Winter Fishing: Keeping Warm and Safe 

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Winter can be a beautiful and exciting time for fly-fishing, but not without its risks.

“How important is it to carry a change of clothes?” a reader asked me the other day. “Well,” I thought, “I guess that depends on whether or not you fall in.” It’s been a long time since I carried a change of clothes for a day of fishing. I’ve spent some pretty soggy and miserable days on the water but I guess I don’t care that much. Still, there are times when being prepared for the worst just makes good common sense. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Years ago, I was visiting friends in Colorado during February. A friend of a friend had told me about a good piece of water that didn’t get much attention, as it was about a five-mile hike down some railroad tracks to access it. The river was open and I was pretty excited to give it a go. That is, until the weather turned the night before.

The high that day turned out to be ten below. We never see temperatures anywhere close to that here in the south. I don’t mind the cold, but it got me thinking. I don’t know this water at all and there are some pretty tricky wading spots in Colorado. If I took a spill at ten below, five miles from the car or any heat, I’d probably die of hypothermia before I made it. I still fished that day, but I went to the Blue River and fished out back of the outlet mall. I figured in the worst case I could run into the Gap, throw on some dry clothes off the rack and worry about the public indecency charges later. It turned out I didn’t need that option but when I picked my foot up out of the water and watched it freeze before putting back down, I felt like I’d made a good choice.

I couldn’t help but think of a story I read years ago, I think it was in the Drake, about a fellow fishing Clear Creek, in Colorado again, one October. Late in the afternoon, he was hopping across a bolder-strewn bank when a big stone rolled and pinned his leg. He was right by the road, no one could hear his calls for help and the stone was too big for him to budge. As the light faded, a front moved in, the temperature dropped and it began to snow.

As it happens, this fellow was an operating room nurse. He recognized the symptoms of hypothermia and he knew that he would die before the night was over. With a pocket knife and hemostats he removed his own leg at the knee, hobbled to his car and drove himself to the hospital. I’m pretty sure I would have died out there.

You don’t have to be in the mountains of Colorado to get in trouble.

DSCF0622-EditI was fishing in Georgia one winter almost twenty years ago and had a scare. I was a couple of miles up river in a spot that’s pretty tough to negotiate. The banks are so densely overgrown that in many places you’re forced to travel up or downstream by wading only. I took a bad fall and injured my knee.

The knee was already a problem, due to a motorcycle accident when I was twenty. I could’t walk on it at all. I made a crutch from a tree limb with a fork and limped my way out, one painful half step at a time. It took about six hours and I was soaked. It was about ten o’clock when I made it to the car. I had always supposed there was a shortcut out of there across a ridge, but I was afraid to try it in the dark. I bought a GPS after that.

So, how important is it to carry a change of clothes? Or an extra jacket? An emergency blanket, matches, first aid kit, GPS, cell phone, or emergency spot locator? How big a suitcase do you plan to carry? I have a good friend who carries a big trash bag, a candle and lighter in his fishing pack. He says you can put the trash bag over yourself and light the candle and survive a pretty cold night. I’ve always wanted to see him try it but I’ve never gotten him that drunk.

I do think it pays to use a little common sense. Be aware of the risks, plan for things to go wrong and know when to change the plan, even if it means spending the day tying rather than fishing. In the end there is one piece of safety gear you should take with you any time things look like they could get sketchy, or even when they don’t. A fishing buddy. The only thing better than surviving a fly fishing emergency is having friend to to tell the story.

Now get out there and catch some fish, and stay safe.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Winter Fishing: Keeping Warm and Safe 

  1. A space blanket weighs almost nothing and is #1 on my list of things to take. That plus a signal mirror, wader patches, compass, strike-anywhere matches and TP fit into a single quart-sized Ziploc bag which sits in the back pocket of my vest. Somewhere in my wading jacket is a water resistant GPS unit. Back in the vehicle is a trash bag stuffed under a seat containing a complete set of clothes–fleece top and bottom, long handles, gloves, socks, surf boots and toque–just in case I go swimming, or the rig breaks down and I’m stuck in it for the night.

    I figure it’s a win-win. If I don’t need it, I’m not out a lot of money as the clothes are all castoffs, and if I do need it then it was a bargain irrespective of the price.

  2. I gave up on the idea of fishing (seriously) in the winter, just last month. I went to the Lehigh river to find the water was 33. The air temp was above freezing, but you would never know it. Everything was frozen! The ice was enough of an issue. I also found out something else. The idea that the water warms up during the day when the sun comes up………is baloney! I never had a touch, and all I could think of all day was DONT fall in. I’m not even in the real wilderness, so I would probably make it out, but it just doesn’t seem like a way I want to die. Cmon spring!

    • There’s nothing like a tailwater in the wintertime, uncrowded and icy! Some of my best days are in the middle of winter with rimy guides and big, willing fish…

  3. Good article Louis! Recently I ended up with minor first degree frostbite while fishing Eleven Mile Canyon in…Colorado of all places! It wasn’t to serious but it goes to show that if your flies flash freeze into little ice balls upon contact with the air, it probably isn’t a good idea to be fishing. Sometimes it is better to stay inside and work on that fly box.

    • Dave, that canyon can get cold for sure! Some parts never see the sun throughout the day…Glad you only suffered from 1st Degree FB. Tight lines!!

  4. Thanks, Louis, for responding to my question directed in an earlier blog. I appreciate Brad’s input, and though I don’t actively fish in the winter, there have been times I needed a change of clothes (after falling in a muskrat hole while fishing a spring creek in January here in WA). So, I’ll plan on carrying a stash of at least the basics; as the old saying goes, “better safe than sorry”!
    Keep up the great work, Gink & Gasoline team!!

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