Winter is the season that, for most fly fishermen, means dreaming of summer while spending hours at the tying bench replenishing their arsenal of flies and battling cabin fever. For others, it is time to put away the long stick and get out the ice fishing gear. While ice fishing is a very enjoyable way to get out there and keep on fishing, it is not for me. I am not saying I don’t ice fish, I do and I enjoy it, but I have found that there are plenty of places to keep on chuckin’ flies all winter long.
Fishing a river in the winter is a different experience from the warmer months. There is no need to hit the water before dawn, instead I give the sun a chance to rise, take time for breakfast, and plan my day well. While the hours on the water are fewer, the rewards can be as great. I plan on being in position between 10 and 3, the warmest part of the day. It is the time when insect activity is often at its highest and icing of rod guides is minimal, if at all.
Colorado is in the desert, and unlike many states more water flows out than flows in. So we store our water in reservoirs across the state for controlled release at a later time resulting in numerous tail-water fisheries. Some of the better-known places may be busy all year, while others are frequently void of anglers for weeks on end. For me the allure is ice-free water!
Tail-waters also offer stable flows and crystal clear water and in a few magical places a steady supply of high protein food that produces fish of enormous proportions. To name a few there are the South Platte, Arkansas, Frying Pan, Roaring Fork, Taylor, and Uncompahgre Rivers. Of all the winter rivers, some stand out for one reason, mysis shrimp. In tail waters where these shrimp are flushed out of the reservoirs, the fish feed lazily with minimal effort and grow to unbelievable sizes. The Frying Pan below Ruedi is one such water.
This Rainbow took a small midge pattern
Being comfortable is critical to enjoying a winter outing and layers are the key. A good moisture wicking base layer will help keep you dry and comfortable. Depending on conditions a second layer of fleece or wool may be all you need, other times a third layer may be required to stay warm. Choosing the layers that are under your waders is extremely important, as it is not easy to add or remove layers when wearing waders.
Some anglers choose neoprene waders for the extra protection they provide. However, as they do not breathe overheating may be a problem. Many anglers opt instead to wear breathable waders that help keep them dry. Whichever you chose, remember to bring along extra dry clothes to change into in case yours get wet, either from sweating or a fall into the water. Fishing with a partner is always best, but if you are solo make sure people know where you are going and when to expect you back. Have a contingency plan for the unexpected events that may occur during your outing. Extra food, water, a blanket, first aid kit, and fire starting materials are always good to have along.
Wading boots are possibly the most important piece of winter gear, yet they rarely get much consideration. Winter means ice and snow that can be very slippery. Falling when fishing is always a danger, but when temperatures outside are extremely cold the risk of hypothermia is even greater. Studded wading boots are a good choice along with a staff or wading stick for added stability. Snow and ice often build up on the bottoms of boots giving them less traction than normal. So wade slowly, and be sure of your footing at all times.
Many people fall after hooking a fish primarily because they are distracted. Ice shelves often form along the edges of rivers and extreme caution should be used when walking on them. The water below them may only be inches deep, but an unexpected fall through the ice can spell trouble even in 6 inches of water. Hiking in snow can be dangerous, as hidden obstacles may lead to falls. So remember to take your time, move cautiously and methodically, and spend a moment to just enjoy being on the water.
Gloves are important for several reasons and I recommend carrying at least one extra pair in case first pair gets wet. Gloves should be both warm and comfortable but they must not be so bulky that you cannot handle the fly line. Make sure they can easily be taken off and put back on, which is frequently a necessity when handling fish or changing flies. A towel is a good item to have along so you can dry your hands and keep the inside of your gloves dry. Select a good warm hat, as the head is where the most body heat is lost. Wading jackets are nice, but not an absolute necessity like the layers, gloves, and hat.
Author with a nice winter Rainbow taken on an egg pattern
There are many gadgets that can help make the cold less bitter. Chemical warmers are available for both hands and feet. There are even battery powered heated socks, designed just for waders and winter fishing. While they may add to your comfort, they are by no means a necessity.
Staying hydrated and keeping up calorie intake is often overlooked and can lead to exhaustion and dehydration. Coffee is a diuretic, which may lead to dehydration, and even though most of us cannot function without it, simply remembering to drink water or sports drinks throughout the day will go a long way to staying hydrated. Avoid alcohol as it slows the reflexes and can give a false sense of warmth.
Your existing rod and reel will probably do fine in the winter, but other equipment may need to be modified or changed. Cold temperatures often make things more fragile, from leader and tippet to rods and reels. Take extra care when tying knots; make sure they are correctly tied the first time. Cleaning ice from guides is a necessary evil in the winter months, but use caution. Try not to bend the rod tip, as they can be very brittle in the cold. Try to keep your gear out of the water, especially the reel. A wet reel can quickly freeze, rendering the drag inoperable, and possibly causing the reel to stop functioning.
Often long, small diameter leaders and tippets are necessary, especially when using small flies on heavily fished tail-waters. However, some anglers, such as me, choose to fish large streamers. Both can be effective tactics, although flies matching naturals generally out produce big, gaudy reaction type flies. The most common method of fly-fishing in the winter is nymphing with patterns matching natural aquatic insects. However, flies like the prince nymph, hares ear and copper john are great general patterns that resemble many insects and should be a staple in everyone’s fly box. If no recent local info is available start with these generic patterns, as they are specific enough to resemble food, and are frequently good enough to entice a fish to strike. Midges are also great winter patterns, and of course, if mysis shrimp exist it is almost a required pattern. Weight is a necessity when nymphing, getting the flies into the feeding zone can make all the difference between a good day out and utter frustration. A good tip is, if you are not snagging the bottom every few casts, you need more weight. The illustrations at the bottom of this page show three basic nymphing rigs.
Streamers are great searching patterns, as they can resemble many foods depending on their presentation, but they can spook fish so they should be used with care. Anglers should always be on the lookout for any surface activity, as fish will sometimes feed aggressively on dries if they are present. Look for long deep runs where the fish can hold and feed with out exerting much energy, but are also in close proximity to their regular haunts. Often in the winter fish will move to the shallow water near banks that may warm up a few degrees, so look before you step into the water.
A classic tail-water giant taken in mid-January
Tail-waters are traditionally known as fly-fishers haunts, but spinning gear is often equally as effective. Just remember tail waters in Colorado are generally more restrictive than other fisheries, so be sure to check the rules and regulations before going out. Many are catch and release, flies and lures only, but there are some even more restrictive, limiting flies and lures to single barbless hooks. In those cases, remember to replace treble hooks with single hooks on your lures and pinch down the barb or use barbless hooks.
If you seek peace and quiet on the river, winter is the time to find it. Many days can be spent in solitude, and even if the fish are not cooperative, a winter trip will often refresh both the mind and spirit. If you are ever out and see somebody standing waist deep in a river in frigid temperatures, smiling ear to ear, know that they really are sane and most likely are just be trying to overcome a little cabin fever, while catching a fish now and then, and having a great time just being out on the water.