The irony wasn’t lost on me. Putting waders on with cars driving past, skis attached to their roof racks. It made sense actually. It’s the middle of winter and just down the road, a ski resort beckons with fresh powder and tree lines for days. But the powder I decided to chase is a solitary type this time of year. The kind that crunches under the footsteps of deer, bighorn sheep, moose, and other animals. Not of the skier or snowboarder. That same powder however melts and creates the rivers we fish. Most anglers prefer to ski this time of year, but I like to wade through the thigh-deep powder to cast rather than sit in a chair lift and ride someone else’s coattails.
The challenge is serious however. Starting the car in the morning with a thick coating of ice on the windshield, the last thought is to put waterproof leggings on essentially and stand in the near freezing water all to get a glimmer of a fish you have caught months prior in shorts and a t-shirt. But that ode to solitary bliss is one filled with eager trout and a river devoid of humans, for good reason.
Winter fly fishing in Montana gives an excuse to sit in a heated car for a little longer than normal. Lets me over drink warm coffee and tea while I gaze out the window and admire the sheer silence of the river. Watch animals thrive without the worry of fellow anglers. Feeling the tips of toes and fingers slowly go numb. But the time had come where the soul is filled and the sunlight begins to shine on a beautifully lit canyon and the prettiest green water. With the crunch of snow beneath my feet as I step out of my car, knowing the first tracks on this stretch of river are my own, and a great day on the river in winter is on the forecast.
My breath can be seen while I pull the rod tube out from the back and assemble it, feeding the line through the guides. Grabbing the chapstick and making sure I put some on the guides so the line doesn’t freeze them shut. The wool socks are difficult to feed into the thin foot liner of my waders but necessary to maximize time on the water. Coupled with long underwear and a pair of pants, the legs are difficult as well. The boots slip on but the shoulder straps and belly section of my waders give me grief as well with the numerous layers of base layers, shirts, and sweaters to keep my core warm.
Possibly the most challenging part of fishing this time of year up here isn’t the cold, but the weather. A bright sunny day often screams like the temperature will be warm, but it is quite the contrary. Sunny days are often the coldest as the pressure gradient is high letting atmospheric temperatures descend upon the earth, cooling the ground to a level of frozen in winter that stuns trout. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t any less hungry as the warmer overcast days. The weather, however, dictates the pattern, and a dropper nymph rig is often the go-to for sunny, clear, and cold days.
Between work and other obligations, my choice of weather is either overcast or a snow day. Meaning the sun is blocked and the temperature can be controlled. The cloud cover holds the temperature and warms the days allowing the trout to open their range from an appetite of nymph rigs, to slowly swung streamers or even some dry fly action with midges buzzing the surface of back eddies and slow moving water.
Regardless of the weather, presentation is everything. The trout are as slow-moving as you are and despite the need for insects to survive until more food is present, you must dangle your flies with the utmost of perfection. Making them open their mouths to feed. Fishing the slow and deep pockets on the edges of light where shade darkens the water, creating a habitat for trout to hide and camouflage with little to no worry.
The takes also differ from other seasons. Though some hook sets can be with the viciousness of a salmon fly hatch, most are a subtle dip in the indicator, a sip of a midge from the surface, or a gentle tug from the swung streamer. Even the fight could be misleading as it usually isn’t long or hard-fought. But with each trout brought in to shore, the smile is the same. Though handling the fish should be at a minimum, even less so than any other season, you can still take in the colors and admiration from the shallow water running through their gills.
Nevertheless the day, temperature, or time, the worry of other anglers crowding a spot or the holes of overpressured fish become moot. As the only angler is typically you and the overpressured fish are in their own solitary confinement without so much as a worry of an insect disguised with pheasant hair or shines of fluorescent garments. They go undisturbed throughout months of ice-laden riverbanks and hours of darkness.
But it is in these few hours a day where sunlight shines in Montana, that the solitude of the driven angler can not just find peace on the river with the animals and trout, but a season of fly fishing that, on its day, can match any other season of the year.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.