Surviving the Fly Fishing Off Season

fly fishing off season

My nephew texted me a few days ago to ask me about winter fly fishing. He said, “I’m not sure I want to wait until spring to fish!” The same day, I saw on Facebook that a guide-friend from New York state thanked his clients and fellow fishing guides for a spectacular season.

It reminded me that the fly fishing off-season is here — or almost here. I consider the off-season November through February. If you’re a fly fisher, what can you do to survive it?

1. Go fishing

Personally, I’m not a big fan of winter fly fishing.

One year when I lived in Montana, I caught trout on a fly rod every month. But after doing it to say that I did it, I rarely made it to the river in December and January.

Other than Midges, the hatches are minimal. Plus the temperatures are frigid most days.

Still, if you’re patient and content to catch fewer fish, you can do well in the winter on nymphs and even on the surface with Midge patterns (yes, a size #20 Parachute Adams will work). My podcast partner, Dave, and I had a fantastic February day last year on the Blue River (really, a small creek) in Wisconsin. The temperatures were in the high 50s, and the browns were hitting our nymphs.

If you live near brown trout fisheries, play close attention to when these waters close for the year.

For example, the fishing season in Yellowstone National Park runs through the first Sunday in November. If I still lived in Montana, I’d take a break from elk and deer hunting to make one last trip to fish the Gardner River for the “runners” that are heading to their spawning beds.

2. Reflect a bit

I’m convinced we (fly fishers) need to get better at this. We need to savor the moments we’ve had over our past year of fly fishing.

So go back through your photos to re-live your best fly fishing memories. Review your journal if you keep one. If you don’t keep a journal, grab a sheet of paper (or open a file on your word processor) and write down your top ten favorite memories from the past season.

The tendency to rush from one run on the river to the next one can carry over into rushing from one season to another.

Stopping to reflect a bit on the past year of fly fishing can provide a lot of satisfaction. It will also create anticipation for next season.

3. Get ready

Use the time from November through February to do what you can never find time to do during the prime months of fly fishing (March through October).

Tie some flies. Watch some You Tube videos on fly casting. Read The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists (couldn’t resist). Go through your gear and take inventory. Re-organize your fly box. If you’re planning on purchasing a new rod or waders or whatever, the off season is a time to do some research—whether online or in your local fly shop.

It’s almost November, but March is coming! We will all survive the off-season (I think).

Photo credit: Jim Keena

10 Commandments for Staying Warm in Cold Conditions

I have not conducted a formal study on the reason fly fishers stay home on a cold winter day. But I’m confident I know what it is. It’s not the problem of ice build-up on fly rod guides. Nor is it the less-frenetic feeding patterns of trout in the winter. It’s the problem of staying warm in cold conditions.

Here are ten commandments for staying warm when fly fishing on cold days. Most of these are obvious. But they are good reminders. Perhaps there’s one that you’ve missed.

1. Drink liquids — whether hot or cold

Chances are that you won’t cover as much water on a cold day. So there’s no need to obsess about traveling light. Bring along that small Thermos or Yeti tumbler filled with your warm liquid of choice—coffee or hot chocolate. Your tumbler might even double as a hand warmer.

Actually, water may be your best bet since it promotes circulation to your your fingers and toes. Drinking enough water also eliminates a huge contributing factor to frostbite and hypothermia: dehydration.

Be wary of spiking your drink with schnapps or brandy. Alcohol may make you feel or think you are warmer. But it actually drops your core body temperature.

2. Use a hand-warming device

Cold hands make it impossible to fly fish. It’s hard to tie on a fly or tippet when your hands don’t work. Cold hands also make fly fishers miserable. The most obvious solution is to purchase a pair of insulated, waterproof gloves. Personally, the ones with exposed fingertips don’t help me, because it’s my fingertips which get cold first! Occasionally, I’ll bring two or three pairs of lighter wool gloves so I can switch them when one pair gets damp.

Another possible solution is to use hand warmers. I’ve used the small, disposable, inexpensive packets which get activated when exposed to air. In my experience, most brands provide sufficient heat for only an hour or two. The downside is that these packets stop working when they get damp. If you spend enough time fly fishing on cold days, you might try the chrome plated hand warmers (about the size of a cell phone) which run on lighter fuel. I confess that I haven’t used one of these since I was in my early teens while spending the entire day in the woods deer hunting. But they put off a lot of heat.

Don’t forget to stop and stuff your hands inside your shirt against your flesh. If you can place your hand under an armpit (a lovely thought) you can warm both sides of your hand. Read on for another overlooked option.

3. Wear a warm hat

You might be surprised to learn that your cold hands are due, in part, to the heat escaping from your head. So wear a warm hat — preferably one with ear flaps. A stocking cap works fine — especially one with wool or microfiber.

