I haven’t caught a fish since early December, and my nerves are starting to show it. This winter in Vermont has been long, cold, and snow-filled—not the best weather for winter fishing. I have been working a lot, tying a lot of flies, and dreaming of tossing those flies at willing fish. I want…no…need to fish. Every time I have had a free day to head out with a couple of buddies, something has gotten in the way. Something like a thermometer reading of -10 degrees.
Yesterday was different, though. We had a minor break in the weather (hooray for mid 30s!), so my friend Jesse Haller and I headed for out for some action and frozen toes.
There are a few areas in Vermont that are open to fishing in the winter: Lake Champlain tributaries to the first barrier, and certain stretches of several rivers. I turned to Otter Creek, my favorite watershed, which offers the longest stretch of fishable water this time of year. You can legally fish Otter from Champlain all the way south to Rutland, about 75 miles.
That doesn’t mean that you will find a lot of open water, however. Much of the river is slow, meandering pike water, which is the other reason I wanted to head to Otter. It’s one of the few places where I know the pike will start showing up early in preparation for the upcoming spawn. I have been itching to get a snot rocket on the fly again. They are one of my favorite targets, and I haven’t caught one this early in years.
The proper gear makes all the difference when you are fishing in the winter. Be sure to layer up, with plenty of fleece and wool, and stay away from cotton. Breathable waders work just fine if you are layered properly. Overheating is just as big a danger as getting too cold because that sweat will keep you chilled, it helps to be able to take a layer off when you can. I had to take off my wading jacket for a while after walking in to the first spot.
I keep my gear pretty simple for winter fishing: a couple of fly boxes, some Thingamabobbers, weight, nippers, forceps, and a net. I stuff that all into my wading jacket, and I am good to go. I use a 6-weight for trout, to handle the weight and the indicator, and a 9-foot rod does help get more consistent drifts.
If you want to toss dry flies fro trout in the winter, don’t come to Vermont. You aren’t going to find BWOs or midges in the afternoons here. These fish are cold and want meat. For trout, nymphs are near the top of the list of flies you want, but if you want the best action, pull out the junk. Eggs and worms, folks, eggs and worms. You purists can roll your eyes all you want, but these flies catch fish. I don’t head to the river without them. Some other folks have figured this out too, since the Eggi-Juan-Kenobi is one of the top-selling flies in the Orvis catalog.
Don’t forget to add a lot of weight, too. Brass and tungsten beads make a big difference. Set up a tandem rig with a size AB shot under a 1-inch Thingamabobber and let ‘er rip. Drift that rig on current seams, and watch for the take, which can be pretty subtle.
But first, we’d decided to have a shot at the pike. After post-holing our way through deep snow down to some open water, I tossed my big translucent pike streamer into the calmer holes below the dam and slowly stripped it back. I covered the water really well and then gave Jesse a chance to do the same, with the same result. This spot was one of the best chances that we had to find ol’ Esox, since most of the other spots we had hoped to fish were still locked up tight. I knew it was wishful thinking to hope we would find pike this early, but I wanted to throw my new 10-weight to get a feel for it. I am heading to Florida in six weeks and wanted to make sure I am not too out of practice.
On the Move
We didn’t get any trout at that spot, either, so we moved on. One of the most helpful hints I can give you for winter fishing is to move around. If you spend the day at one spot, your chances aren’t going to improve. Bounce around to likely spots, and work the open water looking for active fish. Most of the places we found open yesterday were not very big. It really should not take long to fish something about a quarter the size of a football field.
Our next spot was an old favorite where we have both done well throughout the year. It’s always nice to visit places you know well, and winter is not the best time to explore. I have done that, with disastrous results. Let me tell you that 32-degree water hitting your chest wakes you up, but when it hits your nether regions you will squeal like a little girl. Stick to places you know and fish with a buddy for safety. It doesn’t hurt to have a spare set of clothes with you, too.
Jesse headed upstream, and I headed downstream to one of my favorite pools. There is a big pocket of slack water on the side and a big deep hole under some faster water in the middle. It is the perfect combination of pike and trout water, and it fishes well for both. I worked the big chartreuse-and-white streamer through there for a few minutes. I felt a bump, but I suspect it was a stick. It was simply early for pike, I think. I switched rods and waded out to work the edge of the current for trout.
I was about to get out of the water to jog in place to warm up a bit when I saw a guy with a spinning rod heading down the bank toward my pool. There hadn’t been any footprints at this spot when we got there, but this guy must have had the same idea we did. I knew that if I got out of my spot, then he would be tossing bait into my hole.
As luck would have it, right then I hooked the bottom, and my Prince Nymph/Eggi-Juan-Kenobi rig found a snag that I had to break off. “Crap,” I thought. “Put something on fast so you can keep fishing.” I looked at my fly patch and saw this big ol’ size 8 egg pattern I had been using for steelhead. It looked good enough to try out. The guy came over, asked if I had caught anything and walked away after I said no.
He wasn’t more than a hundred yards back up the bank when my indicator stopped, and I set the hook. The fish started pulling pretty hard and really fighting like a rainbow would. To my surprise, when I got it to the net it was a brown—and a dandy one at 17 inches. I will certainly take that as my first fish of the year. After a couple of photos, the trout swam off quickly.
I have never had any problems reviving and releasing winter fish. Oxygen levels are high in that cold water, and they do just fine in it. Obviously they eat all winter long, and they love their junk food! Eggs and worms, folks, eggs and worms.
We fished a while longer and Jesse hooked up twice but didn’t get a good hook set. That happened again at the final spot we headed to leaving the daily record Fish-3, Jesse-0. I know he will be changing that within the next couple of weeks. March is around the corner, and Otter Creek can be a great place to be on warm days.
Not a lot of people get out with a fly rod in Vermont during the winter. I don’t mind. It leaves plenty of fish for me and my friends to chase and provides a solitude that you can’t often find in the same spots during the other times of the year. And it is a great way to fight off the cabin fever.
Drew Price is a guide who lives in northern Vermont. He specializes in trout, pike, and other species, including bowfin and fall fish.