Wintry Conditions

Water temperature is one of the major factors affecting fish feeding behavior and will dictate the best type of presentation. Why is this so important for being able to catch fish? In winter conditions when the water temperature is below 50 degrees, trout become sluggish due to a slower metabolism. A slower metabolism creates a lethargic feeding pattern. Trout will be scattered throughout the lake positioned in the top four to six feet of water. The bottom of the lake may not have enough oxygen and the top layer of the water often is colder since water freezes from the top down. With colder water temperatures, it is better to fish mid-day when the water will be its warmest. What is the best type of presentation to use in these fishing conditions?

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Photo by Stan Low

A break in December’s cold Northwest winter storms turned my thoughts toward grabbing my rod and heading over to an Oregon Fishing Club private lake close to Portland, Oregon. My palms became clammy with anticipation of feeling a tight line straining against the pull of a leaping trout. That compelled me to brave the wintry conditions. However, upon arrival my first mistake was not to get back into the car and head to my favorite coffee shop: 80% of the lake was frozen over.

Fishing in these conditions required maneuvering my SuperCat pontoon boat through thick, viscous, and frigid water while breaking the ice with the fins on my feet; this generated visions of the story and ultimate fate of the Titanic. The viscous water felt like paddling through molasses. Since the fish were not going to race after the fly, my strategy was to get the fly to the depth where the fish were holding.

My first approach: I selected a floating line with an indicator and a chironomid fly pattern. While this approach is known to be deadly effective in cold water, the ice limited access to different areas of the lake creating a challenge in locating any fish.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

My second approach: I used a clear camo intermediate full sink line – which sinks approximately one foot in ten seconds – an all-purpose (aka A.P.) fly, made 40 foot casts in between the ice sheets where I knew the water depth to be seven feet. Without moving the line, I counted down 30 seconds, allowing the line to drop 3 feet below the surface, then used a very slow, 4-inch retrieve, pulling the line horizontally through the water column. This technique rewarded me with two 16-inch trout and another soft strike in 30 minutes. Why did this work? Most likely an even larger fly such as a leech or seal bugger pattern would have worked. The key element was being able to probe the water column to the depth where the fish were feeding triggering a reactionary response to the fly.

I continued fishing until the ice began reform around me, cutting off my retreat to the shore line. Realizing the I could be stuck in the lake until the spring thaw, I grudgingly worked my way back to shore breaking the ice and returned to my fly tying bench. I left the lake satisfied yet anxious for warmer conditions.

Watch for the January Blog entry on the topic of “Water Temperature

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