For crimes against humanity in a previous life, I do most of my stillwater fishing in the middle of winter in one of the coldest parts of South Africa. The Stormberg region in the Eastern Cape Province can be brutally cold with extreme temperatures like -20ºC a real possibility. In fact, the day on which I caught my biggest stillwater trout (9.2lbs see below), the mercury hit -10ºC in the morning and had warmed up to a balmy 0ºC by noon. But what about the water temperatures? Well, it is not much better. On famous lakes like Bernard’s at Highland Lodge, I have measured temperatures well below 5ºC on many occasions and I have had to kick through one to two meters of ice on occasions to get to fishable waters with my float tube.
So, how do you catch fish in such conditions? Well, the first thing in my view is to not over think it. Make sure that you have proper winter clothing. Tackle shops across the country have everything you would ever need. I guess the three crucial pieces of advice are to avoid anything with cotton and make sure you keep the wind off you with the right jacket, and get the Simms half-finger windblock gloves.
Then I would say ‘time’ on the water is the most important factor in winter stillwater fishing. With cold water temperatures fish are not feeding actively, you rarely see any hatches of any significance, and with howling winds that don’t stop the entire day, the chances of hatches are slim in any event. My main stillwater winter fly fishing friend Darryl Lampert and I usually start fishing around 9am in the morning (no good reason for this, I guess it is when we have had enough coffee) and we will stay on our tubes easily 60 to 90 minutes after dark (except for the occasional comfort break). We have got all the food and drink for the day with us, so there is no need to go back to your accommodation. Then, concentrate. I do not vary my fishing tactics significantly during winter (see comments on techniques and tactics here: http://www.tomsutcliffe.co.za/fly-fishing/friend-s-articles/item/1139-a-modern-take-on-stillwater-fly-fishing-in-south-africa-and-six-flies-to-do-it-with.html, but I do make sure that I consciously fish every cast well. From the moment the flies hit the water until the final hang, I am fully connected to my flies. The biggest fish in the lake will probably only take your fly once, so make sure you are ready for him or her. Also make long smooth casts. Long, because the longer your flies are in the water the better your chances of success. Smooth, well that is obvious.
Then a few comments on situations and scenarios I have observed over the years. Conventional wisdom states that trout during winter sit deep in the water column. That is not always the case, I have caught good fish in extremely shallow water. Especially on very windy days, cloudy days, and when it gets dark. Again conventional wisdom is to fish orange flies. This is not a bad idea, but colours that are often overlooked are white, coral, yellow and Hareline’s crawfish orange, which worked wonders for me. Tie big streamers with these colours and I am pretty confident you will do well. Then blobs, of course, blobs are crucial. Fish all the different colours, but make sure you fish the Frozen North Fly Fishing (https://www.fnflyfishing.co.uk/) materials. They work so much better than the other materials. Then lastly, if you find spawning fish, do not leave them. Keep trying until you get one! There is no guarantee of success in winter, so do not leave a fish to go find a fish. Rookie mistake. That is really about it. Do not take it too seriously, do not be hard on yourself. Just fish hard and concentrate. It is not difficult fishing; it is just an exercise in perseverance.
9,2lb at Highland Lodge
Another Highland Lodge winter fish
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