Fly fishing in winter

The Joys of Winter Fishing

With all the hot weather this summer, I couldn’t help but think of winter and the cool relief it will bring. Along with a building excitement of ski slopes and yurt trips, there is a piece of me that is really starting to look forward to some snowy fly fishing. I couldn’t seem to get enough wet wading and cool beers under my belt this summer, yet the prospect of a dead silent river, much more limited hatch and apathetic fish is really starting to excite- is anyone else getting that? Naturally we can’t skip over the fall- chilly mornings, Persian rug hills and the lasting mid-day sunlight deserves an article all its own- but it is winter I am thinking about today. Some of the best and most exciting fishing I have experienced has been in the dead of winter, tucked away on a stretch of river that is all mine. If you haven’t tried it, I highly suggest you give it a go at least once, and I’ll tell you why!

First, the river is quiet, and I mean REAL quiet. There are no birds, no rustling grasses, no bugs in your ears and any echoing city noises you may have heard in summer are muted by the padding of snow. There are also no people. I am a social girl, but having a river all to myself to explore, especially in northern Utah where we are heavy on people and low on great rivers, well, let’s say I am a big fan of this particular aspect of it. This type of silence and seclusion is what I love most about winter and about the snowfall. It makes the scarce sound of a fish breaking water unmistakable and irresistible. And when I say scarce, I mean it.

River in the winter, covered in snow and ice

In the cold of winter with snow on the ground and ice lining the banks, the hatches occur very seldom, if at all, which means the dry fly fishing (my favorite type) is incredibly difficult and often not the most productive method. So why would I go then? Well the challenge of course! If there is going to be a hatch, it will often happen later in the morning than what we are used to in the summer, generally after the sun has hit the water. I would be lying if I said getting a later start in the morning (i.e. more coffee and slipper time) isn’t a little appealing, but more than the thought of a loungey morning in bed, successfully catching a fish on the few small dry flies that are out there feels like a huge accomplishment. When the fish will absolutely not rise, a nymph or streamer option are the way to go, but this will also be different because water levels at this point in the year are now low, the water is very cold, and lots of the crawlies and swimmies are dormant. In other words, less bug varieties, less options from your fly box, more of a challenge (sense a theme here?).

A fresh-caught fish, still on the fly

Finally, let’s talk about the fish- specifically trout. Put simply, they’re lazy! At this point, they are surviving. They do still need to eat (again with the survival business) but their metabolisms have slowed and they just aren’t going to put forth the effort into chasing down a fly that they otherwise would in the best of river conditions. You need to do what you can to make the fly come straight to them- that will be your best shot at catching a fish. You also (and this is very dependent on the stream and location but let’s assume we’re talking smaller mountain streams) need to keep your expectations a bit low for fish size. They aren’t gorging, and they aren’t really growing. In fact, a lot of trout are laying eggs that hatch in late fall and winter, so the chances of some smaller fish can be a lot higher than a monster. If you are looking for those fatties that will really put up a fight, fish low in the water column, choose slower water and definitely consider streamers. I’m not caught up on the size, so I’ll just size down on my fly rod often times and be pleased with a little trout on a little rod.

Woman cuddles her dog

Winter fly-fishing is certainly not the most comfortable way to fish. It is cold, meaning you need a lot of layers, gloves, thick socks- it takes effort (think Randy from A Christmas Story). A lot of rivers freeze all the way over, making fly-fishing not a possibility (see “ice fishing”). When the river is still open, the banks are often more difficult to access due to snow and ice, so getting to the water can be difficult and dangerous- always be cautious in these scenarios! A hot beverage never hurts and a tip for your guides: they will freeze, but you can use a little bit of olive oil or WD-40 to oil them up and prevent your line from freezing to them. Finally, bring a dog along for some mid-river warmth and much needed cuddles. You’re ready for winter fishing! Now forget all of this for the time being and go enjoy the rest of that hot summer action on the water!