A decade and a half ago, winters were downtime for me and almost every other guide in the Rocky Mountain West. We worked our butts off from early April until Thanksgiving, and then spent the next four months having lots of fun. Where I live along the Wyoming-Idaho border, skiing dominates December through March. It was nothing for me to squeeze in 70-plus days on twin boards. There were also a couple weeks dedicated to steelhead, a saltwater flats trip, or perhaps a some surfing. It was financially draining. It was also a hell of a lot of fun.
Things began to change in 2008. On Christmas Eve of that year, the shop manager called to see if I was willing to guide a party the next day.
“A guided trip? In winter?” I replied. “They can’t be serious. It’s gonna be 23 degrees tomorrow. Why don’t they want to go skiing like the rest of us?”
They were serious. I was single at the time and most of my extended family were gone for the holidays. So, I accepted.
We caught a few fish that afternoon and my guests seemed thoroughly satisfied. Before packing up for the day, one of them said, “I have been on five ski trips in the past seven years, and I’ve caught fish on every one of them.” Clearly they knew something I didn’t.
At first, I thought a trip like this as a one off. But another one came in a month later. Two more bookings occurred in February. Another two happened in March.
Since that winter, I have watched the slow, but steady, growth in popularity during snow season. By no means is it what we are experiencing the rest of the year. Nonetheless, that growth is occurring. We see it on magazine covers, in films, and through social media posts. Data suggests the same. In Wyoming and Idaho, single day license sales between December 1st and March 31st have grown substantially since 2011.
What’s causing this growth? There are several factors are at play.
For one, there is more water available now than a couple decades ago. My beloved Henry’s Fork has been open year-round for decades. But nearby waters like Wyoming’s Snake and the South Fork of the Snake in Idaho were not open to 12 months of fishing until 2004. This trend has been occurring on streams across Montana as well for at least the past dozen years.
Anglers are also seeking out less congestion. Sure, winter fly fishing is on the upswing, yet its growth is far outpaced by what we are seeing during the “prime-time” months of May through September. The situation throughout the West has reached such a point that Trout Unlimited’s Kirk Deeter predicted a “season shift” amongst the army of veteran anglers seeking less crowds. Winter offers just that.
But more than anything else, a warming climate is driving the increase. Summer fly fishing is only getting more dangerous for trout with each passing year. 2021’s historic drought led to full or partial closures on streams across western Montana due to high temps and low flows. Even tailwaters weren’t spared. Management agencies in other states issued recommendations to end fishing at specific times of the day. This resulted in even more congestion on less impacted streams. Anglers I guided that summer were rightly concerned about inadvertently killing the trout they hooked. I assured them that precautions would be taken, including bringing our rods up for the day when water temps hit 68 degrees. Most of the waters I fish have been going over 68 degrees for at least a couple weeks at a time since 2012. Some of my longtime guests are abandoning August. I encourage such moves.
Water temperatures in winter, on the other hand, remain safely cool just about everywhere. This is despite the season getting warmer most places where trout reside. It is almost a double bonus for fly fishers – trout are less likely to be harmed and it is more comfortable for the angler. I’ve yet to measure water temperatures over 45 degrees between December and March on the streams I fish regularly. At the same time, I am not surprised when air temperatures exceed the 45-degree mark.
Winter fly fishing is intimidating for the uninitiated. Many are unsure how to fish streams that have so radically changed from earlier in the year. I get the apprehension. However, understanding riparian environments during winter – including its impacts on trout, trout behavior, and holding water – breaks through the unease we create in our own minds.
Most western rivers are at their lowest flows of the year from December through March. Dams feeding many rivers hold back water for demand later in the year. Freestone streams experience reduced flows due to natural processes. It snows rather than rains, and the resulting snowpack will not melt and create a flooding runoff until spring. All of this leads to reduced habitat on streams. Riffles, seams, and bankside troughs that were teaming with trout a few months before are now high and dry. Added to this is the fact that water temperatures are cold. The body temps of trout are going to be close to water temperature. Even moderate current speeds are difficult to hold in, let alone feed.
