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Winter Flyfishing


When winter arrives many fly fishers put away their rods and find other ways to pass away the time in this off-season. Fly tying, tackle tinkering, book reading and various other diversions help pass the Canadian winter. In southern Alberta, where I spend most of my fly fishing days, we have a very short season; many streams don’t open until June 15th and close again on October 31, not nearly long enough to suit me. A fortunate few will avoid what has been dubbed the “shack nasties” by heading to warmer climes to fish for bonefish, permit, tarpon and other saltwater fish. Fortunately there are a few rivers in Alberta that not only have no closed season, or sections that don’t close, but also have stretches of open and fishable water all year round. The advancement of outdoor technical clothing and equipment combined with the occasional Chinook or bout of warmer weather allows the Alberta fly fisher to cast off the winter blues every once in awhile.

There is a couple of reasons that rivers in harsh climates will have open water all year long, some natural, some artificial. One example of natural reasons is the Crowsnest River in southern Alberta which has under ground springs that release warm water into the river. This in combination with the Chinooks that grace the region, as well as the fact that the river originates from Crowsnest Lake, not mountain tributaries, results in sections of the river flowing free of ice all winter long.

Chuck Harvey enjoys a nice winter’s day on Alberta’s Crowsnest River.

In the same area the Oldman River Dam creates what is referred to as a tail water fishery; the water released from the reservoir is cooler in summer and warmer in winter, good conditions for trout to live. The temperature of the water being released from the dam is above the freezing mark and therefore the river directly below the dam remains flowing 12 months of the year. The length of fishable water will vary from month to month and year to year, depending on air temperature. This is also Chinook country so days with air temperatures well above freezing allow the ardent fly angler to wet a line.

The Bow River in Calgary also receives these same Chinook winds and in combination with warm water released from the City’s water treatment plant keeps the river open from the Calf Robe Bridge downstream. Many anglers take advantage of this winter angling opportunity.

The North Raven River (Stauffer Creek) is one of the few spring creeks we have in Alberta. The Stauffer bubbles out of the ground and flows at a cool 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Its upper reaches have open, fishable water most years but the absence of Chinooks in this area diminishes the prospects of winter fishing other than during the occasional warm spell.

The Missouri River, below Holter Dam, near Great Falls Montana, is an example of a tail water fishery that can provide fly-fishing opportunities 12 months of the year.

The Red Deer River below the Dickson Dam, west of Innisfail, is also a tail water fishery that has Brown Trout, Walleye and plenty of Rocky Mountain Whitefish. It’s funny how Rockies that many anglers look down their nose at during the summer months can become a noble game fish and put up a heck of fight during a winter fly fishing outing.

Understanding what fish require to survive during the harsh winter months can be the key to successful angling. Trout will not be where you find them in the warm weather months, they move into what is referred to as their wintering holes. These are spots that are slower, deeper and large enough to overwinter large numbers of fish. Holes below riffles or rapids provide the food and oxygen needed to survive the winter.

Trout lying in these holes will be lethargic and are not going to chase flies. To be successful the angler must get his nymph deep and within easy reach of the fish. Slow and deep is the mantra of winter flyfishing. Bead headed nymphs, like the Pheasant Tail, Prince and Hare’s Ear will all work, usually in a little smaller size than in summer. That being said occasionally the angler will get lucky and come across rising trout. They will usually be eating tiny midges, a midge pattern such as a Griffith Gnat can occasionally work but more often than not it turns out to be just casting practice.

Nymphs fished slow and deep are the ticket in many winter fly fishing situations

Most of the equipment used during the warmer months of the year will suffice during the winter, but a few things will help your winter fly fishing experience go better.
Some fly lines, those made for distance casting, have a very hard finish and during cold weather are very tough to cast and have high memory. I suggest sticking with general purpose or limper lines. Frozen guides are the bane of the winter fly fisher but there are a couple of ways to reduce this problem. Dipping your rod under water is the easiest way to thaw the guides. Also if you keep your line a little shorter and don’t strip in as much your line won’t transfer as much water up into the guides. There are also some commercial products out that will help keep your guides clear. Stanley’s Ice-Off paste from Loon is applied to the line and the guides. It helps to reduce icing, will not harm your fly lines coating and is environmentally friendly.

Even on the nicest of winter days the water temperature is going to be COLD! I recommend buying a separate set of wading boots for winter conditions. These boots should be one size larger than your normal wading boot allowing additional room for heavier socks. Nothing will get your feet colder faster than tight wading boots. Anybody who has worn felt soled wading boots during the winter can tell you that walking on snow with wet felts is not fun. You will gain six inches of height as the snow clings to the bottom of your boots and it is neither fun nor safe. If you are getting a set of boots strictly for winter conditions look into different soles. There are several options out there including the Vibram sole from Simms or the studded rubber sole insert from Korkers.

Fingerless gloves, rubber soles and Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste should all be part of your winter fly fishing arsenal.

