Now that winter has officially arrived – even if global warming means that temperatures sometimes feel more like September – it’s the time of year when a lot of anglers think about a well earned break from our sport. A lot, but not all. Those of us who simply cannot bear to be parted from the game for more than a few days at a time are looking at winter fishing and the options, particularly on small STILLWATERS, are many.
Unless conditions are truly vile, there’s very little that compares with a crisp winters day on the water. Provided you take all the reasonable precautions and use sensible clothing then winter fishing can be every bit as challenging, enjoyable and rewarding as anything we do in high summer. On occasion, it can even be more fun and you’ll always have the certainty that you’re fishing with fellow anglers who are even bit as committed – some might even say eccentric – as you are!
I also have to put a quick word in here for the owners of small STILLWATERS. They, arguably more than any other style of fishery have a real commitment in offering us anglers year-round fishing, and it follows that we should return that by supporting them through these tougher months. Last summer was hardly a vintage one and whilst for us it simply meant that we didn’t have the greatest fishing ever, for the fishery owners it translated directly into reduced revenue So an extra day or two right now WILL make a difference to them and they’ll be more than a little pleased to see us.
So let’s imagine for a moment that Christmas is a fading memory, that we have a free Saturday with nothing in the diary, and that the pale sunshine is tempting us out of doors. The fishery welcome mat is out and we’re heading for the water. Here are my top tips for getting the most out of the day.
Layers: you’ve heard it before but it still amazes me that most people’s idea of fishing clothing is little more than a jacket and maybe a waistcoat. The key to staying comfortable at this (and indeed ANY) time of year is LAYERS. Airflo offer some superb lightweight layers to keep you warm and importantly to keep you flexible. Avoid layers that simply add bulk and think instead about layers that allow you freedom of movement. Thermal underwear may not be a fashion statement but they are massively valuable, as is a light outer layer such as the Airflo thermolite Jacket. Remember that a dry and comfortable angler is always a more EFFECTIVE angler.
Weatherproof: and by this I don’t just mean waterproof, I mean proof against all weathers. Conditions at this time of year change rapidly and if you’re hiking around the lake or you’re more than five minutes from the car then you’ll need to think wind and waterproof as well as warm and dry. Nothing cuts a day short like having a cold run of water down the back of your neck! My Airtex jacket kept me dry this year in the worst that an Icelandic storm could throw at me, and I stayed fishing long after others had left for the hotel.
Food items: think about what the trout might, should, and could be eating. Yes, it’s true that some aquatic insect life tends to shut down for winter but this is by no means universal. I’ve seen good midge hatches in January and February, and in lakes where Spring fed water keeps temperatures up you can be really surprised at the level of activity. There’s a strong case to match the hatch as cold weather sport is emphatically NOT all about gaudy streamers and attractors.
Water inflow: it goes without saying that you should always try to read the water, but the real banker in cold weather is any kind of water inflow. It might be little more than a trickle, but any kind of flow will attract fish to a greater or lesser degree. Dissolved oxygen levels are always a key factor in finding areas where fish will hold.
Water depth: this is probably the second most crucial factor to influence where you choose to fish. In cold conditions the fish will inevitably look for deeper water and the deeper it is then the more chance there is of thermoclines. Sometimes the natural lay of the land will show you how the contours work, but on man-made lakes your best bet is simply to ask the owner or manager where the deeper areas are. Look for a VARIETY of depth if at all possible, as fish will move in and out of the deeper areas at different times of day.
Bankside features: It might sound absurdly obvious, but I ALWAYS look for bankside features both to hide me from view AND to provide underwater structure. Yes the willow tree on the bank provides shade and helps with watercraft, but less obvious is that the same willow will have a substantial root structure beneath the water surface. This in turn will hold food items for the fish, as well as providing them with cover and a retreat.
Keep moving: Wide open spaces along the bank may make for nice easy casting, but unless you’re extremely careful with your profile then you’ll very quickly have a fish exclusion zone in front of you. Even when you’re using the bankside cover its still a good idea to keep moving and changing your spot. Unless there’s a VERY good reason, I never spend more than 20 minutes without moving.
Speed of retrieve: in very general terms, the slower the retrieve the better at this time of year. The fish tend to get lethargic in very cold water and will be less inclined to chase a fly, so give them plenty of time to make up their minds. We’ve all seen those fish that seem to follow and turn away at the last moment – the reality is that they’ve probably been following for ages and we’re simply retrieving too fast.
Line choice: This goes hand-in-hand with retrieve speed. For my money, there’s very little that cannot be achieved with either a floating line or a slow intermediate. The Airflo ‘slow glass’ intermediate is probably the default choice for winter fishing as it allows so much flexibility, yet at the same time enables you to explore most if not all of the depths.
Fly choice: The ‘life’ factor: with slower retrieves it follows that flies with more natural ‘life’ in them will work better. Keep the streamlined and sparse flies for summer and choose patterns with soft feather or hackles. Nymphs and attractors tied too tight will look ‘wooden’ and lifeless whilst those with soft dubbings, mobile body materials, softer hackles and even rubber legs will look SO much better.
Timing: the middle hours of the day are almost always the best. Early morning is rarely my favourite time, particularly after an overnight frost. In similar vein, the last hour of the day rarely produces good sport as the fish are thinking about heading for deeper water to cope with the long winter nights. Even a little midday sunshine can work wonders for aquatic life, as well as giving us anglers a little extra vigour with a touch of warmth on our backs!
Last but by no means least is the packed lunch! I always include not one but TWO thermos flasks in winter, one for coffee and the other for a good thick soup. After a ten minute break with what my Dad used to call a ‘good rib sticker’ soup then I’m always ready for more fishing!
Tightlines, Chris Ogborne.