27 Jan Winter Fly Fishing in Whistler BC
You’re in Whistler, or planning a ski trip here and wondering if you can sneak in a bit of Winter fly fishing. Am I right? Luckily you’ve come to the right place for the answer to; Is there any Winter fly fishing in Whistler?
There’s actually some awesome Winter fishing options here and we’re the guys to do it with. But, before you climb on for a guided Whistler fly fishing trip with us, let’s give you a run down of the best places to fish and the different species we’re targeting. Below is a run down of Winter fly fishing options near Whistler, our favourite local rivers and other helpful info to know before you go…
A recent Whistler fly fishing trip to the upper Squamish River in search of BC bull trout.
TOP WINTER FLY FISHING RIVERS NEAR WHISTLER
Local lakes tend to be frozen during the Winter months, fly fishing is pretty tough through a little hole in the ice, so we don’t bother that. Our focus is on the local rivers near Whistler, fly fishing wild sections for bull trout and steelhead, more on them below. We have three favourite rivers that are top for a Winter Whistler fly fishing trip.
1. Squamish River
2. Lillooet River
3. Cheakamus River
These are the best Whistler fly fishing rivers for a Winter trip. Below you’ll find details on each and why we love swinging flies on them!
While Whistler is covered in snow, our local rivers, including the Squamish, Cheakamus & Lillooet usually are clear of snow as they lay at lower elevations.
1. Squamish River
The Squamish River is our go to river for Winter fly fishing trips from Whistler as it offers easy access and solid bull trout fishing through the Winter months. The Squamish is located about 40 minutes south of Whistler, towards Vancouver and flows into Howe Sound, so its elevation in considerably lower than that of Whistler.
There are two main areas you can go fly fishing the Squamish River, the lower section and the upper section. The upper section is a remote section in the upper Squamish Valley. It has beautiful stretches of water, home to bull trout and rainbow trout in the Winter months. Access can be limited to the upper Squamish River in January & February due to snow on the road. In the Spring months this is is where we operate the majority of our Squamish River steelhead trips.
The lower Squamish is closer to Howe Sound, conditions here are generally more temperate during Winter months as you’re nearly at sea level. It is rare to find anything but resident bull trout on the lower Squamish. The river is larger near the mouth and offers lots of great swing water for fly fishing. The lower Squamish is usually where you’ll see the first push of Winter steelhead, that push of fish generally trickles into the system starting in mid February.
The Squamish River is also where the majority of our Vancouver fly fishing trips are held. You don’t have to be in Whistler to get there, you can join us from Vancouver as well.
Squamish River fly fishing trip during the Winter 2019.
2. Lillooet River
The Lillooet River is located northeast of Whistler. Again, there are two sections of the Lillooet River, the upper Lillooet and the lower Lillooet. The upper section is a quick drive from Whistler, near the town of Pemberton. It flows into Lillooet Lake and there is good access to the river with solid fly fishing for bull trout fishing all Winter long. Pemberton’s elevation is about 210 metres, while Whistler is 670 metres, so the drastic change in elevation, in only 30 minutes of driving, makes for much better Winter fly fishing conditions.
The lower Lillooet River is much more of a drive from Whistler, pushing about 1.5 hours to some of the sections. This is the section of the Lillooet River that flows between Lillooet Lake and Harrison Lake. If you’re looking for adventure you’ll find it in this wild section of river. You can have some spectacular Winter fly fishing for bull trout here as it gets very little angling pressure and is almost entirely untouched. Keep in mind this section offers limited access, you need to know where you’re going, that’s why it’s always good to hire a Whistler fly fishing guide wink wink.
Keep in mind, there can be some tricky wading here, some runs have big size bowling ball rocks. The driving, hiking and wading can pay off though. It’s not uncommon to find a wild winter steelhead while swinging flies for bull trout. Later in the season, generally in the Spring months there is also a run of true Spring (Chinook) salmon that enter the river. Be aware if you’re fishing the lower Lillooet you’ll be a long way from cell service and road conditions vary greatly, so ravel prepared.
A bull trout on the lower Lillooet River, one of our favourite places to go Winter fly fishing near Whistler.
3. Cheakamus River
The Cheakamus River is a tributary of the Squamish and offers anglers decent access and good Winter fishing opportunities. The Cheakamus is the only river that is dammed in the Whistler area. This helps control the flow and water temperature through the Winter months. Located 40 minutes south of Whistler, this is river you can fish year round.
Ideally, you want a bump in river levels on the Cheakamus to hit the best fishing. Low clear water pushes fish to hide, while rising water encourages them to move and feed more. The wading is relatively easy and the fishing for bull trout is consistent during Winter months. The Cheakamus has a healthy chum salmon return in the Fall months and their remnants (eggs & flesh) sustain the resident fish through the Winter months.
Staring in mid February through to later April you’ll find a small run of winter steelhead in the Cheakamus. These aren’t easily caught, be prepared to put a few miles of walking on to get to prime Cheakamus River steelhead holding spots.
The Cheakamus River south of Whistler offers Winter fly fishing for bull trout, rainbow trout & steelhead.
