No matter the benefits, science, or testimonials backing it up – winter fly fishing is still one of those ventures most fly fishers pass on without ever giving it the ol’ college try. This is, in truth, a shame, because the coldest months of the year also come with hefty benefits.
Truth be told: You will be cold. But fly fishing the Tellico at home in Tennessee is far more peaceful in January than it is any time from April to September. Even that feels like this TN fly fisher’s understatement of the year. Combine this newfound elbow room with a few winter fly fishing tips, tricks, do’s, and don’ts, and you’re well on your way to a new favorite pastime.
Less Crowded = More Solitude & Fish For You
We all do it anyway, but fishing with sixteen other midges & woolies flying past your ears is never preferable. Never will be. This is the reality of popular fly fishing spots, though, right? Wrong!
Thankfully, this “avoid the cold” mindset is widespread for most Americans. Heading out to your preferred tailwaters, river, or babbling brook in winter will cut the foot traffic at least in half – if not drastically more. Honestly, if I were to stop reading here – this alone would be enough for me to give it a try. At least once.
Being able to see the waters ahead without a dozen other pairs of waders mucking your chances at success is euphoric. As is, of course, relaxing – which is the one thing we should be doing while fly fishing. Less fishers means more room to breathe, less competition for calorie-conscious species, and a whole lot more “look at that view” than “why do I keep coming here?”
Chances are Your Favorite River Doesn’t Freeze
To this end, if your overarching concern is “but won’t my favorite spot be frozen in winter?” The answer is almost certainly a no.
The only fly fishers that need worry about this in the Northern Hemisphere are those living in the highest elevations. Fly fishing is a moving-water sport, right? Moving water doesn’t freeze unless under extreme circumstances – or blistering cold. The kind of extreme & cold only our most northern of Alaskan neighbors know about.
Moreover, this holds true especially for tailwaters. If your favorite fly fishing spot is fed by an impoundment (such as a local dam), then you’re all set for the winter. For example: if you typically fish close to a dam, the waters you’re experiencing are coming from far lower in the water table.
As such, they hold a pretty consistent water temperature year-round. For southern fishers (like myself), this may even translate to some spots being the same temperature they are in top season.
If you’re favorite spot is down stream quite a ways, however, expect slow moving fish and colder waters. As such, it’s always best to scout your exact preferred spot first. Nature is unpredictable, and there’s no such thing as a 100% guarantee when it comes to her choices. Spending a day enjoying the scenery and scouting your waters first will ensure you know what you’re in for.
Slow Your Roll: Sleep in & Move Less
Just like the rest of us, fish slow down considerably in winter. The name of the game in frigid waters becomes calorie conservation. As a result, most won’t be active until late morning. For winter fly fishing, consider an 8 a.m. start time at the earliest. If nothing bites that early, try sleeping in and hitting the water from 9 to 11 a.m.
In addition, slow fish should mean slow fishing. For our part, winter fly fishing is a chance to slow down and enjoy the experience. We do, after all, fish in warmer months because fish are more likely to take the proverbial bait. But make no mistake, they’re still there – and they’re very hungry.
Just take the opportunity to slow your own roll. The more you do, the less likely fish are to see you in the crystal-clear waters and air of winter. Strip your streamers slow, let your rig flow all the way to max drift – and breathe.
Keeping this low, slow profile will be a new experience for most – but a wonderful exercise in relaxation.
DON’T: Bring Your Best Setup for Winter Fly Fishing
Now that we’ve gotten the prerequisites out of the way, let’s move on to everyone’s favorite part: the do’s & don’ts.
Check the temperature at your destination. If it’s going to be freezing or below, don’t bring your prized gear. Don’t even bring your second-string, backup rig. Freezing means freezing, and as a result – either your reel, or guides, rod, or all of the above will freeze.
Simply put: it’s a whole lot less stressful to either A.) Skip days/locales that will be below freezing or B.) Break a $200 rig – not a $2,000 one.
DO: Decrease Tippet Size
While you may not be combatting frozen water, you will be in clearer and possibly lower streams. As such, your prey can see you – and everything you do – far better.
Because river flows in winter months tend to be low and clear, fish can see your rig that much better. Try going down a tippet size from what you usually fish. No matter what species you’re fishing, they’re far less likely to see a 5-7X over a 4-1X.
DON’T: Implement Strike Indicators
In turn, this same clear flow makes strike indicators your enemy and not your friend.
To us, strike indicator use does just that – indicates a strike. To a fish that can see literally everything in winter, it indicates “stay as far away as possible”. As such, leaving the strike indicators out of the equation may be best when fly fishing in winter.
DO: Fly the Midges
Whereas most of the insects that fish eat only mate in warmer months, midges can do it all in winter. As a result, they can become a whopping 1/2 of a fish’s diet during winter. So if you’re hoping for dry-fly results in the first months of the year, your preferred midges are the way to go.
In addition, try additional split shots with your midges for lethargic winter fish. Adding another split shot (or three) gets your midge where the fish actually are in winter.
DON’T: Bundle Yourself Beyond Movement
As for attire, the best advice to give for winter fly fishing is the same for any other cold-weather sport: dress in layers, and don’t overdo it. While it may seem counterintuitive, if you wear a ton of tightly-packed layers underneath your waders, it’s just going to restrict blood-flow and have your feeling all-the-colder. Your feet and toes, especially.
Instead of six pairs of socks, go for one pair of winter-rated wool “smart” socks. Then, layer everything else you’ll have access to outside of your waders so you can adjust to the temperatures of the day and your own body.
Moreover, the booted waders you’ll be in are made of neoprene or similar insulating material. As such, they’re already perfect for winter fly fishing and insulation against the cold.
DO: Bring Extra Dry Clothes & Gear
This cannot be stressed enough: bring a dry set of clothing either for mid-fish or the end of your day. You’ll be so, so unbelievably happy that you did. No further explanation is necessary.
In addition, an extra pair of gloves (and socks, if you have the patience to change them out mid-trip) is recommended, as well. Everything you’re wearing, as per usual, will get wet – guaranteed. While your socks may not see actual water, they will be just a sweaty in winter as they are in summer. The difference is – wet is a whole lot more unpleasant in the cold. Changing into dry gloves, socks, shirt, you name it, is bliss incarnate during winter fly fishing. And it sure as hell beats packing up an hour in out of bitter, freezing frustration.
Now get out there and make 2021 the year you own winter fly fishing!