Winter Trout: The Cold Truth

January 29, 2024 By: Richard Donnelly

Image by Mike Doughty

On the first of January winter fly fishing opens in Minnesota. I broke out the waders and retrieved fly rods, carefully stored. I checked line and tied new tippets. I screwed studs into soles, found gloves and hats, gassed the truck, and charged my phone. Then I took a nap.

I was tired. Plus, it was ten degrees below zero.

Have you stood in a creek in that kind of weather? Nether have I, and wasn’t going to try.

The following week I got luckier. Or unluckier, depending on your outlook. The forecast predicted temperatures in the 30’s. Close enough.

Why did I want to fly fish in January? Why would anyone? Well, there is a bit of a “because it’s there” challenge. And since northern states have winter seasons, it’s there.

If you’re thinking about it, here’s some advice: Studded boots are essential. Wear your duck gear, a face mask, and your wife’s scarf. Fashion be damned, we’re looking at brute survival.

In summer I fish a seven foot six three weight. But winter water is low and clear, with spooky trout. I jointed up a nine-foot, six-weight. I anticipated long casts, and knew a bigger rod and reel would work better in cold hands.

Winter angling is catch and release. I carefully crimped the barbs on hooks. All non-keeping anglers should do this anyway. Use the smallest needle nose pliers, being careful not to blunt the hook.     

Next, to fight ice build-up, I sprayed cooking oil on rod guides. An old ice fishing trick, it works just as well on fly rods.

What flies to use? Incredibly, midges and tiny stoneflies hatch all winter. I found a #22 Griffith’s in my box. Then dropped it on the floor. Then couldn’t find it. The heck with it. Bottom-dwelling larvae are active year-round, and I knotted a #14 Prince beadhead and threw the rod in the back of the pickup. I was going locked and loaded.

The next morning it was a balmy thirty-five, cloudy, with little wind. Where to go? The South Root River winds through a deep canyon of limestone walls. Springs insure a constant, clear flow. One of my favorite roadhouses, the Buckhorn, sits creekside. That might have affected my choice.

The beauty of bluff country is no less beautiful in winter. Wooded hills are white with snow. Lack of foliage reveals frozen seeps and still-life cascades. I parked at an old bridge and grabbed my rod. Innumerable tracks, rabbit, fox, and mink crisscrossed the drifts. A snowmobile trail provided good walking along the river, which bubbled between ice and snow-covered rocks. After a couple hundred yards I saw a series of likely pools. I stepped off the snowmobile trail and sank into fresh, mid-thigh snow.

I hadn’t counted on this. I made it to creek bank, which dropped fifteen feet to the water. Sitting, I pointed my feet, and holding the rod high tobogganed in.

Shore ice broke under my boots. I landed on marble-size gravel. I was fishing.

Ahead, a plunge poured between two ice-covered boulders. I shucked my gloves. You can’t fish with gloves. Then cast a dozen times, letting the bead wander back. Every third cast the line stalled and fell in coils. In cold weather fly line is stiffer and trickier to cast. Yeah, that was it.

I had a strike. Heart thumping, I hauled back. Nothing. I had reacted too quickly. Cold weather trout take the fly with less aggression. I cast again. The line paused, then moved sideways.

Fish on!

Trout are supposed to be sluggish in winter. Not this one. When I had him close he saw me and dashed for the falls. I ran upstream, cutting him off. I got him from behind, netting a twelve inch rainbow, the pink and blue subdued, a winter coloration. Still, the chrome-sided rainbow is pretty in any season.

Keeping the net in the water, I slipped the hook out and released him.

I decided to walk upcreek, mostly to get the blood pumping. Carefully, I climbed over the rocky chute, and I mean carefully, hugging the bank. The rocks were covered with ice. Beside me, the whole river poured through.

I stood in riffles but couldn’t go on. My hands were freezing. I lowered my waders, undid my belt, and stuck hands between legs. In winter fishing, it’s survival over dignity every time.

Once the sting left my hands I got fancy, and tied on a Royal Coachman. Then watched the river. A trout flicked the surface. I stripped line and aimed for that, glad to have the reach of the six weight. With no foliage I got a good backcast going and threw a forty-five footer.

The take was immediate. Rod bending I pulled the trout, a nice one, into ankle-deep water. The leader zigzagged. Like the last, this one had plenty of punch. He ran by me, using the current. It was make or break. I shortened the line, got his snout out of the water and quick-netted him, a sixteen inch brown. The black spots were big and numerous, like spattered paint.

I jiggled the hook free. The fish wandered into a deep cut then disappeared. You can always be proud of a big brown on a dry fly. The brown trout is nobody’s fool.

I cast a few more times. Then quit. I’d caught my winter trout, and I was cold.

Now I needed a place to step out. There was none. The lowest spot offered a snow and ice-covered four foot wall.

The rod went first, thrown like a javelin. I got a boot up and slipped, planting my face in the snow. Some limbs from a fallen tree broke off in my hands. I used these like ice picks. Chopping, crawling and swearing, I climbed out.

It was a cold slog back to the truck. The Buckhorn was open. God Bless the roadhouse.

I sat steaming at the bar. A big man in an apron walked through double doors. “We haven’t started lunch yet,” he said, drying his hands. “But you can get breakfast.”

“Can I see the menu?”

“Sure. But there’s only one breakfast. Three eggs, sausage, hash browns, and coffee. What do you think?”

Over easy, brother.

That place put the life back into me. I even thought about a shot of blackberry schnapps. Then decided against it. I didn’t want to ruin my coffee buzz.

Driving home, I rolled by limestone bluffs. Frozen cascades fell from canyon walls. I’ve never tried ice climbing. Or maybe I have. In the Northland, it’s called winter fishing. Check your rope and have at it.