4. Go with layers instead of one large jacket

I usually wear the same lightweight Simms rain jacket I use in July that I do on a cold winter day in January. It protects me against wind and moisture. Then, I add more layers underneath. More layers provide more warmth than one bulky jacket. Start with good moisture-wicking underwear. Even when it’s cold, you may sweat when walking to your fishing spot. Staying dry is essential to staying warm.

After a layer of moisture-wicking underwear, build layers with an assortment of relatively thin pullovers, sweaters, or wool shirts. Add a down vest if you need to. The advantage of layers is that you can peel them off as the day gets warmer. Your waders add another layer of warmth, too—even if you’re not wading.

5. Use a neck gator

Even a thin microfiber neck gator will keep your face warm. Your cheeks and tip of your nose will thank you at the end of the day.

6. Wear warm socks

I’ve never tried the battery powered socks or even the inexpensive, disposable foot warmers or toe warmers. But I suspect they are a terrific option—as long as your feet don’t get too hot. I opt for a thin pair of moisture-wicking socks covered by a slightly thicker wool blend pair. Keep reading for another strategy.

7. Keep moving

The most obvious way to keep your feet and body warm is to keep moving. At last, I have an excuse for moving so quickly from one run to another! Moving generates heat and compensates for the way that cold temperatures restrict your blood vessels, slowing down your blood flow.

But what do you do if you want to fish the same run for three hours because it’s producing? Take a walk anyway and come back to your spot in five minutes. It’s likely that most of your competition will be at home on the sofa watching the Winter Olympics.

8. Simplify your gear

The less time you rummage through pockets to find tippet or split shot, the less time your hands will be exposed to the cold. Also, this will decrease the time you are stationary. Remember, you want to keep moving–walking or casting—to stay warm.

9. Eat snacks

Whether you stick with health-conscious choices or go with a Snickers Bar, eating will provide the energy you desperately need in the cold. Plus, it will also boost your metabolism.

10. Limit your wading

I’ve stood knee-deep in Montana’s Madison River in January for long stretches of time and have remained surprisingly warm.

However, the deeper you wade, the more you put yourself at risk for disaster. Falling into a river when the air temperature is thirty degrees poses risks that falling into it when it’s seventy degrees does not. Hypothermia is always a concern. So be on the safe side. Don’t try anything heroic when it comes to wading.

If you spend a cold winter day in front of your television or fly tying vise, you have made a wise choice. But if you want to fly fish, you can have a great experience if you take the precautions needed to stay warm.

For the Ice on Your Fly Rod Guides

fly rod guides

A friend sent me a photo of one of the largest rainbows he’s ever caught on Montana’s Missouri River. He caught it in mid-December, the temperature was 8 degrees above zero. That’s cold. He endured frozen digits and iced-up fly rod guides for a day to remember.

I dislike fishing in a frigid weather for several reasons:

First, it’s really cold (an understatement, of course). Second, my fingers get really cold. Third, my toes get really cold. Fourth, my face gets really cold. Okay, you get the idea.

There’s another problem though. The guides on my fly rod collect ice like my hunting boots collect mud when I walk through a plowed field on a rainy fall day.

How do you deal with ice on your fly rod guides?

Preventative Measure for Your Fly Rod Guides

Some fly fishers coat their guides with Vaseline. Others apply some kind of lip balm. So maybe you should purchase that Simms lip balm the next time you’re in a fly shop (Kidding!That’s an inside joke that our long-time readers and listeners will get!) Seriously, a lot of fly fishers say that Vaseline or lip balm works. Others suggest spraying your guides with olive oil or some kind of cooking spray. This sounds like an easier approach as long as you remember to put a canister of it in your duffel bag or fly vest.

You’ll notice that I refer here to “some” or “other” fly fishers.

The truth is, I’ve never bothered with this measure. It’s not because I fear that the chemicals in these products will damage my rod or guides. The reason is it seems like a lot of work for a solution that will only be temporary. After a half hour, or so, of fishing, the ice reappears (from what other fly fishers tell me). At that point, I have no interest in fumbling around with lip balm or trying to retrieve a canister of cooking from my fly vest.

However, enough fly fishers swear by this approach that you owe it to yourself to try it to see if it works for you.

Fly Rod Guides No-No

Perhaps the most obvious solution is to use your fingers to break it off of the guides. Nooooo! Not under any circumstances!

You run the risk of breaking off the guides with the ice. You’ll use more pressure than you expect to break off those stubborn ice crystals. If Michael Scott of The Office were writing this article, he would likely describe it as a “Lose-Lose-Lose” approach. So don’t try it when you’re on the river.

Simple Is, Well, Best

This brings me to the approach I prefer. It’s simple, yet effective.

Dip your rod in the river you’re fly fishing. With the right depth of water and the right angle, you can do this without submerging your reel (and your hand!). I typically leave my rod guides submerged for a few seconds. To use the words of an old television commercial, the ice “rinses away like magic!” Sometimes, there is still some residue of ice. But it’s loose enough that you can remove it (gently!) with your fingers without breaking a guide.

