Guide to Winter Fly Fishing in Southern Alberta

Winter fishing is a wonderful way to break the ice of the long winter freeze, stretch out the legs, and get that casting arm going again. Despite the chilly temps, winter fishing is a beautiful time to be on the water, and the low flows can really aid the angler to gain a better understanding and perspective of the holding water that exists on the rivers you may fish. The Bow River and the Crowsnest River, are pretty great systems to fish during the winter months.

    The Bow, being close to home is a great option, and the entirety of the river rarely freezes over. Careful walking around onshore ice deposits is necessary, and should be treated with the utmost precaution to avoid being set a drift like a bow river polar bear. Fish are typically stacked up in the trough and buckets of the river during this time of year, and as a result, targeting these wintering fish with streamers in nymphs is often extremely effective. On the Bow, given that the trough is typically found out around the middle of the River, it is often more effective and fun to fish a switch or two-handed rod during winter to reach out to the fish. Fishing a two handed rod is also a great way to broaden one’s casting and fishing knowledge, and gives the angler, yet another great skill to learn and practice. In addition to being effective, it can be down right fun! Don’t let the complex look of various spey and skagit casting deter you, with a little instruction and practice, you’ll be casting some laser loops in no time!

Mark's Winter Fishing Kit: 

Since winter fishing usually revolves around nymphing, my favourite rod so far this season has been Loop Opti Peak. The peak is an 11' 4 weight that has more than enough back bone to land 20+ inch fish on the Bow (the rainbow pictured below was caught by Aaron on this rod) while still giving incredible feel for tight line nymphing applications. The main reason that I use this rod, particularly when fishing the Bow, is because of its length. Having an eleven foot rod allows you to manipulate line incredibly well on the water, where every mend requires far less movement and energy than with a 9 foot rod. Another great thing about the peaks' length is its ability to do underhand and spey casts. When overlined with a 5 or 6 weight, weight forward line, the peak will rocket a full on indicator rig further than I can easily single hand cast with a quick snap t or simple double spey cast, its pretty amazing. Beyond the rod, my second most important piece of fishing kit is a solid net. As John will describe below, fish are very vulnerable to cold temperatures and should be handled as little as possible during the colder months (although this should be the case any month of the year). Having a large ruber net decreases fighting time and handling time out of the water, keeping fish safe from freezing temperatures. large nets also give the fish a comfortable place to recover prior to release. The Fisknat San Juan net is an ideal choice because its size and shape fits our trout perfectly.

         The Loop Opti Peak equiped with a Loop Evote 5/7 holding a Loop Evotec 100 WF6F line, a killer bobber tossing set up. 

The Crow, is also a great winter fishery, and you would be surprised by the amount of fish that can come to hand in a hard winters day fish down there. Once again streamers and nymphs tend to be the ticket, but you really only need a four or five weight to fish this river, the two-handed rods are definetly overkill! I like to fish small streamers down river and then euronymph my way back up. Euronymphing with light line and light rods, is much more engaging than starring at a bobber all day, and a fun, effective way to tie into a number of fish.

     I typically wait for the warm chinook winds to raise the air and water temps up a bit, and increase the metabolic rate of the trout. It’s also important to note, that when fishing sub zero temperatures during winter it is of the utmost importance to keep your trout in the water. The contrast in temperature can freeze literally freeze their gills, and fatally affect the fish if they’re taken out of the water. So please practice responsible winter fish handling and please to do not pull them onto the shore, lie them in the snow or ice as these practices remove the protective slime coating on the fish. This slime is a mucoprotein that contains antibodies and enzymes which enable the fish to fight against infection, disease, parasites and fungal pathogens. It is their first “slime” of defense and we need to do our part to disturb it as little as possible so we can catch them again down the line.

Suggested Fly Patterns for Winter Success:

Peacock and Micro Leech Variants size 6-10

Zebra and Disco Midges size 16-22

San Juan Worms Red and Pink size 6-14

Sculpins, olive and tan Size 4 and 6

Tan, brown and olive Sex Dungeuons size 2 and 4

Brown, Olive, White Gartside Leeches Size 4 and 6

We hope you have the chance to get out and experience a bit of winters bite on your fingers and a trout on the end of your line!

Written by John Bransfield and Mark Storey.

Follow our adventures in fly fishing through our photos on Instagram.


Mark @mdstorey

John @finsandfeathrs