In Praise of Winter Fishing (sort of)
I do not love winter fishing - but I am glad it is an option. It is a hit or miss affair that I have not quite figured out yet. The windows of activity tend to be short and the habitats you find fish, specific. A good winter day can be a ton of fun but others are can be absolutely miserable experiences. And unless a small miracle happens, you are dredging with nymphs or slowly stripping streamers - neither of which are my favorite of methods.
As I wrote above, I do not exactly have winter figured out. In my experiences, you want a nice day - but not too nice if there is much snow on the ground. Early season is all about temperature - air temperature for your comfort and water temperature for trout activity. A couple of degrees of increase in water temperature quite often increases trout activity. Similarly, a drop in water temperature, usually due to melting snow will shut them right off. The window of peak activity - which is unlikely to be much like the peak activity in the spring, summer, or early fall - is quite short in the winter. And each day is different and some are very good.
It is a bit counterintuitive but a 35*F day might be about the perfect winter day. Much warmer than that and you are likely dealing with rapid snow melt; much colder and you will be dealing with iced up guides, a royal pain in the butt. And if I can be a bit choosier, it would be nice if the morning started out moderately warm - that is in the mid-20s. This means that the stream will not have cooled too much overnight and by 8 or 9 AM, there is a pretty good chance of semi-active trout.
Without question, the death knell of winter fishing is rapid snow melt. Anyone that has fished in the Midwest winter has experienced fishing absolutely shut down due to melt water. The classic winter fishing day is one where you get out too early and the fishing is slow. By 10 or 11 AM, the fishing is "winter good" for an hour or two and then the snow melt hits and the fish shut down fully. You might even run into a small winter stonefly or midge hatch that brings trout to the surface. It is often enough to make me switch over and give it a go - there is something about catching trout on dry flies in January and February that is pretty cool. Some days, the snow melt is quite obvious, you see the runoff channeling into the stream. Other days, snow melt is more subtle. In either case, once it starts, you are pretty much done for the day. Hope it dips below freezing at night to lock up that snow melt and tomorrow you have a chance to do it all over again.
Winter fishing can often be quite leisurely because of that snow melt. There is often no point in getting up at O'dark-thrity to go fishing - the fishing is unlikely to be worth it. So sleep in, have a second cup of coffee - knowing that peeing in waders in winter is ten times worse than in the summer. And once the snow melt hits, you might as well be done - and that is if you picked a pleasant day to go fishing. So I am probably home by 2 or 3 PM most winter days. Or if we are doing our early March "opener" in Viroqua, I am back to the "flop house", enjoying a little snack and a beer or glass of wine before meeting up with everyone to go grab dinner. And if we over imbibe a bit that evening in a bullshit session with the same old - yet great - stories; no harm as getting up at O'dark-thirty is not necessary.
What I love most about winter fishing is that it is quiet, there is a solitude to it. My first trip out this year - the second day of the season - I met a friend about half way between La Crosse and Madison. We were out for nearly four hours and in that time, I think we saw three cars on the county highway we were parked along. It is quiet - there are few birds singing or insects buzzing around, little to no traffic, little of the standard fishing background noise. The snow sort of absorbs the sound and it adds a beauty to the environment.
What I do not love about winter fishing is that it can be quite miserable - cold feet and hands, iced up guides, and runny noses. The first trip of this year, I experienced them all along with a reel that needed a dip in the stream so it could move again. And it was a reasonably decent winter day. While it never hit the 29*F that the weatherfolks forecasted, the high while we were out was about 23*F, not a terrible winter day but those extra six degrees would have been very nice. This year's first day was world's better than last year's when it was at least ten degrees colder and much, much windier. Think you hate dealing with the wind in the summer? In the winter, the wind can quickly make a day unbearable.
Choosing a nice day is a bit of a crap-shoot, at least for me. As mentioned above, I will take a 35*F day that gets just a little below freezing at night then warms up slowly to stay in that 29*F to 35*F range for a long time - that is the perfect winter day in my experience. But how many of those winter days exist? Particularly on days when I have the opportunity to fish? Give me a winter day with a high between 29 to 39 and I will probably go out fishing. Much colder than that and I probably do not want to deal with the guides icing up.
