Ask anyone if standing in two feet of 33-degree water while the snow winds its way down the back of its base layer sounds like their idea of ââa good time, and you’ll probably get a not categorical. At this time of year, it is tempting for fishermen to put away the rods and hang up the waders until next spring. And that turnkey fireplace next to the 55-inch flat screen doesn’t make the decision any easier.
But for those who want to put on their thickest neoprene waders, settle on an icy shore for a few hours, and have fun with frozen guides, there are still plenty of opportunities to hone their angling skills, d ‘admire Idaho’s beautiful winter landscape and snag some fish.
The advantages and strategy of river fishing in winter
There are several advantages to fishing in rivers and streams during the colder part of the year. For starters, you can have the entire stretch of the riverbank to yourself. For a handful of people, fishing is secondary to other winter pastimes like fly tying, skiing, or making a pot of chili in the slow cooker. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a nice stretch of river where you don’t have to worry about summer crowds.
Look for slow, deep waters where trout and whitefish are most likely to hang out, spending as little energy as possible. Look for pockets or slow pools at the edges of faster water, where food will float in the main currents.
Slow and hungry
Just because fish move slower in winter doesn’t mean they still aren’t looking for an easy meal. Insect outbreaks are rare in winter, but that doesn’t mean they’re still not there as a food source for slow-moving fish. Fish can be extremely picky this time of year, so food presentation and size is vital.
As a rule of thumb, use smaller baits and flies than in spring and summer.
The same goes for tippet. River flows in winter slow down considerably and tend to be lower and clearer. This means that it is even easier for the fish to see through a poorly executed presentation. It may be a good idea to reduce the size of your tippet from what you usually run in the spring and summer, such as a 4X to a 5X.
Technique, technique, technique
Once you’ve got your rig set up, it’s good to try out different techniques that you might not have tried before during the warmer months.
Dead drift is critical in winter because trout will not chase a fly in cold water. For dead drift, it is sufficient to let the slow current carry the fly either to the surface (dry fly) or just below the surface in the upper water column (baits, nymphs, midges). If you see dimples on the water, they could be fish feeding on drifting insects, which will likely be tiny midges or mayflies.
Occasionally, brook fish stand up for dry flies, such as small midges or mayflies of olives, during the winter. Save a few extra grams of weight and keep this box of dry flies at home. A small emerging midge or a small emerging mayfly will be the only drying you will need.
If you fish for trout or rainbow trout, try swinging a fly keeping it at the top of the water column. Rainbow trout and trout often feed upwards, so a well-placed fly swinging in the upper part of the water may just grab their attention.
If the fish aren’t attracted to little flies like midges and stone flies, it might not hurt to throw a banner over there to test the waters, so to speak. Streamers can look like a big, easy meal when introduced slowly, but don’t expect trout to chase them vigorously like they do in the summer.
Hit the nap
The only thing sweeter than catching a jumbo fish in the middle of winter is catching a jumbo fish in the middle of winter after 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Unplug the alarm clock. Deactivate your phone’s sleep reminder. Whip up that extra pot of bold roast and smack that extra waffle. Winter fishing means one thing to many anglers: sleep. This time of year the fish will be there with you, figuratively speaking.
With most winter fisheries, the fish won’t notice it until mid to late morning. Unlike peak summer conditions, fish will be most active in the mid-afternoon on sunny days, and even longer in the afternoon on cloudy days.
It’s easy to see how excited you can be about dipping your southern hemisphere into ice-cold water in the hopes of catching a fish, but rest easy (and long) knowing that these fish will get you. will still be waiting when you reach your local river or stream later in the morning.
Where to start
Now that you’re well rested and know what to try on fish, here’s where to find them. See Fish and Game‘s Fishing Planner for more on each location.
Boise River: Do not neglect this river at the end of the season because the low winter flows make it more accessible and friendly for waders than in summer. It supports healthy populations of rainbow trout, whitefish and brown trout. But don’t expect gullible fish as they come under a lot of fishing pressure.
South Fork of the Boise River: This popular stretch below the Anderson Ranch Dam is no less popular in the winter. The water coming out of the reservoir provides stable conditions and thousands of trout per mile make it a destination for late season anglers. Trout and whitefish tend to be above average in size.
Payette River (from shores to Horseshoe Bend): This section of the Payette River supports an extremely diverse fishery, including lake whitefish. Whitefish will easily pick up a well-presented bait, fly, or lure, they’re disjointed when hooked, and they’re tasty, but it’s true they’re a bit bony. Fishermen have many access points along this stretch of river.
Big Wood River: This river has long been popular in winter for trout fishing with release. It rarely freezes, and if you catch it on the right day, you can catch dry fly trout. Bring your models of midges and baetis.
Malad River: This spring-fed creek is a fun winter fishing spot as it is easily accessible from the Hagerman area and has lots of trout. Bring your light gear, as they tend to be small, but they are plentiful and full of spirits.
Bass Lochsa, and Selway rivers: All offer good opportunities to fish for whitefish in winter and to fish for trout with release.
Saint-Joe River: This river offers winter fishing opportunities for cutthroat trout and whitefish.
North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River: The lower part also allows whitefish and cutthroat trout fishing and is accessible in winter.
Snake River below the American Falls: This section of the Serpent has produced some excellent trophy trout fisheries in recent years, and there are many more. The relatively mild climate and the release of dams make this fishing accessible and productive during the winter.
Snake River (Tilden to Shelley): This section should accommodate nearly 40,000 rainbow trout in November. Several thousand fish will be released near Tilden, Blackfoot, Firth and Shelley.
Portneuf River: The upper section is your best bet, and Fish and Game offers multiple access areas for you to get to the river.
South Branch of the Snake River: This allows trout fishing all year round and there is no limit for rainbow trout. There are also many opportunities to fish for whitefish in the winter.
Don’t forget to buy a new fishing license for 2022, and so you won’t have to worry about it in a year, three-year licenses and the new automatic renewal of Fish and Game are also available, so all what you have to worry about is where you are going to fish next.
Connor Liess is a Public Information Specialist in the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.