By Ken Moore
Some of our most formative experiences come from time on the water. I believe it is part of the gravitational pull that every fly fisherman consciously or unconsciously understands. So why do we hang up our waders at the end of the fall season? Winter fly fishing has all the same goals as summer fishing does with only a few additional challenges, that are manageable. If your goal is to expand your experiences and time on the water, then winter fly fishing may just be the best time for you to hone your craft. This article focuses on tips and observations that I have acquired over my years fishing in the winter.
Here are some advantages to fishing this quarter of the year; you can sleep in, since fish are metabolically temperature sensitive you do not need to wake up early, you really do not need to be on the water till 10:00 am and your usually off by 3:00 pm. Typically the water is lower and slower allowing you to see the river in new ways and work on new strategies that you read about in articles like this one. You rarely see another fisherman, so if you like solitude the winter months maybe your best season. Let us take a look at some tips and strategies that will up your winter fishing game.
It is Cold!
Yes, it is, so dress warmly, besides the obvious advice of dressing in layers I prefer darker colors to absorb as much sunlight as I can to keep myself warmer. Mom was right when she told us to wear a winter hat and gloves. I have never found a pair of winter fishing gloves that I truly like. Fingerless gloves just mean that half of my hand is warm. Neoprene gloves are bulky, cumbersome and after a season, stinky. I fish without gloves but carry a small towel inside the top of my waders, after I release a fish or if my hands become wet, I pull out the towel and dry them off. When the towel gets wet, I then hang it outside of my waders and off of my suspender strap to dry. I have been experimenting with black nitrile gloves, they help cut the wind if it is blowing and I am still able to tie most knots while wearing them. I also carry hand warmers in my jacket or wader pockets. (When I fish the Spokane River if I see a homeless person, I talk with them for a while, thank them for taking care of our river and I give them the pocket warmers that I did not use that day.) I prefer my winter hat to have Goretex wind stopper embedded in the wool, not only does it keep my head out of the wind, but also warm.
Plan on the eyelets freezing on your fly rod. Two strategies that work for thawing the ice in your guides are simply placing the frozen eyelets in the water to thaw, the other is using a paste-like product from Loon called Ice Off that you coat your eyelets with. This works pretty well but you will probably have to reapply the paste every 15-20 minutes if the temperature is below freezing.
Where the fish reside:
The fish will be in soft water or deeper pools, you can eliminate the riffles, heads of pools, and faster water. Strategically the fish will be on the bottom of the water column so plan on using split shot, heavier flies, or intermediate sinking lines. The difference between catching and not catching fish can literally be a split shot. You should feel your bottom fly periodically
ticking on the bottom of the stream bed. Nymphing will be your primary fishing strategy but there are times that you can swing streamers. Just recognize a couple of things. Yes, fish eat in the winter, they just move slower and the analogy that you need to put that tempting morsel in front of their nose is a good one to keep in mind. Maybe it is just me, but my observations are that you should slow down and stalk your fish, they just seem to be a bit warier during the colder months.
Flies to use:
Fly selection is pretty easy and you will not need many.
Chironomids or midges in sizes 18-22 color choice- red, black, burgundy, or purple.
If you want the flies to be ribbed or have flash go for it.
Black stoneflies or mop flies in size 14-16.
Zebra Midge or Ju Je Baetis in size 14-18 – same color selection as the midges listed above.
My personal favorite winter nymphing fly is an eggstacy egg pattern size 14 in orange, salmon, or pink. I find that the fly sinks faster than McFly foam style egg patterns.
Streamers: Wooly Bugger: size 4-8 color choices all black, all white, white, and red or
Pinch your barbs, it makes removing the fish from your hook so much easier. I try to keep the gills of the fish in the water. My thinking is gills are a critical piece of the breathing apparatus for a fish and why would I want to induce flash freezing to their prime breathing mechanism. If you have to pull the fish out of the water, turn the fish upside down, this disorients the fish and makes them calmer and significantly easier to handle. Winter fishing is every bit as fun as the summertime. It will require some adjustment on your part. Expect to catch fewer fish, they will not be as aggressive as they are when the water temperature is 50 degrees. Expect to have the guides on your fly rod to freeze up if the temperature is below freezing. Adjust for the colder ambient temperature but I promise you the smile that creeps across your face when you catch that first fish will be as big as the one you have when the temperatures are warmer.