People often ask why I would stand in 36-degree water, braving below freezing air temperatures to go fishing. To catch fish of course! Just because it’s cold out, it doesn’t mean you can’t go fishing. You just have to be a little more prepared. Much like the rest of the year, you need to understand the river’s flow patterns, its insect life, and the fish’s behavior, but it’s a little more difficult in the winter. You are battling the elements, standing, sometimes waist deep, in freezing cold waters, casting to trout that typically won’t chase your fly. It’s not for the faint of heart, but when you do land that beautiful fish, it is all the more thrilling. I thought I would throw out a couple tips that keep me comfortable, and sometimes successful, when fly fishing in the winter.
Here in the Northeast, it gets really cold, so good quality gear is essential. You have to dress appropriately, with warm, breathable, synthetic layers. Protecting your feet is so important. I can’t stress this enough. Frozen feet can ruin your day of fishing really quickly. If you can afford it, pick up an extra pair of wading boots a size larger to accommodate the two pair of thick socks you’ll be wearing. If your boots are too tight, it reduces the circulation in your feet and they become like bricks of ice. I also put hand warmers in between my two pair of socks to keep my toes warm. Rubber soles are the way to go in the snow. Trying to walk in the snow with frozen, felt bottomed wading boots is really uncomfortable. The snow sticks to the soles and becomes like rockers under your feet, not to mention slippery. I would also strongly advise wearing studs in your wading boots if you have rubber soles so you don’t slip on any slimy rocks on the river bottom. Felt soles provide a modicum of traction in the water, however rubber soles do not and it can get really slippery. I’m not going to get into the felt vs rubber debate, I’m just trying to be practical. Winter is not the time to be falling in the water. When air temperatures fall below 40 degrees, you’ll also need a neck gaiter to keep your neck and face warm, and a warm pair of fingerless gloves. Now that you are all bundled up, you are ready to hit the river.
Make sure you pay especially close attention to your fly and/or indicator, as the takes can be extremely subtle in the winter. Any hesitation or slight dip of the indicator could be a hit. The fish’s metabolism is so slow that they usually won’t move far for food either. You have to practically smack them in the face with the fly for them to take it. Also, the flies are usually much smaller in the winter than in summer. Tiny nymphs and midges, think sizes 18-28, are the trout’s main diet, but you can sometimes entice them with streamers if fished slow and deep. In some rare instances on the Farmington River, fishing dry flies can be productive if there is a midge or winter caddis hatch. A 9 foot 5x leader and accompanying tippet should suffice for most winter trout fishing situations in the Northeast, although, for some of those tinier flies, you may have to drop down to 6x. In the end though, it is persistence and alertness that pay off.
My last trip out, in mid-January, it was 18 degrees and there was a ton of shelf ice to be wary of on the Farmington River. Falling in the water is never fun, but that is especially true in January or February. Be careful around shelf ice. The entire northeast had been in a deep freeze for weeks, but that particular day was sunny, clear, and a few degrees warmer, so I ventured out. After several hits and misses over the course of the day drifting tiny nymph and midge double rigs, I hooked into a good-sized rainbow, an easy 16-18 inches, while dead drifting a streamer. I barely noticed the indicator hesitate when I set the hook. The fish made a couple acrobatic leaps and bolted right toward me. I loved seeing the flashes of pink as it flipped through the air, but I lost it because I couldn’t take in the slack line fast enough. I hooked into a couple smaller guys after that, but lost them too. I was 0 for 3 that day.
For my most recent trip to the Farmington, the weather was clear and dry with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, but the stiff wind made it feel a lot colder. There was a snow storm the night before, but that didn’t stop us. Due to the milder temperatures overall for the week, the shelf ice had melted away and my buddy Mike and I were left with good fishing conditions for most of the upper Trout Management Area.
We started out in the morning down river because the snow melting off would most likely make the lower portion of the upper TMA colder as the day went on. We thought we would save the upper river for the afternoon. The flow out of the dam keeps the water a more steady temperature so it is less affected by run off. The first spot didn’t produce anything, not even a hint, and after scouring the hole for two hours, it was time to move on. The next spot was a lot more popular. Several anglers were already there, making the pickins slim for a good spot. This location didn’t produce any results either, and the cold was starting to get to me. After sitting in the truck warming up for a bit, we headed to one more spot. Finally, I got a hit! I watched my indicator go under and then felt a big tug on the line, but as soon as I tried to set the hook, he was off. A little later, I thought I was into another one for a second, but it turned out to be a branch on the bottom. Lost that fly, and after being in the cold for six hours, I was done. I haven’t had much luck the last two outings, but at least I was fishing.
Winter fly fishing, while more technically challenging and often much slower, is a lot of fun if you are properly prepared. The river is usually much quieter too, which makes for a more enjoyable experience as well. I live over an hour from the Farmington River, so I only make it there about once a month, though I strive for double that. There are also the East Branch of the Croton River in Brewster, NY, and the Mianus River in Greenwich, CT, both within a half hour of my house and both open for winter fishing. However, they are much smaller rivers and, some would argue, less productive in the winter. The fish in the Farmington are much bigger too, which is a huge plus! It’s not uncommon to see 20-24 inch monsters pulled out of there. I’m hoping to make it up to the Farmington a couple more times before opening day in April. I’m still searching for that really big winter trout!
Thanks for the read! Coming up the last weekend in March is our annual steelhead trip to the Salmon River, in upstate New York. I am hoping to land a few steelies this time. The reports are much more promising this year. Last year, there weren’t many fish in the river the weekend we went, and I got skunked. My buddy Mike got into a couple though, landing one. Stay tuned and I’ll fill you in after the trip. Until then, tight lines!