Most of us have had those awkward conversations when one of our not-so-fishy friends asks what we do in the winter when it's freezing outside... "Do you ice fish too?!" Then there's the classic look on their face when the response is "Nope, I just layer up and keep fishing the rivers." Many people outside of our sport don't know that winter fly fishing is even possible. But those of us that don't mind braving the elements have learned that it can provide some of the best fishing of the year. Here are three things to strongly consider when planning your next winter fly fishing excursion.
1- STAY WARM
This goes without saying, but here it is: if you get chilled, your time on the water is not going to be productive or enjoyable. Cold toes and fingers are inevitable, but keeping your head and core warm will allow you to fish longer, and with more success. As humans, when we are uncomfortable our concentration is weak, our confidence waivers, and our overall effort is lacking. That's when our casting accuracy goes out the door, our drifts are far from dead, and the lethargic fish we are chasing are not going to reward us for half-hearted efforts. I recommend that you search out the best layering system by experimenting with what you currently have on hand. Having too many layers and going overkill the first time or two out is better that being under prepared. Here's a basic breakdown: for the upper body find a suitable base layer, mid layer, and outer layer. For the lower body, base layer under garments like thermals or fleece pants, then a mid-layer pant, and your waders on the outside. For your feet, I have a sock system that is very basic but works well. I start with a synthetic wicking sock, then over the top of that I wear wool socks. Not all socks are created equally, and when possible avoid cotton for all your layers. There are many types of gloves to choose from, but personally I like a fleece or wool glove without the mitten flap. The flap always seem to be in the way, and if it's cold enough to cause me discomfort I tuck my hands in my wader or jacket pockets periodically. A beanie on the noggin, and you're all set! Finding a suitable system may take some experimenting, but if skiers can go roll around in the snow, we should be able to stay comfortable while fishing.
2- FISH THE RIGHT WATER
Fish do not hold in the same types of water year round. As water temperatures drop fish seek out slower, deeper water. Having a thermometer on hand can be extremely useful. If water temps are below 40 degrees Fahrenheit the fish will not be found in most of the river. For example, let’s say that you have a shallow riffle or mid depth run that always has produced fish for you during other times of the year. Fishing these areas will largely be a waste of time in the winter. To put it simple the fish just aren't there. The second reason why a thermometer is helpful, as taught to me by my good friend Devin Olsen, is if the water temps increase throughout the day by even a degree or two the fish will generally become more active. It's good to recognize when these increases happen because fish will often start to spread out in the pools and be more willing to move for your flies. Also, to increase your catch rate, fish during the warmer times of the day. During winter months I try to fish anytime between 10 AM - 4PM here in Utah. Before 10 AM water temps are cold and although fish can be caught, they are less active until those temps start to rise. The same goes for fishing after 4 PM. So, in summary, target the slower deeper pools and pockets where fish can hold without expending much energy and try to be on the water during the warmer times of day.
3- MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
Lastly, we all need to realize that the "100 fish days of summer" are typically not going to happen in the colder months. Being that trout are cold blooded creatures their metabolism slows down significantly and they don't need to eat as often. They will still feed, but the need is not as great. A successful day on the water should not be gauged by how many fish you catch, but rather by the experience you've been granted at a time of year when most anglers are either tying flies or watching videos to get their fix. Winter fishing brings solitude on even the busiest of tailwaters, an opportunity for fresh air to clear the mind, and the colors of the fish against a white snowy backdrop are illuminated more than any other time of year.
The next time you feel the urge to fish when temps are far from comfortable, loosen your wading belt to allow for more layers, take a thermometer, and enjoy the journey for what it truly is.
Gilbert Rowley is a fly fishing enthusiast that loves to share his knowledge on the sport with others. He is a Utah native and fishing guide and currently guides on the Provo River. He is an avid fly tier/designer, acclaimed filmmaker, and runs a website called Fly Tying 123. Gilbert graduated with a Bachelor’s in Fisheries and Aquatic Science from Utah State University. Photography and entomology are among his favorite aspects of the sport, and he believes that with the right tools and instruction anyone can learn to love fly fishing. He recently teamed up with two members of Fly Fishing Team USA–Devin Olsen and Lance Egan–to make a video entitled “Modern Nymphing”, which teaches European fly fishing techniques. Modern Nymphing part 2 is in the works now.