A Vancouver Island advantage is that it is one of the few places in Canada that the winter chill does not freeze all the lakes, and thus fly fishing is possible year-round. Typically, the best time for lake fishing is spring and fall, however with the right understanding, a year-round fishery exists. Casting winter lakes for trout is also an alternative when Mother Nature blows out the river, foiling any winter steelheading plans. Growing up on the prairies, the only winter fishing once the freeze set in involved drilling a hole in the ice and waiting for a bite.
With winter, comes certain weather considerations and a degree of flexibility. It is said that when the barometer pressure is stable/rising, fishing is better than when it is falling and weather is worsening. My rules of winter include sleeping in and picking my battles. Midday is the warmest, most dependable prospect to fish lakes this time of year. Taking advantage of increased trout activity on a warm winter day sounds far more appealing to me than flogging the water on a bitterly cold, wet, windy day. Plus, when it gets too cold, trout’s metabolism slows, making them lethargic and less apt to bite. That being said, there is no way to be sure unless you actually wet a line.
According to Environment Canada, the winter forecast for much of BC, including Vancouver Island, predicts a weak La Nina pattern with colder than normal temperatures and above average precipitation through January.
As early as February, rainbow and cutthroat trout begin to spawn, whereas brown trout and Eastern Brook Trout (char) spawn in fall. Large, sometimes trophy sized rainbow trout are in the more nutrient rich Vancouver Island lakes including Gracie, McNair, Quennell and Wowo lakes along with larger than average cutthroat in Brannen, Cowichan, Cresent, and Sproat (Tayor Arm) lakes. Brown trout reside in a number of lakes including Cameron, McClure, Somenos and Rooney lakes. Although I haven’t caught an Island Brookie (present in Spectacle Lake), I used to fish them in Cypress Hills and they sure stay aggressive in cold water.
During winter, trout can be found in both deep and shallow water, unlike bass which head deep. When the water cools, trout cruise the shoals/shallows, where most of the lakes’ aquatic vegetation grows, in search of natural food sources.
Shore anglers in the Victoria/Sooke area can fish from various piers/boardwalks, available at Durrance, Elk, Florence, Glen, Langford and Poirier Lakes with aerators, which improve oxygen levels, present in both Glen and Langford lakes. As a fly angler, my personal preference is to look for open, low bank shore access, like at Elk/Beaver or Thetis lakes, although the biggest rainbow trout on Island Outfitter’s leaderboard usually seem to come out of Langford lake.
For those with a boat, chironomid (midge) fishing over muddy bottoms is one technique that can be highly productive, although casting the long leaders can be a challenge. It involves a dry floating line and a strike indicator followed by a long leader and tippet, letting tiny worm-like flies sink through the water column to 1-2 feet off the bottom and then retrieving extremely slowly. The earlier in the season, the smaller the fly, and on Vancouver Island, use smaller flies than on the mainland. Typically, the main hatches anglers think of are mid March and October but winter hatches are more common than not here.
Other successful winter flies to cast and retrieve or troll include year-round staples like nymphs, shrimp, leeches, minnows and midges. Smaller, duller colored flies with lighter tippet and a slower pace are the rule during the cold season. Size matters, stock small – fish seem to always bite on the next size down from the tiniest fly in your fly box.
When stillwater fishing, a sink tip is the obvious answer to getting your fly down. Beyond that, controlling fly depth is paramount to putting your fly where the fish are, so an understanding of bead head materials is an advantage. Tungsten beads are more compact and sink three times faster than brass, with less drag in the water/through vegetation. The material is harder, making it more sensitive at the fly. Brass and nickel have similar densities/sink rates, about a third as heavy as tungsten. Glass beads are about a third as heavy as brass for the same size. Plastic beads usually have a near neutral buoyancy, making them float. When fly tying, lead wraps on the hook shank is another way to effectively weight a fly.
Though I do fish the urban systems, mainly out of pure need to wet a line, I prefer the remote wilderness lakes revealed by taking the roads less travelled. There is just something about casting to fish that rarely see a fly, in a wild oasis that seldom sees a footprint, that makes me feel alive.