Here’s an all too common scenario:
I see a fellow fly guy and say, “Hey, wanna hit the river tomorrow!?”
My enthusiasm strikes him as an insane request from a demented fool: “What? Have you seen the weather? What are you going to catch, icicles?”
A bit agitated and disappointed, I snap back with some good-hearted arrogance: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear!” Meaning, if you wear and use the right gear, you can fish comfortably, or at least comfortably enough, throughout the winter. I used to be really quick to offer this proverb whenever a less dedicated angler seems to think I’m the crazy one for wanting to fish during nasty weather, but now that I’m in my 40’s the cold seems to bite much harder, and, to be honest, I’m starting to find myself on the other end of the conversation these days! Still, the point is that if you “gear-up” correctly, the cold should not keep you on the couch. If you’re like me, once you’re wading the river and in the zone, you won’t even notice that you’ve lost feeling in your nose!
It’s not that I WANT to fish in the driving wind, rain, sleet, snow, and frigid temperatures that winter brings; it’s just that I want to fish, period, and I’m not about to let the weather completely dictate my plans. As long as the fish are eating flies, I’m psyched to hit the river and show them what they want. And, believe me; they always want some flies!
So, how do you do it? How do enjoy your favorite stream even when the weather outside is frightful? I hope we all at least know the basics: Don’t wear cotton. Dress in layers. Keep your head warm. Stay dry. But, there’s a lot more to it if you really want to be comfortable. Here are a few tips I picked up as I spent close to 20 years fishing at least once a week every week of the year:
Let’s start with the feet. Some people think that the more socks you wear, the warmer you’ll be; that’s not exactly true. The main reason that your extremities, such as feet and hands, feel colder than the rest of your body is that your body struggles to circulate good amounts of warm blood out to the far reaches of your fingers and toes. So, wear good quality, thick synthetic socks but make sure you have some room in your boots and can wiggle your toes. Since you’re likely dealing with snow and ice, wear wading boots with rubber, spiked soles. Do not wear felt! Felt sticks to snow and you’ll find yourself walking on snowballs, very frustrating!
The key to avoiding frozen feet is to keep your waders and boots toasty warm before you get to the river. I like to put them against the heat vents in the car while I drive to the water. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than putting on frozen waders and tugging on frozen laces! That’s the main reason why I bought a pair of rubber soled wading boots with the BOA lacing system. It’s much easier to turn a knob than to wrestle with frozen laces. If your feet feel cold, put your weight on one leg, use a tree or something for balance, and swing the other leg to promote circulation. Do this to both legs, and you’ll be amazed how well it works.
The whole idea is to minimize exposure to the weather and to keep your blood circulating. When you show up to the river, frantically take off your street clothes, drudgingly step into frozen waders, and injure your numb fingers lacing up your boots, there’s no chance you’ll last long out there. You might as well turn back around and go home. So, one of the best things to do is to get changed at home, before you get to the river. Bring your gear inside the night before and lay it all out near a heat vent. If you can remember to do this, it can make a HUGE difference!
Another crucial tip for enjoying winter fishing concerns your hands. Like I said, the best way to stay warm is to minimize exposure to the cold, but that’s hard to do with your hands. You need to tie knots, remove hooks, release fish into icy water, use tools, and hold a rod, but you don’t need to hold any reel / line! With a fixed line rod such as a Japanese style tenkara rod, you don’t need to manage a wet reel and line. In terms of gloves, you need to invest in mittens that fold back to at least expose your index fingers and thumbs. Neoprene is the best for maintaining and retaining body heat in cold, wet conditions, but there are some good fleece options too. Just remember, the softer and fluffier it is, the more water it will absorb; you don’t want this! Look for fleece that is tight and dense. Some people also wear surgical gloves underneath, but I prefer following the steps below:
Now here’s the real tip for keeping your hands warm on the water – lube. Before you go to bed the night before fishing, rub a healthy dose of moisturizer into your hands. This will lay a good foundation and soften your skin so the petroleum jelly can really absorb. The next morning, rig up your rod, so you don’t have to freeze your fingers doing it on the water and so you don’t get petroleum jelly on your fishing gear. Then use a good petroleum jelly and really massage the stuff into your skin. I find Aquaphor to be the best. If you’ve had a baby and dealt with diaper rash, you probably already know about this stuff. It’s like Vaseline on steroids! Put more on when you get to the water, and remember to remove it from your palms and fingers so you don’t get it all over your gear. This really works; the petroleum jelly act like a glove sealing in your warmth and provides a surprising degree of protection from the water and cold.
If you plan on catching fish, you’ll need a plan for dealing with releasing your fish. The combination of cold and wet is a killer, and that first time you dunk your hands and gloves into the icy water might be the end of your trip. Either you spend all day trying to dry off your glove and regain the feeling in your hand, or you go home. If you need to get your hands in the water, take off your gloves and put them in a dry pocket, release your fish as quickly as possible, and use a small camp towel to thoroughly dry your hands before putting your gloves back on. This is what I usually do, but one of those catch & release tools that slide down your line and remove the hook would really help keep your hands dry and warm.
