Fly fishing in Southwestern Montana in the winter can be quite productive if you understand more about how to fish at this time of year. Many of the techniques used in the warmer summertime months do not apply and you must change your game to have success in the winter months.
Important ideas to considerer winter fly fishing in Montana:
Water temperature plays an important part of fly fishing at any time of year. When water temps drop, trout have a tendency to slow down their metabolism and become less active. I generally fish when the air temperatures are above 32 degrees, due to my own comfort level. Research shows that trout feed between water temperatures of 40-70 degrees. If water temps are much below 40 degrees, it might be best to wait for a warm spell. On that note, there is no reason to get out there early. Let things warm up a bit before you head to the river. The best fishing will be during the warmest part of the day. For us here in Montana, that usually means fishing between 11am and 3pm.
When fishing in the winter, generally you should be fishing nymphs. There isn’t much dry fly activity going on so general nymphs are the standard. Bead head flies of local patterns are good and matching general nymphs found in your local rivers and streams are key. For winter fly fishing in Southwestern Montana, Prince nymphs, stonefly nymphs, midge nymphs and flashy nymphs work well. On occasion, you might come across some rising fish. These trout will be sipping midge adults, which are the only insects that hatch during the winter. A small parachute Adams or a Griffith’s gnat works well for trout sipping midges.
During the winter months you are going to want to concentrate on the slower water and deeper runs and pools. Forget those fast riffles and swift moving water. The trout will not be expending energy to fight the currents, they are trying to save energy at this time of year. The trout should be hugging the bottom of the river and sometimes it take a few drifts in front of them to get their attention. Just because the trout are less active doesn’t mean that they cannot be caught. Just remember that they won’t be charging across the river to eat your fly. They are generally hugging the bottom of the river and moving short distances to eat. Fishing thoroughly is very important. Be patient and keep getting good drifts, it will pay off. Make subtle adjustments if you are not having success. Adding extra weight and/or adjusting your indicator can make a big difference in your wintertime success.
When fly fishing in the winter time, if it is cold enough outside, you will develop ice on your line and rod guides. This is a major pain when fishing and you will definitely have to take the time clean your rod of ice. There are a few things you can do to help prevent this though. Keep your cast short and limit your false casting as much as possible. There are many home remedies to help with the ice issues. Spraying cooking spray on your rod can help. Some people put chapstick on their rod guides to help as well. There are some products out there that you can purchase at your local fly shop. Loon makes a paste that helps with ice building up. Personally, I have tried about everything. The Loon paste works decently, cooking spray is okay, but the truth is that ice is going to build up on your rod regardless if it is cold enough outside. Be extremely careful when removing ice. Rods are a little more brittle in the cold and chipping away ice with your fingernail can cause damage. Dipping your rod and line in the water for a few seconds will help keep the ice from building up, keeping it somewhat ice free.
Dressing for winter fishing is very important to your comfort. If dressed properly, you can fish for extended periods of time. Otherwise, it is vey tough to stay out in the elements and enjoy fishing. The first thing is to dress in layers. A good base layer of thermal underwear is mandatory. Then a good pair of warm socks. Your feet will be in the cold water the most, and having a decent pair of warm socks is a must. I wear a pair of fleece pants over the long underwear. They provide another pair of warmth and are comfortable under the waders. For the top half of my body, I usually have a thermal top, a warm button up shirt, and then either a sweater or fleece. If needed, I then have a jacket over the top. If it is warm but windy, a good rain jacket works well to block the wind. If it is cold out I usually have a puffy jacket over everything. A buff or silk scarf keeps the cold chill off my neck. Finally a warm hat and a couple pairs of fingerless gloves. The gloves are bound to get wet eventually and having a dry pair will only extend your fishing time. You want to make sure that your boots aren’t too tight with the heavier socks. Tight boots will make circulation in your feet tough and they have a tendency to get colder much faster.
If doing a lot of wading, it’s a good idea to have a wading staff as well. This will prevent any unwanted spills, which at this time of the year will immediately put an end to your fishing.
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