Winter fishing can be done in rivers and on ice

MIDDLEBURY — Fishing is a sport that typically conjures images of hot, sunny days, shorts and a wide-brim hat, clear streams or a quiet canoe and a calm lake.
But for some, the hobby that many of us leave to warm weather lives strong throughout the cooler months of the year.
Ice fishing is a popular hobby for thousands of Vermonters. It usually means days spent drilling holes through thick ice with an ice saw, auger, or chisel and waiting with a watchful eye on the tip-ups that indicate when an angler has a fish on the line.
Many fisherman enjoy the camaraderie and social nature of ice fishing, and on any given winter weekend you’re be sure to find small groups of anglers gathered around shanties with lawn chairs, picnics, families, snowmobiles, and a couple dozen holes in the ice with tip-ups awaiting the next fish.
Some observe that ice fishing isn’t as “hard core” as it was before the days of space heaters, trucks that could drive out on the ice, motorized augers and tip-ups that allow anglers the flexibility of setting multiple lines at once and leaving them alone until a fish is hooked. Still, it remains a great way to spend a day outside in the winter.
For many, ice fishing gives them an excuse to get outside, breathe the thin and cool air, and sit in silence. It can be cathartic, meditative, and calming for many who lead otherwise busy lives.
But there is another kind of fishing that extends into the wintery months across Vermont, albeit among a smaller group of anglers. That is river fly-fishing, a more technical variety of the sport and one gaining in popularity in Green Mountain State.
According to Steve Atocha, an avid angler and co-owner of Middlebury Mountaineer, there is a small, but committed group of local anglers that fish year round. Many of them are affiliated with the New Haven River Anglers Association, an active group of anglers that organize regular events, lessons, and gatherings in addition to advocating for the sustainable maintenance of the New Haven River.
Some fishermen and women like to challenge themselves to see if they can catch at least one fish in each month of the year, Atocha says, “which is pretty neat.”
“The style of fishing definitely changes a little in the winter,” he notes, “anglers are generally not dissecting the river like they would be in the summer, but rather are just out there swinging streamers.” (For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “swinging streamers” it refers to a method of casting that is used to cover larger stretches of water using large weighted flies and lobbing them out into the stream at a regular angle.)
Atocha says many committed anglers enjoy the challenge of fishing through winter months when the water is high and there are shelves of ice for the fly to hit and slide off, a technique not possible in the summer months.
As with many winter sports, there are unique obstacles and challenges to overcome like ice that freezes into the guides of the rod, or an increased risk factor from extreme temperatures, which can add variation and thrill to a veteran angler. Falling in the water is something most anglers try to avoid any time of the year, but stakes are much higher in the winter when water temperatures are just above freezing.
With high waters resulting from thaw cycles and increased precipitation, river levels increase in winter and fish are able to move around more than they are mid-summer when shallow areas can prevent them from travel. Food also moves more easily and can be washed downstream in higher waters.
“When the water is really mucky and filled with silt, the fish can’t see anything so the activity is going to be very minimal,” Atocha says, “but as soon as the silt settles a little and the water clears, you might have a hungry fish that hasn’t eaten anything for a few days.”
As one might expect, fish metabolize more slowly in the winter months and therefore generally eat less than they do in warmer waters. With fish consuming four or five times less than they might in the summer, it can be much more challenging and rare to hook a fish in the winter.
Most fisherman and women hibernate their hobby through the winter months, Atocha says, trading their fishing poles for ski poles or other winter hobbies. But for some, it just makes the catch that much more exciting and worth waiting for when you know it’s so rare.
The wet and cold hands, slippery surfaces and layers upon layers of needed clothing is all worth it for that one fish, he says.
“Surprisingly enough, catching that one fish really can warm you right back up, “ Atocha says. “The energy electrifies your body and you forget that it might be a bit uncomfortable in that moment.”

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