Winter Fly Fishing without Losing It

Winter fly flshing is not my favorite. But there is a mystique to fishing the big rivers of Montana or the spring creeks in Minnesota a few days before Christmas or a couple weeks into the new year.

If you fly fish in winter, be careful to do so without losing it. I’m using the pronoun “it” to refer to everything from your sanity to the feeling in your fingers to life itself. The frustration and the dangers intensify in the winter.

Here are seven strategies for keeping your sanity and your life intact:

1. Lower your expectations

Don’t expect a twenty-fish day. Trout feed, but not as aggressively as they will when winter gives way to spring. Don’t expect that your hands will stay warm. Don’t expect the guides on your fly rod to remain ice-free.

2. Wait for mid-day and early afternoon

Trout respond better in these brief periods of warmth. You may, too. So sleep in and quit early. While we’re on the topic of warmth, wait for a warmer day. Tie flies or read a fly fishing book when the weather is in the teens.

3. Focus on shallow water, not deep pools

Bud Lilly, one of the deans of western fly fishing, assumes the fish in deep pools are not feeding as actively as fish in shallow riffles. Deep pools do not get enough sunlight, while the sun can trigger insect activity or even the metabolism of a sluggish trout in a shallow riffle.

4. Try nymphs first

I’ve had some good midge fishing in January on Montana’s Madison River. But unless you get into rising fish, nymphs may be your best bet. Trout do not chase streamers as aggressively (if they chase them at all) as they will when the water temperatures get warmer.

5. Avoid wading in deep water

Slipping and falling into the river on a thirty degree day is much different than on an eighty degree day in July. In July, a bath might cost you your dignity. In January, it might cost you your life.

6. Go with a buddy

This is always the safest approach to fly fishing, but it’s even more critical in the winter. A sprained knee a quarter mile from your vehicle could be a disaster in cold temperatures if you are alone.

7. Dress for warmth

It goes without saying, but pile on those layers. Put on waterproof gloves. Cover your face with a neck gator or a face mask. Double up on socks, too. Wear a wool or fur or polyester fleece hat. The folks at Harvard Medical School say that without a hat you can lose up to fifty percent of your body heat in certain cold-weather conditions even if the rest of your body is bundled up.

Final Thought

Alright, I promised seven strategies, so I won’t add an eighth one about bringing a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee. Also, the jury is out on whether you want clouds or sun. A friend and veteran fly fisher in Montana used to say, “The worst day for fly fishing is a sunny day in February.” My experience suggests he is right. Yet, as noted earlier, Bud Lilly observes that sunlight can trigger certain insect hatches, particularly the big “snowflies” that appear on many big rivers beginning in February.

For now, I’d suggest worrying less about the presence or absence of cloud cover than whether or not you remembered to bring that thermos filled with warm liquid.

Why I Fly Fish

Why I fly fish – it’s pretty simple to explain. I often get asked, “Why do you fly fish? What do you like about it?” This question typically comes from folks who are dabbling in it or thinking about trying the sport. If that is your question, let me try to answer it.

Several years ago, I tried to improve my golf game so that I could spend more time with a friend. I soon realized that I didn’t love golf. In fact, I found it frustrating. I remember golfing on the Cottonwood Hills Public Golf Course just west of Bozeman, Montana, and looking down the hill at the Gallatin River. I longed to be fly fishing. My friend didn’t fly fish. So I found other ways to connect with him. We both loved to play softball. But I decided that day I was done trying to do things I didn’t enjoy.

But exactly why do I love fly fishing for trout (and salmon at times)?

Engaged with the Outdoors

Fly fishing allows me to experience the great outdoors in an interactive kind of way. I love mountains and the clear rivers or streams that flow through or below them.

Obviously, there are other ways to experience my favorite parts of nature. I’ve done outdoor photography, backpacking, hiking, and a bit of non-technical mountain climbing. I even reached the summit of Long’s Peak in Colorado (14,259 feet) twice. All these were great experiences. But unless I’m photographing my fishing trip or heading to a high mountain lake or stream, neither photography or backpacking does it for me. There’s something about standing in thigh-deep water as the snow softly falls or sneaking up on rising fish that allows me to interact with nature in a way that other pursuits do not.

This is not a knock on outdoor photography or hiking or anything else. It’s just a reflection of how I’m wired. Pursue whatever lets you engage with nature most fully and brings joy.

Addicted to the Riser

I’m also addicted to seeing a trout rise to take a dry fly and to the fight that follows. What else can I say? Fly fishing gives me an adrenaline rush and a sense of satisfaction that most other outdoor sports do not.

One exception is calling in bull elk during the rut in archery season. But nothing else quite compares with fly fishing.

Connected to the Art and Skill

Years ago, I fished with a spinning rod and a box full of Mepps spinners.

That brought me a lot of joy at the time. But I love the aesthetic side of fly fishing. There is a grace to casting (when done well). There are also endless ways of improving my craft – reading waters, identifying insect hatches, tying flies, maneuvering a drift boat, and casting.

Fly fishing gives me the chance to be part of something that I can never fully master. It offers a lifetime of learning. Even the literature of fly fishing is rich and often reflective.

I should add that fly fishing is more doable at this point in my life than other outdoor sports that bring me joy.

As I mentioned, I also love bow-hunting for elk. The crisp September mornings, the bright yellow aspen leaves, and the echo of an elk bugle across a canyon make me happy. But this is where reality kicks in. I no longer live ten minutes from good elk hunting.

A decade ago, I moved to the Chicago area.

The time and cost of hunting elk in Montana as a non-resident are simply prohibitive. It’s the cost, mostly. So out of my two outdoor passions, I’m grateful I can still pursue one of them. Fly fishing for trout is generally less expensive. I can afford to go to Montana at least once or twice a year to fly fish. Besides, I can find great fly fishing three seasons of the year (spring, summer, and fall) as opposed to a three weeks of the year (for bow-hunting elk). I’m hoping to bow-hunt for elk again one of these days with my brother in Colorado. But until then, I’m content to fly fish.

If fly fishing appeals to you, give it a try. The sheer thrill of landing a trout on a fly rod might turn out to be something that brings you as much joy as it brings to me.