BEST FLIES FOR WINTER FLY FISHING
So now you know where to go, but what is going to make the fish bite?
Most importantly know what you’re targeting. Bull trout are carnivores, they like to eat little fish, salmon flesh and salmon eggs. Mimicking these during a Winter fly fishing trip will give you the best shot at a big bull trout! Remember, it’s still too early for fry patterns, but sculpins and olive streamers work well. Egg patterns, run under an indicator is also a proven method on the Cheakamus River, not so much on the Squamish and Lillooet rivers. Those two systems are best fished with streamer and sculpin flies.
If you’re not familiar with ‘flesh’ flies, the are simply tied flies mimicking decaying salmon flesh. Often tied with rabbit strip in shades of white or light pink, flesh flies are especially effective in November and early d. Guide tip number one, fly choice matters, so make sure you’re fishing the right flies and size for the river conditions. Often rivers are low and clear in the Winter months, so fishing light tippet and smaller flies is key. As rivers rise with melting snow or low elevation rain you can up your tipper size and start throwing some bigger flies at the fish.
A big Squamish River bull trout caught on one of our Whistler fly fishing trips was fooled by the classic sparkly olive streamer.
WINTER FISH SPECIES
Along with knowing where to go and what to use, it is probably hand to have an idea of what you’ll catch. The most common species of fish to catch near Whistler on a Winter fly fishing trip is a bull trout. (Salvelinus confluentus). Often bull trout and dolly varden get mixed up, but in the Sea to Sky region around Whistler it is bull trout you’ll catch.
There are also resident rainbow trout in the Cheakamus, Squamish and Lillooet rivers. Rainbows are most often caught on small nymph or egg patterns and often jump immediately upon being hooked. That is always the initial telltale difference between bull trout and rainbow trout, the rainbows always jump and the bulls never.
If you are extra lucky you’ll swing yourself into a Winter steelhead. Steelhead runs are relatively small, usually only a few hundred fish in each system. Dubbed the “fish of a thousand casts” steelhead are explosive, hammering flies and burning up reels! A prized catch on the rivers near Whistler, winter steelhead must be handled with great care, as all fish should.
Last but not least, if you’re heading out without a guide make sure you know the rules outlined in the BC freshwater fishing regulations. Employ thoughtful fish handling techniques and always fish with with a single barbless hook.
A beautiful wild rainbow trout caught on the Cheakamus River near Whistler, BC.
If you’re planning on heading out solo for a day of fly fishing near Whistler here gear recommendations….
Rods & Reels
Without a doubt, you’ll want a lighter rod when trout fishing, but nothing less than a 5-6 weight. Personally I like heavier rods for Winter fly fishing, a 7-8 weight. A heavier weighted rod will allow for some longer casts and can more easily turn over streamer flies and larger indicators. Spey and switch rods are increasingly popular for trout fishing. An 11’5 switch rod, or similar in a 6-7 weight is an awesome little setup.
Weight forward floating line with a variety of sink tips. Don’t go crazy, water levels are usually low and Type III sink tips are great when conditions are cold. For switch or spey setups my favourite Winter tip is a MOW 5/5 T-8. An exception to this is on the lower Lillooet River where sometimes it’s nice to get down deeper and then a MOW 2.5/7.5 T-11 will be your preferred tip.
Under the Waders
Keeping warm is key on a Winter fly fishing trip. Getting cold sucks and will shorten your day. What do the guides wear? A pair of mid weight ski socks with a pair of heavy duty Simms wool socks. Heavier weight Merino wool long johns with a fleece shell pant over them. I find a shell pant creates a nice barrier between the fleece and the wader. Tucking your top into your fleece pants is always a good idea. This will keep the exposed belly areas to a minimum, bundling you in. Hand warmers are useless, don’t bother. Keep in mind, if you want warm hands bring some ski gloves, they’ll be the best for warmups between fishing.
It’s moments like this when I’m happy I carried a few more lenses along on my day © Austin Heffelfinger
LETS GO FISHING!
So, are you ready to get out for a Winter fly fishing trip in Whistler? Be safe and enjoy yourself on the water and remember if you’d like to fish with the most experienced fly fishing guides in Whistler, we’re your guys! In conclusion, here’s a few things to keep in mind…
- Winter fishing is largely condition dependent. It’s important to look at weather and river conditions before you go.
- Focus on what you’re targeting. Bull trout, rainbows and steelhead eat different flies and live in different bits of water.
- Stay warm. Keeping warm is key to a good day of Winter fly fishing, being cold on the river is never fun.
Most importantly, be safe. The Sea to Sky corridor and rivers around Whistler BC are wild areas. Most have little or no cell coverage and quick changing weather conditions are the norm. If you’re inexperienced in Winter fishing or the area we suggest going first on a guided trip. This can be with us, or another reputable Whistler fly fishing guide service, but will ensure the safest, best experience.
About the Author
Yos Gladstone is the owner operator of Chromer Sport Fishing, a guiding company and booking agency based in British Columbia, Canada. A full-time salmon & steelhead guide, Yos spends 200+ days a year on the water fishing, guiding and hosting trips.