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Pro Tips: How to Fly Fish in the Winter

The middle of January is here and most rods and reels are stored for winter. But for the few hardy enough to brave the conditions, these dark days can offer some of the most rewarding fishing of the year. Cheeky caught up with Cheeky Armada member and native Alaskan Tessa Shetter to learn her expert advice for fishing during these cold winter months. 

How to Fly Fish in the Winter

By Tessa Shetter

In Alaska, the winter season takes up about 75% of the year, meaning that fly-fishing enthusiasts like myself need to find ways to get through the below-zero temperatures and frozen waters to catch fish. Here are a few tips for fishing during the winter chill:

Find water, find the food

The first key to winter fishing is finding open water that you can fish. Here in southern Alaska, lakes and slow moving water freeze over right away and often don't open again until mid spring. To fish during the winter, I head to larger rivers and streams with a steady flow of water to prevent ice buildup, but you may also have some luck by checking the mouths of creeks as well.

The colder water during this time of year means that fish will do everything they can to conserve their energy, including passing on a meal if it requires too much energy to chase down. The trickiest parts about winter fishing are figuring out what the fish want to eat, and presenting your fly to them in a way that will entice a strike. During winter here in Alaska, fish tend to feed off the leftover scraps of fish from the previous season, such as dead salmon flesh and eggs. These meals represent an easy and calorie-packed bite, and you should try to offer the same in your fly selection and presentation. Slowly drift or strip a big fly through pockets of slower water for your best bet to get a hit.

Try slow retrieves that don't require fish to exert too much energy

During late winter and early spring, trout, dollies, grayling begin feeding on sculpin patterns. Just like fishing every other day out of the year, you never know exactly what the fish are wanting to eat that specific day, so it’s the typical method of trial and error.

Another thing to always consider when winter fishing is that most water conditions during this season are pretty dry, meaning the waters are slow since it’s too cold for the snow to melt. I learned this the hard way by floating the Kenai River in March, and it took over 7 hours of non-stop floating when on an average summer day, it takes about 3 hours. So, definitely take the water conditions in consideration when planning a float trip during the winter!

Stay warm with the right gear

Gear-wise, it’s always better to bring too much than not enough. Whether you're fishing by boat or foot, bring as much warm gear as you can possibly carry. I wear plenty of base layers under my Gore-Tex waders, as well as a thick, waterproof jacket and warm hat and gloves. It can be tricky to hold your rod and reel with gloves on, so I recommend cut-off gloves with the foldable mitten flap. Use whatever rod and reel you would use during anytime of the year (I use Cheeky reels) and average about 9’-12’ of leader, depending on the waters you are fishing.

Equipped with her Boost 400, the author wages battle with an Alaskan trout

If you’re fishing by boat, the best technique I’ve discovered is to bring a small, portable heater along with an umbrella to trap the heat. The portable heater can also be used to melt ice off your rod and reel, which can poorly affect your chances of reeling in a fish! You can also dip your rod into the water for a couple seconds to melt the ice, but that method doesn’t last long and the ice will eventually reform.

If fishing by boat, portable space heaters are a great way to stay warm on the water

With the right gear, open waters, and a happy attitude, you should be all set to fish as much as you want during the winter! Know your limits, be safe, and stay warm!

Follow Tessa Shetter on Instagram.