Driftless Winter Fly Fishing Tips
by Evan Griggs
Winter trout catch and release season is right around the corner! Both Minnesota and Wisconsin seasons open on Saturday, January 1st 2022. Dodge, Goodhue, Fillmore, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha, and Winona counties in MN, and all of Wisconsin will be open for catch and release fishing. Whitewater, Forestville, Beaver Creek Valley state parks, as well as in-town sections of Preston, Lanesboro, Rushford, Spring Valley, and Chatfield, MN- and northeastern Iowa- are all open to fishing year-round. This is a wonderful time to fish and explore our driftless streams, and fishing can be quite good. With a lack of foliage and angling pressure, this is a great time to try new spots and enjoy the scenery. There are some special tips and tricks I’ve found over the years that anglers should keep in mind to ensure success and safety while fishing during the winter.
When to go fishing-
A lot of folks wonder, “Won’t the streams be frozen over like the lakes?” The short answer is no. Because our driftless streams are continuously flowing and are a consistent temperature, the water will never completely freeze over in most areas. After a polar-vortex event you might see some slow pools and runs covered in a thin sheet of ice but they will usually unthaw quickly once its warms up again. We will see shelf ice which forms on the shallow bank water and extends toward the middle of the stream. Use caution when fishing on or around shelf ice as it can vary greatly in thickness and stability. Winter fly fishing is unlike spring, summer, and fall fishing where basically anytime is a good time to go fishing. Though you can sure go try to fish when it’s 0 degrees this winter, your equipment is going to freeze solid in about 5 minutes after your first cast. For winter fishing, its best to wait for the warmest days possible, 25 degrees or above seems to be the sweet spot for me. If you’re able to go on one of those rare above freezing days in January or February, you’re likely to even see fish feeding on the surface on a midge or stonefly hatch!
Time of day also plays a major factor. The bugs and fish will be most active during the warmest part of the day. So sleep in and get a nice late start around 10am and plan to fish until 1 or 2pm. On the above freezing days, snow melt can dramatically cool water temperatures in the afternoons, so fish around 9-12/1:00.
Make note that brown and brook trout spawn from October-December, and their eggs are still in the redds and are in very fragile early developmental stages from December-February. Look for redds in shallow riffles or runs, they will appear as areas of clean gravel. Avoid wading or fishing these areas to protect our wild fish populations.
What gear should I use-
Your typical trout equipment should do fine for winter fishing as well. Your mantra during winter is quite simply, “Stay dry!” No matter how good your equipment is, as soon as it gets wet it will freeze and be rendered useless. I’ve found using a shorter rod (7’6”-8’6”) makes it easier to pop the ice out of the eyelets, and a click-and-pawl reel is easier to break free of ice if it gets dunked. Be very gentle with your fly rod tip when chipping ice, many tips get broken accidentally during this process. Winter might be a great time to try Tenkara fishing!
Wearing many layers of non-cotton clothes is a good way to stay dry and warm. Waders are a must have in winter. You don’t necessarily need full-on neoprene waders, but it might be the only time of year you can wear them without sweating to death. I usually wear my standard chest waders and rubber sole wading boots. Felt soles will freeze and create massive snowballs under your feet, so I recommend leaving your felt sole boots at home. Under my waders I’ll have thick wool socks, fleece pants, polypropylene shirt, wool flannel, fleece jacket, a down jacket, with a stocking cap on top. If you find the perfect pair of fishing gloves, let me know! I’ve tried them all, and they all have flaws. My strategy for keeping my hands warms is to have leather choppers with thick wool inserts in the chest pocket of my waders and fish barehanded, taking frequent warm up breaks in-between drifts. Hot Hands packs in the pockets also are great. It’s also best to handle trout without gloves on to protect their slime layer. Always keep a duffle bag with a full set of warm, dry clothes in your car in case you get soaked.
Think slow, deep, and small for winter fly fishing. Most of your fish will be schooled up in the deepest, slowest areas in the stream. Cold air and water temperatures will make fish less active, so they seek these areas where they can fight less current, thus saving on calories. These deeper areas will also be slightly warmer. The predominant insect activity during the winter are midges and tiny black stoneflies. Their black bodies look like pepper flakes on top of the white snow. We’ll see them scurrying on the snow on the bank on usually sunny, warmer days in the winter. Cedar waxwing birds will be swooping down on the snow to grab them, and the trout will be happily rising. Especially this season, water is going to be very low and clear, so a stealthy approach and using long, light leaders is going to be key. I usually use long leaders (10-12’) with 5-6X tippet with size 18-22 midge patterns under an indicator. A tandem rig with a grey or orange scud with a red or black zebra midge dropper is a deadly combo in the winter. However, don’t be afraid to throw your trusty summertime nymphs as there’s always larva in the water and fish will happily eat them. Winter can also be a great time to throw streamers for larger fish!
Winter trout season is such a special time to visit our streams, and probably my favorite time of year to do so. Consult the trout stream maps provided by both the MN and WI DNR’s if you have questions of regulations or want ideas of where to go. Be sure to visit your local fly shop for questions, to buy gear, or seek more hot tips! If you’ve ever wanted to try winter fly fishing, I hope this gives you a basic template of how to feel safe and confident on the water. I can’t wait to see you out there!
Evan Griggs is the Membership Committee Chair of TCTU and Head Guide/Outfitter, Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop
12/15/2021 09:52:22 am
Tenkara rods (with or without an indicator) are a nice way to go in the winter as there are no guides to ice up and one can wear thicker gloves while casting. And the lack of a fly line means less of a disturbance on the surface when you cast.
12/17/2021 10:32:51 am
Great article, thanks! Just moved to northern WI, and am excited to get out there in the quiet of winter!
10/29/2022 01:07:03 pm
Be very gentle with your fly rod tip when chipping ice, many tips get broken accidentally during this process. Winter might be a great time to try Tenkara fishing! Thank you, amazing post!
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