Fly Fishing in the Dead of Winter

I look out at the pond: a few square feet of punky skim ice desperately clings to the snow-free banks in a shaded cove. Meanwhile, in the main pond, the late-afternoon sun is reflected by waves gently rolling across the water’s surface. It’s mid-February; the pond should locked under a thick layer of milky-white ice. I should be wearing snowshoes, not sneakers. The pole in my hand should be a 30-inch jigging stick, not a 9-foot 5-weight fly rod. And yet, more frequently than ever, this has become winter in Massachusetts.

Just a week later, I’m back at the pond. Today I’m trudging through a few inches of freshly fallen powder, admiring the water locked under a few inches of ice. The frosted landscape seems to have done a complete 180 from the last time I visited. I take a second to savor it, fully expecting the fleeting winter season to be gone in a matter of days.

The cycles of this year’s winter have given all us anglers headaches. Will I be fishing out of a kayak in open water next weekend, or will I be setting traps on hard water? More than likely, an annoyingly thin coating of ice will render stillwaters unfishable, while melting snow or freezing rain blows out rivers. Even On The Water’s fishing reports have become depressingly grim; when a few scattered pike and largemouths are the highlight of a week of fishing throughout the entire state, one can’t help but dream of the warmer days ahead.

Despite the unfavorable conditions, one hardy group of anglers has remained successful: fly fishers. Perhaps it is due to shared brain damage after being hit in the back of the head by one too many Clouser Minnows, but the fly fishing clan doesn’t seem bothered by the (relative) cold and lousy weather. In fact, they appear more adept at finding fish through this cyclic winter than any other anglers.

If you’ve seen the Instagram posts fellow Blog Fly Fish team member Joel Watson has been pumping out, then you know what I’m talking about. The guy is a fish-catching machine. He has certainly proven the effectiveness of fly fishing when the mercury plummets, and has been generous sharing his tactics in a recent blog post. 15 degrees or 50, Joel has been out on the river roping trout this winter.

But I couldn’t let Joel catch all the fish. With one eye on the weather app and one eye on my vise (a very difficult skill that requires utmost concentration), I prepared to take full advantage of the few upcoming spells of warm weather.

As soon as the last of the ice had melted from a small local pond, you know I was the first one fishing its recently unpressured waters. Except I wasn’t. Joining me was a group of three bait fishers casting softball-sized bobbers and globs of worms. They announced they had drew several nibbles from small fish, but had yet to tempt anything of size.

I settled in on the opposite shore, eventually getting the entire pond to myself. Within about 20 minutes, I managed to land a cannibalistic 12-or-so inch perch on my very-own SPF 40 streamer, a realistic imitation of juvenile perch. In my opinion, cold water perch have to be some of the prettiest fish out there. Their fiery-orange fins and pronounced vertical bars almost rival the patterns of fall brook trout (though not quite).

The rest of the trip was a bit of a slog, with only a couple other missed strikes. After another 40 minutes of fruitless casting, I threw in the towel.

A few days later, the warm spell reached its peak before the mercury would plummet once again. I knew I couldn’t let the 50-degree day slip by without taking at least a few casts, so I packed my Euro nymphing gear with me on a quick trip to my favorite fly shop, Concord Outfitters. Each fall, the shop stocks a small section of the nearby Assabet River with a healthy dose of rainbows and browns. Along with a flourishing population of creek chub, these stocked trout support one of the few winter fishing options in eastern Massachusetts.

With a very brief 30-minute window to fish, I wasn’t holding my breath for much of anything. During the winter it typically takes at least that long to find where the fish are holding, and another half-hour to thaw your fingers before continuing. Thankfully the temps were unseasonably warm and the fish fairly uneducated, because I was able to fool a chub and a rainbow before it was time to go. I didn’t kill ’em like Joel, but it was mission accomplished in my book.

Now it appears as though we’ve entered another cycle of semi-wintery weather. There’s too much ice to fish the ponds, and I’m not stupid enough to fish the rivers with the amount of snow runoff. No better time to break out the vise and get to cranking out those confidence patterns before I lose half of them to the same damn log this spring (it seems I never learn). Happy tying!

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