Winter Fishing – The Bite Is On?
On a recent December day, relieved of my day job as principal due to Christmas break, I planned a short day of fishing on the Kenai River. It would be short due to it being just two days shy of Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. At this time of year at this latitude, sunrise is about 10 am and sunset is about 4 pm. The sun does not get very high in the sky so down on the river shadows are long and cold.
I was not planning on launching in the dark so I arrived at the boat ramp at about 10:30 am – remember I was on vacation. I had spoken with a friend who had fished out of this locale just a few days prior and was excited by his report. However, upon inspecting the boat ramp and judging the slope and conditions in the winter light, I hesitated. I regularly launch at this location during the summer season guiding clients for trout and salmon on the middle river. However, this was one of the few opportunities I get to fish the Kenai in the winter each year. Upon inspection, the boat ramp had approximately 8 inches of packed down snow and ice on it. The river was at its normal low winter level and came right up to the end of the boat ramp. This left about a foot drop off of the icy ramp for a total drop of about 20 inches to get into the water. There was no way I was going to back down the ramp and drop the boat into the water with the trailer. No worries I thought, in northwest Alaska where I live and work during the school year, we routinely drop our boats off of the trailer onto the ice, and push or pull them by snow machine to the edge of the water. Again, however, I was not fully prepared for this and discovered after laying out all the rope I had in the truck that I was about 75 feet short of what I figured I needed in order to be able to pull the boat out of the water and back up into the parking lot to the trailer at the end of the day. My boat is not very light, and remember there is quite a slope to overcome. So, not to waste a perfectly good day on the river, I decided to walk and fish from there.
In order to get the most out of winter fishing, here are a couple things I do to help keep my perspective.
Fish Smart Water
The low winter flows make it easier to see runs, seams, deep holes, and gravel bars. Spend time where you think the fish are. Fish will tend to migrate to the easier lie as the water temperature drops. Remember, this is not summer and although you may hit a stretch with a fair number of fish in it, not all of them will be active. Think like a fish and slow down, stay in the good lie, and fish it thoroughly. It is not so much of covering a lot of water as it is covering the water well. You are looking for a few active fish.
Water temperature has a lot to do with fish activity. This is easier to remember in the winter when the air temperature is also quite a bit colder. I do not like to carry too much gear with me ever, maybe why I like fishing out of boats. But, in the winter I would rather have two rods already rigged up in the comfort of my garage at home so that I do not have to remove my gloves and fumble with tying on new leaders and flies. All this to say, work methodically and consistently. Casting into the same run over and over, slowly inching your presentation over and down is appropriate. Remember, fish may not move very far at all to feed during winter.
Relax, Enjoy the Scenery – but be ready!
The joy of fishing during the winter is not always in the numbers of fish caught. It brings us back to a simple time. A 20-30 fish day in the fall cannot really be compared to the solace and satisfaction of a 1-2 fish day in the winter. On the Kenai River there are numerous eagles lining the bare trees of the river, waiting for silver salmon to finish their cycle and float to within their reach. The wispy fog rising off the water creates a different scene with the passing of the light during the shortened day. The clarity of the water contrasts with the whiteness of the snow. It no longer carries the glacial silt that gives it its characteristic blue/green hue during the summer.
As I notice all of this, on perhaps the 50th cast through the same run, my line twitches slightly and when I lift the rod it is heavy. The fish plays decidedly well on my 13 foot 7 weight spey rod. I actually have to back into shallow water to bring it to hand.