Missouri Trout Hunter

Blog for sharing thoughts, beliefs and opinions on issues affecting the world of trout fishing in the Ozarks.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Catching Wintertime Trout

I've been getting a lot of emails recently asking for tips on wintertime trout fishing. After basically rewriting the same response 4 or 5 times, it occurred to me that this might make a good article. Duh… The emails I've received all ask for "bottom line" advice, such as "what fly should I use?" That is, of course, a valid question, but I'd rather focus on HOW you can guess where they are and how they'll behave.

My first tip is to take all the stuff that you think you know about trout, and view it with skepticism. There are dozens of old wives tales that were invented by folks who grew up fishing for bass and catfish in ponds and lakes, only discovering trout fishing later in life. I'm constantly getting into arguments with trout fishermen who are either unable or unwilling to let go of these myths. Perhaps I'll cover more of this phenomenon in a future article, but this time we're going to talk about why wintertime trout fishing can be so challenging.

There is a belief that trout LOVE cold water -- the colder the better. That's why the winter fish-for-fun seasons at the trout parks are so successful, right? FALSE. Trout do not care what the water temperature is. No, really. Fish are cold blooded animals, meaning their body temperature varies with their surroundings. In other words, they DON'T CARE what the water temperature is -- their bodies simply adjust. That raises the question, though, why cold water? The shorthand answer is oxygen.

The real difference between warm-water and cold-water fish behavior is in how much dissolved oxygen they require to thrive and survive. Bass, catfish and sunfish all require much less dissolved oxygen than trout. Since water sheds its dissolved oxygen as it warms and gathers oxygen as it cools, it makes sense that colder water will be more oxygen rich. So, since trout require much more oxygen than bass, for example, it makes sense that they'll require colder water. So, in the hottest of the dog days of summer, when the trout fishing shuts down, its not because they don't like warmer water, but because the oxygen content has dropped so low that they can't catch their breath. It would be like taking you to the top of Pike's Peak and then challenging you to a foot race. In fact, trout "like" warmer water. Huh?

Yep. Since trout are cold-blooded, the temperature effects their metabolism. The colder the water, the slower their heart rate, and the fewer calories they burn. The warmer the water, the faster their heart rate, and the more calories they burn -- meaning they are hungrier. So, in the hottest part of the summer, the oxygen content is exceptionally low, and their metabolism is exceptionally high. They are literally starving and suffocating at the same time. This makes August a very tough time to catch fish, but January has it's challenges as well.

In January, the oxygen content of your favorite trout stream is very high. It's important to note, though, that this didn't happen overnight. Water has to have oxygen ADDED to it, which can be a bit of a process. As the wind blows over the water's surface, some oxygen is added. Riffles with white-caps add even more oxygen. The best way to add a ton of oxygen quickly, though, is a good rainstorm. By the end of August, the oxygen content is probably at it's lowest, due to the high water temps. Then, usually in late September, we'll get our first cold rain, which is vital to fall spawning and migration activity. A warm rain doesn't help, here -- oxygen in, oxygen out. But, if we get back to back cold fronts, and the second front brings some rain, get your gear and gas up the truck! The frustration, though, is that the temp goes up and down as we transition into fall, so the oxygen levels are going to fluctuate as well. The fish will feel good one day, crummy the next. They'll swim upstream one day (as they do WHENEVER they are feeling good), and they'll get pushed downstream the next when the oxygen drops. Grrrr! This can make it very difficult to find the fish. Eventually, though, the oxygen content stabilizes in the higher range, and the fish are feeling good (meaning they swim upstream). We've now entered the pre-spawn. If Autumn cools early, we have a great pre-spawn fishing time. If it cools late, pre-spawn will only last a couple of weeks, the fish start spawning, and the fishing stops before it really gets started.

After fall spawning, those fish that tried to spawn (the browns and half of our Missouri stocker trout) are exhausted and weak, and they begin to sag their way back downstream. Their muscle tissue is degraded, and they don't have the endurance to hold their position in the current. As the water gets colder and colder, the remaining trout also begin to sag back downstream, because their heartrate and blood flow is decreased, causing their muscle activity to decrease as well. This downstream "migration" is simply weak and lethargic fish being pushed downstream by the current. As they move down, they'll try to set up housekeeping in areas sheltered from the current. Since they are no longer feeling competitive, they will not crowd each other -- if a sheltered spot is taken, the other fish will keep sliding downstream. In effect, this causes the fish to spread out along the entire length of the river. They'll keep spreading out until the last trout finds the last sheltered spot at the furthest downstream edge of their range, and that's where they'll stay throughout the winter.