Breathable waders have become the most popular choice of anglers these days, and rightly so. If you are going to winter fish in breathable waders layering is the trick. I still wear my neoprene waders in late fall and through the winter. They do have the disadvantage of being harder to put on and take off but they definitely also have their benefits. Neoprene waders are much tougher than breathable waders. If you do get a leak, especially pinhole size, you will get a lot wetter, quicker in breathable waders than in neoprene as they tend to seep rather than leak. The insulating qualities of neoprene more than make up for the disadvantages and very few anglers complain about being too warm in winter conditions. Hypothermia is a real danger so take frequent breaks to warm up.

So this winter take advantage of any open waters near your home and give winter flyfishing a try. It may not be as much fun as a great dry fly hatch in summer but it sure beats sitting in an easy chair watching the Gardening Channel!

Previous Fishing Articles
(1) It’s OK to Be Little Bitty
(2) Exploring Tundra Waters
(3) The Jewel at First Ice
(4) Fly Fishing Bucket List
(5) Guided or DIY?
(6) Pond Power
(7) Caddisflies
(8) In the Good Old Summertime
(9) A Southern Escape
(10) Springtime in Alberta - Can Thrill You to the Bone
(11) Sunny Day Rainbows
(12) New "Fishing" Year Resolutions
(13) Five Fine Places to Find Trout
(14) Catfishing Revisited
(15) Discover Squamish, an Outdoor Playground
(16) Falling for Cutthroat
(17) New Water and Old Friends
(18) My McLeod
(19) Temperature and Trout
(20) On the Road Again
(21) Tips That Will Make You a More Successful Fly-Fisherman
(22) 5 Ways to Catch Your Trout
(23) The Difference Maker - Reading Trout Stream Waters
(24) Rollin’ on the River
(25) Windy Day Pike
(26) Cures for Cabin Fever
(27) Snowbirding with a Fishing Rod
(28) Alberta’s Spring Creek Browns - Blessings and Curses
(29) A day on our foothill streams
(30) Fly Fishing Crowded Waters
(31) Fly Leaders
(32) In the Zone
(33) Learners Permit
(34) Flies of Summer
(35) Selecting the Right Boat
(36) The Italian Job
(37) Making a difference
(38) Pass the Salt
(39) Hopper Time - Fly-fishing’s Second Season
(40) Pike on the Fly - Fishing New Waters
(41) Fall brings the big walleye out
(42) Hoppertunity Time
(43) Becoming a Better Dry Fly Angler
(44) Make Your Own Fishing Adventure
(45) Early Season Fly Fishing
(46) Walleye Logic
(47) Fly Fishing in the Desert
(48) Grammy’s Fish
(49) Top 10 Trout Lures
(50) All I Want for Christmas – Neil Waugh's Yule Tide Fishing Gifts Wish List
(51) Muskies - The Ultimate Predator
(52) What to expect when fishing the West Coast
(53) Tips & Tricks for Fall Fly Fishing
(54) There’s No Place Like Home
(55) A Golden Opportunity
(56) The Observational Trout Fisherman
(57) Un-matching the Hatch
(58) Alberta Super Bugs
(59) Glass is Back
(60) The Bull Trout of the Athabasca
(61) Speed Kills
(62) Entering the Twilight Zone
(63) Old Man River
(64) The Pink Salmon of the Squamish River
(65) Small stream BT fishing
(66) Fly fishing beyond Trout: getting started
(67) In The Walleye Zone
(68) Zoo Trout
(69) Fly Selection for Beginners
(70) Fly Fisher's Christmas
(71) New Waters
(72) Big Bad Burbot
(73) Looking Back
(74) Out of Africa
(75) Finding Success on Crowded Trout Streams
(76) Mountain Peaks, Fast Streams, Fall Colours And Rocky Mountain Whitefish
(77) The Browns of Autumn
(78) Fly-Fishing Pike Through The Seasons
(79) Walleye Town
(80) River Fun - One Bite At A Time
(81) Fly Fishing Larger Rivers
(82) Going With The Flow
(83) Becoming A Better Fly Fisherman
(84) Swinging The Fences
(85) A View From The Aerie
(86) Dixieland Delight
(87) Atlantic Salmon - The Fish of 1000 Casts
(88) Do It Yourself Pink Salmon
(89) Montana's Cool Missouri
(90) Pretty Is As Pretty Does
(91) Toothy Critters
(92) Hard Water Lakers at Cold Lake
(93) Top Ten Flies
(94) Northern Exposure
(95) Home Water Lessons
(96) Chicken Of The Sea
(97) Sealing the Deal – How to Ensure You Land More Fish
(98) Deep In The Heart Of Texas
(99) Keep It Up!
(100) River Fishing for Fall Walleye
(101) After the Flood - A look at Southern Alberta rivers and streams one year after the 2013 flood
(102) Reindeer Lake - A Diversity of Opportunity
(103) Hawg Holes
(104) Saltwater Salmon
