Make the Most of Winter

Embrace the Winter and Catch More Trout with the Following Tips from Simms Ambassador, Joe Dilschneider.

While many anglers view winter as prime fly tying season, others reap the rewards of vacant water and great fishing. Joe Dilschneider of Ennis, Montana based, Trout Stalkers, has spent the last 23 years as a professional guide, 21 of which have been spent on the renown Madison River. After a long spring, summer and fall season, the self proclaimed trout junkie still hasn’t had his fill. Instead of kicking back in the winter, Dilschneider takes advantage of it. Check out the following Q&A and get the skinny on some of his theories and tactics to catch more trout in during the winter months.

Simms: So you say you moved to Montana specifically to live on the Madison River. What was the original draw?
Dilschneider: In my opinion, the Madison Valley is one of the most unique and spectacular valleys in the Northern Rockies. It epitomizes Big Sky Country. The huge, wide open spaces and being surrounded by mountains is amazing but also, the Madison River itself is such a great and diverse fishery.

Simms: What is it about the Madison that you love so much?
Dilschneider: It’s a fairly swift moving river — it’s not sleepy or lazy and you have to be pretty active and engaged to fish it well. There’s something about that type of fishing that has always appealed to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love fishing all types of trout water but after all the places I’ve traveled and fished, for me, the Madison is still the place I want to call home.

Simms: After a busy spring, summer and fall, do you kick back in the winter? Or, do you still get out on the water a fair bit?
Dilschneider: I might take a short break in December, but really, I love fishing during the winter months. In fact, I’ve fished the Madison every New Year’s Day for the past 16 years. I never really set out to make it a tradition, but after a while it became a pretty serious tradition that I now share with my family. The goal is to go out and of course have fun, but also to catch the first fish of the new year. I’m proud to say, we’ve managed to do so every year for the past 16 years, including this year which was about 5 degrees.

Simms: Most folks don’t consider 5 degrees “fishing weather”. Do you fish often when it’s that cold or was that more for the tradition?
Dilschneider: Well, I tend to fish when it’s warmer out for sure. But, that’s no so much because of the cold. It has more to do with the fact that I find fishing is a bit better when it’s slightly warmer. If you are dressed right, it’s pretty easy to deal with the cold. I don’t think there’s anything more important than your base layers and outerwear. When I was out on New Years day, virtually everything I was wearing from my base layers, to my mid-layers, to my waders, to my outer shell was all Simms and I was completely comfortable. I am always appreciative of my gear but not nearly as appreciative as I am during the winter months.

Simms: When you fish in the winter, what temps are you looking for?
Dilschneider: For the most part, I try and cherry pick my days. For us here in the Madison Valley, wind is a huge factor. When we get those milder days ranging from 25- to 45-degrees with light winds, chances are, I’m out there or at least wishing I was.

Simms: What is your favorite aspect of fishing during the winter?
Dilschneider: Well, there’s a few. There’s something really cool about exploring the fringes of our sport. When you snow shoe through six feet of snow from the road to get to the river, I don’t know, it just kind of adds an extreme element that’s really cool. Aside from that, there’s the obvious perk which is being able to easily find complete solitude. Our winters are long and the days are short — you’ve got to embrace it and to me, there’s nothing more uplifting. On top of all that, the fishing can actually be very good during the winter.

Simms: In the winter, when the fishing is “good” on the Madison, is it good in terms of quality or good in terms of quantity?
Dilschneider: I’d say both. The fish haven’t been pressured and action can be really great. The water is very cold and fish have the tendency to congregate more in buckets and holes. And as far as quality goes, we generally don’t get many dinks, most of the fish we catch are pretty solid.

Simms Designer of Packs and Bags, Paul Thomas, prepares to release a healthy winter brown caught on the Upper Madison.

Simms Designer of Packs and Bags, Paul Thomas, prepares to release a healthy winter brown caught on the Upper Madison.

Simms: Is it a dry, nymph or streamer game during the winter?
Dilschneider: Primarily, it’s a finesse nymph game but when conditions are right [warmer days], you can actually have some pretty awesome dry fly action. As far as streamers go, low and slow, almost dead drifted streamers will pick up some fish but it’s not nearly as effective as a well presented nymph.

Simms: What do you mean when you say finesse nymphing?
Dilschneider: Well, I guess in a way, all nymphing is finesse nymphing but what I’m referring to is stealthily nymphing slow, soft water. That’s the type of water to look for in the winter. You don’t want to just go charge in there and slam a big weighted rig with a big indicator down. Even though the fish in the winter are somewhat sluggish in the cold water, they are still prone to spook. When I’m nymphing that type of water, I’m generally fishing midge larva and other small flies using a yarn indicator and 4X or 5X tippet. So when I say finesse fishing, I’m really talking about my leader size, the size of my flies, my indicator and the delicacy that’s required.

Simms: So, you aren’t using any weight?
Dilschneider: While I do like to use very small flies, in the winter, you can also use larger flies like a gurdle bug or a stonefly nymph. Personally, I like to use tungsten bead flies. One of my favorite winter time rigs would be something like a size 14 prince, pheasant tail, hairs ear or any of those old school favorites and then trail a tungsten bead zebra midge. If you are fishing the type of water I like to target in the winter, many times, that’s enough weight to get the flies where they need to be and you are still able to get that delicate presentation. Now, if I do get into some heavier water, sure, I’ll use a little split. I think that’s one of the most important and finer points of successful nymph fishing. There’s an old saying — “The difference between a good nymph fishermen and a not so good nymph fishermen is a seven ball of lead.

Simms: Can you be a little more specific about the type of water you are looking for during the winter months?
Dilschneider: The best way I can describe it is that I’m looking for slow deep water. When I say deep water, that’s relative. For example, what constitutes a deep run or pool in one section of the river might differ compared to another section of the river. So, when I find deep, slow water, in the winter, I look for the fish to hang in the middle of the water column toward the middle or backend of the pool or run. Whereas in the spring and summer, when fish are actively feeding, they tend to move right into the head of the pool or up into the riffle that feeds the pool.

Simms: Do you have any theories on trout lies or feeding in general?
Dilschneider: My theory is that all trout are like little capitalists — they’re in it to make a profit. They will position themselves in the optimal spot where they still have the opportunity to eat if the opportunity to eat presents itself but wheil expending as little energy as possible. So in the winter, they have to be in the game meaning they can’t really be in a slacked out eddy. They will be in the current where they can take in the most calories and expend the fewest in order to survive the winter.

Simms: Are there any portions of the rivers that tend to have less slush ice? Or, do you have any tips for finding open/fishable water?
Dilschneider: Above all else, anglers fishing during the winter need to be extra careful. There’s always danger on the river but when ice is a factor, the river becomes extra dangerous. In the winter, there’s always the possibility of large ice bergs breaking off and coming down the river. These things can easily take you off your feet. Along those lines, to answer your question, one of my key winter strategies is to fish the upper reaches of whatever drainage I’m fishing. Typically, the higher up you go, the less anchor and slush ice there is. Not only will this water be more productive, it’s safer to fish.