Keep ’em Wet: Winter Fishing in the Eastern Sierra

Jul 14, 2021

It’s pretty easy to argue that during the cold and quiet days of winter fishing is its poetic state.

When the snow falls and winter’s silence reigns it’s easier to hear the narrative of a river. The moving water provides a rhythm. The steady casts provide rhyme. The trout rise like stanzas, adding color, instilling emotion and reminding us that Robert Frost was probably right when he wrote: “Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trout’s nose.”

Despite its poetic nature, winter fly fishing is by no means easy—but that’s okay; nothing worthwhile ever is. That’s why practicing the pastime in the winter isn’t nearly as celebrated as it is in other seasons. Winter days on Hot Creek, the Upper Owens, or East Walker rivers (the year-round fisheries in Mono County) aren’t nearly as popular or praised as spring on Crowley Lake, summer in the backcountry or fall at Rock Creek.

In the winter, the fading leaves give way to falling snow and drifting ice. The skies can sometimes be high blue, but are seldom windless. And winter fly fishing in the chilly soul of Eastern Sierra usually requires anglers to pack on more layers than a walrus—which is why many a local fishermen, just like the aforementioned sea mammals, know all about having icicles freeze to facial hair.

There’s also a bit of a social stigma attached to those who love to cast during ski season. After all, when you’re in the middle of a mountain playground surrounded by some of the best downhill skiing and snowboarding on the planet, people are likely to question your sanity if they find out you went fishing on a blue bird—or even down right nasty—winter day. But while skiers and boarders may ridicule and occasionally offer us winter anglers directions to the nearest loony bin and/or ski shop, we take solace in the solitude the water offers. The stories it has to share.

Many of us can also easily laugh off the lighthearted teasing, for we know that it’s awfully easy to ski or ride and fish on the same day in Mammoth. Some folks call them “winter doubleheaders.” Others simply call them one heck of a way to spend a day.

Winter days in the High Sierra are short, however, so the opportunities to fish are usually short-lived. But those fleeting moments sure can be spectacular. While everyone else is up on the hill, cozied up to the bar, or curled up in front of a fireplace, it’s easy to feel like you’ve got the world to yourself when you’re on the water. It’s just you and the trout, the occasional brace of waterfowl and the impressive work of Mother Nature during her season of silence. A good day of winter fishing can be nothing shy of magical. The type of moments only great poets can hope to properly praise.

That’s why it always helps to head towards the water in the winter—or in any season for that matter—with words like poet Robert Frost’s drifting through your head, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”

Winter Fishing Basics:

Be Prepared! While winter fishing offers spectacular scenery, solitude and chances to catch big fish, it does require a bit more caution. Here’s a winter angling check list:

  • Dress properly! Layers work best, wicking on the inside, waterproof on the outside.
  • Make sure wading boots have good traction for ice. Wading staffs are very helpful in slick, icy conditions.
  • Know the weather forecast and road conditions.
  • Let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll return.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Keep a change of dry clothes and some high-calorie snacks in your vehicle for your return.
  • Use sunscreen. You can still get burned in the winter.
  • The ideal winter fishing window is during the warmth of mid-day, from 11am to 2pm, with afternoons stretching out as spring approaches. Bright, sunny warm spells when daytime temperatures soar above the freezing mark can be downright amazing.
  • Lightly snowing days can be surprisingly productive as well.
  • Ice can clog guides, but never try to break or knock it off as it’s an easy way to break them, as I’ve unfortunately experienced. Instead, try a product like Ice off Paste by Stanley. Even using something like Pam No-Stick Cooking Spray will work, so long as your dog or cat doesn’t lick off all the oil.
  • It’s easy to get cold hands and to remove the vital slime layer when handling fish in the winter. Therefore, be sure to #keepemwet, as the popular hashtag promotes.

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Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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