It’s been cold in New England. Really cold. There were a couple of weeks straight where I didn’t see the thermometer climb much above 0 degrees. In truth, this is pretty typical for February in my part of the world. It’s just part of life, and everyone who lives here knows it. It’s the time to go skiing, to tie flies—lots of them—and to dream of warm summer days. But I always keep an eye on the temperature gauge…
When conditions align, winter fly fishing can be productive. In Northern New England, it’s one of the better times to target large fish—especially wild ones—as they see minimal angling pressure and are opportunistic feeders. However, if you want to be successful this time of year, you have to be prepared to approach the river differently.
In the winter, conditions are your key to success. Yes, you could say that any time of year, but when it’s cold, there are some days where it isn’t possible to fish safely. You have to choose your days wisely. I don’t fish in temperatures below 20ºF. 25ºF and above are even better. The warmer the temperature, the more the fishes’ metabolisms increase. The more their metabolisms increase, the more actively they feed. Plus, when the temperature is higher your gear doesn’t freeze as often, which means you can spend more time fishing. Often with inclement weather, temperatures will rise a bit, so this is the time to get on the water.
As you get towards the later months of winter, you’ll start to see significant thawing and warming events. At first glance, this would seem like the ideal time to get out, but you have to be cautious. Depending on the river system you fish in, if there is a rapid spike in temperature, it can melt so much snow that it will cool the water faster than the air temperature warms it. This will have the opposite effect of what you were hoping for and shut the fish down. Moderate temperature increases are your friend. Nothing is going to happen overnight. The moral of the story is this: look for mild days. Your gear will thank you. Your feet will thank you. Your hands will thank you.
Most people have never been truly hypothermic, but I assure you it’s terrifying. It should be avoided at all costs. You lose physical function and mental capacity, which makes wading dangerous and puts you in a position to make bad decisions. I always wear my thickest wool socks, long underwear under fleece pants, at least two fleece top layers, a puffy jacket and a rain/windproof shell. I also keep an extra puffy in my bag. It’s important that you aren’t layered too tightly, as this will prevent proper circulation, so make sure everything is sized appropriately. A warm hat, at least two pairs of gloves and a buff are also a must. While you’re not going to be winning any style awards, you will be warm.
I typically fish in a thin pair of gloves, then transition to a giant pair of mittens when I’m on the bank warming up. Trust me, it’s a game-changer. If you’re not able to get your hands back to where they started at every break, your day will end much sooner than you want it to. I pack hand warmers, foot warmers, and chest warmers. I start with one on each thigh (they don’t get enough oxygen in my boots), one on my chest, and two on each wrist. I always have an extra pair of each—or more—in my bag. Lastly—and this one is important—eat lots of food. Start your day with a high-calorie meal that includes plenty of carbs and fat. Your body burns a lot of calories just to stay warm, and that’s not including everything you burn wading and fishing for a day. High-calorie bars, peanut butter, a thermos of sugary tea (avoid caffeine, it’s not good for circulation), candy bars, and apples are all quick-digesting foods that will help you stay warm.
As I mentioned before, I enjoy fishing in winter because it’s a productive time to find larger fish. However, I want you to take something to heart: with targeting big fish comes big responsibility. In my local river systems, we don’t have a high density of larger fish. The ones we do have are critical to the limited wild reproduction that occurs. If you harm them, it could have a huge impact on the fishery. It’s imperative that you treat these fish like the treasures they are. If the air temperature is below freezing, they should never leave the water—not even for a quick photo. The cold air can freeze their eyes and gills. If you want to take photos, do it with the fish still in the water. Additionally, you shouldn’t pressure the same fish day in and day out. With food being scarcer, if you catch them repeatedly over the winter, they will have a hard time recovering the calories lost.
Lastly, you should always use barbless hooks or crimp your barbs. In truth, you should do this year-round. This reduces the risk of harming fish when hooked. Plus, if you keep proper pressure, you won’t lose any more fish than you would with a barb. I highly recommend that you read this recent article by Keep Fish Wet, . which outlines the above information in more detail. If you do brave the cold and venture out on the water this winter, monitor the weather, pack the right gear and most of all, show the fish the respect they deserve. Our fisheries are counting on it.