Chills and Thrills: Winter Fishing

Imagine standing ankle deep in the Gallatin River, the crystal clear water purling around your waders, arm extended in front of you—the fly rod an extension of yourself—as you carefully drop a stonefly nymph into a deep pool. Near the bottom of the river trout (maybe rainbow or brown) slowly eye your fly and consider biting.

But you’re doing this in the middle of winter when the snow clings to the steep cliffs above the Gallatin and blankets the round hills. You’re hunkered into your polar fleece, a cap pulled low over your ears. You shove hand warmers in your fingerless gloves as you scan up and down the river, and save for your guide, no one else is there.

“People are surprised to find out they can be successful fishing in the winter,” says Lone Mountain Ranch General Manager Ennion Williams. Lone Mountain’s guided fishing program runs year-round, with frequent trips all winter long.

“When I first started winter fishing I was the only one on the river, no one else was out there,” says Gary Lewis who ran the Fishing Program at Lone Mountain Ranch for fifteen years and still guides for them year-round.

“Forty to fifty years ago it wouldn’t be possible to fish in the winter,” Lewis recalls, “The equipment in general would not be suitable.” Without fleece, Gortex and insulated waders, standing in a 30 degree F river could be chilling.

“We’re fisherman, so we like to be comfortable,” laughs Williams. To that end guests utilize hand warmers and reheat with apple cider and hot chocolate throughout the day. And since about 85% of their winter trips take place on the Gallatin River (with the highway nearby) they’re never too far from the car if someone wants to warm up.

A perfect winter day according to Williams is in the upper 20s with clear, blue sky filling in the space between the canyon walls. Anglers peregrinate along the river, felt-soled boots clinging to wet rocks and ice, searching for that perfect hole or deep section where fish may be hiding out. On days like that it’s possible to get a winter hatch which Williams says is “quite a treat” and anglers can switch from flies that float beneath the surface of the water (wet flies) to dry flies.

In the winter, fish move to the slower, deeper sections of the river. The water is being cooled from the surface down—the opposite of what happens in the summer—so the deeper you move into the river the warmer it is.

Warmth in the winter is relative, of course. Williams says the coldest he’s ever measured the Gallatin was 29 degrees F. Normally the temperature hovers around 32-35 degrees F. The cozy (to a trout) temperature isn’t all that draws fish to the bottom of the river during winter, the slower current plays a role, too.

The sluggish flow along the bottom means the fish don’t have to fight as hard against the current, which is important because their metabolism slows down as the days shorten. But, just because the fish are languid doesn’t mean that they aren’t catchable.

The fishes’ food source declines at the same time as the trout become less active. That means, explains Williams, “they eat readily when they see the right thing.” The right thing is a good imitation of a mayfly, stonefly, or midge nymph.

Lewis points out that because fish slow down when its cold, anglers need to take extra care with them when winter angling. “Fish are pretty fragile and when the water is cold and you’re cold it is easy to be careless,” he says. If you play the fish too long, or don’t hold them long enough in still water before releasing them, the fish “have a tendency to die.” That’s why it can be nice to have a guide with you who is experienced in fishing Montana’s rivers all year.

One of the big advantages to fishing in the winter is there is less pressure on the river. The summer anglers standing shoulder to shoulder are gone and the open river persists. With less pressure, the river can be very productive.

“People are pleasantly surprised with how well they can do in the winter,” says Williams. Lewis concurs, “The fishing can be excellent and (the guests) may be a little chilly when fishing, but when it is all said and done they’ve had a great experience.”

Lone Mountain’s guests also appreciate the opportunity to learn about the mechanics of casting or want to perfect their cast. They enjoy discovering the trout lifecycle. But primarily, winter anglers cherish the experience of spending a winter’s day along a beautiful river.

Fishing with a guide as other advantages as well. “We make it east for them,” Lewis says. From tying and untying flies, to chipping the ice out of the guides, to handling the fish, Lone Mountain guides make sure their guests stay warm, dry and comfortable.

Winter fishing, like all outdoor pursuits, isn’t without its dangers and discomforts, of course. Lewis remembers a time when he and a client were sitting in the car warming up with some hot tomato soup. Another vehicle pulled up behind them and a man took off across the river alone. Upon reaching the other side, he slipped on the ice, hit his head and concussed. Had Lewis and his client not been there to take the man to the hospital in Ennis, he may have easily died from exposure. The moral according to Lewis, is to never fish alone, especially in the winter.

Fortunately, in southwestern Montana we get a lot of balmy winter days with temperatures in the 30s, 40s and 50s. “We take advantage of those days,” Lewis says with a smile. “Just being in the river and wading; the challenge of knowing the fish are there, that’s enough for most of us. Whether you catch (the fish) or not is another thing.”

Besides the Gallatin River, Lone Mountain trips occasionally venture to the upper Madison River between Hebgen and Earthquake Lakes, or around Reynolds Pass. Later in the season the spring creeks around Livingston become an excellent place to throw a line. The Lone Mountain guides even take guests as far away as the Missouri River near Great Falls.

“There’s a short window of time we can fish (in a winter day)”, says Lewis, “From about 10:00-3:00,” so a drive to Great Falls isn’t out of the question. “We let them know what they’re in for,” he laughs.

Most of the folks Lone Mountain takes fishing are first or second-timers, although they occasionally host more experienced anglers. “We try not to take more than two people per guide,” explains Lewis. That way each person gets the individual attention they need to get the hang of fishing in a short day.

“It’s a great way to take a day off skiing,” says Williams, It’s a perfect trip “for the dad that comes to Big Sky with his family and doesn’t want to ski.” Or the folks whose quads are burning from swishing down the slopes all week. In fact, while some of their clients are Lone Mountain Ranch guests, many others stay at Big Sky Resort and want to throw a different kind of Montana experience into their vacations.

So, imagine that day of fishing again. This time you are wearing long underwear, thick polypropylene socks and a few layers of fleece or wool under your winter jacket and waders. You cast your fly, an imitation of a mayfly nymph, perfectly into the deep middle of the river. The ice crunches beneath your feet when suddenly a native cutthroat trout rises and takes the fly. It makes those chilly fingers and icy nose well worth it.

Big Sky Magazine
December 22, 2006

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