Lines and Cold Water Fly Fishing

When I talk about cold water fly fishing I am referring to temperatures when the outside temperatures are at or near freezing. The type of temperatures where ice quickly builds up in your rod guides with the line frozen into the ice.

We will talk about the obvious issues, such as how to dress for the weather, and water conditions in a later post, but first I want to talk about fly lines in these conditions.

If you’ve never fished in these types of conditions it may come as a surprise that, even though the water on the river is flowing freely and the outside temperature may be a degree or two above freezing, after a few minutes of casting ice will build up on your guides as you can see from these pictures.

At this point the line is frozen into the guides and trying to pull the line through can damage the guides (I’ve inadvertently pulled off a tip quide by trying to pull the line free). If you get to this point you will need to break the ice away with your fingers. We will discuss options for reducing this ice build up but there is no perfect solution. You will find that you need to break this ice of the guides regularly during the day.

In general, as long as you keep your line in the water or you keep the line moving, ice does not form on the line itself but it can happen. This can be seen in the following picture. Line that is lying on a surface such as the ice can become frozen to the surface and can be damaged if you attempt to pull it free.

The reason ice forms on your guides this way is because when wet line slides through the guides, either by stripping or shooting, the water on the line is scraped off by the guides. Since the guides or guide frames are made of metal ice forms on them very quickly even when air temperatures may be slightly above freezing.

How do we prevent this?

The obvious answer is to keep wet line from being fed through the guides. Avoid stripping, hauling and shooting line. Instead, fish with a fixed amount of line, say 30 or 40 feet outside of the rod tip. When the fly reaches the end of its drift you can flip it upstream if using nymphs. Single hand spey casts are very helpful as they allow you to position your fly, nymph or streamer precisely compared to flipping the fly upstream. If you are going to make longer casts consider using a double taper line rather than weight forward.

Another solution is to reduce the amount of water that is picked up by the line. First ensure that the line is clean so that it picks up less water. Also avoid textured lines in freezing conditions as they tend to pick up more water than non textured lines. If you are using a line designed for warmer conditions, such as a tropical salt water line you will find that the lines become stiff in this weather and are difficult to stretch. There are lines that are specifically designed for fishing in cold saltwater.

Finally, use a coating that reduces water build up on the line and guides. Stanley’s Ice Off Paste is one such product made specifically for this purpose.

You will find that these precautions reduce ice build up but ice will still form on your guides. Develop the habit of check for and breaking the ice off of your guides every few casts.

Bruce Richards weighs in on fly lines in extreme temperatures:

Fly lines in cold weather.. The cold makes them stiff, more rigorous stretching is required in the cold. Using limper lines to start with is helpful and the reason most trout lines are rather limp.

-Icing… My personal solution is to not fish when air temp is less than about 35F. But if cabin fever has set in I do break my own rule. Your solutions all work temporarily although I’d skip the WD-40 due to solvents. Probably not enough exposure to be a problem but there are better options. The other options you mention all work with Stanley’s and paste fly flotant being the best. The key is using something that will stay on the guides and pastes seem to work best for that. Paste line dressings would work too, for a while. The perfect solution doesn’t exist, to my knowledge. And yes, minimizing guide exposure to water works, but hard to do…

For most SW fishing lines that always shoot and don’t tangle are very important.

Shooting – for lines to shoot well they need to be slick, low friction in the guides. That is achieved in several ways… First, running lines that are small diameter have less surface area to contact the guides so have less friction. The downside is that small dia. RLs are hard to hold on to and tend to tangle more than larger dia. RLs. Finding the right optimum size is key, most WF SW lines these days have that optimum RL dia.

Next, harder/stiffer lines shoot better than softer/limper lines. Hard coatings don’t distort as much against the rod guides as harder coatings so there is less surface contact with the guides. The downside is that hard/stiff lines have more memory and require more diligent stretching to get them straight. If hard/stiff lines are not stretched straight prior to fishing they will tangle badly.

Friction – Slick lines shoot much better than sticky lines and also tangle much less. Dirty lines are sticky, clean lines are slicker. Lines made with chemically slick coatings (like SA’s AST+) shoot much better and tangle less than lines that aren’t as chemically slick. The difference is huge…

Last, lines can be mechanically slick also. By changing the shape of the lines surface (think SA’s line texturing) friction can be dramatically reduced. Line texturing reduces friction with the guides for better shooting performance and also reduces friction of the line against itself so also greatly reduces tangling. These lines don’t have to be overly stiff to work well so should be the choice of anglers who don’t like to stretch lines before fishing.

