There are two things you can count on in the west, extreme cold temperatures and clear mountain rivers and streams. Living just a few hours from Yellowstone National Park in Idaho I know extreme cold. I have fished many of the waters with temperatures hovering in the lower to mid-teens and sometimes just below the zero mark. With 29 years of trout fishing I am going to give you the ammunition you need to become a western winter trout angler.
Rivers at this time are filled with trout ready to take any offering at this time of the year and can provide some of the fastest action of the season. I am not a fly rod purist and find that bait and spin fishing, if done correctly, will out fish any fly fisherman 5 to 1. You can apply any of these techniques and strategies to any body of water that hold rainbow, cutthroat, brook and German brown trout, but we are talking western trout so let’s get started filling your limit.
Early winter can be a top bet but rain can put a damper on fishing (pun intended) as rivers swell, fill with debris and become murky. Learning to read the water at this time is your best bet and also a must if you are to get any rod action. I have found at this time trout look for a break in the current much more than any other time of the year besides spring when rivers are bulging and are their fullest. Key areas to look for are boulders, logs, slow meandering river bends, water falls with large pools and beaver dams.
You can rule out spinners, spoons or flies… jigs and bait are your best friends in these conditions. These can be fished in a few different ways. Let’s talk bait. Most western states do no not allow any live minnow fishing, due to protected waters and introducing nonnative species. So if you’re coming out west forget the live minnows and plan on using meal worms, crawlers, crickets or drifting dead minnows courtesy of packaged store bought products.
Jigs tipped with bait are deadly. In fact, I rarely fish these conditions using any other method. Bright colors are a necessity, giving you an edge as flashy jigs attract hungry trout into striking and tipped with a meal worm or crawler adds scent for murky water conditions.
Fishing slack water at this time of high water provides shelter for trout as they are conserving energy for the long winter ahead. Drifting bait into slack water behind boulders, log jams or deep eddies and pools are the strike zones you are looking for. You have to bump the nose of your quarry as they will not follow your bait once in the faster water, and often times they lose the flash or the scent of your offering. Fish slow and methodically work the entire area behind these spots; chances are your bait is in the strike zone but a few casts are in order for a solid hookup and a second look.
Dead winter, late December, January and February can be treacherous and hazardous. Cold water and ice can make an angler want to head to the couch for the NBA season. But, this is the time to put large trout into the cooler or on your wall. With food at a low point, cold clear water trout will literally rip the rod out of your hand during the strike. I never use bait during this time of the year. I pound the water covering every inch I can. From slack water to undercut banks and riffles in shallow water trout are on the prowl looking for any morsel that drifts by.
Now is the time for spinners and I use the flashiest color I can find. Bright orange is my top bet. Schadeycreek Lures makes a heck of a variety of spinners that I guarantee will bring trout to the net; I even put my name on it! Covering a lot of water is your priority during these months. I cannot stress enough: at no other time are your odds better to put a trophy on your wall than the winter months.
During these late winter months, your odds are increased with low clear water. Most rivers and streams in the west are all accessible to some extent and most offer areas to wade fishermen willing to brave the temperatures. Dress warm, use a wading stick and watch for early warning signs of hypothermia. Keep your body dry and warm, and you should be in good shape for an entire day of winter fishing.
A few more tips for winter fishing: use polarized glasses so you can see where you are wading. A high-cut vest by a trusted name in the business like Simms is a good bet to keep your accessories dry. Use light line in the four to six pound range. Use a wading staff, as this can make or break a trip if you wade. A good pair of waders and wading boots is a must. I also use fleece wading pants to keep me warm underneath. A good pair of multi pliers is essential. Also bring a small can of WD to keep your guides clear of ice. Always let someone know where you are and try to never fish alone.
These tips and tactics and some common sense on the water will provide you countless hours, and just may give up the biggest fish of the year!