Another way to avoid the time your hands are exposed to the cold is to prepare the right gear before you go. I’ve already explained the benefits of putting on your waders in the warmth of your home before braving the cold, but the same holds true for your fly gear. My first suggestion is to use a one-handed, fixed line rod such as the ones used for bait-fishing and tenkara fishing in Japan. These rods are very long (about 12’), surprisingly light and surprisingly capable of protecting light tippets while also subduing large fish. With the added length, you can reach water and get amazing drifts without wading out in the freezing water too far. You can get rods well over 20’, but anything over 13’ will be uncomfortable to fish one-handed. With a fixed line, there’s no reel. That means you can keep one hand in a pocket where you’ve conveniently placed a toasty hand warmer (that’s another huge tip!). When your rod hand get’s too cold, just switch hands; you’d be surprised how easy it is to fish a tenkara rod with your off-hand, especially if you’re just lopping nymphs. These rods are also super sensitive, which helps detect those subtle winter bites. Before leaving for the river, I suggest rigging a soft action tenkara rod for casting dries, emergers, and soft hackles and a stiff action rod for nymphs. Use the biggest tippet you can get away with as it will be easier to work with on the river with cold fingers. With your nymph rig, less is more! You won’t want to mess around with indicators and split shot in the cold, so use a fly with enough weight. I like tungsten jig-head nymphs since they don’t hang up too much. Whatever flies you choose, rig them up before you go. But, what flies should you choose? Don’t buy into the misconception that rivers somehow die in the winter. The fact is that life still goes on, and there’s a variety of bugs even in the dead of winter.
I think some fair-weather fishermen actually think fish spend all fall squirreling away baetis nymphs in preparation for a harsh winter when they’ll hunker down in caves and feast on their caches of rotting nymphs! That’s just craziness! Fish need to eat and eat often, especially in rivers where trout only have small bugs to sustain themselves while they constantly swim, often against the current, in a cold, harsh, calorie consuming environment. Yet, too many anglers seem to have the misconception that, come winter, the bugs and bait are transported to another dimension, and the fish burrow down into mysterious, hidden places where even a stick of dynamite can’t disturb their winter slumber. Holding this misconception might give the fair-weather fisherman an excuse to watch football on the couch, but there’s just no legitimate reason for not getting out on the river in pursuit of that elusive big one.
Have faith that the trout are still there, and so are the bugs! Sure, you’re not going to have swarms of pulsating bugs emerging to the surface like you have in early June, but they’re still there. And, yes, some bugs actually hatch in the winter months, mainly midges and blue wing olives, but, depending on where you live, you’ll see some much bigger bugs too! Here in Maryland, we have good hatches of black and brown winter stoneflies, which can run as big as size 14. The nymphs swim to shore and crawl onto the wood, rocks, and leaves where they often wait for a sunny afternoon to hatch and flutter over the river.
I like to imitate the nymphs with small, black or brown copper johns, and I like to skate an elk hair caddis or work a reverse soft-hackle fly across likely holding areas near the shore to imitate the adults. But, the best dry fly action I ever had during a little black stonefly hatch was when I switched to a size 18 griffiths gnat, so you never know. Generally, you’ll have your best winter stonefly days on sunny afternoons when there’s a rise in air temperatures.
Good hatches also happen during those nasty flurries and cold drizzles that keep people indoors. This kind of weather seems to trigger hatches of blue wing olives, especially in late fall and early spring. I don’t know what it is about these little bugs, but they seem to be on every trout’s diet throughout the country. A variety of small pheasant tails, soft hackles, and emerger patterns can be used successfully during a BWO hatch, and I have better luck with these subsurface patterns than I do with dries. If I feel the need to go the surface, a size 20 blue / grey, sparsely tied sparkle dun does the trick for me.
You’ll also see good midge hatches in the winter. Sometimes these tiny morsels are so small, and sometimes the trout seem to key into a very particular stage of the hatch that it can be really frustrating trying to entice rising fish. Swinging a tiny, white or black soft hackle or drifting an unweighted zebra midge might be your best bet for enticing rising fish, but I usually go deep with lots of weight.
Unless I observe a feeding pattern that calls for a surface pattern, I’m throwing nymphs. Fish will make aggressive rises and chase bait during the winter, but I have the most consistent success dead drifting heavily waded nymphs. I like to use the Polish or Czech method of fishing a fast sinking fly as the anchor or point fly and a smaller, lighter nymph as a dropper fly. My anchor fly in the winter is usually a worm tied on a jig-head hook. For the dropper, I’ll usually rig up a size 20 zebra midge. There’s usually never a reason to change this set-up. The takes during winter can be very subtle, so line control is essential. If you have too much slack or you’re wiggling the rod too much, you’ll never detect a strike. Successful nymphing requires some concentration! One method is to set the hook when you know your fly is in the sweet spot; there’s often a fish on the other end! If I see fish rising or notice a decent hatch, I’ll collapse my nymph rod and extend my tenkara rod. Using a sling pack easily allows you to switch rods on the river instead of having to re-rig and tie knots in the cold.
The last tip for enjoying winter’s wonderland is to bring a small fire kit. I have a fire-starter material and 4 sticks of fatwood just in case I desperately need some fast warmth. That’s essentially it. We all have our limits when it comes to enduring the cold, but I think some of us should re-think our limits. I bet you have a gold mine of fleece, wool, and other cold-weather gear just waiting to be put to real use on the river. Use it and get out there! Just remember the tips I detailed:
- Make sure you have wiggle room for your feet.
- Use spiked, rubber soled boots with a “no lace” tightening system.
- Take serious measures to minimize any exposure to your hands.
- Lube them up.
- Don’t get your gloves wet.
- Bring a small towel and a hand-warmer.
- Gear-up at home before you go.
- Use a one-handed, fixed line rod – tenkara.
- Use weighted nymphs – avoid extraneous gear.
- Have confidence that the fish are there, and they need to eat!
So, in terms of fishing, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear! If you gear up correctly, you can comfortably catch fish all year long. See you on the river!
After being bitten by the fly bug while vacationing in Idaho, Adam has spent close to 30 years pursuing his passion for fly-fishing and fly-tying. A former guide in Durango, CO, Adam now lives in Baltimore where he teaches high school English and continues to help others find their passion for fly fishing. In the last few years, tenkara and “keiyru” rods have replaced his traditional fly rods for trout as the advantages of these fixed-line, Japanese style fly fishing rods become apparent.