Winter can offer good fly fishing without the crowds or selective trout of summer. Fishing can be really good when the weather warms up enough to melt off the ice and slush. During very cold weather fishing can be brutal and dangerous. Shelf ice is sheets of ice that extend out into the river can break off when someone stands on it. Anchor ice is the ice that forms on the bottom of the river when it is very cold. Either type of ice can cause a person to go swimming in icy waters which can result in a very bad situation.
Even when most places are too icy, there are always a few good options. Ice is not a big of a problem on stretches of river just below dams like Hebgen Lake on the Upper Madison and Holter Dam on the Missouri. Private Spring Creeks have warm water throughout the year, and in winter the cost is less than half of summer rates. The warm water of the spring creeks makes for baetis and midges hatches throughout winter, and dry fly fishing can be good even on the coldest days. Spring creek fish are normally know for being very picky and spooky, but during winter you will often find them to be much easier to catch.
Warmer days during winter will warm up the water on area rivers, and this can really get the fish feeding. Midge hatches can occur on any of the rivers, and you can find pods of trout rising to these small insects in slow moving backwaters. Nymphing is the most reliable method to catch fish during winter, and often times the trout will be holding in slower, deeper runs. Really cold water slows down a trout’s metabolism, so they don’t want to be fighting a strong current to catch something to eat. They will usually not swim very far to pick up a small bite to eat because this will consume more energy that it’s worth. This is why it is important to get your nymph rig down near the bottom of a hole where the trout are holding. Adjusting weight and indicator length can make a big difference when fishing during winter. Trout are often not very picky about fly patterns or tippet size in winter due to the lack of fishing pressure. Basic small nymphs like Zebra midges, Serendipities and Pheasant Tails trailed behind a larger nymph like a Pat’s Rubberleg or San Juan Worm often will get the job done.
Winter can offer productive fishing, and is often peaceful without the crowds experienced during summer. Wind is another factor that can ruin a day, so make sure to check the weather forecast before you go. Getting out on a nice winter day can be a great cure for that cabin fever too! Have fun and be safe out there.