Several winters ago, about the time I settled into wild trout country, I fell in love with winter fishing—the conditions, the solace, and the fish. For when the air turns cold, all but the hardiest abandon the water. The lucky angler may even find themselves solitary among mountains blanketed in white—the air aroar with the static of snowflakes crashing into Earth—and with an honest chance at a truly large trout that are relatively unpressured and intent on consuming the largest number of calories for the fewest expended. However, while fishing in the winter can be very productive and enjoyable, just like during the hot, low water summer and fall seasons, there are some oft-unconsidered catch and release concerns specific to the frosty months that should be kept in mind when handling fish.
There’s much debate within the fishing community over the ethics of fishing during specific times of the year and targeting fish during critical points in their life cycles. The spawn, post-spawn, low water, warm water—some even contest the act of fishing when air temperatures drop below the freezing mark. While such a self-imposed prohibition may seem a bit harsh, the motive is true.
Ever marvel at how quickly ice forms in your guides and your fly line turns into a frozen toothpick when angling in sub-freezing conditions? Or how cold your hands get after you get them wet? Fish are cold-blooded, and likewise their internal body temperatures are dictated by the temperature of their environment. Thus, while keeping fish out of the water for extended periods of time should always be avoided, special care should be taken when temperatures are below freezing. In particular, cold temperatures can cause severe damage to soft tissue, like eyes and gills, which are essential for survival.
To this end, whenever possible, keep fish in the water while handling, and unhooking them. You’ve heard of the “hold your breath when you pull a fish from the water” idea. Now imagine you’re soaking wet and your body temperature is plummeting. If you want to take a picture, keep the fish in a net while preparing the camera. It takes a second to release the shutter. Lift. Snap. Lower. Life. Snap. Lower. Release.
I rarely fish with gloves. Some like them. Regardless, it’s easy to be tempted to ignore effective catch and release practices in favor of warm, relatively dry, gloved hands.
It’s best to remove any kind of glove and wet your hands before handling a fish, for a photo or otherwise, as cloth is extremely adept at removing the protective slime layer that shields the fish from harmful fungi, bacteria, and ectoparasites. What’s more, imagine what those fish slime-covered gloves would have your truck smelling like by the first warm morning of spring.
This process can be totally avoided by keeping fish in a net in the water and using a pair of forceps to remove the hook before releasing, which also reduces air exposure to a minimum.
Keep Your Hands Warm
But what about those hands? Now they’re all wet and feeling like a winter fish out of water, which may pose a risk to your own health. If you don’t get them warm, you’ll be tempted even further to put those gloves back on and keep them on (if you’ve got them), taking life-threatening chances with every consequent fish you catch.
When fishing in cold or below-freezing conditions, consider carrying a small microfiber towel tucked in the front of your waders. When your hands get wet or fish-slimy, just dry them off, warm them up inside the upper chest of your jacket, and keep fishing, or replace the glove you took off to handle that fish. It might end up pretty rank, but towels are a lot easier to wash at the end of a season than a pair of good fishing gloves.
Catch and release practices are pounded into angling minds constantly, and are often centered on the dangers of the upper temperature extreme. Although winter fishing can be some of the best of the year, both for the experience and the catching, the effect of cold air on fish and our handling of them should be kept in mind, with the goal of watching that fish return to its lie to haunt another angler in the days and years to come.