These two conditions coalesce to the benefit of anglers. While habitat has changed, fish populations on many streams are close to that of the months prior. These fish concentrate in the precious holding water that still has sufficient depth (which provides protection and slightly warmer temperatures) and slow current speeds. Pods of fish congregate in these areas. They have few options. This is a prime advantage of winter fly fishing – a pool will likely contain several, if not several dozen, more trout than it does the rest of the year. Winter holding water with sufficient depths and current speeds include eddies, backwater side channels with seams along main channel currents, ledge rock pools, and the middle and tail portions of riffle pools.
A large concentration of fish does not necessarily mean easy pickings all the time. With cold water temperatures comes slower metabolism. Trout do not require the same amount of nutrients as they do the rest of the year. I have found on days when water temperatures are 36 degrees or lower, there is very limited movement by trout to forage. I often must get my offering right in their face for them to eat. Above 36 degrees, however, I observe noticeably more movement. When water temps are 40 degrees and over, movement is even more pronounced.
A common belief held by many fly fishers is that warming air temperatures contributes to warmer water during the winter. If this is the case, starting your day at 1pm would be a sensible choice. However, warming air temps melt ice and snow on surrounding banks. This process can, at times, leads to a cooling of river water. I have observed mid-afternoon water temperatures that were two degrees cooler than what I was fishing around 10am. Trout and bug activity changes in very narrow temperature windows. Slower production can result from time to time.
Does It Harm Trout?
Some anglers feel it wrong to target trout in what appears to be harsh conditions after hounding them for months on end. For those holding this perspective, fishing such cold water is borderline lethal for fish. Don’t they deserve a break?
Such a viewpoint is silly and, quite frankly, uneducated. These same fly fishers are probably the ones pounding the water on a 90-degree August afternoon when conditions are truly dangerous. Perhaps their real issue is a lack of perseverance when the weather gets a little chilly.
The fact of the matter is that winter’s cold waters contain significantly higher concentrations of dissolved oxygen than the warming waters we are experiencing later in the year. Trout depend on dissolved oxygen more than almost any factor in their environment. The fish we hook, fight, land, and release have a far greater chance of survival when oxygen is high. This is one of the reason’s states like Idaho and Wyoming made the decision to open a number of streams to 12 months of fishing.
I am confident winter fishing is safer than other parts of the year. Nonetheless, we still need to take precautions.
Consider the fact that a trout’s body temperature is close to that of the water they live in. If a river is 37-degrees, most likely their bodies are close to the same. Handling trout with substantially warmer hands not just strips their bodies of their protective slime layer, it also burns them. It is critical to submerge your hands to both wet them and to cool them down. It’s uncomfortable for the angler, but far less so than a branding iron, which is what a warm, dry hand could feel like to trout.
An important safeguard used by many anglers when handling fish is to minimize their exposure out of water. This ensures that gills remain saturated with oxygen. I typically give it a five count – after five seconds of exposure, the fish must be immediately submerged. Cool winter temperatures allow water to remain oxygen rich. Still, a five count is a good rule to follow. Exposing gills to cold air can freeze the delicate filaments that process and exchange oxygen from the water. The sclera – a protective outer layer covering the eye – is also prone to freezing.
These are both good reasons to take the same precautions in winter as we do the rest of the year.
Winter Forage: It’s More Than Just Midges
Ask a hundred fly fishers what trout foods they associate with winter, most likely all will say chironomids, and for good reason. Midges seem to always be around. They make up one of the largest forms of biomass on most trout streams. I rely heavily on chironomid imitations on most winter days whether I am guiding or fishing for fun. Many times, they are the only game in town. When you see fish feeding on the surface, there’s a good chance they are eating midges.
Yet many other forms of forage are available to trout during the winter. And at certain times, they can match or beat the production offered by midge imitations.
A continuously over-looked winter trout food imitation is egg patterns. Mountain whitefish are native to western North America and still populate many streams in strong numbers. Their spawning activity occurs late in the year – generally from mid-October until mid-December – and takes place in main channel currents. Females do not build redds like most trout. Rather, they deposit roe directly onto the riverbed. These eggs are readily available to trout waiting downstream. This timing and spawning behavior make egg patterns a good choice for fishing riffle pools and seams during the month of December.
The cold months of January and February often result in habitat reduction on small tributary streams due to continually declining flows and iced-over water. This produces a surge of baitfish and juvenile trout into the comparatively more hospitable environs of downstream rivers. These fish seek out the same slow current backwater channels and eddies as trout. They are both food and intruders. Baitfish can get hammered if they trespass the feeding lines utilized by more dominant trout. This is when small streamers can produce in solid fashion.
