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Gone Fishing

Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley

Winter on the Big Wood River

Jan 11, 2012 - 12:00 PM
Winter on the Big Wood River

Big Wood River

Fly fishing’s most poetic practice...

It’s during the cold and quiet days of winter when fly fishing on the Big Wood River is its most poetic. Snow falls, silence reigns, feathered hooks gently float, fishermen are few and far between, trout are hungry, insects bounce about, the wind shows its strength, eyelets freeze, fingertips numb, the river keeps on flowing.

Certainly, winter fishing on the Big Wood is by no means easy. Nor is it as celebrated as its fellow seasons, especially the autumn around here that Hemingway made so famous, “and best of all he loved the fall … leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies.”
Long time local John Pace lands a rainbow.

In the winter, the leaves give way to falling snow and drifting ice. The skies can sometimes be high blue, but are rarely windless. Winter fly fishing in the chilly heart of Idaho usually requires the angler to pack on more layers than a walrus, and some fishermen—just like the aforementioned sea mammals—may have icicles freeze to facial hair. 

It also means that outside of local tackle shops and Grumpy’s in Ketchum, most folks will look at you as if you’ve just escaped from a loony bin if you tell them you just went fishing on a day when the temperatures barely hit double digits. And skiers or snowboarders will treat you like you smell funny if they find out you went to the river instead of going up on the mountain (if you’ve had any success angling, however, you’ll happily smell a little fishy).

But that’s okay. Let them think what they will. They just don’t get it anyway. They can’t hear the lyrics of the wintry river or feel the rhythms of the cast. They don’t notice the verses of the rainbows or the tempo of the stoneflies, midges and nymphs. As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver so brilliantly asked: “And when has happiness ever required much evidence . . . ?”

"When has happiness ever required much evidence?"-Mary Oliver

Ed Northern is the president of the local Hemingway chapter of Trout Unlimited. A retired fire captain and paramedic originally from Southern California, Ed seems far too sane to ever be caught wading into an icy river to cast for trout. But the winter is his favorite time to fish the Big Wood.

“You can cross-country ski or get on the slopes and still get some time to fish for big, healthy, beautifully colored fish and you have the solitude and the beauty of winter here. When you combine all these things together, it’s just magical,” explained Ed, who also does some guiding for Silver Creek Outfitters and is a published poet.

Poetry and fly fishing do, naturally, have a few things in common. In their truest forms (like winter casting on the Big Wood or the works of Mary Oliver), both are essentially philosophical and downright spiritual practices—art forms if you will. Still, those who don’t fish or only cast in pleasant weather often A nice Wood River winter "fattie!"look at us winter anglers not as if we’re artists, but more like we’re deranged finger painters. They obviously think of fishing in terms of prose, not poetry. 

So our response starts and ends with a couple of quotes from an essay on the matter by arguably the best fishing prose writer there is, John Gierach. First, “Fishermen openly enjoy being thought of as crazy.” And finally, “Any idiot can fish in the summer.”


ı. Winter conditions are hazardous and even in its mellow off-season flows the Big Wood River is more powerful than any person. Always err on the side of safety. The river isn’t going anywhere. There’ll be other days to fish.

2. Wading boots must have good soles and be able to handle slick rocks and slippery snow and ice.

3. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be returning.

4. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible. As Tim Alpers, whose family has been farming their famous “Alpers monster trout” in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada for three generations, once explained there are two main concerns when handling trout in winter: The first is that handling trout, especially with dry or gloved hands, removes the protective slime layer (a fish’s insulation in the winter); And prolonged exposure to cold air can freeze a trout’s gills. “Winter can be hard on trout,” he said.

Wet flies like Prince Nymphs and Zebra Midges are tough for trout to turn down.5. Pick the right flies Dave Faltings from Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum is what you’d a call a professional trout bum. Dave has a passion and knowledge for fly fishing that runs stronger than the Big Wood during a monstrous spring run-off. So naturally, he loves to fish in the winter. “The winter is a great time to fish around here,” Dave said as he opened his fly box atop the counter at Silver Creek. “It’s mostly a midge time of year. The bugs are really small in the winter.” Dave has three favorite winter flies for the Big Wood River:
Rubber-legged Stoneflies range as large as sizes 6-8. Trailing Shuck midge is a small dry fly, ranging in size from 20-22.
Zebra midges in assorted colors and sizes.

[Get the basics of winter fly fishing by taking advantage of Silver Creek Outfitters’ special winter guide rates: just $300 for one to two people a day, including all the gear right down to the flies.]

Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Old to new | New to old
Jan 11, 2012 03:41 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Great article!

Jan 12, 2012 10:57 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

After tip 4 regarding leaving trout in the river as much as possible, there is a photo of a rook holding a fish with a fly still in its mouth out of the water in one hand, and a camera in the other.
Justin Ross

Jan 13, 2012 11:25 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Nice catch, Justin. But that's actually a picture from a somewhat warm autumn day shortly after a light early season snowfall. So there was no real worry about freezing gills that day, and I did wet my hand before touching the fish.
The goal of that shot was to show off the barbless wet fly, which the fish spit out about a second after I was lucky enough to take this shot. And since I want that fish to grow up and get bigger, he was only out of the water for about five seconds.
Thanks for the feedback and for reading,

Jan 24, 2012 10:14 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Just wanted to give a big thanks for the great readership numbers this blog has been receiving. And to say thanks to all the written responses (primarily on all the Facebook pages that shared this story and those who emailed me directly).
Interestingly, both the harshest and best feedback came from Texas, and I really appreciated all the love fishing fans from California sent.
Thanks for the inspiration!

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About This Blog

Whether he’s being out-fished by his trash talking mother-in-law, guiding one of his young sons through the perils of manhood or finding inspiration from the people of the Wood River Valley, Mike McKenna’s award-winning writing is always sure to entertain. Order a copy of Mike's highly-acclaimed book, "Angling Around Sun Valley: A year-round fly fishing guide to South Central Idaho" from Silver Creek Outfitters.

Gone Fishing's awards include: "Best Blog" 2010 & 2011 by the Idaho Press Club, "Best Web-only Article" of 2011 by the Outdoor Writers Association of California and "Best Fishing" & "Best Humor" blogs of 2012 by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.


"Angling Around Sun Valley" was selected as the "Best Book" of 2013 by Northwest Outdoor Writers Association!

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