With my first step outside, the cold jostles my senses awake. Frost covers the grass and the rooftops with a glimmering veneer. Frozen droplets of water shine like natural lights off each tree branch. It’ll be a few hours before I can get on the water but in the last three weeks since I had been fishing for trout, the streams have experienced many more chilly nights. I start to strategize on where fish may have moved in adjustment to the change in water temperature, daylight, and post-spawn life. Winter produces a challenge to anglers with reduction in fish metabolism and feeding and conditions that are uncomfortable and impede the effectiveness of our equipment.
Solitude is easily found during winter fishing, but fish are not. Catching a fish in winter feels like a badge of honor, like I’ve overcome many obstacles to succeed. I look forward to time on the water in winter, as my expectations are lower, limiting frustration, and the sights, sounds, and feelings of winter create a serene calmness in me.
Throughout spring, summer, and fall there are signs of life all around. Squirrels scamper up trees, insects hover above the water, and herons and kingfishers stalk their prey. In winter, there is stillness, interrupted by small movements, as every living thing is conserving energy. Finding fish that are feeding in winter isn’t as easy as noticing fish rising to a hatch or clumsy terrestrials. Very few things are as exciting to a fly angler as catching a trout on a dry fly, however the majority of time trout are feeding below the surface. So you need to be able to fish the water, with the educated hope that trout are where you are prospecting.
Reading the water is a learned skill that requires the experience of fishing during different stream flows, turbidity levels, times of day, light conditions, and seasons. In most trout streams, there are more fish spread through the area covered by the water flowing through a stream than any angler will ever see, witnessing electrofishing has shown me that reality. In other posts I’ve mentioned spots that usually hold feeding fish such as:
- in front or behind large boulders;
- areas of deeper, slow water adjacent to a faster current;
- under logs, rootwads, or other obstructions; and
- run features with broken water surfaces.
During spring, summer, and fall I will rotate through these water types and look for specific water depth and velocity combinations where I hook or catch fish. Generally fish will move within these types of conditions to find desirable areas to minimize energy expenditure, optimize energy intake, and protect from predators. Depending on water and weather conditions they may be in one and not in another, but within a subset of those water types I typically find fish willing to take a fly.
My experience in winter fishing has shown me that fish hold in more limited velocity and depth conditions when it is very cold. Areas of water color changes are a good indication of deeper water, and the differentiation is critical in winter. Darker greens, almost emerald green, have indicated water depths of two to four feet on the mid-atlantic trout streams I have fished. This is the initial indicator that grabs my attention. Secondary indicators include large structures like boulders (think Volkswagon Bug) or large logs that provide close cover for larger groupings of fish. Also an observed velocity less than two feet per second is helpful. Still water reduces food supply and provides little optimal camouflage from overhead predators. Trout are often gathered in larger pods and if you catch one, odds are good you may catch a handful. But you have to find them.
If you seek some solitude and miss the time on the river, give winter fly fishing a try. If you can tolerate cold feet and hands for a couple hours you can be rewarded with a few fish to hand and experiencing a calm, serene environment. Even if you’re not an angler, don’t just stay inside and watch television this winter. A hike or stroll can invigorate the senses and center you from the holiday rush and pressure. Find some still to enjoy the stillness.