The past two winters in Utah have been on the concerning side of unseasonably warm. Hell, last February I was fishing the Provo River (Utah’s most popular river for fly fishing aside from the Green) with the sleeves on my usual winter flannel rolled all the way up!
Thankfully, this winter has been cold, wet, and windy. Granted, I hate scraping my windshield off every morning before going to work (or fishing) but I’ll take that inconvenience if it means full lakes and rivers come spring.
Anyways, the point is, this winter has been the first in a long while when I’ve had to deal with winter fishing conditions on a regular basis. Ice freezing in the guides of my rods, reels freezing solid if even a drop of water sneaks between the spool and the frame, and even two broken rods due to cold weather. That’s what I get for trying to fly fish when it’s -8 outside, I guess.
With all the hardships that winter brings to the sport of fly fishing, you’re probably wondering how I can call winter fly fishing, “the best.” While John Gierach has written (more than once, I believe) that the best time to go fishing is when you can, sometimes that window of opportunity to go chuck flies for a few hours coincides with a blizzard, subzero temps, or, on the rarest of occasions, a tornado.
By the way, if you’re successfully fly fishing for trout in tornado country, please drop me a line so I can come witness something that incredible. I know a few folks in Oklahoma who claim to catch trout on the fly, from a river, but I’ve yet to see the pictures to prove their tales true.
Back to the point – the reality of it is, sometimes fishing in the winter just downright sucks. But again, as Gierach wrote,
“From my own experience I can say that a bad back makes you hike slower, stove-up knees keep you from wading confidently, tendinitis of the elbows buggers your casting, and a dose of giardia can send you dashing to the bushes fifteen times in an afternoon, but although none of this is fun, it’s discernibly better than not fishing.”
That logic is largely responsible for why I’ve spent roughly 25 days on the water since winter set it’s icy claws firmly on Utah in late November. The majority of those days were productive, but more than once I’ve been standing in the water wondering why I was freezing to death instead of at home editing my novel or finishing up the article I blew off to go fishing in the first place.
It’s been those days – the unproductive, slow, bitter ones – that have been more productive in the big-picture sense of the word.
Fishing in the winter helps you learn better drifts
Fishing whenever you can will obviously make you better at fishing, but certain aspects of winter fly fishing can help you out in warmer seasons as well. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve had to focus on this winter has been getting the drift of my nymph rigs just right. During winter, flows are low, water is clearer, and the fish tend to be spookier than normal. Or maybe I’m just louder in the winter – who knows?
Regardless, your drifts have to be just about perfect if you want to catch fish during your average winter outing. Unless you’re lucky enough to encounter an early-season baetis or midge hatch, you’re stuck with the nymph (or streamer) game. Trout are lethargic in the winter, and don’t want to move much for their food. You have to put your flies right in front of a fish if you’re going to have half a chance of catching it.
Case-in-point – this past Sunday, I was out on Utah’s Weber River with my good buddy Rob. The Weber is practically his playground, and I rarely fish the place. But when we busted through three feet of snow to reach a mostly-iced-up river, I expected to catch fish.
Rob hooked up almost immediately, and I got skunked. Almost five hours of fishing, and one bite was all I had to show for it. The difference? Rob was getting far better drifts – around ice shelves and chunks of the stuff floating down the river – than I was. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
Winter fishing improves your stalking skills
As I mentioned above, most streams and creeks run lower and clearer in the winter than any other time of year. This makes properly stalking trout of the utmost importance, since they’ll have an easier time seeing you than usual.
Kirk Deeter, one of America’s most prominent fly fishing writers, wrote a post for Field & Stream about this very topic. His post talks about learning how to deal with shadows and sunlight – things that aren’t just important during long summer days, but cloudless winter ones as well. According to Deeter,
“The number one thing that spooks fish, especially feeding trout, is motion shadow above. Be it your own silhouette on the water surface, or the fly rod and line waving overhead, shadow is often a deal breaker, at least with the bigger, smarter fish.”
When the water is lower during the winter, shadows are even more of an issue. Winter fishing will help you become more aware of light, shadows, and how they affect your ability to catch trout from a given run.
It puts hair on your chest
OK, not really. And I’m not sure what the feminine equivalent of that phrase is, but there needs to be one since we have so many women in fly fishing these days (which is a fabulous thing for a trout bum bachelor such as myself). In all seriousness, fly fishing in the winter will make you a better angler. It’s tough. It’s cold. Some days it’ll feel like you’ve spent more time picking ice from your guides than actually fishing, and you won’t be able to feel your toes, even through three layers of wool and neoprene, after five minutes of wading. In the end, you’ll be better at fishing come summertime, and you’ll have some incredible stories to tell of catching giant fish in a raging blizzard