It's an easy choice when it is dumping snow or just plain bitter cold to cozy up inside, watch playoff football or binge-watch Netflix, and fill a year's worth of gaps in the fly box. But is it always the right choice? Depending on the size of those gaps, maybe. But sometimes winter fishing can lead to some of the most rewarding trips of the year. Less anglers on the water means less pressured fish. A snowy day on the stream can be a beautiful day. And cold water means more dissolved oxygen and healthier (but hungrier) fish in a lot of areas that see warmer (sometimes too warm) water temps in the summer. Just don't keep caught fish that you plan on releasing out of the water too long, as frigid air can wreck more havoc than usual on their gills.
Some tips on cold weather strategies:
1) Don't dress TOO warm. If you start sweating under your layers, you're going to have a miserable day. If you're actively working the water, you'll be warmer than you expect. So dress appropriately (and bring gloves, whether they're fingerless wool ones for wearing all day, or another pair just to warm your hands in doses in between drifts).
2) Winter fish can be wearier than usual, as they have to be selective about how to expend their energy. Smaller tippets and tinier flies can often be effective, but deep, slow pools can still see you be effective with streamers, and you may even find rising fish depending on the conditions and the fishery. Midges and small stoneflies are regularly seen in the winter. Splashy rises from fish targeting emergers in the tail-outs of deeper pools are not out of the realm of possibility, so bring some flies like this one.
While this fish ate a slowly-presented streamer, it also had someone else's dry fly still stuck in its mouth. Photo: James Carroll, Old Souls.
3) Take winter holding lies into account. With the change in water temp, the deepest, slowest part of the pools will often be the most ideal temps for fish, as the surface and faster riffles will both typically be colder. Plus, with the shift in metabolism, fish will want to hold in those places where they don't have to work much to maintain a holding or feeding lie. Look (and fish) further back into the pools than you might otherwise, and work high-percentage areas more than you might otherwise. Colder fish might not always move to the fly on the first pass.
4) When considering holding lies, also consider which flies will target fish in these lies most effectively. Heavier nymph rigs can be deadly in the winter, as can heavier streamers, as well as slowing the swing or strip of the streamer. Getting and keeping the flies in front of the fish is crucial.
5) The fish don't want to be exposed to the frigid air any more than you do. If you're releasing them, try to limit the fish's exposure to the air as much as possible. Frozen gills can be fatal.
So get out there and romp around in the snow a bit! Catch first tracks on the mountain, and then catch some trout when the water warms up a bit! You don't even have to wake up early for winter fishing, the best part of the winter fishing day can be the evening, even if it may see the mercury dropping a bit more than fishing midday!