Once the cold weather strikes – and angling action goes from horizontal to vertical – many western fishers pack up their gear, put up their feet, hunker down and dream about the clear streams, prolific fly hatches and the darling buds of May.
Can’t blame them. Ice angling requires an existential personality to cast your fate down an eight-inch hole. What will be will be. Zipping yourself inside a black-out ice fishing tent, to the non-believer, makes the ethos of ice-angling even more unfathomable.
Personally I love it. But there are others, I suspect who would much rather watch ice freeze then spend an afternoon on a wind swept lake waiting and hoping for something, anything, to swim past their bait.
But it doesn’t have to be “go vertical or go hibernate”. Even in the heart of the winter deep freeze there are angling niches and fishing opportunities where you can wet a line and have an excellent chance of catching fish.
Here are four ways to beat a retreat to the winter time blues.
The rivers that emerge from below bottom draw dams have created cold water fisheries all over North America that didn’t exist before the intervention of engineers.
Of course, damming free flowing rivers produces some harmful and destructive consequences. But they have also provided angling opportunities that weren’t there previously.
Because the water in a reservoir is stratified, with the coldest at the bottom, dam discharges have extended trout fisheries far out onto the prairies where they historically didn’t exist.
In winter the opposite effect occurs where the water released from the bottom of a dam is actually “warmer” than the atmospheric temperature which can result in open water conditions for several kilometers below the dam.
And where there’s open water there’s angling.
One of Alberta’s best “tailwaters” is the Bow River in and below the City of Calgary where the warming effect of several upstream hydro-projects has created constant winter flows and ice free conditions that allow anglers to stay on the water virtually year round flyfishing for the Bow’s super-sized rainbow and brown trout.
The Oldman River below the Three Rivers Dam is also coming into it’s own as mid-winter open water hot spot with the added bonus of angling for bull trout.
Another open water opportunity is the Red Deer River below the Dickson Dam. Although one of the RDR’s mercurial brown trout is occasionally caught, the target species is mountain white fish which stage in the riffles below the discharge.
Tailwater winter angling is usually confined to dead drifting nymphs under a strike indicator with enough weight attached to keep the lures riding in the strike zone along the bottom.
Somebody unfamiliar with the peculiarities of western living may be perplexed to realize that traditionally the warmest places in winter are what are under normal circumstances consider the most severe and inhospitable around. Our mountains.
Well in Alberta and eastern B.C. normal doesn’t live here. And when the flatland is locked down in snow and the rivers are iced-over until April, mountain rivers can be running free and are often in their best condition.
All because of the soothing effect of the warm mountain wind called the Chinook.
Chinooks, of course, can penetrate well out onto the flatland offering balmy days of cold weather angling. But in the mountains were they are at their finest.
The Crowsnest River is probably Alberta’s best winter mountain river (it’s not too shabby in the summertime too) because it not only gets blasted by Chinooks, it rises in a large lake by the Alberta/B.C. border and runs relatively ice-free for its entire length.
As well as providing winter angling for its famous rainbow trout, anglers can also expect to catch brown trout and mountain whitefish.
An added bonus on the Crow, a particularly long warm spell which can trigger a midge hatch with the possibility of providing some dry fly action.
Hopping the border to the East Kootenay side anglers will find open water winter action on the famous Elk River and its tributaries. Here the target species is cutthroat trout.
The upper Bow in the Canmore area outside of Banff National Park is also a Chinook-caressed mountain river that’s kept open most of the winter months. Both brown trout and rockies are the target species here.
Another mountain river that may actually fish better in the winter is the Athabasca in Jasper National Park. In summer when the hot July and August sun burns down on Atha-B’s headwater glaciers, the river runs a mile wide and dish water gray. But in winter it shrinks down to an intimate trout stream, crystal clear and easily accessible. That’s when a diehard group of anglers probe the Athabasca’s deep, blue-water pools for the west’s top cold water predator, the bull trout.
Both hardware and big streamer flies are effective ways to angle for Athabasca winter bullies in the warm breeze wafting down the broad valley. And even if the action is getting a little slow, all you have to revive your day is to look up. Awesome.
Like hydro projects, coal fired power stations can also create the conditions for fine fishery when all other lakes are tight with ice.
Hot water discharges from thermal power plants create ice-free zones around these operations.
Alberta’s most famous power plant fishery, unfortunately, is no more after the last unit at Trans-Alta Utilities Wabamun facility went dark in the spring of 2010. Ending a wonderful era when winter anglers could catch pike that regularly went into the double figures both on spin cast equipment and fly gear.
Wabamun is no more but the fishery that ATCO Power has created from its Battle River power station discharges south of Forestburg endures. Again creating a large expanse of open water that is available to shore anglers and those who venture out on float tubes and pontoon boats.
The Battle River Reservoir fish are generally smaller than the Wabamun hogs but on fly tackle they can also be a challenge.
Probably the ultimate and most compelling way of tackling the challenge of winter angling is to leave the world of frost in your rear view mirror.
Nothing beats the winter blues, than cashing in your flier points and catching a charter south on a winter vacation.
The flats of Cuba and Belize, the outer islands of the Bahamas or Mexico’s Ascencion Bay offer great escape angling for bonefish, permit and tarpon where fly rods, dazzling flats and exotic flies like Gotchas and Crazy Charlies are the name of the game. Gear fishing for reef species is also available and can be combined with standard fun-in-the-sun activities for other family members.