Baby, it’s cold outside!” This celebrated song title popped into my head when my podcast partner, Dave, texted me about fly fishing on a recent January day. For better or worse, I had work commitments that kept me from spending a few hours mid-day on the Blue River in Wisconsin.
The truth is, I have mixed feelings about fly fishing north of the Mason-Dixon line in January or even February. I’ve spent enough January days on the Madison and Gallatin Rivers in Montana to form an opinion.
What I Hate
Let’s get this side of the relationship out of the way. To be frank, I hate the cold, the ice, and the slow. Yes, the slow. I don’t mind snow. It often helps the fishing. But the slow is a different story.
First, what is there not to hate about the cold? I don’t mind mid-30s and above. But fly fishing ceases to be fun when the chill stings my fingers. Nimble fingers turn into fumble fingers. Tying a fly onto my tippet becomes nearly impossible. Any moisture at all makes it worse.
The ice is also a problem. It clings to the guides on my fly rod and seems to freeze (pun intended) my casts. Then there is the ice at the river’s edge. Do I walk on it or not? Even if it is solid, it can be slick.
Then there is the slow. The trout move and feed more slowly, so the action on most days is predictably slow. I’ve caught a few trout in January, but I have never even come close to a banner day.
What I Love
But lest I come across as a grumpy old man, I want to affirm what I love about fishing the northern rivers on January days. I love the solitude, the rhythm, and the moments of success.
What is there not to love about having the river all to yourself? I love solitude, and I don’t have to hike very far to find it on a typical January day. It’s usually as close as the river’s edge a few steps from my parking spot at a fishing access. I rarely encounter other fly fishers on a January day.
Then there is the rhythm of casting and mending and stripping line. It feels good to pick up on rod again after the holiday season and weeks without fly fishing. Even if the fishing is slow (see above), there is something hopeful about getting back into the rhythm of fly fishing. January will soon give way to February. Then February — the shortest month of the year — will give way to March and the glories of fly fishing in the spring.
Finally, there are occasional moments of success. Hooking into a nice rainbow makes my day. In July, landing only one rainbow may disappoint me. But in January, it makes me ecstatic.
A Final Thought
Occasionally, the Chinook winds along the eastern slopes of the Rockies will warm January temperatures into the 50s and 60s.
For the most part, though, the temperatures will rise at most to the mid or high 30s. I hate those kind of conditions for fly fishing. But my love of fly fishing usually trumps my desire to stay warm and comfortable. So I venture out into the cold. My fingers may get numb, but at least the hot chocolate in my thermos tastes better than ever.