Contrary to popular belief, the winter months in Jackson Hole provide ample opportunities for the year round angler to have successful days on the water. Despite the limitations of cold temperatures and winter weather conditions, many of the major fisheries in Jackson Hole and Eastern Idaho remain ice free and sustain healthy populations of actively feeding fish. Proper clothing and equipment are necessary to stay comfortable in the cold and variable weather conditions, but if one plans accordingly a well equipped angler can catch good fish on prime stretches of water that see very little pressure during the winter months. The primary concerns most pertinent to winter fishing on Jackson Hole waters include where to fish, taking into account access limitations and winter season regulations, how to fish for winter trout, understanding the proper flies and tactics for targeting and catching these fish, and most importantly, how to remain warm, dry and comfortable while fishing in winter weather conditions.
The major rivers that offer year round fishing in our region include the Snake, The South Fork and the Henry's Fork. Each fishery has specific regulations that dictate where and when one can legally fish. The Snake is primarily a cutthroat trout fishery, and the main stem in the valley is open for catch and release fishing on a year round basis. In addition to the cutthroat fishery, winter anglers can also target lake trout on the Snake below Jackson Lake Dam in Grand Teton Park. This is a good option if the angler chooses to keep his/her catch because lake trout are an introduced species of char that are highly predatory and have significant impact on the native cutthroat population; removing them from the Snake River proper is not detrimental to the cutthroat fishery at all.
The South Fork of the Snake River, which flows out of Palisades Reservoir in Eastern Idaho, is another winter option. Unlike the Snake, the South Fork has a large population of rainbow and brown trout, and anglers wishing to target these species can do so here. The entire length of the South Fork is open for winter fishing, and the nearest access in Swan Valley is some forty miles from downtown Jackson.
Finally, the Henry's Fork, below the town of Ashton, Idaho, is a viable winter fishing option. Like the South Fork the Henry's sustains healthy populations of brown and rainbow trout with many larger specimens available. The year round stretches are located below Vernon Bridge, a few miles southwest of Ashton, and from the confluence of the Warm River to Ashton Reservoir, north of town. The river is approximately seventy miles from Jackson; however, travel times are variable due to weather conditions and road closures.
The limiting factor when fishing on these streams in the winter is access. Many boat ramps are not plowed and in heavy snow years finding decent put in and take outs can be difficult if not impossible. Do not let the lack of boat access deter you. The upside to winter angling is that winter water flows are quite low, and open up a myriad of wading options not available during the spring, summer and early fall.
In many sections of these rivers low water levels can do significant damage to a fiberglass hull of a boat and slow progress, leaving less time to wet a line. Wading is the best way to reach winter fish and prolong time on the water during the shorter winter days. As always, pay attention to private property markers and access limitations, and if there is a heavy snowpack, snowshoes or cross country skis may become necessary in some areas. Winter Tactics and Techniques.
Standard trout tactics will catch winter fish; nymphs, streamers and dry flies are all productive methods when applied at the right time and place. Understanding how trout feed and behave in low water levels and low temperatures will increase your success rate dramatically. First, because trout are cold blooded their metabolism lowers during the winter season. The fish still feed, but they are reluctant to move long distances and expend valuable energy intercepting food. They let the food come to them. Most often the fish will pod up in the winter time, collecting in groups at prime feeding stations which consist of deeper runs with slow to moderate current speeds. Holding on the river bottom in slower currents, the fish are able to expend a minimal amount of energy while maximizing their consumption of nymphs and larva that are active in the stream bed. With this knowledge the angler can make adjustments to his/her approach accordingly; read the water, look for slow, deep runs with good structure and visible current seams.
In March on a sunny day you may find some dry fly activity. Blue Wing Olives and midges will both be hatching in March. Fish will move out of the depths to feed on the drys when the conditions are right.
The rod and reel set up for winter fishing is the same as most people would use for summer fishing. In this area a 9 foot rod for a 5 weight line is perfect. Clean and dress your line before going out fishing. Not only will this make it cast better but it will also keep water from collecting on it and freezing your guides. Stanley’s Ice Off paste is a must. It will help keep your guides from freezing under most conditions. Proper clothing is a very important aspect of winter fly fishing. The layered approach is a good one to take. Polypro underwear will wick moisture away from the skin and can be found in several different brands. Wading is often a question in the winter. On some days you may be better off not wading and on others wading may be the way to go. If you decide you want to wade or you need to wade then a pair of fleece wading pants will keep you warm under your waders. Don’t forget some warm socks on your feet.
Clothing needs will depend on the weather and what your tolerance for cold is. A fleece vest or jacket beneath a waterproof jacket will generally keep you warm and dry. For your hands some of the Simms fingerless fishing gloves will usually work well. Don’t forget a hat. A large portion of your body heat that is lost is lost through the head, so proper head gear will go a long ways in keeping you warm. Certainly on some March days you may need less. However, in the winter when hypothermia can set in quickly you are better to have the clothes and take them off if needed than to not have them and become dangerously cold.
Under most winter conditions small nymphs are the best bet. Popular patterns include Beadhead Prince Nymph, Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph, Copper John and Beadhead Hare’s Ear. In the middle of the winter there can be some dry fly activity. Midges and BWOs will be the name of the game for this. Which one you use will depend on the time of the year and the specific water you are fishing.