When days start getting shorter, a chill creeps into the air, and temperatures begin dropping, it’s easy to shift focus from fishing to hunkering down by the fireplace, however it’s become one of my favourite times of the year to get out and wet a line. The December through May season is a lot kinder to us Islanders than it is to other Canadians, allowing us to get out and fish through the colder months without drilling a hole in the ice. Although winter conditions can fall on the unpredictable side, for the Island angler, there are plenty of opportunities to fly fish for steelhead and resident trout in the rivers, trout and bass in the lakes, and sea-run cutthroat on the beaches.
Critical to winter fishing is knowing the seasons – rains typically begin to get heavier through November, lasting into December when the chill sets in. Temperatures drop through January into February until the spring rains and more moderate temperatures return (unless its another winter like last when winter hit hard in February and stayed). Why this matters is that when heavy rains blow out the rivers, they become high, muddy and unfishable, making the lakes the place to be. Winter weather patterns have less predictability, adding a certain anticipation to whether Mother Nature will cooperate, and make having a “plan B” a must.
Of note is how limited daylight gets this time of year – on the shortest day of the year in Victoria, sunrise is at 8:02am and sunset 4:21pm. This means seeing lunchtime as an opportunity to fit in fishing for those of us who need a day job to support our hobby.
Lake fishing is one of the more reliable means to cast a line during the winter months. Productive lakes which are not too far off the beaten track include Elk, Langford, Cowichan, Spider, Beavertail and Roberts lakes. When selecting a lake, consider lower elevation waters that remain warmer through the winter months and also provide space for a back cast if you are fly fishing from shore.
For the river angler, productive rivers for steelhead and resident rainbow & cutthroat trout include the Cowichan, Quinsam, Salmon, Oyster, Stamp & Quatse rivers, with the latter two being hatchery enhanced for steelhead. A number of Island rivers close to angling December 1 (or earlier) to protect diminishing steelhead returns, reopening April 30-June 30. 20 or so rivers remain open, 7 of which have sections designated as “fly only”. Winter steelhead return December through April, and many Island anglers will be out in search of the fish of a thousand casts. Salmon are technically open until December 31 on some rivers, however are spawned out and of little sport at this point in the season.
Though most think of prime time for sea run cutthroat trout as during fall salmon runs gorging on eggs or the spring migration chasing fry, I can’t think of a better time to chase cutties than a brisk January day on an abandoned beach a stone’s throw from my house, coinciding with the king tides of winter, the highest tide changes of the year.
Nymphs, chironamids, buggers, leeches and Muddler minnows fished with a sinking tip or sinking fly line are most effective in winter waters, and flies should be weighted with bead heads, lead wraps or both to get down to where the fish are. Few dry fly hatches take place during the cold months, so fish are primarily feeding subsurface, and fly choice should reflect this. My fly box isn’t complete without multiple sizes of Copper Johns, Prince nymphs, Rolled Muddlers and micro stone flies.
The winter cold makes the fish more lethargic, so no need to get up early – the best time to cast a fly is to wait for the warmth of mid-day when the fish are more active. The high winter sun casts long shadows so be stealthy in your approach to avoid spooking the fish. Furthermore, it often helps to size down your flies, lighten up your tippet and slow down your presentation.
Gone are the crowds of summer & salmon, and there is less gridlock driving up Island, however the infamous Malahat and many backroads can be subject to treacherous winter conditions. No winter adventure plan is complete without consideration of the road conditions, and this time of year, preparedness goes a long way, and being properly equipped is essential should you run into trouble. In general, winter roads tend to be less travelled and in worse condition, with deep ruts & washouts, causing many overly ambitious anglers to abandon mission and turn around before reaching their intended destination.
Winter fishing certainly isn’t easy – dicey roads, icy temperatures, frostbitten fingers, and slower biting don’t sound to be the most favourable of conditions, but braving the “wet cold” seems a small sacrifice to pay for finding myself on the water, casting a fly and waiting for that tug on my line that makes it all worth it. Living on the Island, we don’t have to venture far from home to find winter fishing adventures, they are right there in front of us – sometimes we just have to be versatile to the conditions, open to the opportunity and just get out there.