Have you noticed? While the snow is slowly disappearing, the number of people fly fishing is at its annual low. Even those of us lucky enough to live near an unfrozen body of water aren’t fishing through the winter with the same frequency or zeal that we did during the warmer months.
But mass restlessness stirs beneath the surface. It won’t be long before you’re reminded how good it felt to have air temps above 50 degrees and you’re driving home after work with every window rolled down. Meanwhile bugs are thinking the same thing (sort of).
If every other year has been any lesson, the first days of the fishing season will be here in the blink of an eye, and you’re going to want to be ready for them.
First things first. Before you start tying or buying flies for the upcoming season, go through your boxes and get rid of the experiments gone wrong from last year as well as any with rusted hooks. Organize your boxes so that you can find the fly you need, when you need it. And why not take the time to put your contact info on your fly boxes, should you lose them? I’ve learned to do this the hard way — twice.
Fly Line Maintenance
Take your lines off the spool and clean them. There are many methods. I soak mine in warm dish water, and then thoroughly rinse them off a couple times in an effort not to leave any soapy residue on the line. Any residual soapy reside will be a magnet for dirt and grime.
Once they’re thoroughly clean, run the lines through a dry, microfiber cloth as well as your fingers, feeling for any rough spots. Rough spots and/or cracks will prevent your line from floating to its maximum potential, as well as hamper it from shooting through the guides. If you find a small rough spot or crack every here and there, you can probably squeak another season out of a line. (If you’d like to take a crack at repairing your line, here’s a handy guide.) If most of the line appears to be dry-rotted, or has frequent rough spots, it is in your best interest to buy a new line.
Check Your Backing
Unspool your backing. All of it. Whether or not you even saw your backing last year, it’s a good idea to unspool it for a quick once-over. Chances are good there will be a spot or two where it’s stuck and you might even find knot or some abrasion. Wait to spool it back on until after you clean/lube your reel.
Once your reels are free of backing and fly line, thoroughly clean off the dirt, sand, or any other debris that might have accumulated. Also, clean off any old grease with a degreasing agent or even brake cleaner, which has the advantage of evaporating and leaving no residue. Once your reel is sparkling clean, apply some fresh lubricant. Don’t get any type of grease or oil on your fly line — or the braking surface of your drag! If taking stuff apart and putting it back together isn’t your thing, most reel manufacturers will be happy to service your reel for a nominal fee. If your reel has a sealed drag and you’d like to make sure everything inside is in working order for the coming season, you should send it to the manufacturer for servicing, as self-servicing a sealed drag will void most warranties.
Fly Rod Checkup
There’s not a whole lot to do with rods, but it’s probably a good idea to look your rods over for any signs of stress. Even a small nick creates a weak spot. I also like to take an old toothbrush and go over the threads on my reel seat to remove any dirt or sand. Clean the entire blank, paying special attention to areas where dirt and grime like to build up, such as in the guide feet. Also clean the male and female ferrules with a pipe cleaner or a soft baby-bottle scrubbing brush.
Clean Out and Organize Your Vest
“There’s that peanut butter and jelly sandwich I couldn’t find last summer! Still tastes great!”
Empty out all of the pockets in your vest and organize everything so you can find it on opening day or at 2 a.m. in mid-June during a hex spinner fall. Make sure you’ve got enough split shot, bobbers, floatant, and indicators to get you through at least the first month of the season. Check your vest’s zippers, Velcro, and hydration pack for any signs they might need repaired or replaced.
Whether you build your own leaders or buy the store-bought ones, make sure you’ve got enough leaders in the sizes you need them in. Throw out old leaders that aren’t made of fluorocarbon (regular nylon degrades rapidly). I usually tend to purchase 3X leaders in bulk, as they allow you to go down to 6X without major casting issues.
If you use knotless tapered leaders, you’ll be interested in this tidbit of advice I learned from TroutHunter co-owner Rich Paini at the International Fly Tackle Dealer show. Paini said, “Always cut off the last 18 inches of a tapered leader and tie on a new tippet, because the machines have a hard time controlling quality on the end. So the strength is unpredictable.”
When streamer fishing for trout, I usually carry spools of 20-, 14-, 8- and 6-pound fluorocarbon and build my leaders on stream. For most water conditions, I use an 18-inch, 20-pound butt section blood-knotted to about 24-inches of 12-pound test. As water clarity increases, I lengthen my leader and go to a lighter pound test, usually 14 and 6. If water is very stained or silty, I will often use straight 20-pound test. When using streamers for warmwater species such as largemouth bass and northern pike, my leader is usually around 6-feet long, and tapered from 14- to 6-pound test. If you’re fishing heavy cover, don’t be afraid to shorten your leader to as little as 3-feet, and you can go as high as 20-pound test. You’ll need it.