Trout fishing in the winter sort of goes through an evolution as the season progresses. Early in the season - January and February - days are dominated by snow and cold. Water temperatures are typically at season-lows, thus typically so is fish activity. It is a simple case of bioenergetics, cold trout can not digest their food as quickly and thus are able, and need to, eat less. March is always a crap-shoot - there are nice days interspersed with snow, snow melt, and some years, cold rains. But by the end of most Marches or almost certainly by the beginning or middle of April, a nice warm day - particularly after snow melt is over - is likely to get fish sunning themselves in the tails of pools. To me, it is not the tilt of the Earth or the meteorological season dates but the unofficial end to winter trout fishing occurs when trout start to move out of the depths and into shallower water. By mid-April most years, the Grannoms, probably the best hatch in Wisconsin's Driftless, tells me winter has given way to spring - and to better days of fishing.
It is not that winter days can't be good but generally, you have to dial down your expectations a little bit. Be thankful that you can be out doing something active rather than spending the winter tying flies. While I have had really good days of winter fishing, often I am quite happy to put a hook into a few fish. I landed three my first trip of the season and was quite happy with that. Mike and I both said we probably would not have gone out solo but since it was a chance to get together and start the season together, it made it well worth the drive, the cold toes, frozen reel, runny nose, and all the rest that goes with winter trout fishing.
Things I have yet to figure out...
There is a lot about winter fishing I do not have a great handle on. Not only do the years vary so much but how each day plays out differs. What I do know with great certainty, cold snow melt waters entering the stream are likely to kill your day. That is the one given in winter trout fishing - that and it is a rather miserable experience if the day is much below freezing and/or the winds are blowing.
Sun - friend or foe? The winter fishing answer seems to be, "it depends". There are days that the solar energy makes a low to mid-20 degree day much more tolerable. That sun might even keep your guides from icing up which I think is probably the worst part of winter fishing. I have had days - usually somewhere between 9 AM and noon - where the sun on the water got the fish a little more active. If there is snow on the ground, it is likely that same sun is going to cause enough snow melt to shut things down later in the day. For much of the season, I prefer an overcast day which I think hides my movements and prevents fishes from catching my movement and shadow. I have had sunny winter days where casts needed to be forty feet or more and leaders had to be lengthened. Some of the better winter fishing days have been quite sunny, so long as they are not too warm.
The type of fishing I feel I have to do in the winter is not my favorite. Winter is mostly small nymphs under bobbers or streamers fished deep and slow. More often than not, my first choice of flies is the Milwaukee Leech. My friend Todd Durian (see page 10 for Henry Koltz's tribute to Todd) proselytized about the leech and was the master of fishing it. To watch him cast it upstream, let it sink, and keep it moving just a tick above the current speed was a sight. I do OK with it, Todd was a master with that fly and technique. I much prefer the later winter and spring "leeching" when the fish are a little more active and willing to chase. Mid-winter trout are not going to move far to chase your fly.
Every winter is different. I have hiked in on snowshoes over drifting snow that was several feet deep in places and have had glorious, sunny warm days. Some days, those are good days of fishing, some days, they are not such good days of fishing. I do not have it figured out - and probably never will. That, I think, is part of the draw of winter fishing. Give me a day from mid-April through the end of the season and I think I can figure it out. I have a pretty high likelihood that I can pick the time of the day when fish are most active and catch my share of trout. My confidence is much lower in January through March but I really enjoy those days I am able to get out.
My biggest piece of winter advice is that you really just have to get out there and give it a shot for yourself. I do not love winter fishing but I love that I have the opportunity to go fishing. One last piece of advice, treat the fish well - cold air and putting them on the snow can cause increased mortality and wade smartly - avoid wading through trout redds. And as always - consult your state's regulations.