My line choice for most SW fishing is medium stiff with chemically slick, textured coating. Kept clean and stretched straight before use. I also usually carry a good line dressing to be used “just in case”. Dressing can make things even better, temporarily.
Way back when, before the advanced lines we have now I used to carry a spray bottle of Armor-All in my SW gear bag. I tried spraying the line as it lay on the deck. Worked like a charm but made the deck dangerously slick! We have much better options today…

I hope that helps…


Gordy Hill also shares his experience with cold weather fishing:

I have made many extended trips to Alaska, even one above the Arctic circle to catch inconnu in the Kobuk and Noatac rivers which flow into the Arctic Ocean. Also, I grew up on Long Island where we used to fly fish for striped bass at Glen Cove in January.

Before Stanley’s Ice Off came on the market, we used, on extremely cold windy days, a product made for farmers called, Bagley’s Bag Balm. Worked well for three reasons: 1. We had it on our hands to minimize cracked / inflamed skin so it was something at the ready anyway. 2. It was effective for several hours of fishing at a time. 3. I never found that it damaged our fly lines or the rod in any way.


Back in the fifties and sixties after WWII when nylon first came on the market, we’d sometimes make shooting heads out of lead core trolling lines. I had a, “head wallet” of many different lengths ready to change with looped ends. This allowed us to make quick head and /or leader changes and to quickly put a new head onto a woven or monofilament nylon line which, in turn was looped to our backing. I can’t recall any heat or cold line problems with those crude but very effective combinations. Later on anglers could buy ready made sink heads of various lengths and densities, but they didn’t work any better for us than the ones we made.

Another note: In extreme cold , your method of flipping the line back upstream meant that it was in the air for only a brief time. In my cold fishing experience, the ice didn’t usually form until the cold water on the airborne line hit a freezing colder wind or was stripped into my guides….. especially if there was a wait time before the next cast.

You may recall a Master Study Group member writing such details as he fished standing upon ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. I tried to retrieve them but could not do so….. one of his adventures included a polar bear coming up on the edge of his ice floe to grab his fish as he tried to land it ! I had his note and picture in my files. I have had a crocodile grab my tarpon at skiff side and many sharks doing so, when warm water fishing, but did lose a few salmon to bears out in the river…. the trick being to break them off right away. (Especially at Brook falls, Katmai National Park in the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes.);_ylt=A0geKVVALAdgZiYA9QcPxQt.;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZANDMDY3M18xBHNlYwNzYw–?p=brook+National+Park+in+Alaska&fr=yhs-solex-foxynewtab&hspart=solex&hsimp=yhs-foxynewtab&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly91cy5zZWFyY2gueWFob28uY29tL3locy9zZWFyY2g_dHlwZT0vdTYtNGNoOVkmaHNwYXJ0PXNvbGV4JmhzaW1wPXlocy1mb3h5bmV3dGFiJnA9QnJvb2trJTIwTmF0aW9uYWwlMjBQYXJrJTIwaW4lMjBBbGFza2E&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACp54enKDURXm2jvz3NsQUSDv_LXfcX0_sZgZKnd4h1ZSegygGEhJwiNpDVVW_GHlxFeOXyOGfUQiQnY5Nb-0BBHfTUMXD19X_IPn5vko506QHf65lQwuJgGoeQG3NG4M6TYhmYXIAVRIUAznyOutbo43N8yy561e_NFJHnu5-kr&_guc_consent_skip=1611082857#id=18&vid=a3be36e07c453137b6852e09936784d3&action=view


Kudos to you for coming up with a great description of fly line parameters for differing conditions !

You pricked my memory about Armor All. We used it in cold weather in Alaska and it worked. I figured, “If a little is good, a LOT must be better” WRONG ! I started packing my rolled up fly lines in plastic bags after spraying them with the stuff. Then I brought those lines back to the Florida Keys to await my next cold water trip. That stuff made a mess of the pvc coatings and literally ruined every one of those lines after they had soaked for months in those bags.

Over the years I have done worse with my experiments on available lines… and teaching myself how best to cast with some of the worst. Grist for another mill.

Thanks Bruce and Gordy. I wasn’t able to find the articles that Gordy mentions about fishing on ice floes but I did find this video from Jim Phillips in the archives. It has a “.bin” extension but I was able to play it directly after downloading using Windows media player and VLC. First click on the link to download the file and then open it with Window media player or other movie viewer.