The air temperature topped out at thirty degrees. Water temperature was steady at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. The soft edges of the water near the stream banks were crusted in a thin layer of ice that crackled as I moved upstream to fish new water. Occasionally, small translucent ice sheets float by me, looking like amoebas on a microscope slide. I remind myself constantly to keep my rod and reel out of the water to avoid risking ice forming on the line and especially in the rod guides.
My mindfulness went out the window with the excitement of a fish in the net. Pinning my rod between my legs was not the most secure idea. As I removed the hook from the brown trout, I concentrated on quickly taking a picture and releasing the fish without removing the fish from the water. The fish safely swam away, but the rod tip rotated downward and dunked the top of the rod in the water. So much for keeping ice out of the guides. Even casting the line onto the water and pulling it back through the guides can accumulate ice in the rod tip, which is a bother, but it can be quickly pushed out with a finger, nipper or knot tool.
When fishing in temperatures below freezing, it is wise to follow the sentiment of Alfred Wainwright, British fellwalker and guidebook author, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”.
Fishing in cold temperatures requires special considerations when choosing your clothing. Subscribers to the Troutbitten Podcast likely understand the value of a wool base layer. Wool has unique properties that allow it to repel water and maximize insulation. Particularly for feet, wool socks are incredibly helpful. An important consideration is also to make sure your feet are not constricted in your wading boots. Constriction limits the circulation of blood flow and puts your feet in greater danger of frostbite.
Layering fabrics that wick moisture away from your skin is critical to staying comfortable. I always try to wear a baseball hat, and I recommend wearing a hat with a bill to protect your eyes from an errant fly. Polarized sunglasses are a must in almost all fishing conditions to cut glare off the water and to project your eyes. I typically will pull a wool cap or beanie over a baseball cap to help keep my ears and head warm. If wearing a gator or buff around your neck, it can be pulled up to keep your face warm and protected from wind.
After your feet, hands are most likely to be very cold during winter fishing. I haven’t found a full glove that allows me enough dexterity to tie knots, handle line, and cast accurately. I use fingerless wool gloves and place two small absorbent shop towels in the pouch of my waders. If my hands get wet, I can wrap them in the towels to get dry and warm quickly. In warmer temperatures, they can be used to dry off drowned flies.
Being on the stream in the winter is often my favorite time of the year to fish. Only the die-hards are on the water. The crowds are gone. No kayaks or tubes. Only bald eagles, kingfishers, beavers and minks. No loud voices drowning out the sound of flowing water, cold winds rattling frozen tree branches, or the splash of a jumping fish. It is cold, but it is tranquil, peaceful, and also a challenge. Trout metabolism is low, and fishing is difficult. Each fish caught is a battle with yourself, the environment, and the fish. Problem solving and learning are rewarded in a harsh environment with the pull of a strong fish and the golden flash of a stunning brown trout. After the release of the fish, you are left with a memory and the solitude of the stream. Yeah, it’s definitely not bad weather.