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Winter Open Water Fishing Precautions

By: Mark Romanack

River steelhead fishing peaks in the winter months when the weather is often brutal. Abiding by some simple steps to keep your boat functional in the winter will save a lot of frustration at the boat launch.

All across the north, a fair number of rivers and Great Lakes waters remain ice free all winter. Open water fishing in the dead of winter is not for the faint at heart, but with the right precautions there is no reason the fishing fun can’t continue even in the face of Ole Man Winter.

To avoid issues and gear failures, here are a few simple suggestions to consider this winter.


In freezing conditions, it will help keep the ramp as ice free as possible, if you let the trailer drain while the boat is still at the bottom of the ramp. This allows water to drain back into the water and not onto the launch. This holds true when pulling an empty trailer out of the water at launching and also for pulling a loaded boat out of the launch at the end of the day.

This simple step does a great job of preventing the launch from becoming an ice rink.


In freezing weather it’s vitally important to drain all the water from an outboard immediately following loading the boat on the trailer. Trim the outboard all the way down and let excess water drain out. Start the engine and leaving the engine in neutral, throttle up to spit out any remaining water. Only let the engine run out of the water for a few seconds.

This process needs to be done for both main outboard power and kicker motors. Once all the water has drained, trim the engine back into the stow position.

The author never bothers to “winterize” his boats because he uses them all winter long. A few simple precautions will insure that your boat is ready to fish when you are.


For winter open water fishing trips, it’s always a good idea to keep a bucket of dry sand in your vehicle. Spreading a little sand on the ramp will provide traction and make it much easier to launch and load a boat.


Busy launches are going to get icy and it will become necessary at times to spread some ice melt on the launch. Dry sand does a good job if the launch only has a modest amount of ice, but chemical ice melt is going to be necessary for launches that are seeing a lot of traffic.


When snow gets on a boat launch it quickly becomes compacted into ice. Taking a couple minutes to shovel snow from the launch will save a lot of headaches later in the day or later in the week.


Should you find yourself at the bottom of the ramp without the necessary traction to drive out, having a tow strap handy is going to be a game changer. Rolled up and stowed in the vehicle, a tow strap takes up very little room.


After a day of fishing, drain your livewell up in the parking lot, not at the boat launch. Draining water from the livewell helps to prevent the boat’s plumbing from freezing and bursting.


In many states it’s the law that water from the bilge of the boat must be drained immediately after loading the boat. This step is to prevent the spread of invasive species. In the winter months this rule goes double as water left in the bilge is going to freeze and potentially damage bilge pumps and boat plumbing.


Dry storage, rod locker and livewell lids in a fishing boat have a nasty habit of freezing shut in the winter. After fishing, simply prop open the lids and use a small piece of wood to keep the lids ajar.


At the end of the day it’s a good idea to bring your rods and reels inside to warm up. In freezing conditions reel lubricants can get very stiff.

Just because it’s cold outside is no reason to put away your boat. All across the north, there are open water fishing opportunities that keep the fun going all winter long.


Winter fishing is brutal and your hands/fingers are going to get wet and cold. The easiest way to warm your fingers is to slip your hands into a pair of oversized snow mobile mittens. Mittens do a much better job of keeping your hands warm than gloves and oversized mittens make it easy to slip your hands inside even if your hands are wet.

When running from spot to spot, wear the mittens. When your hands get cold from fishing, take a break and slip into the mittens for a few minutes to chase away the chill.

For a little extra warmth, slip a chemical hand warmer into each mitten. Most chemical hand warmers will last for 12 hours or more making them perfect for long days on the water.


Wearing gloves when fishing is a pain. Every time you need to tie on a lure or make adjustments to terminal tackle, the gloves have to come off. A good compromise is to wear fingerless wool gloves. Exposing your fingertips makes it easy to tie on lures and it’s amazing how well fingerless wool gloves work at keeping your hands warm and functional.

In brutally cold conditions, try putting a pair of latex surgical gloves on before slipping into the fingerless wool gloves. This ultra thin layer will help keep your fingers warmer and still allow the dexterity needed for rigging.


A final piece of advice is to slow your roll when fishing in freezing conditions. Sheet ice or floating icebergs can do a lot of damage to a boat. Excess boat speed in rivers can break up shore ice and make fishing tougher for everyone. Go slow and pick your route carefully. A fishing boat was not designed to be an ice breaker, so tread lightly when there is floating ice or shelf ice on the water.


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