Winter

Summary
Most would not think of it, but winter is a great time to fly fish.  There’s very little people out on the river and it’s very peaceful.  At some times you will think yourself as crazy when you pull up to a popular fishing site and you are the only one there – all day.

Winter fly fishing is as peaceful as it gets.
Winter fly fishing is as peaceful as it gets.

Fish
The fish to target this time of year are trout and steelhead on small nymph flies or for the more hardy, on a Spey rod with a wet streamer fly. Fishing is great for all species until we reach the 38 degree mark, another great reason to carry a thermometer with you.  Above 38 degrees, steelhead and trout will move a reasonable distance to eat, or take your offering.  Below 38 degrees, they will take what you present, but they won’t move far due to their state of hibernation and the need to conserve energy.  So persistence is key in the winter time, often resulting in fishing a particular spot or run a lot longer than you would at other times of the year.

Winter steelhead caught from the Muskegon River one February.
Winter steelhead caught from the Muskegon River one February.

Location
All rivers are fair game to fish in West Michigan in the winter time, but when it’s below freezing, small rivers such as the White River and the Rogue River tend to develop shelf ice.  At this point you can fish  sections of the Muskegon River from Croton Dam to Newaygo and below, as well as the Manistee River from the Tippy Dam down to Wellston.

Shelf ice on the river's edge.
Shelf ice on the river’s edge.

Method
Nymphing with an indicator (bobber) or swinging flies either traditionally or with a Spey rod, with a sink tip at the end of the fly line are the norm. Learning to roll cast like a pro is a must for not getting tangled often since there are often mutiple flies and weights on the line.  As you fish through the other seasons, take special note of the slower moving water, deeper holes and runs as well as foam lines.  Paying attention to the water conditions, utilizing the right fly size and type are key to catching fish here.  Fluorocarbon tippet attached to the fly is a must.

Indicator fishing slow deep water in the winter.
Indicator fishing slow deep water in the winter.

Flies
Egg flies, egg flies, egg flies.  You will probably catch most of your fish on egg flies, while others will be on small nymphs, and the remaining on streamers.  The majority of the fish caught in the winter have to be on clown eggs, in the right size.

Small nymphs and various egg flies for targeting winter steelhead.
Small nymphs and various egg flies for targeting winter steelhead.

Gear
No Cotton Layers (No Traditional T-Shirts, Sweatshirts, etc.)
Smartwool Socks (Sometimes 2 Pair)
Long Underwear Bottoms (Sometimes 2 Pair)
Wicking T-Shirt or Long Sleeve T-Shirt
Long Underwear Top
Fleece or Wool Midlayer
Down Coats
Mad Bomber Hats
Winter Hat Over Cap
Wading Staff
Head Lamp
Thermos for Soup
Fingerless Windproof Fleece Gloves
Backpack
Water
Chap Stick
Toe Warmers

Fingerless gloves, Mad Bomber hat, down coat, waterproof hip pack, and wading staff are highly suggested.