Battling the elements — on principle

By Brooks Stevenson

Waterproof gloves? Check. Three layers of fleece? Check. Gore-Tex hat and jacket? Check. Waders? Check. Worst fishing weather this fisherman can imagine? Double check.

These remarkable insights into what we do for outdoor fun come from a series of national studies of fishing, hunting and wildlife-related recreation. The state-by-state surveys are performed every five years; a 2002 study is in the works.

Okay, maybe not the worst, but for a fair-weather fisherman like me, any weather that requires a "bundling up" is considered unacceptable. So fly fishing in the winter, to me, is just plain crazy. It takes all the relaxation and laziness out of the experience. I can't just wander over to a nearby tree and take a nap, bare legs outstretched with the sun warming them. I can't fish without my waders and tie on flies without fearing I'll lose a finger.

My latest hand-numbing experience was on the North Fork of the Duchesne River, near Hanna, on the south slope of the Uintas. It was to be my last foray into the fly fishing world for at least five months, and I wanted to catch a few pan-sized rainbows and call it a season. It had snowed in the mountains the night before, but the river valley was free of snow. With the sun shining and not a cloud in the sky, I figured I'd have a perfect day; maybe I'd even get a little tan on my face.

That was before I stepped out of the car into freezing winds, then managed to drop my reel in the river, retrieve it with my bare hand, and not catch a single fish.

I usually get skunked in December anyway because I'm too cold to be patient, too cold to concentrate on fishing, and too cold to realize I'm not fit for winter fishing. I just end up casting, over and over, into the same hole, wondering how long my hot chocolate will stay warm in the car, wishing I had brought it with me. And then the wind kicks up and the eyelets on my rod clog with ice and my fluid casting turns into a combination of flailing and calisthenics (to keep the blood moving).

I'm not usually one to second-guess, but when it comes to winter fly fishing I'm left wondering, why? Why would anyone want to stand waist-deep in icy water, with wind and snow flurries battering them, just to catch trout? You can buy trout at the grocery store for less than it costs in gas to get to your favorite snow-encrusted blue-ribbon trout stream. But I'm willing to listen to reason, to become enlightened, if you will.

So I called a few guides from some local shops and tried to get to the bottom of the madness. When I asked them to give me some feedback on their fishing habits, favorite winter haunts, and reasons for their fervor, some of them chuckled just thinking about it. Sickos. (It was almost like they were waiting for the weather to turn nasty so they could have the rivers all to themselves.) Here's what they had to say. And if you're a sympathizer, I'd love to know your reasons for sacrificing feeling in most of your anatomy for a fish.

Steve Cook
Fly fishing guide, GPS surveyor, and author of the Utah Fishing Guide and Rocky Mountain Fly Fishing.

"I like to fish the Provo River and Lower Fish Creek below Scofield Reservoir. Lower Fish Creek can fish well into early December if it stays warm. You walk down from the dam and you're sure to be alone; you can also find large concentrations of fish. I also like to fish Huntington Creek in Emery County, but the spring-fed creeks in Montana are by far my first choice for winter fishing."

Cook's drive for braving the bottomed out barometric readings is simple: "Cold, clear mornings with no one around is what it's all about; fishing in solitude even on the weekends is incomparable. I just love the solitude, and I have a need to satisfy the unquenchable urge to fly fish."

Steve Schmidt
Owner of Western Rivers Flyfishers fly shop

"One of my best winter days ever occurred on a morning when my thermometer read -10°. There was an incredible midge hatch, and the fish were up in the shallow water sipping every one of them. It was a great day. On days like this you don't even know it's cold out. On less productive days there's usually a cafe nearby where you can grab a cup of coffee and either call it a day or warm up for the afternoon.

"You have to realize that fishing/catching in general, during December, is really not good. What is good is getting out in the crisp air and spending some time with your fishing buddies on the water. It's always quiet and serene. I prefer overcast days to sunny days. Overcast days are a little warmer and you have the best opportunity to see some fish with their heads up. Besides, if it's snowing out you can count on no one else being there.

"The Provo and Green rivers receive the bulk of the attention in December and throughout the winter, but Huntington Creek is a reliable winter fishery and so is Blacksmith Fork, especially for whitefish. (Chasing steelhead around in December in northern Idaho, British Columbia and Oregon will also be on Schmidt's plate.) All of these waters, including our home waters, will fish well depending on the weather. Midge hatches and water conditions have remained good by comparison to years past.

"The lower Henrys Fork can produce some excellent fly fishing throughout the winter, especially with winters like we have been experiencing. That's always my first choice. Locally, the lower Provo is my favorite. It runs a little warmer than other sections of this river, and your best chance at fishing dry flies will occur here first.

"I believe what drives fly fishermen to brave the odds and the cold is just being in the water. There is something about water that draws you to it — even in the dead of winter when chances of catching a fish are remote, the beauty of the setting is enough to keep you coming back. Besides, it's pretty hard to catch fish unless you're out there in the elements."

Matt Selders
Vice president of the Stonefly Society

"Winter fly fishing is not a madness or disease; fishing in the winter is basically a lack of options. For example, on a good summer day I can catch 20-25 fish; in the winter, however, fishing the same stretch of water, I may only catch five or six fish. There are very few significant hatches, and the bugs that do hatch are tiny. So it's not the great hatches and rising trout that bring fishermen out of their warm sanctuaries to brave the elements.

"I wouldn't say I particularly enjoy fly fishing during the winter months; there's usually ice in my guides, on my line and in my beard; I have to use small tippet and even smaller flies; and the fish aren't what I would call active either. But, there are advantages. Fishing in these conditions is challenging. To catch even a few fish when all the odds are against you is quite an accomplishment, even for the best of anglers. And I enjoy a little adversity.

"The best places to fish are the most obvious: travel to water that has maintained flows and steady temperatures. The major tail waters throughout the northern part of the state will always produce a few fish. The Weber River, the middle and lower sections of the Provo River, the Strawberry River, Currant Creek, Lower Fish Creek, Huntington Creek and the Green River are the best places to go.

"I don't recommend that the faint of heart try fishing in the winter. It's only for those who enjoy the true challenge that this sport has to offer."

Okay, so maybe there are a few good reasons to ignore the winter storm warnings, break free from the inversion-filled valleys and risk being known as the nine-fingered numbskull. I just haven't had the epiphany yet that I'm hoping will inspire me to true devoted fly fisher status. That's okay, though. I'd probably ruin someone else's solace with all the flailing and complaining I'd do trying to stay warm.