Winter Fly-Fishing and Other Pursuits
The temperature is in the single numbers and the wind is blowing like mad. It’s that special time of year in Maine when you can fish while you freeze.
Why venture out at this time year? Because nothing cures cabin fever faster than a day’s fishing. Of course, many of Maine’s roughly 60,000 ice anglers have taken precautions against cutting winds and low temperatures. Their ice shacks – some closer to ice palaces – are havens of warmth, good cheer and good food.
More exposed are the handful of diehard fly fishermen who only give up and go home when their eyes freeze up. Not the eyes on their faces. The important ones – on their fly rods. A fly line won't fly when the guides (aka eyes) of the rod are icy, but that doesn’t keep some fly fishermen from making the attempt.
“The diehards go out no matter what the weather is,” Chris Henson of Kittery once told me. “They never sit inside and tie flies.”
There are a number of rivers, including the Saco, Royal, Presumpscot, Kennebec, Androscoggin, St. George, Penobscot, and others, where the fishing season never ends.
(Check Maine’s laws at www.state.me.us/ifw/fishing/regulations_seasons/index.htm; for an ice-fishing preview, visit www.mainefishingtoday.com/09icefishpreview.pdf).
A winter fly fisherman has to pick his days and be very patient, because this is not fast and furious fishing. But it’s also not a dead season.
“We have some wonderful midge hatches right in the middle of the winter,” Henson said. “Have you ever gone out in the wintertime on a nice day after a snowstorm and seen a little cloud of insects? Those are midges and that's exactly what you're encountering on the water.”
If there are enough midges, it's worth a brook trout's energy to go after them and the angler who can match the hatch may land a trout. And no fisherman will be complaining about overcrowding. Once November rolls around, the number of anglers plummets, not only because of the cold but because so many sportsmen turn to hunting instead. Yet some simply combine the two opportunities. When they go duck hunting, they bring a fly rod.
There aren't many anglers so avid, but all a diehard needs is a day (preferably sunny) with little wind and a temperature above freezing (of course, 40s would be even better).
Essential gear is neoprene waders, gloves (often with the fingers cut out) and a coat that keeps an angler dry, since stripping in wet line can be a health hazard in freezing weather.
Good sense also is a necessity. For example, it’s not safe to take a boat out on many rivers from January through March, not only because there's so much ice on the river, but because the boat landings are so icy. The footing can be treacherous in winter. Hands also suffer, so anglers should be careful to warm them periodically. Nor should anyone overestimate his or her ability to stand in icy water, even in insulated waders.
“You have limits and you've got to recognize when you've hit it,” Henson said. “It can be very dangerous and people really need to give consideration to that before they just charge out there. Obviously, whenever you're dealing with water with any ice on it at all, common sense has got to tell you when not to go ahead.”
Yet for the true diehard, the cold isn't an obstacle or even an issue. What's important is the chance to be outside on the water, watching the ducks or even seeing an eagle soaring overhead. Wetting a line, sipping coffee from a thermos and every now and then getting a strike.
“It's a really neat opportunity,” Henson said. “You can get out on the water and enjoy some pretty good fishing and not have a whole lot of people out there.”
Editor's Note: Visit Fly Rod&Reel.com, published by Down East, for more information on fly fishing in Maine and elsewhere.