Winter is fast approaching, and so are the cold temperatures and long nights that come with it. Unfortunately, it’s not here yet, and for now, we are stuck in the dreary time of late fall. As I write this, a wintery mix of freezing rain and snow fall outside my house, putting a damper on my dreams of testing the flies I tied this morning. While this time of year isn’t the most conducive to banner days of fishing, there are ways to find fish throughout this in-between season.
With thoughts of ice fishing on my mind, I headed out to catch my first ever fish in December. If I were to accomplish this near herculean task, I would have caught a fish every month this year. I guess 2020 isn’t so bad after all! Nevertheless, it would be a struggle. December isn’t a month for the faint-of-heart. You need to be determined, and ready to face any conditions. Gloves and hand warmers are a must. Should you touch the water or a fish, your hands will be so cold it won’t even be possible to cast anymore. In addition, wool socks will make a world of difference when you inevitably get your feet wet. Crucial gear in hand, I was on my way to my first spot.
On December 1st, cabin fever had already made me sick by midday, so by the the end of school, I was more than happy to make a trip to a nearby river. The river was high and muddy due to the recent influx of rain, but I didn’t let that stop me. Into the fifteen mile-an-hour winds I cast my double-nymph rig for over an hour-and-a-half, but alas, no bites.
My next outing, I expected, would yield similar results. This time, I ventured to a great cold weather pond because of its abundance of pickerel and perch. These two species stay active year-round. I brought with me a baitcaster and spinning rod, plus lots of other gear to keep me warm.
After less than an hour of fishing, I was rewarded with my first ever fish in December! It was a pickerel that had taken a texas-rigged white fluke, a killer in the spring as well. After shouting with excitement as I often do after succeeding to catch a tough fish, I really hoped no one was around. It wasn’t big, but it sure put a smile on my face. Now, with cold and wet hands, I was really happy I had brought a hand warmer.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic, but I have certainly learned some things about late fall fishing over the past month. I find that often, the more difficult something is, the more you learn and remember. It certainly hasn’t been easy to catch a fish lately, but that also means that I have picked up some valuable knowledge that will benefit both the beginner and expert angler alike.
Wear gloves. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I see many people fishing without gloves as it gets cold. That may be fine when it’s relatively warm out, but as soon as the temperature starts dropping, you’ll be wishing you had something to keep your hands warm. Excess water from the fishing line will quickly cause your hands to become numb if you’re not careful. Even a thin pair of rubber gloves will keep the moisture off your hands, which surprisingly makes a huge difference. When it gets really cold, I’d suggest that you have a thin pair of gloves to fish in, as well as a warm pair of mittens to regularly warm up your hands. Unfortunately, wearing gloves while handling fish can be very destructive to the slime coatings that protect them from diseases. When you catch a fish, make sure to remove your gloves, but try to get them back on as quickly as possible. This is yet another reason to reduce fish handling time. Hand warmers can also help heat your hands if you are regularly removing your gloves.
Bring a net and forceps/pliers. This goes along with reducing fish handling time while keeping your hands warm. With a net and forceps or pliers, you can completely eliminate the need to touch the fish. Once the fish is in the net, simply grab the hook with your tool of choice and back it out. This will not only keep your hands from getting wet and cold, but will keep the fish healthy. The eyes of fish will quickly freeze up and become permanently damaged if kept out of the water for too long in cold conditions. Keep yourself, as well as your aquatic friends, comfortable.
Stick to your favorite spots. Although fish will often move once it becomes cold, your favorite spots might still hold fish. Much like during the summer, winter fish will congregate in deep holes, submerged wood, surviving weeds, and in rivers, deep pools with little current. The key during late fall is to move frequently because fish school up. Your first spot may not hold any fish, but sooner or later your bound to find some. Honestly, this isn’t the time to go find new bodies of water, so fishing familiar places can also give you an edge. Give each spot about fifteen minutes, and if it isn’t producing, then it’s time to move.
Switch flies/lures often. During the winter, fish’s metabolisms slow down a lot, and they begin to become much more lethargic when it comes to eating. Some days they’ll take a jerkbait or streamer fished with long pauses, but other times all they want is a tiny dropshot or midge. It can be frustrating to figure these fish out as they don’t have a set feeding pattern like they do in other months. The key is to not stick with the same offering if you aren’t getting bit in a spot where you know there are fish. Even though there were some sporadic hatches at the river, and fish occasionally sipped the midges from the water’s surface, I was reluctant to switch my fly to something that stayed higher in the water column. It can be a guessing game to know exactly what they’re eating, but by offering a wide variety of choices, you will eventually narrow it down. This doesn’t mean you’ll want to switch, because believe me, tying knots in the cold is no fun. However, it can be extremely rewarding.
Don’t dwell on bad days. There is no doubt about it. The cold is unforgiving, and the water won’t give up its bounty like it did during the summer. You’ll have to work harder and smarter to find fish, but in the end, it is all worth it. That being said, you will have some truly terrible days. Everyone has them this time of year, including the pros. You have to persevere, and use that failure as fuel for the next time you head out. Try to understand what went wrong so that you don’t repeat those same mistakes next time. Late fall fishing is all about grinding away until you finally find some success. Until then, it will be a struggle, and you will become discouraged. Just remember that the greatest anglers are always those who don’t give up when the going gets tough.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m also still learning. It will take time for you to find patterns that allow you to truly hammer fish this time of year. Until then, stick with it, and have fun.
This time of year is also great for staying inside and enjoying fly tying. There is no better way to spend a snowy evening than in front of a vice. Be on the lookout for more fly tying posts in the near future. For now, though, try out some of these tips that should help you have a more pleasing end to this wacky year.