By Gervaise Purcell
You’ve driven by the river and seen us, coated in snow, casting to deep pools in a minor gale. If you’re a fly fisherman in Southwest Montana, it is a fact of life. Winter conditions prevail for six months; no amount of fly tying is going to see a driven fisherman through. We are stuck with the winter season, as Alfred Miller, writing as Sparse Grey Hackle put it, “The trout do not rise in the cemetery, so you better do your fishing while you are still able.”
But why go stand in 32 degree water and fight through the hassles of winter fishing? There is a still quiet in the winter. The river is less crowded, offering a great sense of solitude. Winter fishing is a lot of work, but the rewards can be great. Less fishing pressure can make the fish strike. For the adventurous of spirit there is the reward of battling the elements, the added hardship gets the adrenaline flowing. Staying comfortable while wading in icy water isn’t as tough as it would appear. Hand and toe warmers! Fingerless gloves now have little pockets for the warmers. Layer pretty much the same as for other winter activities. I’ve been fine in Gore-Tex waders in the winter, so there is no need to buy neoprene just for the winter. A windproof top layer and hat and your all set.
Winter fishing, like all winter activities, elevates safety concerns. A quick dunk in 32-33 degree water is exponentially more serious than the same dunk in 55 degree water. It’s not just the shock of the icy water, you very likely have walked through a couple hundred feet of thigh deep snow to get to your hole, now you are soaking wet in heavy winter clothes and freezing, and have to get back through that snow. Even a healthy youth could pop their ticker in those circumstances. It is always a good idea to fish in pairs, even more so in the winter, never fish alone! Be aware of shelf ice that can fail under your feet sending you tumbling into the water. You could have the same ice break off up stream, and hit a fisherman concentrating on his downstream drift; a little bump, unexpected can send you over. Even a small ice jam giving way up river can significantly change the water flow; again a sudden flow change and you are toppling over. Keep a spare set of clothes in your car.

Keep an eye on the weather. A 30 degree day after a zero degree night will not fish as well as a 20 degree day after a 20 degree night. Look for a couple nights of above average temperatures, and the days following should fish better than average. There are all kinds of tricks to maximize your time out in the cold. You can keep ice off by dipping your rod tip in the water (at 33-32 degrees it’s warmer than the air that freezes the water to your line. Fish by a campground and build a fire in the fire ring. Enjoy the day!

This is not your daddy’s dry fly fishing. For the most part fish are down deep. It’s not graceful, you’re chucking and ducking big nymphs and streamers, drifting them through deep holes and trying to hit the fish right on the nose. It’s cold down there and they aren’t going to move far to take your fly. You can find fish in the slack water on the edges of these deep runs with some small midge nymphs. As the days get longer and warmer, you may see some afternoon midge hatches; these can be a real treat for those hoping to catch a fish rising to a dry fly. As March rolls around, small black stone flies start moving, and before you know it, blue wing olives are getting fish to rise. Then all of a sudden, it’s spring and the river is getting crowded again, and you are dreaming of those nice quiet winter days when you had the river all to yourself.

If fly fishing was a night of hookers and blow, Gervaise Purcell would be Charlie Sheen. Gervaise guides out of Gallatin River Guides, in Big Sky, Montana.