Do it right to enjoy the season of solitude
By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
During my most recent outing on the Gallatin River, my angling companions were a few water ouzels, several bighorn sheep, and a moose that casually crossed upstream of my location. The quietness of the river comforted me after the hustle of the holiday season—Christmas parties, my children’s insistence on Santa’s impending arrival, a New Year’s Day hangover, and driving in-laws to the airport.
Yet in my immersion into fly-fishing solitude, I thought, “What if I trip and hurt myself? The uncle I was so glad to see leave can’t help me now.”
Winter fly fishing embraces the experience over the result. In today’s world of updates, hashtags, friends, and grip-and-grins, angling in winter is the season to cherish the act of fishing. However, with solitude comes a responsibility to be safe. Here’s some helpful advice to keep your winter angling safe and enjoyable.
Ice jams are dangerous realities. Ice jams ultimately break, sending thousands of pounds of ice and debris downstream faster than you can run. Predicting when and where ice jams will form is akin to anticipating where a tornado will touch down.When daytime highs remain in the low 20s F and colder for more than a week, conditions are ideal for ice jams to form. As temps warm and hover above the high 30s and warmer, ice jams can burst. Do not fish the river downstream of any known ice jams. If conditions exist for ice jams to break, inquire locally or spend extra time to drive upstream to inspect.
Proper clothing, layered and utilized. Winter weather can change quickly for the better or worse, so be prepared with quality waterproof outerwear. A stocking hat and gloves are essential. Layer your clothing appropriately, yet plan accordingly—often times a hike through deep snow is essential to get to a favorite run.
Sweat caused from exertion may dampen layers close to your skin, causing you to become chilled too quickly. If I know I have a hike ahead of me, I always pack an extra vest or fleece layer to wear once I reach the river. If my hike is short, I unzip my outerwear and take off my stocking cap.
Quality waders with zippers or added features. Winter is not the time to fish in your hand-me-down, third generation waders. Invest in durable waders that have features you will use, such as a zipper for ease of relieving yourself—or waders with built-in hand-warmer pockets, or pockets to stash gear. But above all, spend some extra money on durability.
Cleated or aluminum-barred boots. Our local trout rivers are slippery enough in summer, but a fall in the icy Gallatin or Upper Madison rivers right now will ruin your day immediately, or worse, end your life if you are far from help. Add cleats to your boots or purchase boots with a built-in aluminum bar, such as the Patagonia Foot Tractor wading boot.
Wade safely and leave the risk taking for the slopes. Never wade deeper than your thighs and accept that no fish is worth your life. Be aware of bottom-dwelling anchor ice—ice that builds from the river bottom up—as even the best designed wading boots struggle on anchor ice. A wading staff, or long handled net, is important if you plan to cross a stream, or feel less than able on slippery rocks.
Shelf ice: stay off and stay away. Shelf ice builds from the stream bank out to the middle of the river. Like any frozen lake or pond, venturing onto it carries risk. Shelf ice is different because should you break it, there is most likely flowing water beneath it. Two legs, broken ice, and moving water are not good combinations. Stay off shelf ice and stay safe.
Plan for plenty of travel time and park appropriately. Driving in winter can be challenging enough. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the river to avoid being rushed in poor conditions. As snow piles up in Gallatin Canyon, several of the normal access points become inaccessible due to the piling of snow. Park in an area where you won’t have to flag help because you got stuck, or where getting in and out of your vehicle affects other vehicles.
Winter on the Gallatin River is an angling experience in which to partake—solitude, witnessing nature in a quiet season, and in Gallatin Canyon, fishing without the distraction of a 4G cell signal. But be sure to fish safely so you can get in your hashtags and updates so all can see the wonderful time you had fishing by yourself.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.