Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Winter fly fishing offers great adventure for those willing to try

You have to be a lion in winter to cast flies to stream trout in December, January, and February in the Upper Midwest.

After all, Old Man Winter is notoriously fond of unleashing his seasonal wrath: frigid temperatures, biting winds, icy uplands, deep snow, general mayhem. Staying warm, let alone making the perfect cast to spooky fish in moonshine-clear waters, is the crucible.

“You have to want to do it,” says Kip Vieth, a fly-fishing guide and owner of Wildwood Float Trips in Monticello. “Winter fishing is a different experience … and it all starts with the weather.”

Vieth regularly fishes for trout in spring and early summer throughout the Driftless Area of Minnesota and Wisconsin – personal time on the water he savors. However, his winter fishing – outside of traveling to warmer climes in, say, Belize or south Louisiana – is done sporadically and almost always coinciding with temperatures that are near or above freezing and skies that are overcast.

“I’m probably never going to go if the temperature is below 25 degrees, maybe even 30 degrees,” Vieth said. “I want above-freezing temperatures and overcast skies. The sun is the enemy of winter trout anglers. Fish can see you coming a mile away, unless you have some cover to hide behind, which you typically don’t during the winter months. And if it’s too cold, nothing works. Your hands and fingers don’t move well; your guides get full of ice. The
colder it is, the more trouble you run into.”

Vieth’s winter trout-fishing maxim – that you have to want to do it – unearthed a dormant memory of one of my first winter fly-fishing outings several years ago in the Driftless Area. The day, in January if memory serves, was brutally cold. It was foolish to be fishing, but there I was, walking streamside of a small trout ribbon that was building shelf ice by the second.

Suddenly, another angler appeared. He slowly shuffled along the gurgling, gin-clear stream as if in slow motion. He was adorned in thick neoprene waders and a winter ensemble of jacket, fly vest, gloves, gaiter, and headdress.

Every breath curled and ascended from his mouth like a human steam engine. His eyes, mere slits nearly frozen shut, blinked intermittently, as if he was sending an SOS in Morse code.

“Nice day, eh?” said the man, fly rod in hand, as we walked past each other, snow squeaking beneath our wading boots. “It could be worse; we could be ice fishing.”

His well-justified quip tripped my funny bone – and, like taking a nip from a bottle of peppermint schnapps, momentarily warmed my innards. Still, my jaw barely moved when I laughed.

In those miserable conditions, Vieth is absolutely right: You have to want to do it.

“Winter trout fishing, especially fly fishing, has gotten more and more popular as we’ve opened up more streams to fishing the last few years,” said Vaughn Snook, assistant area fisheries supervisor with the Minnesota DNR in Lanesboro. “Because these streams are fed by groundwater, they stay relatively ice-free throughout the winter. A lot of anglers haven’t fished in the winter, so it’s a new experience for them. On a 30-degree day during the weekend, fishing pressure is more than you might suspect. But when it’s really cold out, the pressure tapers off because it’s hard to fish when it’s so cold.”

That’s why anglers new to winter trout fishing would be wise to adjust their expectations. Winter trout fishing is completely unlike spring, summer, or fall angling. Indeed, the look and feel of any winter watershed is just different, beginning with the watershed’s naked, leaf-less trees. There’s also snow on the ground and streamside vegetation is matted down – all the better to keep your
back-cast out of trouble.

A friend, Dave Anderson, a trout fly-fishing guide from Rochester, once described to me winter fishing in evocative terms.

“It feels like you’re fishing on the moon,” he said. “It’s like a different dimension almost.”

The fishing itself can be tough – and not just because your extremities are likely partially frozen.

First, trout don’t feed as aggressively in frigid water. Their metabolism slows down, as does their willingness to bite. Second, winter trout waters are often shallow and clear, which makes for wary, line-shy fish.

With streamside cover matted down, you have to keep an extremely low profile when casting.

“Fish are just spooky in the winter, period,” Vieth said. “You just stick out more, too. Stealth is the key to catching fish.”

Experienced winter trout anglers time their days on the water to coincide with the day’s highest air temperature, which usually means plenty of midday fishing. Meanwhile, stream temperatures (always use a thermometer to check) should be 38 degrees or above. That’s typically when winter trout start to feed more aggressively.

In addition, while winter angling can be tricky and tough, a common misconception is anglers rarely catch fish.

You just have to pick the right day. The perfect trifecta of conditions:
air temperature above freezing, with an overcast sky and no wind.

How you fish is important, too, say Vieth and other winter trout bums. Winter fishing is mostly done below the water’s surface, with small nymphs or streamer patterns.

Vieth, who fishes plenty of small scud and midge patterns with fine 6X tippet, said most trout congregate in deep pools when it’s cold. As the water warms, they may move into the riffles or elsewhere to chase midges as they hatch.

“When conditions are warm enough and just right, you can fish small midge dry flies to rising fish,” Vieth said. “But the biggest mistake winter trout anglers make is not getting their flies deep enough. You have to get down to the fish. And remember: In most instances, you’re only going to get one cast, so you have to make it count.”

Casting – especially fly casting – is often tricky in winter because you’re typically wearing more clothes. Dress in breathable layers, but don’t go overboard. If you’re overdressed, you won’t be able to move or cast well.

“The best way to stay warm is to fish fast and keep moving,” Vieth said.

The only exception to that rule is keeping your hands warm. That’s pretty much impossible. Some anglers fish without gloves completely because wet gloves make things worse. Hand warmers and muffs are often deployed.

Vieth knows anglers who wear latex gloves with fingerless wool gloves over the top.

“It’s worth a try,” he said.

Mel Hayner, owner of the Driftless Fly Fishing Company in Preston, said winter fishing can be a lot of fun and even a much-needed adventure during the doldrums of winter, but safety must not be forgotten. Anglers should stay out of the water as much as possible. If you get too cold (or too cold and wet), get to your vehicle as fast as possible and warm up.

Packing a fire starter in your fly vest is a wise option, too. Let
someone know your fishing location, just in case.

“I always use a wading staff in the winter,” said Hayner, adding that
anglers should be mindful of shelf ice, which is rarely stable. “It just
gives you way more stability while you’re moving around.”

Editor’s note: Angling options in southeast Minnesota: Through Dec. 31, three state parks are open to catch-and-release trout angling – Beaver Creek
Valley (East Beaver Creek), Forestville (Forestville Creek, Canfield
Creek, South Branch of the Root River), and Whitewater (Middle Branch of
the Whitewater and Trout Creek Run). During the same period, anglers
can fish certain streams in the towns of Spring Valley (Spring Valley
Creek), Chatfield (Mill Creek), Lanesboro (South Branch Root River), and
Preston (South Branch Root River).

Beginning Jan. 1 and running until the regular spring harvest season, catch-and-release trout fishing is open on all designated trout streams (roughly 750 miles amassing about 200 streams) in Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha, and Winona counties.

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