It's always struck visitors and locals alike as unusual that you can fish in the winter, especially above 6000 feet. Coming from a Great Lakes trib fishing back ground, winter fishing has been a way of life for me, not abnormal. Most of my winter guiding experience has been on wade trips of the half day variety, but there has always been a few hardy souls willing to try a float December-February.
Winter float fishing has its challenges. Just getting there is the first. There is just no reason to rush to the river, the best fishing is going to happen in the afternoon. Arrive to early and witness the early morning slush hatch and you'll know what I'm talking about. After floating the Roaring Fork 4 times since New Years day, I've found the best fishing is basically Noon- Dusk with a "magic" hour in the middle of the afternoon. Fishing on the fly is usually not worth it as our rigs are long, deep and heavy. Once in a while on those real warm days, you can hurl your favorite streamer pattern on the fly but that is better left for March. Boat ramps can also influence how and when you get to the river. In early January I had a client who was, lets say very anxious to get to the river and get going. Sometimes it's just not worth arguing with your peep about timing, you just have to get there and let him see for himself. I stopped and looked at the take out (which i recommend highly if you haven't seen it in 3 months), and it looked like there wouldn't be an issue. I then called my shuttle driver who is a local and her husband guides on the Fork. She thought i was a bit loony but with our economic issues she didn't try and talk me out of it, besides her husband was in the background teasing me into it. When we arrived at the put in, the water was covered in slush, and a wade trip on the upper Fork crept into my plan. Long story short, after being called out by my 76 year old buddy's, "no guts no glory" speech, i backed my truck and trailer down the ramp still wondering how to slow down my departure. That ended up working it's self out as my truck and trailer was buried in the snow for the next 45 minutes. By the time i finished with that circus act the slush was gone and we went on to a great day of fishing.
Boat placement is also very different in the winter. On most float trips the oarsman finds a comfortable line for his anglers to throw to the bank. In the winter those areas can look more like a hockey rink and I am yet to see anyone throw a tuck cast under ice. Most trout will hold off of these traditional summer areas out on what we call the second seam over some deeper water. In this case you are still holding a line in or around the middle of the river, it's just further away from the bank than most rowers are used to. The other line that is used commonly in the winter is bank hugging. When there is no ledge ice on the bank you can slow your boat and give anglers more shots by staying in the rocks and shallows along the bank, throwing back towards the middle of the river to the seam that is holding the fish. This takes some practice and a proficient crab stroke so you don't make a bunch of noise with the boat.
Knowing your float and whats coming up around the corner is the number one way to keep your peep interested. I usually explain our fishing for the day as "hole to hole". When the water is low and slow it's very easy to hover a boat in prime areas without using an anchor. Knowing what holes to spend time in and how much time to linger only comes with experience. Don't bank on your favorite summer hole to look the same in the dead of winter. Winter holes can be places you pass in prime time because they are to fast or deep to play with when you are wearing your tee shirt.
Summer crowds on float rivers can be every boaters additional headache. In the winter a crowd can be one other boat. Because you both know you can only fish effectively hole to hole, it sometimes becomes a race. When you are with a guide you don't have to worry about that but believe me the guide is. The good ones know to play some cards out there and realize that you don't necessarily win by finishing first. If I'm following someone more experienced than my 2 bit program and i recognize it, i have a couple more things to think about for the day . Do i want to get ahead of him and piss him off by being parked in every good hole when he comes around the corner? Playing nice and sharing doesn't just apply to children unless your looking to make your life hard every time that other dude is on the river with you. Another thing to think about when sharing is if the other boat doesn't have the experience your team does. If I'm following a bunch of guys with less game I tend to let them get ahead of me. That can backfire all day long on ya if you let it though. Winter is when i have found every secret spot i know because someone else was parked there. In the summer the amount of boats on the river can give you data but it's often to diluted, fishing on the fly is still an option and there are many different rigs you can use. When you are going hole to hole in the winter, someone more experienced than you is bound to tip his hat to something really special. If you pass a hole with two bent rods, remember it for next time. The trick is to remember what the boat and the guide looked like also. Lot's of people forget that part. Try and be careful or sneaky enough to not park in that spot he gave you when he comes around the corner next time. Play nice and you will be trusted out there.
Often our pre trip data can be limited in the winter also. Checking a USGS site to analyze water flows is a great way to start planning, unfortunately the winter gauges often just read ice so you have no idea what to expect. That should also sound like "be careful". Winter is just one case for why i love rubber boats so much, who cares if it's low. Rubber opens up runs and holes the drifty in front of you has no right trying for. It also gives you options at the take out or put ins. That early January day with ol Warren stuck on the boat ramp spooked me at the take out, so i just took my boat apart and walked it up the hill ( thank you Pack and Agent Newell) I've since been sliding it down the snow covered put in, and dragging it up all together, cooler and all, at the take out. Point being is you never really know until you try, same should be said for this winter float stuff.
Learn your river well. Dress right, float at the right time, think out side of the summer box, have some balls and you don't have to put your boat away for the winter. Skiing sucks anyways, I can live with snow shoes. Most everybody you are going to pass on the river in the winter are the true diehards of this sport. They feel the same way and can help hold the key to great fishing in the summer if you pay attention.