The weather has turned. Snow is falling, you saw ice along the shore
as you drove home from work, and the last caddis hatch is long gone.
It's time to clean off the rods, empty the vest pockets, and hang the
waders up until next spring. Or is it?
Winter doesn't have to mean the end of your flyfishing. In many parts of
the country, seasons stay open year-round, and while it may not be as
pleasant as those balmy August evenings, the fishing can be more than
worth the effort. Here are some tips and tactics that will help you make
the most of the many opportunities there are to extend your fishing
Without a doubt, clothing will either make or break a day of winter fishing.
Too little, and you are numb before the day is over. Too much, and you sweat
and risk hypothermia. But you can easily stay comfortable if you pay attention
and wear the right clothes.
Wear a hat. Most of the heat your body loses is through your head, due to
the relatively thin skin and large blood supply. While on 40-degree days I
stick with a ballcap, I put on a stocking cap when the temperature drops
below freezing. If the wind is blowing, I normally wear a polypropylene
balaclava under my ballcap with the stocking cap over that. When it gets
REALLY cold, I switch to a polarfleece waterfowling hat, which handles
even below-zero weather with ease. As temperatures fluctuate throughout
the day, add or remove layers to keep your head warm but not sweaty.
Gloves are the second most important part of a comfortable fishing outfit.
I have tried many types over the years, but consistently return to fingerless
wool as my primary fishing glove. Those with Thinsulate ® lining are much
warmer than typical wool and are not as scratchy. Under extreme conditions,
such as early on a clear morning, I will insert chemical handwarmers into the
gloves, and keep them in my palms throughout the morning. The heat from
these warms the blood in your hands, preventing your body from restricting
flow to the fingers in an attempt to conserve heat for your body core. And
when you do get cold fingers, simply pull them into the glove and hold the
warmer for a few minutes. Be careful not to get the warmers wet, though,
as they will no longer work after being soaked.
It is usually a good idea to take along another pair in the back of your vest.
If you handle fish, your gloves will soon become wet, and dry gloves are much
warmer than wet ones. If you need to dry them out, the defroster of your car
will do it in a hurry. It will, however, leave your car smelling a little fishy.
I normally wear a fleece jacket under a breathable or nylon shell when winter
fishing. The fleece provides warmth, while the shell provides protection from
wind and snow. A packable outer shell is preferable, since it can be removed
and stored in your vest if the temperature rises.
My legwear is dependent upon my footwear. Under breathable waders, I wear
fleece pants, while under neoprene I prefer capilene or polypropylene long johns.
I try to avoid cotton pants, as these retain moisture and can make your legs very
cold if you sweat while wading. I bring along a pair of pants for the trip home,
Wear good socks. I usually wear a thin pair with a heavy wool or wool blend
boot sock over them. Bring along an extra pair for the trip home.
Any waders can be used for winter fishing, but I prefer either breathables or
neoprene. Breathables are my choice when I will be walking a great deal,
since they are much more comfortable to hike in. Neoprenes provide
insulation that breathables lack, however. The choice is up to you. I would
avoid PVC or nylon waders, as these can become brittle when cold, and
can be more easily damaged by ice.
Bootfoot waders will keep you much warmer if you spend long hours
just standing in the river, which is common when winter steelheading
or tailwater fishing. Stockingfoot waders offer some flexibility in boot
sole selection, however, which may make them more desirable in
the long run.
Felt soles work great on slippery rocks, as we all know. They stick to
snow, though, and if you hike down the bank you will soon have balls
of snow on your boots that make it impossible to walk. They will also
freeze to rocks if you get out and stand on a gravel bar in subfreezing
weather. To combat this, I try to walk in the shallows, and limit my
bank time when in felts.
Lug soles may make it easier to walk in snow, but are not as useful
in the stream. Air-bob soles are the best for walking in snow, and do
provide some traction on rocks. Cleats or spikes are another option.
In below-freezing weather, ice will build up on the outside of your waders.
In very cold temps, it can thicken to the point where you are walking around
encased in ice. If this happens, be careful that your waders don't crack at
the joints as they lose flexibility to the ice.
Winter fishing is not the time to take out your best gear. Equipment wear
goes up dramatically under icy conditions, and I recommend that you use
your backup outfit, presuming you have one. I put away the good line and
switch to a cheaper DT line. Ice will soon crack a fly line, and there is no
sense ruining a $50 fly line that might otherwise last years.
Any weight and length of rod is OK for winter use. I prefer a longer rod,
as I spend most of my time nymphing. If you are a rod builder, you might
consider making a rod just for winter use. If I were to do so, I would build
it with a small grip so I could comfortably fish in gloves, and with oversize
guides to slow icing.
Expect ice to build up in your guides and rod tip. When nymphing, the
buildup may be slow, but it increases rapidly if the weather is very cold
or if you are moving line through the guides, such as when you are casting
dries or streamers. When you hear scraping, it is time to deice.
