Better Fishing In The Bitter Cold

If you're fishing for trout in frigid waters, go slow, low and throw big baits. Here's why . . . (February 2008).

Photo by David Williams.

There was a time when trout anglers spent February's short days and long nights tying flies, repairing gear, and oiling reels, all the while yearning for Opening Day.

Been there, done that, didn't like it!

Now, fishing regulations have changed. Many trout waters, both still and moving, are open year 'round.

In Washington, the biggest resident rainbows -- we're talking big, fat 20-pound fish -- are caught in February and March. Neoprene waders, polypropylene underwear, fleece jackets and rain gear tame raw late-winter weather. Aside from an odd late-season steelheader, you'll have the water all to yourself. All you need for a successful day on the cold winter water is to understand how rainbow and cutthroat trout tick.


I still believe that the rainbow is the true American trout, even if biologists have reclassified it into the salmon family. Rainbows, indigenous along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to the Gulf of Alaska, can be caught in streams, rivers, lowland ponds and glacier lakes in 47 of the 50 states.

The most adaptable of all trout, they're capable of living from sea level to 11,000-foot-high alpine lakes. They tolerate the widest variation of water temperatures, from just above freezing to a warmer-than-bathwater 83 degrees. Optimal temperatures range from 50 to 70 degrees.


Cutthroat trout have been part of fishing narratives since Coronado's army searched for the golden city of Cibola in 1541. Lewis and Clark both mentioned cutthroats in their famous expedition journals. Today, cutthroat trout don't get the attention they deserve, most likely due to their limited geographical range and the bad rap that they're too easy to catch.

Don't believe it! They can be as persnickety as the most sophisticated brown trout.

The cutthroat's most distinguishing features are the slashes of reddish-pink color on the underside of the jaw and the tiny basibranchial teeth on the back of the tongue that prick your finger when releasing a fish. Rainbows don't have these teeth.

Though biologists recognize 14 subspecies of cutthroat, Pacific Coast anglers will encounter only the coastal and Lahontan varieties.

The coastal variety includes homebodies that never leave the stream where they were hatched, as well as the sea-run fish. Born in fresh water, the sea-runs spend most of their lives in salt water, returning to sweet water only to spawn before returning to the sea.

The Lahontan cutthroat is able to thrive in highly alkaline waters of the Washington, Oregon and California deserts and can be found in a few California streams. Studies show that cutthroats are less tolerant of temperature variations than other trout. However, that may also allow them to out-compete their cousins in cold, relatively sterile headwaters.

Rainbows and cutthroats share many characteristics. They are both spring spawners, which could occur any time from February to June, depending on water temperatures. They share similar thermal preferences, meaning that in waters supporting both species, they prefer the same water temperature.

In moving water, they are both drift-feeders. They take and hold feeding positions where there is some structure, like a rock or blowdown, to break the current. In still water, they cruise looking for action, like teenagers on Friday night. "Action" to a trout means anything that looks like or acts like food that they can fit into their mouths. Young trout mostly pursue aquatic insects, small crustacean and annelid diet until they get big enough to add forage fish.


As every angler knows, fish are cold-blooded creatures. Biologists like Chad Jackson, of the Washington Department of Fish and Game, know that fish are poikilothermic. It's a $25 word that means the fish's body temperature varies with changes in the water temperature.

Fish don't generate any body heat to stay warm in cold water. Instead, cold water causes a couple of reactions. As the water temperature declines, so does the fishes' body temperature, and their metabolism slows along with their activity.

The decrease in metabolism then slows the digestion of food. Fish eat less at any one time and take longer to digest each meal.

February anglers should take an interest in all this biological talk because it should change the way you fish cold water. For one thing, facing cold-water conditions, you'll need to present your offering to as many fish as possible in the hopes of finding one that has finished digesting the last meal and is ready, willing and able for more.

Most cold-water fish aren't actively feeding most of the time: They are more interested in conserving energy.

Cold water also causes fish to seek water temperatures closer to optimum. In rivers, this may mean hanging out near the mouth of a small feeder stream whose water is warmer. Fish may move from the shady side of the river into the sunny side to take advantage of water that may grow a few degrees warmer by midday.

The sunny side may have the added benefit of prompting brief hatches of insects like chironomids, blue-winged olives and early March browns.

One river I fish in Washington has fabulous but short-lived blue-winged olive hatches in February. It brings the river alive with rainbows.

A favorite Oregon river always gives up February rainbows on bright, sunny days, even when the water is 41 degrees.

The Northwest typically gets a week or so of warm, dry weather that is perfect for fishing. It's not so hot that mountain snow melts and blows out the rivers, but it's warm enough to cause the water temperature to spike upwards a few degrees, and the fish respond by feeding actively.



In cold water, there's a big difference between hatchery fish and wild fish. The wild bunch is better able to tolerate cold water, said Jackson.

That makes them likely to feed more often than hatchery fish. So target your February efforts towards waters that support wild, naturally reproducing fish.

In conditi

ons like these, make sure you limit your catch. Extremes on either side of the optimum water temperature put the trout under a great deal of stress. February's cold water is not a time to try to rack up big numbers of fish caught, even if you practice catch-and-release.

Big, deep lakes stratify into three temperature zones, with the coldest water, which may be barely above freezing, in the bottom zone. Don't spend any time fishing down there.

The thin middle layer, known as the thermocline, is a nutrient-rich layer, populated by fish. February fishers can really benefit by using a thermometer to locate the thermocline, then keeping their offerings in that layer.


Upsize your offerings. Make it worthwhile for the fish to eat what you're tossing. Go one size larger with your lure. Use a nice Egg-sucking Leech instead of your standard Woolly Bugger. All forage fish will have a full year's growth under their belt. If you use bait, trout can home in on a night crawler more readily than a salmon egg. Remember that some states like Washington include every bait-caught fish as part of your limit, even if you release it.

If you toss spinners, retrieve your lure slowly so that the blade barely turns. If you're fishing moving water, cast upstream and let the spinner tumble down with the current.

When casting streamers or Woolly Buggers, let the current do the work, using the occasional slow strip with a long pause.

In lakes and ponds, slow is the watchword as well. You'll need to adjust the size and weight of your lure so that it stays in the fish-catching zone as long as possible. Fly-fishers need to adapt too, by using the right fly line and leader length so their fly stays in the zone.

In rivers, the biggest fish will be in the deeper pools. That's where you should be, too. Fish the bottom, fish it slow and fish it big. Sure, you'll lose some gear, but it puts you in the best position to hook the largest fish in the water, whether it's a 10-inch cutthroat in a headwaters creek or a 10-pound rainbow in a reservoir.

Trout fishing in February is a wonderful excuse to get out of the house and on the water. Make sure you have plenty of warm clothes, target the warmest part of the day and adapt your tactics to the slow-moving fish.

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