It isn’t a secret that winter is not the favorite season for many anglers, at least for the ones who are pursuing trout. Thoughts of winter fishing beget memories of frost-nipped fingers crushing ice out of frozen guides. A pinhole leak in the waders slowly allows the chilled water to find the skin, as toes start to go numb. During a walk back from the river, the waders and boots themselves freeze solid, making them impossible to remove until after a period of warming in the car. No doubt, winter poses a number of challenges that we don’t have to face during the sublime, dreamy days of summer. Or spring. Or fall.
That said, winter outings hold their own appeal, and actually provide stellar opportunities to catch some of the best fish of the year. The scenery stuns, as perfect ice crystals coat the surfaces of the riparian area. Crowds dissipate, as the less hearty amongst us shelter inside. And beastly, hungry trout lurk in deep water, hoping an easy meal will come floating by. What follows are some tips to make the winter season as enjoyable as the rest. Enjoy, Chad Agy Presents: Tips for Winter Fishing
Target Good Weather
We don’t need to suffer just because it’s generally cold. At least in the western continental US, even the coldest places almost always experience days of relative warmth and calm during winter. I keep an eye on the forecast more so when planning winter outings than during any other time of the year. I recently took a trip to one of the coldest areas in the country on the winter solstice. Temperatures were in the upper 40s, the sun was bright and warm, and the fish were eating. Weather windows like this exist in even the harshest climates. During these times, the drive to the river will be easier and safer. The fish will often be more active. And frozen fingers will have a chance to thaw out.
A Plan For Warm Hands
Targeting warm weather windows is great, but at the same time, that window might coincide with work, school, or a kid’s birthday. Sometimes we need to brave sub-freezing temperatures and biting wind, because that’s what life dictates. For me, frozen hands are often the limiting part of winter fishing. I’ve developed a system, taking advantage of human anatomy, that keeps my hands functional, if not warm.
The radial artery supplies most of the blood to the hand. I like to place a hand warmer not on the hand (where it will interrupt function while fishing), but directly over the radial artery on the inside of the wrist. The radial artery is located on the thumb side of the forearm/wrist. I wrap some sticky medical tape called Coban around the hand warmer, attaching it to my wrist. This directly warms the blood traveling to my hands, and usually keeps them warm all day!
Gloves are another essential piece of equipment when it comes to keeping hands warm. When the weather is cold, but not ridiculous, I really like my Simms Windstopper Foldover Mitt. The outer layer is water resistant, and the mitt can be folded over for extra warmth. When finger dexterity is required, pull the mitt back to reveal fingerless gloves. Be warned that this glove runs a bit small, so you may need to size up to get the proper fit. For the coldest days, my go-to is the Simms Pro Dry Glove + Liner. Either of these gloves can be complemented by wearing Nitrile gloves underneath them, which will keep hands dry no matter what.
Throw The Meat!
I especially enjoy streamer fishing during winter, for a couple reasons. Streamers are often particularly effective this time of year. Every fishery is different, but a big chunk of meat is often more effective at awakening a large trout from its winter torpor than some microscopic nymph.
I also enjoy winter streamer fishing because it’s easier to keep ice out of the guides on the rod when compared with nymphing. I’ve never had a ton of luck with chapstick or various waxes that are sold for this purpose. With streamer fishing, I keep as much of the tip of the rod as I can in the water while I’m stripping. Any guide that is in the water cannot freeze!
In the winter, fish will hold in different water compared with the rest of the year. That sweet riffle or run that can produce a dozen fish in summer? Yeah… it’s probably empty when it’s cold. Most of the fish will be found in slower, deep water. Find a part of the river that looks like a lake, and that’s probably the spot. Likewise, the retrieve of the streamer also needs to be very slow to allow lethargic fish the opportunity to pounce. Therefore, I like to use slow sinking lines during the winter. A slower sinking or intermediate line allows for a slower retrieve. A full sink line will invariably end up with the streamer stuck on the bottom of the river with this type of retrieve. My favorite wintertime streamer line is the Rio Elite Predator Float/Intermediate/S3. Sometimes, I’ll even hang a jig streamer or balanced leech under an indicator, simply twitching it as it goes through the run.
Keep Your Eyes Open
A surprising amount of surface activity will occur during the winter months. Particularly on the warmer days of winter, a sporadic nose will be seen here and there, often sipping midges or baetis (as spring approaches). It’s often not enough activity to warrant dedicated dry fly fishing all day, but I usually keep my 5-weight Orvis Helios 3F strung up with a mother shucker or similar midge pattern as I stroll down the river, casting a streamer. I wear my Fishpond Thunderhead Submersible Backpack, with a Fishpond Quickshot Rod Holder 2.0, where my 5 weight lives. This allows quick access to the dry fly rod when a riser suddenly appears in front of me.
Take A Trip!
Finally, getting out of town is an obvious but awesome way to take advantage of wintertime fishing. Many international fisheries peak during the Northern Hemisphere winter. Jungle fisheries in South America are on fire. Miss wet wading and hoppers? Patagonia beckons. Monster trout are being sight fished in New Zealand.
Don’t have the funds to travel internationally? No worries. Quite a few domestic fisheries peak during the winter. The biggest Lahontan cutthroat trout of the year are caught at Pyramid Lake during the depths of winter. Large bull redfish migrate to within casting range off the marshes of Louisiana. Streamer fishing on the White River in Arkansas goes off. Winter steelhead offer a challenging but rewarding potential quarry in the Pacific Northwest.
I always bristle when people refer to a “fishing season,” particularly in the context of the “fishing season being over.” It’s always fishing season if the angler knows where to look, and how to manage different and challenging conditions! Take a chance and try something new this winter. Your efforts may result in some of the most gratifying fishing that one can experience.