Winter fishing conjures up visions of old men trudging through snow drifts to fish over holes in the ice, cursing all who venture too close with lips that have been frost bitten so many times that even when warm they still mumble.
Now honestly, I don't see myself that way maybe others do. I do love to winter fish. However, I seldom drag my sled laden with ice fishing gear out on a frozen lake but instead prefer free-flowing rivers. A fly rod is a valuable weapon to ward off cabin fever. Most areas in the state are blessed with good fishing during the winter but few fishermen take advantage of it. Let me tell you why you should consider it.
First is, as I already mentioned, long winters with nothing to do but daydream and rummage through tackle can be spiced up with just a little trip now and then. I remember with abhorrence the time when our state was more-or-less closed to fishing during the winter. Then the long dark winters gave me a glassy eyed, zombie-like appearance until opening day came around again with much rejoicing.
Many people, for some odd reason, think that trout and other gamefish hibernate during winter. Cold waters do slow down a fishes metabolism because fish are cold blooded, but fish must eat to survive the winter. This is especially true with stream fish that must expend considerable energy to swim against the currents. Simply put, a trout must take in more energy (food) than he expends or it will die. This means a fisherman can do quite well in the winter if he follows a few guidelines.
In streams, water temperatures often get well below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. A trout's metabolism is slowed down and it will seldom react quickly to a fly or lure. This means that the angler must give his offering a perfectly natural dead drift, right into the fishes feeding lane. The closer to nose level the better. That is why few spin fishermen do well during the coldest part of winter on stream. The trout don't want to chase their food.
A fly rod and floating fly line with a strike indicator (small bobber adapted for fly fishing) attached to the leader is the best system to beat the odds in winter. A fly, usually some small nymph such as the chamois nymph, gold-ribbed hares ear, scud or prince nymph, is tied to a tapered leader. A small split shot is attached 10 inches above and the fly and the strike indicator is fastened to the leader just slightly further from the fly than the water is deep. This system keeps the fly drifting just off the bottom, which is where the trout usually want their food (see last issues "the Nymphicator" for more complete instructions).
Sometimes trout will even rise to dry flies in the dead of winter. Small insects such as midges, mayflies, craneflies and stoneflies, usually in sizes 1/4 inch or smaller will hatch in great numbers even when the temperatures are below freezing.
Most folks call these little critters snowflies. Despite their small size, their numbers are such that they are a great food source for hungry winter fish. Here again, trout must position themselves where they can take the greatest advantage of the insects with minimum effort. Slow deep eddies are good places to find them. Seams (the water between the faster current and the slow water near shore) are good places to fish. Trout will hold close to the surface and just barely sip in the insects as they float by. Good fly patterns at such times are the Griffiths gnat, Adams, spent-wing midge, and humpy in sizes 18-24. These flies are small but the action can occasionally be fast if you can cast accurately. When your line quires freeze up, just thaw them out in the river and keep on going.
Cold air temperatures can quickly chill even the most macho person to the point of hypothermia if he isn't dressed right. My rule of thumb for dressing in winter is to wear more clothing than you think is necessary and you should stay warm. Layer your clothing as follows: one thin pair of socks; one or two pair thick wool socks; thermals; sweat pants; waders (preferably insulated); turtleneck; sweater; warm coat; warm hat that covers the ears, cheeks and neck; and a pair of insulated gloves. A good hand warmer should also be kept handy somewhere. Hands and feet are the biggest problem to keep warm. Your body will automatically shut down circulation to your arms and legs if you allow your core temperature to drop. Pay special attention to your torso and head if you want to keep your hands and feet warm. Allowing your core temperature to drop is the beginning of hypothermia. 80% of your body heat is lost through your head and shoulders, so make sure they are well insulated. Also keep track of your buddy when it's real cold. He may not know when to come in from the cold. If he's not dressed properly this could be serious. There is nothing that says you must keep fishing all day either. Some of my most memorable winter trips have been when I only fished a few hours, caught a few fish and then hit the local cafe for hot chocolate and a hamburger.
Try winter fishing this year and you will enter the ranks of the mentally insane, oops, I meant the ranks of those who have found the sublime pleasures that can be found as a practitioner of winterized angling. Prepare for it properly and you can overcome your moldy feeling, glassy-eyed hibernation, and have a lot of fun besides. Give it some thought.