Flyfishing in Liquid Ice

It’s hard to appreciate just how cold water can be until you spend a little time standing in it. Just ask Flicka, who was standing next to me in the river, shivering, how cold it was.

When that last weekend of February turned unseasonably warm I decided it was time to load up a flyrod and head to the Big Hole for some flyfishing. My last fishing outing was back in early October, after which chasing pheasants, ruffed grouse, ducks, and other critters seemed more important than fishing.

Now that we’re approaching the end of winter, flyfishing is again moving up on my list of priorities. I’ve put in some afternoons at the flytying bench, but there comes a time to get back to reality—even if that reality means standing in a river of liquid ice.

If an afternoon of fishing from a popular Fishing Access Site brings up summer memories of crowded parking lots and the hustle and bustle of people gearing up while waiting for their turn at the boat ramp, winter fishing can be eerily peaceful. The access site is deserted, except for my black Lab, Flicka, and me.

While we’ve had a mild, dry winter, you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the river right now. The river is low and crystal clear, but it’s flowing through a narrowed channel, flanked by great slabs of shelf ice, two and three feet thick and topped with a couple inches of snow.

It’s a long step down from the top of the ice into the water, and once in the water it feels a bit awkward wading in the river after that long layoff. As the cold radiates from the water, through waders and into feet and legs, it’s a powerful reminder to wade carefully. Taking a dunking in a trout stream may be a part of flyfishing. In August, it might even be refreshing. In February, an unscheduled fall could lead to all sorts of complications that I’d just as soon not experience. Flicka evidently agreed with that sentiment and headed back to shore, where sitting on a slab of ice was evidently warmer than standing in flowing water.

While my expectations are low when I go fishing this early, the sensation of a fish hitting my fly was a happy surprise. In the icy winter waters, fish are sluggish, so there’s not a lot of fight in the fish. Nevertheless, landing and releasing that 10-inch brown trout made the outing a success.

For the past half-dozen years, or so, I’ve been participating in the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Fishing Log program. It’s simple and easy to participate. After each fishing outing, you just make a quick entry in a little booklet telling when and were you fished, and what you caught. At the end of the year you send the log into FWP headquarters. I’m sure the people entering the log data into that big database program don’t give a darn as to what kind of success we had on any individual day. Still, I personally feel better about it all when I can report some positive result. It’s lots better than confessing to getting skunked.

If you’re interested in participating in the Fishing Log Program, just call FWP at 406-444-2449 and get yourself on the list.

As for winter flyfishing, it’s always a good idea to check the regulations before you cast that fishing pole. Some waters are closed to fishing during the winter. Others are open for catch & release fishing, and some waters are open for catch & fry. And, as I wrote last week, don’t forget to get your new fishing license before you go anywhere.

Another note on wading icy waters; a basic truth I’ve learned over the years is that waders leak. If not at first, the day will still come when you’ll have wet feet after a session in the water. Again, it’s no big deal in August, but a big deal in March. So, a big thanks to my wife for that new pair of waders under the Christmas tree last December.