My fishing partner and I tightened the laces on our snowshoes and trekked out across more than three feet of powdery Midwest snow. Ah, the opening day of Wisconsin's catch-and-release trout season had arrived and we were going fishing. We plodded our way about a half mile down river and reached our fishing destination. The water was flowing, but the air temperature stubbornly sat at 20 degrees F. No one had tossed a lure in these waters since last fall, so the trout should be gullible, I thought.
At the first pool we reached, I unlaced my snowshoes and stepped forward to break the icy crust along the river's edge. I rigged my fly rod, tied on a hare's ear nymph, and waded into the water. During the next few hours we caught trout, but I saw no anglers other than my partner. It seems that the snow and cold kept everyone else at home.
I regret to inform warm weather anglers that there are only so many days in the year to fly-fish. If you live in one of the states where the season closes for a few weeks or months in the winter, then your number of angling days are further reduced. Even though the mercury hibernates in the bottom of the thermometer, this does not mean that the trout are hibernating. To catch trout during the frigid winter months you have to gear up and fish differently. The rewards of winter fly-fishing are uncrowded waters, hungry trout and a break from the cabin syndrome.
Gearing To Go
Hold it right there! Before you grab your fly rod and head to the river, there are some things you'll need. Remember that it's freezing outside. You'll need to dress warmly to spend any amount of time in the water. Staying warm in winter means layering. I start with a layer of polypropylene, then cover this with fleece pants and shirt. Next, I pull on wool socks, a fleece vest or sweater and then a waterproof shell jacket. Over all these layers go under my 5mm Cabela's neoprene chest waders
and my felt soled boots. Then I lace on my snowshoes and slip on my fishing vest. I tuck a few hand warmers into the lower vest pockets, grab my fly rod and hit the trail.
I normally fish my 6-weight Cabela's PT fly rod
in the winter. It's capable of handling larger flies and performs well when casting lines fronted with wads of split shot. Skip the 4-weights and limber summer rods, to reach big winter trout, you'll be sending big flies deep. Make sure that your rod can handle the weight.
Another winter fly rod dilemma is frozen eyes. If the eyes freeze shut while on the water and the ice grips your fly line and hinders casting, dip the rod's eyes underwater until the ice melts. Then raise your rod and make a couple of casts to shed the water off your equipment.
If the daytime temperatures are forecast to climb above freezing for the region that you're fishing, consider wearing breathable waders and an extra fleece layer underneath. A daypack for storing any removed clothing layers helps avoid bone-chilling sweat. You should, however, leave the pack's waist belt unfastened if you'll be wading in deep water. You want to be able to remove the pack rapidly if you should slip and submerge.
Other items you will want to pack for cold weather fly-fishing include wrap around sunglasses and a folding wading stick. I like the Hiker model from Stoney Point because it's stout and easily converts from a snowshoeing pole to a wading staff with a change of the tip. A good hat or warm stocking cap and waterproof gloves with polypropylene liners inside will help you stay warm and comfortable. I sometimes put a small thermos of hot coffee and a sandwich in my vest or daypack.
What Are They Biting On?
When fly-flyfishing during the frigid days of winter, forget the big, extravagant topwater flies of summer. Sub-freezing temperatures and deep snow drive most species of insects and aquatic bug life, alias trout food, into the river bottom sand and mud. The trout food that will be active can be imitated with the popular nymphs such as the beadhead prince or hare's ears, or freshwater shrimp imitations like scuds. Brassies also work well when the water's just warm enough to flow down stream. Nymphing and strike indicators are a strong partnership. I like the hard orange Styrofoam balls since they are easy to attach and remove with gloved hands or cold finger tips. They're also easy to see if the sun shines and the water glare becomes intense.
If you're a dry fly purist, all is not lost in winter. Dainty midge flies (size #16 to #22 in white or gray) are popular with winter anglers and trout if the sun's rays reach the water an extended period of time. Yes, they're hard to see. If the trout are surface feeding, look for small tufts that appear to be minute strands of waded cotton. It's probably a midge fly. I've also seen Blue Wing Olives come to the surface during sunny afternoons.
Minnow imitations, such as muddlers, and streamers work well in winter. I like to dredge these through the deep pools where lunker trout hide. Black and olive woolly buggers can also help you net a huge trout. Big trout don't get large by eating small insects. They prey on smaller fish for food and you can use this to your advantage in winter. For a complete fly selection click here
A helpful hint: The fish are cold and slow moving. You'll often have to place your fly in a trout's face to solicit action. Watch the trout and sometimes you can see the white of its mouth as it opens it and takes a fly. Set the hook and land the fish quickly to avoid exhausting it.
Safety In A Winter Wonderland
Winter snow and ice mean slippery footing conditions. Take a tumble in winter waters and you could quickly land in grave danger. Chest waders and a waterproof outer-shell coat will help keep your under layers of fleece, and your skin, dry.
Studded wader boots can help you get a firm foothold on ice. Your snowshoes should also have cleats since river banks can be steep. I've worn my snowshoes as I crossed slow-flowing, ice-encrusted rivers en route to my fishing destination, and the cleats ensured sure footing. Always use your wading staff to help you balance while wearing snowshoes in water, and avoid swift flowing water while wearing snowshoes. I remove the snowshoes when I fish to reduce underwater vibrations and fish spooking noise. Take your time along the trail, avoid the areas around waterfalls and cliffs, and pick your route and destination carefully.
Some winter safety tips are common sense. You should also let friends and family know where you'll be and when you'll return. Matches, a space blanket and other emergency gear can be easily stored in your vest pockets and will be a real life saver if something goes wrong. Don't give a winter trout fishing trip the chance to be your last trip.
Where To Go
Your favorite summer trout stream and river could be open in the winter. Some states have trout waters that close in March for stocking, such as the lower Nantahala River in western North Carolina. Some trout waters close in late September and reopen in early March, such as those in central Wisconsin. Across the border, some southern Minnesota trout rivers reopen in January under catch-and-release restrictions. Some rivers in the Rocky Mountain states are also closed in winter months, but another river in the next drainage could be open. Search your state's regulations carefully before you plan a trip and make that winter cast. Use the state-by-state pages
Many local regional fly shops now have Web sites that provide stream conditions, weather reports, hatch charts and fly selection tips. You can also call local fly shops and public land offices, such as the U.S. Forest Service or state park headquarters, for more details or for clarification of any confusing regulations.
Don't let winter's cold and snow give you cabin fever. Find a trout stream or river with an open season, and you've got the perfect reason to break out your fly-fishing gear.
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