(105) Early Season Dry Fly Fishing
(106) Down a Lazy River - A Fly-rodding Adventure on the Lower North Saskatchewan
(107) The Fly Fishing Season Ahead
(110) Bright Fish from the Land of Silver
(111) Canada's "Other" Salmon
(112) Fall Walleye
(113) Wet Flies
(114) Versatility the Key to Success
(115) Grayling of the Boreal
(116) Teaching Kids To Fly Fish
(117) Size Matters
(118) Fly Fishing Small Streams
(119) Chasing Winter Whites One Lake At A Time
(120) Manitoba's Fishing Jewel
(121) The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas
(122) The Point Of It All
(123) Fishing With Friends-Big Weather Seizing The Day
(124) Fall Fly Fishing
(125) Personal Pontoon Boats 101
(126) Big River, Big Fish
(127) Bottom Bonanza
(128) Fishing Small Flies
(129) So Many Choices, So Little Time
(130) Four Seasons of the Bow
(131) Favourite Lakes - Some Like it Hot
(133) Trout Hunting New Zealand style
(134) Don’t Leave Home Without Them – 10 Lures That Should Be In Everyone’s Tackle Box
(135) Edge Walleye
(137) Smallmouth Bass – An Oft Overlooked Challenge
(138) Four Corners – Four Waters
(139) Chasing Pothole Trout
(140) Springtime Stoneflies
(141) The Torrents of Spring
(142) Drift Boat Fly Fishing
(143) Bust Them With Bait
(144) Cure the Winter Blues with a Good Book
(145) Hot Strategies for the Cold Months
(146) Cutthroat: The Angler's Trout
(147) Terrestrials
(148) Fly In For Fishing Fun
(149) Rocky Mountain High
(150) Reading the clues
(151) Where the Trout Are The art of locating feeding trout in rivers and streams.
(152) K.I.S.S. and Tell Fly-fishin
(153) Fly Fishing 101
(154) To Catch a Big Halibut, or Ling Cod
(155) The Bountiful Bones of Ascension Bay
(156) Grayling in the Eye of the Beholder
(157) Fly Fishing for South Fork Clearwater Steelhead
(158) Manitoba's Red River - North America's Catfish Capital
(159) Eliminating the Spook Factor
(160) Trust Your Electronics
(161) The Most Important Hatch of the Year
(162) Early Season Nymph Fishing for Trout
(163) Finding Success for Ice Trout
(164) Walleye can be Humbling
(165) The Secret to Landing the Big One Finally Revealed
(166) Winter Flyfishing
(167) North Saskatchewan River - An Underutilized Fishing Gem
(168) Hot Fall Pike Action
(169) Tips and Tricks to Save the Summer Slow Down
(170) Reading Trout Stream Waters
(171) Frequently Asked Questions
(172) Streamer Fishing for Larger Trout
(173) The Lure of Big Walleye at Last Ice
(174) Deep Water Perch
(175) Post Spawn Brookies
(176) A Fisher's Life
(177) The River's Last Stand
(178) The Big Ones Come out at Night
(179) Coho on the Coast
(180) Chasing and Catching Halibut
(181) Summer in the Mountains
(182) Peak Walleye Season
(183) Slow and Steady Wins the Race
(184) Last Ice Rainbows
(185) The Burbot Event
(186) Tackle Matching
(187) Ice Fishing Strategy #2 - Going Light
(188) Ice Fishing Strategy #1 - Location
(189) The Lure of Brook Trout
(190) The Shallow Water Hunt is On
(191) Hot Backswimmer Action Happening Right Now
(192) Fishing Among Giants-Pursuing Lake Sturgeon on the Prairies
(193) Adventure at Davin Lake Lodge, Northern Saskatchewan
(194) The Vesatile Plug
(195) Bead Head Flies, Plugs and Shot and other Spring Favorites for Pothole Trout
(196) Planning your Upcoming Angling Adventures
(197) Good Fishing at Last Ice
(198) Maximize the Odds - Use Multiple Presentations
(199) Daily Fish Migrations
(200) Fish Migrations - Following the Spawn
(201) Lake Whitefish - An Ice Fishing All Star
(202) Pick Your Favorite Brook Trout Lake...and Go Fishing
(203) A Look Ahead to Great Trout Fishing
(204) Wrestling White Sturgeon on the Fraser
(205) The Fun in Ultra Light
(206) Flyfishing and Leadcore Lines
(207) Embrace the Spirit of Adventure
(208) Never Stop Learning
(209) Ice Fishing is Getting Hot
(210) Jigging through the Ice
(211) An Ice Fishing Unsung Hero – The Setline
(212) Rainbows on Ice
(213) The Season of Ice Begins
(214) Red Hot Fall Pike Action
(215) Hitting it Right with Water Boatman
(216) Facts On Cats
(217) West Coast Adventure
(218) June Walleye Frenzy
(219) Aerated Lakes are Big Trout Factories
(220) First Fish of the Year Pothole Rainbows and Browns
(221) Northern Exposure
(222) Sometimes There is More to Fishing Than Catching Fish
(223) Early Season Pike On The Fly
(224) Man Overboard
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