From the desk of Bob Boese


Bob Boese - January 30, 2012

Grey skies and miserably cold weather make for happy duck hunters and unhappy fly fishermen. Disconsolate fly enthusiasts, who curse the lack of fishing opportunities, spend most of their winter hours indoors, working on flies and equipment they may not use for months. Everyone has cabin fever and struggles with depression. In this environment, many a fly fisher might only dream of opportunities to use new patterns or improve casting skills. Of course, those who can afford to do so will escape for a while to more tropical zones and re-energize their fishing karma, but for a large portion of American fly fisherman, it is an unpleasant few months.
But it need not be so. You too can enjoy the challenges of winter fly fishing.

Boudreaux's cousin Altain and his wife Zurie were transferred from his job on the Gulf to the Great Lakes. They had never seen a real winter before and listened every morning to the radio weather forecast to find out how to handle winter conditions. Altain and Zurie were sitting with their usual morning cup of coffee when the radio announced, "There will be 6 to 8 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your cars on the odd numbered side of the street." 

Altain supposed there was a good reason for this, so he got up and parked on the odd numbered side. A few days later they were sitting down with their morning cup of coffee when the radio announced, "There will be another 10 inches of snow today, and a snow emergency has been declared. Today you must park your cars on the even numbered side of the streets." Once again Altain got up and this time parked on the even  numbered side.

The following day the weather forecast said, "There will be 8 inches of snow today, and a continued snow emergency has been declared. You must park your cars on the...." and the power went out.

Altain turned to Jolee. "What do I do today?" he asked.

Zurie replied, "Aw, Altain. Just leave the car in the garage."

Do you have grey skies? Snow everywhere, and ice on rooftops and roads? So you think you've got it bad? Then consider this. American school children have suffered for years with the works of Charles Dickens. Remember Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, you hated 'em, right? One of the most prolific nineteenth-century authors, Dickens became known the world over for his strong characterizations and his beautiful, if excruciatingly detailed, prose. Dickens' works depict the social classes, morals and values of England in the early 1800s. They reflected his life. Dickens's parents had been sent to a debtors' prison while Dickens himself went to the bleakest situation of 19th century England, as a child laborer in a factory.

What most American school children remember about the books is that they were hard unhappy reading and the novels contain a graphic description of the utterly miserable lives of the British poor under bleak and gloomy skies. Hey, they are novels. How bad was it really?   Bad. Dickens' inspiration came from a truly dismal period in the UK. 1816 is known as "the year without summer."  Snow fell through July and the summer never recovered from the severe winter preceding it. Why was it so? Global warming? No. American industries polluting the skies? Nope. Aerosol sprays? Nuh-uh. SUVs? Nope. Methane from cattle ranching? Not so. But wait,it's got to be one of those doesn't it?

What actually happened was, the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies ejected huge quantities of dust and volcanic materials. The eruption went up 30 miles into the atmosphere and emitted a volume of material equal to about eight cubic miles of molten rock in the form of ash and pumice. That's enough to cover all of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska with an inch of the stuff. This rock dust hung up in the atmosphere, interfered with incoming solar radiation to the Earth and caused global climate deterioration that disrupted wind patterns and temperatures. Consequently, the UK (and most of the world) was colder and wetter than usual, which meant it was really unpleasant. What didn't help was that two other eruptions, La Soufrière on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean in 1812 and Mayon in the Philippines in 1814, had already built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust so that, following the massive Tambora eruption, there was winter gloom 24/7/365. Add to that the fact that the cheapest fuel available was sea coal which was used everywhere in the UK and produced a particularly dirty smoke and, well... it was miserable.

Back to fishing. Undaunted by the horrendous weather, UK fly fishermen made serious advances in the sport. Trout rods became a few feet shorter than the traditional sixteen foot long salmon rods. Guides were added along the length of the rod (rather than just at the tip) and the fly reel was gaining universal acceptance, so better models appeared with great frequency. Stop and think about that for a minute. Imagine fishing with a sixteen foot rod with no guides and no reel. To make matters worse, the majority of lines were made of a mix of a silk horsehair blend, which was neither water proof nor rot resistant. Heavy, soggy and hard to cast. Fishing conditions were miserable, but they still went fishing, and all the while the weather was yucky and terrible everywhere.

So what happened next? First, new lines were made, plaited from silk, and were thinner and stronger and available in long lengths. That made for much longer casts. Next, silk leaders were developed, allowing for multiple fly rigs to be used. Next, new fly patterns, particularly wets and nymphs, were developed, leading to many new catching opportunities. All in all, the fly fishing advances during these dark days were not too shabby, especially considering that nature was working against the fishermen. And you thought you have it bad.

Julian Gautreaux returned from a decade at college with a new degree and became the newly elected Mayor of a small Cajun town in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin swamp. It was autumn, and the citizens in the remote bayou community asked their new educated Mayor if the winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he had been away in the city, he had forgotten the old Cajun secrets and weather indicators. When he looked at the swamp and the sky, he couldn't tell what the winter was going to be. Because it never hurts to be prepared, he told the town that the winter was probably going to be cold and that the residents should collect firewood. Then, just to be on the safe side, he also called the National Weather Service.

"Is the coming winter going to be cold?" he asked.

"It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed," the meteorologist responded.

So the Mayor told the town to collect even more wood in order to be prepared. A few weeks it was a very warm October and he again called the National Weather Service.

"Are you still expecting a very cold winter?"

"Yes," the Service again replied, "it's going to be an extremely cold winter."