Little black (Capnia) and little brown (Nemoura) stoneflies are collectively known as the tiny winter stones. Other than the ever-present midge, they are one of the first emergences of the year on many western streams, with hatches occurring from early February until mid-April. There are two key times when tiny winter stones are available to trout – 1) when the nymphs move en masse to shorelines to emerge from their shucks, and 2) when female adults return to the surface to lay their eggs (often while in a mad, wake-producing scurry). Tiny winter stones are generally in the #16 to #18 range. Patterns like the black Perdigon or Furimsky’s BDE are amongst my favorite imitations.
I turn to roe patterns, winter stone imitations, and streamers when the time is right. Sometimes I do it simply because I get bored of fishing midges. Keep in mind, however, that the nymphal and larval forms of other invertebrates are still around. I have caught fish on giant Pat’s Rubber Legs, Soft Hackles, blue Copper Johns, cranefly larva patterns, and even San Juan Worms, during the winter. So don’t get too caught up in matching specific forage. The water you are targeting will be far more important than the flies you have on hand.
Staying Comfortable. Staying Focused. Staying Out There.
Winters are getting warmer. But they are still colder than the rest of the year. This can always limit our success. It impacts our equipment and our bodies. Going in prepared to deal with the elements will make your time on the water more enjoyable and keep you out there longer.
Top-of-the-line waders and apparel will keep every part of your body warm and dry except your hands. Fingerless gloves – a winter fly fishing requirement – still allow your digits to go uncomfortably numb.
One game changing remedy is black nitrile surgical gloves. As an insert under fingerless gloves, they are thin and almost skintight. Nitrile gloves allow you to feel and manage line, select tiny flies from your boxes, and tie knots. At the same time, they repel wind and water and absorb sunlight. Under certain conditions, they almost render your hands too warm. Some proponents also claim trout can be handled with less harm when nitrile gloves are worn. Their temperature is reduced quickly when submerged while keeping hands dry. And when wet, they feel slicker than wet hands. Both these traits limit potential damage when compared to a warm, dry hand or slime stealing fleece gloves.
Chilly conditions can impact your gear as much as your body. Nowhere is this more evident than with ice buildup on rod guides. It limits your ability to cast and manage line. When severe, the only fix is to stop fishing and break it out as best you can. Doing so risks damaging your rod.
A whole slew of deicing agents have been employed over the years to prevent ice buildup, including Ice Off Paste, black label Chapstick, and the useful, although incredible messy, Pam cooking spray.
It was only a couple years ago that Grant Michaels introduced fly fishers to the qualities of Lemon Pledge as the cleanest and most effective deicing substance one can use. I have become a convert. Its ingredients – including isoparaffin and silicone – work synergistically, allowing water to bead up and drop of the rod and guides. I would not call this a cure-all. However, I get several dozen more ice-free casts with Lemon Pledge than I do with other agents.
Much of my dry fly fishing in the winter is reliant on midge and tiny stonefly imitations. I use CDC as wing material for most of my patterns. Its imitative, visible, and floats like a cork when presented properly. Yet when it does go wet, say, after hooking up on a fish, it can be difficult to dry through simply casting in cold air. Hydrophobic materials like desiccant work well on most fly materials. This is not the case with CDC.
Many fly fishers prefer using Bounty paper towels as a drying agent. Super absorbent, it literally sucks the saturation out of the fly without the crystals and white residue in the material that desiccant leaves behind. Its so effective, I use it year-round. But no more so than winter.
Winter Is Coming
The growth of fly fishing over the past decade is a four-season phenomenon impacting more than just trout streams. Steelhead rivers, saltwater flats, and bass lakes are feeling it too. It’s great witnessing the joy folks get from the sport. But the crowds can be maddening. Unfortunately, much of the congestion on trout water is happening at a potentially harmful time of the year as stream temperatures get warmer and warmer.
Winter is that respite for both the fish and the angler. The crowds are not there, or at least not yet. And more importantly, trout have heavily oxygenated water that allows them to recover quickly after release. If we treat them with the precautions I mentioned above, mortality will remain low. These are the reasons why the coldest months of the year makes sense.
Winter is coming. So embrace it. Fish it. And Enjoy!