The Winter Season

If you want to fish in the winter, you have to be willing to nymph

By Rob Breeding

The last few years I’ve had something of a fly fishing existential crisis. I’ve always been a bit of a diehard dry fly guy. I wasn’t a purist in the sense that I looked down on other techniques. It’s just that I liked fishing on the surface.

Who doesn’t? The sight of a dry fly floating along in a foam line, then disappearing into the maw of a trout is, well, the reason we were put on this Earth, isn’t it?

That used to mean that once winter rolls around, I’d put the fly gear away until the skwala hatch on the Bitterroot turned on in March.

If you want to fish in the winter, you have to be willing to nymph. I was ultimately led astray by the Professor, whose less-refined sense of propriety allowed him to move from the elegance of dry fly fishing to bottom-dredging with nymphs without the briefest hesitation.

Once winter turned wicked, the Professor started adding split shot to his leaders and catching fish deep. I was obliged to follow.

I don’t cover as much water in the winter as the fish will stack up in deeper pools and runs. In addition to the split shot, I usually fish a large nymph, maybe a No. 6 or 8 bead head, tailed by something smaller. If I’m in a shameless mood that second fly will likely be a San Juan Worm. If I’m fishing in mixed company I’ll go with something more legit. Maybe a small chironomid pattern, No. 18 or 20.

I’ve even added a dedicated nymphing rod to my arsenal, and that’s something I thought I’d never say. It’s a 10-foot, 4-weight, but if you ask the Professor he’ll tell you I have a love-hate relationship with that rod. The length is handy when I’m high-sticking nymphs, but it’s action is slower than I prefer and it’s a little on the heavy side.

The weight is self-explanatory. If I’ll be holding my rod at ear level for hours tracking the drift of my nymph, I want the lightest setup I can afford.

That slow action is another matter. You don’t really cast a heavy nymph rig so much as lob it upstream, but that noodly stick takes a lot of effort to load.

My dry fly rod is a 9-foot, 5-weight, and it’s faster than I ever imagined I’d like. But I’ve learned to appreciate its power when I want to put some distance between myself and my fly. And when I use it for nymphing, that rod lifts my nymph rig out of the water so effortlessly it makes casting that 10-footer seem like a trip to the gym.

Winter fishing requires proper clothing. The key is layering. Put a good wicking layer against your skin, some heavy fleece over that, and cover it all with an outer layer that will break the wind. Waders take care of the bottom half. Up top I have a nice Gore-tex shell with plenty of big pockets and attachment points so I can use it like a vest. A knit cap is a must, and I sometimes wear gloves, but I’ve just never found a pair I’m totally comfortable with. Carry a hand towel to dry off and you may not need the gloves anyway.

Another winter fly-fishing tip: when it’s cold enough that it starts freezing up your guides, just dip your rod in the water and wiggle it until the ice melts. Fish until you hear your line grinding through ice guides, dip and repeat.

Remember, this isn’t the season for dawn-to-dusk fishing marathons. Get on the water for a few hours, then retire to your favorite pub for happy hour.

We all love to fish, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

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