People may see hearty anglers wading streams or staked out on banks during winter weather and wonder “what are they doing?”
The short answer is “probably catching fish.”
Late fall and early winter are overlooked times for the simple reason most anglers don’t want to deal with the cold temperatures. Ice anglers love frigid temperatures because that’s what forms ice, but we will save ice fishing for later.
Many fish species remain fairly active in cold temperatures, and there’s no reason not to fish for them. In fact, late-season fishing has its advantage. Many streams are at the lowest levels of the year, which concentrates fish in smaller areas. Rivers and streams are often empty, or have only a few other anglers, so you have your pick of prime fishing spots.
Two of the most popular late season fisheries are for basically the same fish: rainbow trout and their ocean-going cousins – steelhead.
Steelhead anglers are used to fishing for in cold weather because the fish don’t arrive until late summer and they’re gone by spring, so most of the season involves cool or cold weather. Winter steelhead fishing has some advantages over warmer months. Steelhead are migratory, but they tend to hunker down during winter, so you when you find fish in a certain spot, chances are good they will be there again next time you go.
Steelhead don’t feed like other fish because they mostly stop eating after entering freshwater, but they will bite a lure or bait. As a general guideline, steelhead like stable or warming temperatures, and a rise of a few degrees will often get them active.
Rainbow trout are another favorite winter quarry. Where you find them, you will often find whitefish, which are also fun to catch and many anglers’ favorite fish for the smoker.
There’s no secret to winter stream fishing for trout. Look for them in the same places you find them other times of year. They often favor deeper, slower water, but you can still catch them in riffles during winter. Drifting bait or fly fishing with nymphs are often your best tactics. The fish are unlikely to chase lures or travel far looking for food, but they will take food, or a good imitation of it, when it’s placed in front of them.
Whitefish can often be found in riffles, and if you wear polarized glasses and watch closely, you can see a flash of silver underwater when they’re feeding. Whitefish school during winter, so where you catch one, you’re likely to find more.
Regardless of what you fish for during winter, it’s important to remember the basics of fishing, such as figuring out where fish are and what they’re likely to be feeding on, and adjust your tactics for the conditions.
Here are some tips:
• Sleep in. There’s rarely a need to be there at first light. You will usually have better fishing late morning to early afternoon when things warm up a little bit.
• Stick close to home. No need to spend hours driving, except for steelhead. Winter is a good time to explore your local trout fisheries, or rediscover them.
• Seek out warmer water. Spring-fed rivers and streams often fish well during winter, and same goes for dam-controlled rivers.
• Plan short trips. There’s no getting around the effects of cold weather, and eventually it will take its toll. Plan to fish for an hour or two and call it good.
• Bring hand warmers. Your hands are most likely to get wet, and they can easily get chilled. A hand warmer will quickly rewarm them. An extra pair of gloves is also a good idea because one pair usually gets wet.
• Wading boots with cleats are a good option. Rocks are slippery when wet and more slippery when there’s a layer of ice on them.
• Check the regulations. Some rivers and streams have different rules for winter, such as catch-and-release fishing only, restrictions on bait, or they may be closed to fishing.