The Mayor suggested the town to collect every scrap of wood they could find, and November passed with the temperatures still in the 80s. He again called the National Weather Service.

"Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?"

"Absolutely," the weatherman replied. "It's going to be one of the coldest winters ever."

"How can you be so sure?" the Mayor asked.

The weatherman replied, "The Cajuns in the Atchafalaya are collecting wood like crazy!"

The point is, if Victorian Englishmen could escape the winter blues, you can do it. It just takes determination on a day of cold overcast and wind and few bites. Winter fishing is different because it requires a LOT of patience. But, casts can be shorter and fish tend to congregate together. Deep quiet water is usually the key, and any underwater formation can hold fish. The depth of the water where fish can be located a dropper can easily reach. Just don't try to hurry anything.

True story follows. It was a crystal clear February morning at the top of the Taylor River above Gunnison with minus seven on the thermometer and minus twenty with the wind chill. Under armor and thermal clothes under neoprene waders and a heavy down coat were only part of the fishing uniform. The river had a solid ice cover except for the few hundred yards below the dam and no one else was trying their luck. Tiny nymphs, nothing bigger than a 20, were tied on a double dropper under a foam strike indicator. A familiar small trail, covered now with three feet of snow, led to the water's edge. Wading between ice flows is not a good idea and, as long as falling in didn't happen; the only problem was ice on the guides. Not redoing casting distance is a lot harder than it sounds because we are so used to casting and mending and stripping. But, if there is no water brought to the guides by the fly line, there is nothing to freeze up.

There are actually several solutions for icing guides. First, never strip in line unless there is a fish on. Make a cast and then leave the line on your reel alone. Re-casting one handed isn't a bad idea, especially if you have a hand warmer in your coat pocket for the off hand. Second, put floatant on your rod guides. This helps lubricate the guides and will discourage some, not all, freezing. Third, dip your rod in the water (any running water will be above thirty three degrees and tail waters are much warmer) and let the ice melt in the water, then dry the guides as they come out of the water. Nothing is perfect, but several broken rod tips attest to the fact that frozen guides are a bad idea.

A large brown took paused the strike indicator on the very first cast and came angrily to the net. The net froze immediately when it left the water and had to be dunked frequently to soften up for every other netting opportunity. Frequently? Yes, sir. These trout had not seen a fly in weeks and a system full of caffeine had the fisherman's reaction time at its best. Browns and rainbows competed for the small flies for a couple of hours and the only down side was a hand that got dunked and the glove froze. Once inside a hand warmer warmed pocket, it melted, wetting the pocket. Moustache also froze and a piece broke off (like a cartoon) when an icicle was pulled out. A small sacrifice for a passel of fish.

If you don't have access to a nearby lake, plan a fishing trip you will take in the winter. Yes, I am serious. There are affordable fishing vacation spots that aren't covered in snow – and some that are. The Smokey's, Appalachians and Ozarks have tolerable winters and good fly fishing. Tail waters near a dam generally have a consistent temperature equal to the water temp at the bottom of the dam – probably around 50 degrees. You can always fish that. Many rivers in the Rockies freeze over but tail waters, such as the Taylor River and Frying Pan, provide big fish opportunities near the dam. The key there is patience and using slow methodical presentations with flies on tiny tippet.

Okay, winter fishing, by comparison, is not usually very good. So why do it?  There are hatches. Midges show up even in subzero temps. So do scuds. But you won't catch nearly as many fish. Still, you should go because, what is almost always excellent is getting out in the crisp air on a sunny winter day and spending time with the opportunity to catch fish. You will usually be the only one there and it will be quiet, peaceful and often just beautiful.

By the way, wear enough clothes. Layer with clothes that wick moisture away from your body. Under armor or the like, thinsulate or Gortex are a must with fleece layered in, while Neoprene waders provide a lot of warmth. Use boot foot waders about a half size too large to provide for sock space and air space. Seriously. This is much better than wearing your wading boots and letting the neoprene footies get wet. You can even wear electric socks in boot foot waders. Protective and warm headgear is a must, as are gloves. For hats, think wool. Baseball caps are not for subzero winds. Turtle fur or a buff will also help. Cover all of your face that you can because icicles will form on your moustache and beard and use gloves or mittens that cover your entire hand. Plenty of convertible gloves are available that allow the fingers to be exposed when more dexterous skills are required.

Gearing up: Fiberglass is much less brittle in winter waters than graphite and much cheaper to buy. You may hate the spongy feel in the summer, but fiberglass may save a winter trip. For trout the feeding options are limited and mostly tiny. Go small. Because there is little bug activity in the winter, trout will stay outside of seams and runs and away from any fast water. Of course, if there is a midge hatch, and that does happen in winter, they will get into moving water. The fish are going to be lethargic, and a strike indicator is mandatory. The fish will be gently sucking in insects and any slight hesitation of the strike indicator may be a trout. Keep your cast and drift as short as you can stand and don't bring any wet line through the guides. Roll casting from the end of the drift to start a new drift is not as hard as some folks believe, and you can re-drift this way every few seconds with only one hand. One suggestion, don't try to roll cast with your strike indicator still in the water. Also, don't hang it in the air too long or it will freeze up too.

For more "warm water" fish, the bass and bream are going to be practically comatose below fifty degrees and the best idea is a dropper rig that you move at a snail's pace under a minnow imitation like a gurgler or pencil popper. A soft hackle is a good choice and size 14 or 16 may call up more pan fish than larger sizes. Because all articles overlap some, see also:

One last warning, your camera can also freeze.

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