There are many products on the market which will slow the buildup of ice,
and most of them work reasonably well. I prefer to use the fly line
cleaner/floatant endorsed by my line manufacturer, as I know this will
not harm either the rod or the line. Apply it to the guides and to the
top foot or two of the rod itself. The same hydrophobic properties
that help it keep your line floating will keep water off of the guides.
If you do ice up, there are two basic ways to clean your guides. The
first is to dip the rod in the water until the ice has melted. This works
well if the temperature is right around freezing, or if water temperatures
are in the 40s or higher. You do risk damaging your rod by scraping it
on the bottom, and in colder temps this can lead to a buildup of ice
along the entire rod. DO NOT dip the reel in the water. If you reel
becomes wet, it will freeze solid. If you do dip it, take the spool off
and shake all the water out of the reel, then replace the spool and
strip off several yards of line and reel it back in. This will help remove
any remaining water. Keep turning the reel once in a while until you
are sure it will function properly.
Option two is to manually remove the ice from the guides. If you pry it
out, you risk snapping off a guide or even the tip of your rod. I usually
melt the ice with the heat of my fingertips, then remove any remaining
pieces when they have separated from the guides. Handwarmers
are useful when you do this.
If the rod itself becomes iced up, very carefully remove the ice before
casting. Ice is much less flexible than graphite, and if the rod is
encased in ice, it may only flex where the ice is cracked, which can
cause the blank to snap in two.
If you use a net, you will find that the bag tends to freeze solid in
below-freezing air. Before netting a fish, thaw the bag by immersing
it in the stream. Wait until the net is flexible before netting the fish.
Health and safety
I know. Who wants to think about this? In the winter, however, one
mistake might be your last. You run a much higher risk of hypothermia
than in the summer months. Tell someone where you are fishing, and
when you will return. If possible, fish with a partner and stay within sight
of each other. And drive carefully. Even though it's cold, take off the
waders and drive home in your normal shoes, since icy felt soles don't
stick to the brake pedal very well.
Drink lots of water. I forget to do this most of the time, and by lunch I
find I am severely dehydrated. Cold air holds much less moisture than
warm, and as a result, you lose water faster than in the summer months.
If you take a drink of water every hour or so, you will find that fishing is
much more pleasant.
Wear sunscreen on your hands, face, and especially lips. When it is
cold, you pay less attention to the sun since it never feels hot. But the
UV is still there, and sunburns can happen before you know. Wear
good polarized sunglasses, too, not just to see fish but to protect
your eyes from the sun.
Down to business
Hatches are limited in the winter months. In most waters, midges are
the only significant insect hatch from November into March. These usually
come off late morning to early afternoon, and are most prevalent on warmer,
cloudy days. Blue-winged olive mayflies are also present on many waters,
and hatch under the same conditions.
Aside from that, most winter fishing is subsurface. Depending on the
water, I either nymph or strip streamers, with nymphing being my primary
method. The actual mechanics of fishing are the same as at any other
time of the year, although I tend to fish much shorter in the winter than
in the summer.
Fish become less active as water temperatures drop and their
metabolism slows. As a result, they spend a great deal of time just
sitting there, and will seldom move far to capture food. You must
therefore get the fly right in front of the fish in order to get a strike,
and in many cases present the fly to the fish dozens of times before
he will move to take.
Since the fish aren't capable of significant exertion, they tend to stay
in the slower, deeper portions of the stream, where they do not have
to fight the current. They will, however, be close to the edges of the
current so they have access to drifting food. Focus your fishing on
Another result of this movement is that fish tend to congregate in a
relatively few areas. Typically, where you find one fish, you find many.
Therefore, if you do get a fish out of a particular lie, continue to fish
When you do catch fish, try to keep them in the water. While taking a
fish out of the water is always stressful, it is even more so when the
air is below freezing. Gills are very delicate, with a strong blood
supply, and can freeze in seconds if it is too cold.
My winter fly selection is rather sparse. When streamer fishing, I use
either original or olive D-buggers. When nymphing, I use D-buggers,
egg patterns (especially if there are browns, whitefish, or other
fall-spawning species present), San Juan Worms, midge pupae,
small beadhead mayfly nymphs, and stonefly nymphs. Where present,
mysis shrimp or other crustaceans are a significant winter food source.
Keep a few shrimp and scuds in the box.
My winter destinations are usually tailwaters. Bottom-release dams
result in relatively warm water for several miles downstream. Fish
move up out of the lower reaches of the tailwaters into the milder
conditions closer to the dam. Insect activity is greater in the warmer
water, too. You can expect daily midge and BWO hatches on many
of these streams.
Some freestone streams also stay open throughout the winter. The
more turbulent streams generate enough heat through the movement
of water to stay relatively ice-free. Water temps in these streams tend
to be in the 30s, though, so fish will be less active and harder to catch.
So don't think you have to give up fishing just because there is a
little snow on the ground. There are plenty of opportunities to find fish,
and with the right preparation, the endeavor can be both fruitful and
enjoyable. What do you have to lose, except an afternoon of reruns
on the TV? Go fishing! ~ Dennis Garrison