rewarding. This weekend’s arctic blast will surely close up many river for fishing opportunities. Which is a great time to tie up a bunch of flies for when the fishing is good again.
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