Pro anglers Curtis Ciszek and Wesley Locke fly fish in cold weather in Oregon.
FISHING

Tips for Fly Fishing in Cold Weather

Pro angler Curtis Ciszek shares his advice for getting the most out of fall and winter fishing excursions
BY RACHEL CAVANAUGH
Fishing is pretty straightforward in the summertime, when the water is warm and the sun is shining. But what about in the fall or winter? Can you still fly fish in the cold weather? Even if you have the fortitude to brave the chilly elements, will the fish bite? What species are best? How do you stay warm?

To answer these questions and more, we recruited professional angler Curtis Ciszek. The Columbia Sportswear athlete, who owns and operates Jet Boat Fly Guides out of Bend, Oregon, told us everything there is to know about fall and winter fishing.
Pro angler Curtis Ciszek stands in front of a snowy river bank looking off in the distance. 
Pro angler Curtis Ciszek, pictured above, says some of the best fishing he’s ever done has been in the wintertime. 

Q: Can you fly fish in the winter?

Curtis Ciszek: Yes, for sure. Some of the best fishing I've ever done has been in the middle of the winter. Winter steelheading is one of my favorite types of fishing. Obviously, it depends on where you live, but for us in the Pacific Northwest, there are great opportunities to fish in the winter months. There aren’t as many people, and although the weather can be a lot more variable—even miserable sometimes—with the right clothing and equipment, it is awesome.

Q: What makes winter fishing so fun?

Curtis Ciszek: It's a totally different scenery and vibe. In Oregon, I fish on the coast in the winter, so it’s like being in the rainforest instead of in the high desert. And it’s the time of year when you get to chase big fish around. Winter steelhead tend to be bigger. They don't usually have to swim as far. They come in sexually mature and ready to go. And while I don't want to say they necessarily fight harder, I’ve definitely caught winter fish that have kicked my ass more than summer fish have.
Pro angler Ruth Sims wears a rain jacket and pants while crouching down in a river holding a fish for the camera.
There are many species of fish you can catch in the fall and winter including trout and steelhead, the latter of which is pictured above with Columbia Sportswear athlete Ruth Sims. 

Q: Do fish bite in cold weather? What species are best?

Curtis Ciszek: Yes, fish bite in cold weather. You can chase trout all winter. It gets a little trickier with the lower water temps in terms of the bugs that are hatching that time of year. You're generally going to be fishing smaller bugs—midges, stuff like that. When the water gets super cold, the fish won't move around quite as much, but it really depends on what bugs are hatching. If nothing's happening, you can try to throw little streamers at them to try to wake them up a little bit. 

Q: Can you fish when it’s raining?

Curtis Ciszek: Absolutely. It rains a lot when you’re fishing in the winter. But you have to watch the water levels and time it right. With winter steelhead here in the Northwest, if a big storm comes through, all the rivers fill up with water. That brings in the new fish, but you can’t fish when they’re blown out like that because the water is too muddy. So you need to wait for the right moment. You don’t want to get them when they're low and clear, because the fish will be hiding in the deepest spot in the river and you can't get to them if you’re fly fishing—maybe with conventional tackle, but for fly fishing, you're looking for the rivers to be dropping. Not muddy, but not completely clear. One-and-a-half to two-and-a-half feet of visibility is perfect.
Pro angler Curtis Ciszek stands in the river casting a fly rod on a cold, rainy day.
According to Ciszek, pictured above, the best time to catch fish in the fall or winter is when the water levels are dropping after a big storm and visibility is somewhere between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half feet. 

Q: Is winter fishing harder?

Curtis Ciszek: It can be, for sure, especially for what we do. Winter steelhead is not easy. I mean, you can go days and days without catching anything. You’ve really got to look for those river conditions to be right. But when everything's right—the river water levels are right, the clarity's right—if you’re putting your fly in the right spot, you're probably going to have success. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. A lot of times, maybe the rivers are low and clear, but I want to go fishing anyway. You can still catch fish. It's just that your odds go way down. But fly fishing, and fishing in general, isn't all about catching fish. It's about getting out there.

Q: What tips do you have for staying warm?

Curtis Ciszek: Knowing how to layer is huge. Bring as many baselayers as you need to keep warm. Being cold is not fun. If you’re going to be standing in the river with waders, bring a couple of thick, warm baselayers, and some sort of insulated down jacket or synthetic puffy as a midlayer. I wear at least two thick baselayers on my legs. And super warm, thick socks. And then you need a really good rain jacket, especially if you're in the Pacific Northwest or a region where it may rain all day. Something with Omni-Tech or OutDry Extreme. And then bring a dry bag with an extra set of everything—because if you fall in and you don't have extra warm clothes, it's the worst.

Q: When is it too cold to fish?

Curtis Ciszek: Everyone is going to have a different answer to that question. For me, if I'm out there and my guides are icing up trying to cast a spey rod, I'm not having fun. So anything below, say, 40° and I'm probably not going out. But I'm also kind of soft. There are people that'll go fishing no matter what. If the river’s in the right shape, you can have amazing days even when it’s freezing outside. It all depends on your personal threshold—and having the right gear.
Planning a fishing adventure? Rain or shine, we’ve got the gear.