Fast forward to January. You've got cabin fever, and we've been blessed with a few sunny days with highs in the 50's. The river is calling, right? Well… I would certainly never try to talk you out of fishing, but now is certainly not the best time of the year to go. Here's what you'll find when you venture out. The water will likely be in the low 40's, meaning low metabolism (read "not hungry") and lethargic fish due to slow blood flow. You'll also find that the fish appear to be scarce. Actually, there are just as many fish as you'd expect, but you'll have to walk 10 miles to see them all. Since they're not hungry, they won't be motivated to move much to eat. In fact, they can probably get enough calories to survive on accident, by simply allowing random stuff to drift into their mouths. Since they're lethargic, their reaction time is also slowed, meaning that what hits you get will often be short strikes. So, what's the solution?

Even though you won't find crowds of fish anywhere that isn't being stocked regularly, you need to find the warmest water you can find. The spring water will be 55-56 at the discharge, so the fish at the spring will have the highest metabolism and will be eating more. As you move downstream, though, you'll find the oxygen content increases -- meaning more aggressive pursuit-style feeding (i.e. streamer fishing) -- but the water is also decreasing to match the air temperature, meaning lower metabolism and slow-moving fish. The trick is finding that magic zone where they're still kinda hungry and also have good oxygen. The colder the air temperature, the closer to the spring you'll have to get to find this area.

If you start at the far downstream edge of the trout range, you'll find slow-moving fish that will only be caught drifting smallish nymphs & wet flies pretty much right into their mouths. As you move upstream, you'll eventually find fish more willing to also take slow-moving streamers and drifting dries. The best advice I can give, though, is this. (1) Don't expect to tear them up, because you'll only be disappointed. Instead, go fishing to spend time on the river, and consider a caught fish to be a bonus. (2) Don't get married to your favorite fishing spot. Plan on walking a lot, because each decent spot will probably only hold a couple of fish. (3) Constantly look for the warmest water. Fish the areas that get the sun first. Fish later in the afternoon into twilight. Fish closer to the river's spring. If you can find water in the 50's, you should find some actively feeding fish. Unless you get close to the spring, though, don't expect to find water in the 50's.

My last tidbit of advice is this. Nothing will screw up a wintertime fishing trip more than falling in the creek. If the air temp is below 55, you're in serious risk of hypothermia and death. If your vehicle is more than a few hundred yards away, don't try to walk out. You'll be disoriented and confused before you get there, and who knows where you'll end up. Instead, gather some wood for a fire, and use that fire to get dry and warm. Nothing would be worse than getting skunked on the river, and then also dying!

Good luck out there!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this Blog. Very informative and interesting. I would like to add a couple comments to the last paragraph because it is a very important part of wintertime fishing. Several years ago I was fishing Heartattack on the Meramec with a friend of mine. The temp. got up to 35-40 degrees and apperantly the snow was melting. Anyway, being only my 2nd trip to this stretch of water, I wasn't real familiar with the holes and currents. I crossed at the spot I crossed before, but the water was higher and faster. I didn't really think about it because it hadn't rained in a while so I continued, hit a hole, and was swept downstream a bit. Finally was able to catch my footing and dragged myself out of the river. Losing your orientation is right, my buddy helped me up the bank and we were able to start a fire. It was all I could do to remove the clothes (even though they were soaked) in the mid 30's weather to stand next to the fire. After a while I was dried, waders were dry enough, and was able to continue fishing after a couple hours. So, the point of this story was to stress the importance of not only being prepared with your fishing gear, but also for the weather. 4 things I find essential. 1)wish I would have had an inflatable vest, especially on unfamiliar water. 2)be aware of the water level, even if it hasn't rained, the melting snow can affect the water levels as well 3)NEVER fish alone, especially in the winter, I may not be posting this if my buddy was not there. 4)each fisherman should have a fire starting device with some tender to start a fire.(winter sticks and tender can be frozen or wet and harder to start so carry your own kept dry in a ziplock or two). Anyway, just wanted to add this to your already informative Posting.

Thanks for the information and the great website.

Name withheld due to embarassment LOL

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen brother. I've heard many stories of fishermen freezing to death after falling in the river. In one such tale, they eventually found the man's body. He was apparently hiding from his fishing buddy who had been searching the area yelling his name. Hypothermia had caused so much confusion, he didn't even recognize his potential rescuer. Thanks for the comment.

8:59 PM  

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