Winter has finally settled in here in Eastern Idaho and with winter comes the cold. Fishing in the cold can be an enjoyable experience if you are dressed right, but it does beg the question, how cold is too cold? This past week I had a couple opportunities to fish with friends that I have not fished with in quite some time. First, I was able to get up to Henry’s lake with my good friend Kyle. It was a great way to celebrate another successful semester of college and to welcome in the Christmas break. We used to fish together all the time, but earlier in the year he moved to down to Utah. We have been able to get out a couple times since and each trip has been one for the books. This one was no different. We made it up to Henry’s at first light and quickly set up shop. Unfortunately, the first location we chose to fish was terrible and we decided to relocate. My friend Chris had tipped me off the day before about one of his favorite places and we headed that way. The fishing quickly picked up and we were able to have an awesome day of fishing. The weather was very pleasant for mid-december in Eastern Idaho. It snowed most of the day but not enough to make things uncomfortable. Temperatures hovered in the upper teens to low twenties throughout most of the day. This is my favorite kind of weather when ice fishing.
December Ice Fishing
Kyle With a Beautiful Hybrid
A few days later, my friend Kenny and I decided to head back up to Henry’s Lake again and give it another go around. Unfortunately, a cold front had come through the night before and there was a huge drop in temperature. Whether fishing open water or the hard deck, temperature drops always seem to put a damper on the fishing. Undeterred, we headed up and once again were ready to go by first light. Upon arrival, the air temp came in at -15. This was by far the coldest weather that I have ever fished in before. From the start, things did not seem to be going in our favor. My auger that I normally use somehow got a chip in one of the blades. This caused it to spin on its head and required a lot more effort than usual to dig a hole. I always carry a backup auger with me but I do not particularly enjoy using it. For one, it is an 8″ hand auger and that in and of itself requires much more effort than a 6″ auger does. It is also a very cheap auger and like most cheap things, it does not work as well as its more expensive counterpart. As I suspected, the fish did not seem to care for the massive drop in temperature and we only landed four fish in the two hours that we fished there. We decided to head back down to some of the lower elevation ponds and lakes to give them a try. Fresh ice and planter trout saved the day and by days end we landed over 70 between the two of us. Even in the lower elevations the temperature never got above the mid twenties. It will be a very long time before I consider going out and fishing when it is -15 outside. It just wasn’t worth it.
Is -15 too Cold?
Fly fishing is easier for me to decide when it is too cold to go. I hate having to deal with ice in the guides on every cast and if it is going to be a big issue, I will usually go ice fishing instead. Brent and I met up early and headed out to the river. When I left my house in Rigby, the temperature was 6. I was not too concerned because it was supposed to warm up to the mid 30’s and it eventually did. One of the benefits of waking up early to fish is being able to witness the beautiful winter sunrises.
Brisk Morning Sunrise
The air temp was 24 when we arrived, but once you calculate in the windchill, it was still pretty dang cold fly fishing weather. One of the reasons it is so much easier to stay warm when ice fishing is because you are not in the water like you are when fly fishing. Leaky waders don’t help the situation either. The fishing was very slow at first to say the least. We were both throwing streamers and the fish were flat out not interested. Because of the cold, we both decided that the fish might have moved deeper and decided it would be a good idea to throw on a sinking line. I started fishing much deeper and was able to entice one fish in to biting. It was a beautiful hybrid and it felt great to get the skunk off. It also was the only fish that hit a streamer all day. It became obvious that the fishing was not going to be good at this location like we had hoped so we decided to do a little exploring.
The move paid off and we were able to find a few willing fish. Nymphing was the name of the game. It was cold out and the fish did not want to move very much for a meal. They wanted it delivered and put right in their face. The fish were also holding much deeper than usual. When we finally found where the fish were holding, mother nature decided to turn the tables against us and the wind started howling. Detecting bites began to be very difficult and the fishing also began to slow down. At this point in time, Brent and I looked at one another and without saying a word decided it was time to call it a day. We both had numb toes and fingers and were content with the fish we had caught. No monsters were brought to the net that day but it was a good time.
There are a few important things to remember if winter fishing is your thing or something you are interested in getting in to. Most of these tips are in reference to winter fly fishing.
Always remember the importance of layering. If you do not wear enough layers, you will freeze all day long. If you wear too many layers, then you will sweat all day long and in the end also end up freezing. By wearing just the right amount of layers and you can stay warm all day long. I will generally wear a light jacket as my base layer and a heavier insulated jacket as my outer layer. Even when it is -15 outside, you can stay warm if you layer correctly.
Hats, Gloves, and Socks:
A good beanie can make a huge difference in your comfort level on a chilly day. Your face, especially your ears, can be very sensitive to the wind and to the cold. Wearing a beanie or other winter hat can help alleviate this problem. A good pair of wool socks can also make a big difference in how warm you will be throughout the day. Whether ice fishing in your snow boots or fly fishing in your waders, wool socks will help keep you warm. Gloves can make a difference depending on how sensitive your hands are to the cold. I personally cannot stand wearing gloves unless I absolutely have to. I prefer neoprene gloves that cover my hand all the way. Some people prefer a glove that has the finger tips cut off so they still have some feeling of what is going on. Choose what is most comfortable for you.
Slow Down Your Presentation:
When the water temperatures cool down, so does a fish’s metabolism. They do not want to use as much energy as they will in the spring or in the fall to get a meal. Nymphing will often be the name of the game if you want to consistently catch fish in the winter. With that said, fish can still be caught on streamers but it will take a little more work and a little more patience. When conditions are right, fish can also be caught on top with Baetis and Midge imitations.
Be Smart and Use Your Head:
One thing to keep in mind when winter fishing is that simple mistakes that could be no more than an inconvenience in the summer time, can quickly become dangerous when winter fishing. One example of this is taking a spill in the river. In the summer, falling is not really a big deal (as long as it is not in a dangerous location). If you slip and fall in the winter, it is important to quickly get back to your vehicle and into a warm change of clothes. Always bring an extra set of clothing if you plan on fishing in the winter. Use your head about where you choose to wade. Places that are a bit challenging to get to in the summer are not worth struggling to get to in the winter. River flows are generally lower in the winter and there are plenty of places to fish and explore. Don’t over do it. If your body is telling you it is cold and that it is time to go, then you should probably call it a day. Exposing yourself to the cold for too long can lead to other problems.
Fishing should always be a good time. Like I have said before, fishing in the winter can be one of the most enjoyable times of year to get out. Low water will often force the fish to congregate together and in turn lead to big number days. Most of the time you will not have to deal with the same crowds that hit the rivers in the summer. Get out there and enjoy the solitude!