Report from Ice Station Zebra

Above: Sara Roholt attempts to free the ice from her guides while swinging the Missouri River at -10.

Extreme cold has settled in to the Northern Rockies for longer than it usually does. Really cold, and with it lots of snow to keep your feet nice and chilly while walking out to the river. Not many folks have been venturing out to the river lately. A few, and oddly, a few floaters as well. In this weather I’m on me feet so I can quickly get back in the cab of the car and crank up the heat.

We always see pretty good traffic during the holidays. It’s a great time to fish with few crowds but some good camaraderie around the shop in the afternoon. December is one of the better and most consistent months on the river. Both nymphers and swingers will get plenty of action before the river temperature gauge bottoms out in late January. We typically don’t see great midge hatches this time of year, but you should be able to find a few risers up around the dam in the late afternoons.

Unfortunately, the forecast doesn’t look great for the next week. I don’t think we’re going to see anywhere near comfortable until the middle of next week, and even then it’s not going to get above freezing, at least on the current long-term forecasts.

If you do decide to go, here’s a few things we like to do that will help make a Polar Vortex day tolerable:

  • Wear good gloves – kind of a no brainer, but in this weather we’re going to sacrifice dexterity for warmth. That means quality gloves like Last Steelhead Gloves, or a pair of ski gloves. This works best with spey orgs, but you can make it work with a nymph rig if you get in the right spot. Think a sharp drop off where the fish are infant of you, not above. And make sure and put some hand warmers in those mitts.
  • Don’t change flies – pick the pattern(s) you have the most confidence with at home or in the fly shop, and get rigged up proper in a controlled environment. Removing your gloves to change flies repeatedly can end the day quickly. I would rather catch a few less than get so cold I have to bail. Also, use heavy tippet so you don’t run the risk of breaking your bugs off.
  • Use a Ketchum Release – DO NOT put your hands in the water to land those fish! Wet hands at minus 10 will make you whine like a millennial. A Ketchum Release or similar tool will allow you to release fish with gloves on. You should not lift trout out of the water at those temperatures (or any other, some would argue). Nets are a frozen mess in the arctic. Leave them at home.
  • Puffie’s Rule – When it’s this cold, you’re not going to get wet, even if it’s snowing. Forget that technical rain jacket and wear a big puffy down jacket (or 2-3 lighter ones). If you don’t have a badass Simms Extreme or Downstream jacket, you must have that big old dirty insulated snow shoveling parka in the mudroom, right? Wear that. Forget layering when it’s around zero, and go with the thickest insulation you have.
  • Stripping means ice in your guides… and on your hands! – Now it’s pretty difficult to avoid this one, but you can try and reduce the amount of line stripping you do by choosing a method that reduces the need to strip. Streamers out of the boat? Nope…
  • Bring hot liquids – A Thermos coffee mug is standard for our crew. You need the one with the spill proof lid so you can stuff it down your waders.
  • Keep your head warm – like your mom said, “you’ll catch a cold!”. We like the Simms Extreme GoreTex hat, a merino wool buff and possibly an old school wool scarf.
  • Bootfoots Rule! – Most Montana anglers don’t own a pair of boot foot waders, but those who do know they are warmer than stocking foot waders by several factors. We sell a few pairs of Simms boot foots each year, and while expensive, the purchasers do not have buyers remorse after using them. Orvis makes solid boot foots as well.
  • Joe’s Craig Bar – did you know Joe’s has a big old tasty fireplace they crank up all winter? After fishing, head there to defrost. They also sell special anti-freeze for humans under the brand name “Fireball”.

If you do get out there enjoy the river and the outdoors. Stop by for coffee and to rig up indoors. If you do choose to float, be careful on the boat ramps, regardless of how badass your rig is. Each winter we pull several rigs off the ramps.

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