Also, once I remove my rod from the water, I shake it to remove excess water. If light water crystals start to form, I simply blow them off with my breath or gently squeeze them with my fingers.

If all of this seems rather tedious, well, it is.

Chances are you’ll get cold and leave the river before the tedium of clearing the ice off your guides drives you crazy. The only other alternative is to stay home and tie flies or watch a video of fly fishers hauling in huge trout in New Zealand. But then you might miss out on the fish of a lifetime.

S3:E10 Fishing the Dead Zones

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Dead zones are those seasons of the year and times of the day when fishing will be unproductive. It’s important to know that as a new fly fisher. If you spend your first few times on the river during a fly fishing dead zone, you might think fishing is harder than it really is. In this episode, we discuss a few dead zones to avoid.

Listen now to “Fishing during the Dead Zones”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last portion of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

Where did you disagree with us on the dead zones? What have we missed? Tell us your best story during a dead zone.

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The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

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My Love-Hate Relationship with January Fly Fishing

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.

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.

10 Ways to Cope with the Fly Fishing Off Season

I am three weeks removed from my last fly fishing trip. Winter looms. I may not pick up my fly rod again until spring. Now the coping begins. It wasn’t always this way.

When I lived in Montana, I fished into November. Then, I ventured out at least once a month in December, January, and February. This satisfied my fly fishing urge until a new season began in March.

But how do you cope if you live in the city or the suburbs? How do you manage if you live far away from prime trout fisheries? I’ve figured out a few coping strategies since I moved a decade ago to the north suburbs of Chicago.

1. Go through the photos of your last trip.

Thumb through the photos on your cell phone. This brings back good memories and helps you re-live the best moments. Warning: Your photos might result in you laughing out loud or shouting “Yes!”

2. Make a list of the year’s best memories.

After you’ve thumbed through your photos, write down your favorite memories from the last year of fly fishing. For me, the list from last year includes:

  • Catching browns at dusk in Rocky Mountain National Park;
  • Hauling in fish after fish on streamers in Willow Creek (near Three Forks, Montana);
  • Landing a big rainbow on the Missouri River (near Helena, Montana); and
  • Catching a ridiculous number of browns in October on the Gardner River (in Yellowstone National Park).

Making a list will preserve your memories and maybe even remind you of a detail you had forgotten.

3. Take inventory of your gear.

This is an act of hope. It’s a reminder that you will fly fish again. Besides, it really does prepare you for your next trip.

4. Shop for something new.

This is the benefit—or liability—of the previous strategy. When you take inventory of your gear, you may discover your need for a new reel, new gloves, a new fly box, or a new net. This sends you on a mission to research options and prices. It keeps your mind off the reality that you are not able to fish.

5. Visit the trout at your local Bass Pro Shop.

A couple times during the winter, I visit our local Bass Pro Shop (nine miles from my house) and stand on a little bridge and look wistfully at the twenty-inch rainbows that swim in the little creek on the edge of the aisle with coffee mugs and pocket knives. Seriously!

Now I’m trying to muster the courage to ask the store manager if I can fly fish the stream since I’m a catch-and-release fly fisher. Seeing me catch these rainbows might get more people interested in fly fishing, and then they would spend more money at Bass Pro.

It’s a win-win, right?

6. Watch fly fishing videos.

The internet is loaded with videos of fly fishers catching trout. Start with websites like Orvis or Winston. Then, go to YouTube and search for about any river or species of trout which piques your interest.

7. Tie a few flies.

This only works if you are a fly tyer. If you’re not, the off-season is a good time to take your first class.

8. Read a good fly fishing book.

Read about the areas you want to fly fish. For example, if you’re headed to Montana or Wyoming, get a copy of Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the West. It’s an entertaining read with humor and history woven into it.

Read for skill-development. Gary Borger’s “Fly Fishing” series is ideal for this. His fourth book in the series, The Angler as Predator, helped me a lot.

You might even educate yourself on the flies you’re trying to imitate with a book like Pocketguide to Western Hatches by Dave Hughes or Matching Major Eastern Hatches: New Patterns for Selective Trout by Henry Ramsay.

Don’t forget to read through the lists you compiled from previous years (see #2 above).

9. Plan your next trip.

There’s nothing like planning your next trip to get the juices flowing! The off-season is a great time to do some research on new places or to plan for a visit to some good old places.

10. Watch “A River Runs Through It.”

You owe it to yourself to watch this at least once a year. The cinematography alone makes it worthwhile. The story is gripping, too. Real men might even shed a tear or two at the last scene.

Alright, something in the above list is guaranteed to help you cope with the fly fishing off-season. If not, watch college football and college basketball. Go hunting. Remodel your kitchen.

Oh yes, you might even consider a few hours on the water in the dead of winter if you’re within a day’s drive of a river or stream. Whatever you do to pass the time, winter will lift and the rivers will come to life in the spring.

Let a new season begin!