When targeting carp, I like to use the longest leader I can comfortably cast, which is about 12 to 14-feet, tapered from 20- to 8-pound test.
As you did with leaders, make sure you’ve got enough tippet to get you through the first month of the season. Most anglers I know carry the basics — single spools of tippet from 4X to 7X.
Check Your Thermometer
If you’re a die-hard trout fisherman or a dedicated bass angler, you know water temperature is everything. So buy a thermometer if you don’t already have one. If you do have one, test it. (Unfortunately for me, the water everywhere I fished for the first few weeks of 2007 was 60° — I hadn’t checked it.) Most people aren’t carrying around a calibration kit for their pocket thermometer, so a good way to check is to turn your kitchen sink on and get the water to a temp that feels about body temperature– not hot, not cold. Your thermometer should read about 98°F. Next, run straight cold water to make sure your thermometer indicates the the water is getting colder.
Check your waders for leaks in the tub by folding the top closed and completely submerging them. If you see any bubbles coming out of them, they have a leak. Some manufacturers supply a wader repair patch with instructions for use, or you can patch a hole by coating it with Aquaseal. If you go the self-repair route, be sure that it won’t void your manufacturer’s warranty. The other—and best—option is to send them to the manufacturer to be serviced.
And I probably don’t need to mention this, but if you noticed a foul aroma when you were checking your waders for leaks, it’s a good time to wash them. Most wader manufacturers have a recommended procedure for washing waders on their Web site.
This is where it starts to get fun. Study aerials or topo maps. This is a great way to kill time in the off season. I’ve already found several areas that I’m excited to explore when the weather warms this spring, not to mention some better ways to get to spots I’ve already fished. Check out hatch charts if you’re going to fish a new area.
Practice tying knots that you’ll use on a regular basis. An old timer once told me that if you can’t tie a particular knot perfectly in the dark, you haven’t got it down yet. Every angler should have at least one knot mastered for making each of these connections: leader to fly line, tippet to leader, fly to tippet, and a loop knot for attaching streamers to tippet.
I threw streamers with the president of an anonymous chapter of Trout Unlimited a few seasons ago, the day after the previous year’s fishing license expired. We were having lunch afterward and I commented on the new season’s license color. Suddenly, he looked like he saw a ghost. Yup, he forgot to renew his license. If your state’s fishing licenses expire in the spring, make sure you don’t forget to renew your license.
Check Your Float Tube, Pontoon, Boat (or Stand-Up Paddleboard)
I can’t think of many things that would be worse than than to pack a watercraft into a backcountry stream or pond, only to find out it has a leak as you start to work your way away from the shoreline. Check air bladders for leaks, clean out pockets and check hardware and frame components for signs of wear now, while there is still time to order replacement parts. More complicated vessels like boats have a way of breaking all by themselves in the dead of winter (think batteries and electronics).
There are several waterproofing products on the market. Re-treat your rain gear, and any other gear such as tents, camera bags, vests and backpacks with a water-repelling agent. And by the way, many waterproof surfaces are less waterproof when dirty; wash the gear that benefits from a good soaking.
Make sure you can find your polarized sunglasses. Wipe them off and put them in your vest; no one should fly fish without protective lenses. And maybe it’s time for an upgrade. Many inexpensive sunglasses don’t offer any UV protection, and most have very poor optics — making keeping track of those early spring BWOs almost impossible. And if you do decided to get a new pair of sunglasses, you’re in luck: manufacturers now make tons of frame and lens sizes. Try a pair on before deciding whether they fit your face and offer the right combination of glare and wind protection you need.
Take your rod outside and practice casting. If you don’t fly fish year round it won’t hurt to knock a little rust off before you’re casting in actual fishing conditions. If you’ve got the extra money, the off-season is a great time to take a few casting lessons.
Set a Goal
It doesn’t always relieve the symptoms of cabin fever (it may actually make them worse), but setting goals for the upcoming fishing season is another great way to pass the time during the off-season. One year, after realizing that nymphing was my weakness, I made the goal to only fish nymphs for an entire season. If you’re unsure what goal you want to set, there are a plethora of options. You can pick anything from fishing a certain number of days, to catching a certain number of fish species, to fishing a certain number of places, or maybe just to focus on ditching the numbers and focusing on a higher quality fishing experience.
Last but definitely not least, you can beat the winter blues easily by planning for a trip to somewhere you’ve never been. If you’re a trout bum, think about the beach. If you’re tired of all that sunshine, book a trip to the mountains and fish the evening twilight. It’s all good. And spring is almost here.