By Jake Halle
You’ve just ripped open your 23andme results only to discover you’re a quarter neandertal and ten percent idiot. Good news is, you’re qualified to start fly fishing in the winter! However, the bad news is you don’t know who your real grandfather is and wearing a helmet out in public is a necessity. Once you’ve finished that awkward phone call with your Nan about how she ruined the family, it’s time to get ready to “ice” fly fish in the winter!
Now this should go without saying but dress in layers! Something tells me if you’re willing to fly fish in the winter, you’re probably not smart enough to know that looking cool has nothing to do with the amount of fish you catch. Remember, you can remove layers but if the cold removes fingers they don’t grow back! I might suggest getting yourself a good pair of fishing gloves like the Simms Freestone Foldover Mitts, to keep those fingers safe and in place. Now that you have managed to tuck snow pants into your waders and look oddly similar to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, you’re ready to hit the road!
Now you might be thinking, where on earth are all the fish during the winter? Well, my friend, I’ll tell you. Most fish will be in the deepest and slowest parts of the water system. This is due in part to water being warmer at deeper depths and the fact that fish really don’t like to waste a ton of energy when there isn’t much food available. While walking the banks be on the lookout for slow moving, deeper water sections that cater to these types of fish habitats. A good place to start is by looking for an area where a secondary water source enters the main body of water. The water coming in will have dug out a channel over time and allowed for a deeper section to be created. Try casting along the edge of the current, where the water is moving slower and fish are more likely to sit.
Okay, so you’ve found the perfect water that HAS to be holding fish, now what? I suppose this is one of those it depends moments, but I will try and give you an idea where to start. Like most day’s fly fishing, you will need to choose between nymphing, dry fly fishing, and streamer tossing. In the winter, I prefer to start with nymphing those slow edge waters of the current, bouncing small flies along the bottom. But before you start, I suggest putting some sort of de-icing product onto your guides to prevent freezing. Nothing is worse than trying to cast with frozen guides, while helplessly watching your flies swing around and tangling into a perfect Somali pirate knot. To prevent guides freezing up a good choice is Loon Stanley’s Ice Off Paste. However, if you’re in a tight spot any chapstick will do the job too. If I had to say which chapstick works best, I’d say cherry.
So, you’re guides are ice free and you’re about to tie on your favorite nymph. Before you go reaching into your box to grab out that sparkly nymph pattern that caught you all those wonderful summer fish, I might have a few suggestions. Stick with tried tested and true patterns that have stood the test of time. These include: copper johns, hares ears, pheasant tails, chironomids, stoneflies, and the ever so dirty san juan worm. Try to stick to smaller sizes between 12 and 18, as well as more natural colors like black, brown, and grey. When fishing these smaller nymphs, get them deep as possible. This means adding split shot, as your flies need all the weight they can get to bounce the bottom. Try to be environmentally friendly and use lead-free split shot or alternative weighted products such as Loon Brass Head Soft Weight. When fishing nymph rigs, I like to use brightly colored indicators that sit high in the water. Though it’s a belief that indicator fishing moves a mans chest hair to his back and makes his beard fall out, I’m here to dispel those rumours. A good rule of thumb to follow is have your leader length about 1.5x the depth of the water. However, if you’ve forgotten your handy dandy electronic depth finder at the bottom of your boat you and don’t feel like swimming in frigid waters to find out the exact depth, you can just start with your leader being the length of your rod.
You might be reading things thinking, “I only swing meat” when catching fish, then this parts for you! Alright all you meat hucking junkies, winter fly fishing is your time to shine! Time to unroll that Fishpond Sushi Roll and find the only white streamer you have mixed in with all those weird colors you tied up while watching fly fishing videos on YouTube while sipping that refreshing Natty Ice. Get out your 20lb test Maxima fishing spool from that small and old backpack you’re carrying everything in, dust the ice off your beard, and tie on that crusty white fly that dried out a little too much over the summer. In all seriousness, I find that white streamers are worth their weight in gold when fishing during the winter. Like when nymphing, be sure to get the fly deep and work the edge of the current. A popular technique is to cast the fly towards the center of the river, tighten up the line, and let the fly “swing” outward in the current before retrieving it along the edge of the slack water. When retrieving, making sure to do so in a slower manner, as the fish aren’t as active and won’t be as willing to chase your fly. If at any point you feel the line tighten up, give it a quick strip in and hold on tight!
Now, at some point while walking the bank you might have seen some small swirls in the water. The first step here is to determine whether a fish has just rose, or a duck flew by and dropped off an offering to the river gods. Once you’ve questioned your sanity and noticed there isn’t many ducks about, you might decide it’s a good idea to try out winter dry fly fishing. At this point, you’ve more likely caught a cold rather than a fish, and you’re getting desperate. Time to tie on that 8x, 1.75 pound test tippet, and yell manically at your knots as they continuously break each time you try to tie on a fly. But which fly to choose you might ask? Realistically, I have only one winter dry fly in my arsenal, the Griffith Gnat. These wonderful little flies represent mating midges that seem to endlessly float about in the water during warm winter days. You’re going to need to go small, so get out your magnifying glass and tie on a size 22, without going crossed eyed. Good luck finding it if you drop it into the snow!
So, there you have it, you have mastered the art of winter fly fishing. Now that you’ve spent the day freezing your fingertips off and your toes are no longer a healthy color, you can go home and show off the one 12 inch trout you caught to all your friends and instagram followers. Be sure to remember, now that you’re part of the elusive winter fly fishing group, you’re allowed to lick metal poles and wear sunglasses indoors and no one will question your sanity.