It is January 24th. The weather has been up and down, but it has hit a 7 year low in Atlanta, and across the Southeast. Air temperatures have plummeted and water temps are down, too. Can we catch fish? How are we to cope?

Yes we can catch fish! There are many ways to cope.

Several years ago in February, I noticed an article in which a popular writer filed a column about Florida fishing, with mentions about coastal Georgia and Carolina coasts, and then deferred to a long list of fly shops offering "winter fly tying, rod building, and casting programs." That writer received some criticism from some local folks for not covering the SE fishing picture, because most of us living in the SE USA fish all year long. I don't bring this up to ridicule that writer over the content of his column. I bring this up to make a point: There are many viewpoints on fly fishing in winter in the SE USA.

As I was freezing my rear off while bringing in firewood recently, my thoughts turned to a warmer winter -- just LAST YEAR! I relived last year's warmer temperatures. On January 28th, 2002, my log records: "weather sunny, warm, air temperature to 68 F. Water surface temperature was 51.8F. that day. My notes ended: "Caught 37 bluegills and 4 bass. Nice day!" It is 0 to 8 in Atlanta this morning. That places the air temp at 60 degrees lower today than it was in Atlanta last January!! Two days ago, the surface temp at a favorite lake was just barely 43F. I'm sure it is still going down.

Given the image right, your toes may be warming up. The idea that we should stay warm, tie flies, get our tackle straight, and get ready for spring isn't feeling like a bad idea this winter!

Unlike the winters of the past 5 years, I have worked more and fished less this year. Don't feel sorry for me. This is voluntary. When the temperatures break and we drop into spring, I'll be out there - A LOT! Right now, I'm keeping warm, getting my gear together, tying flies, and sneaking out on the better temperature days.

Have I lost my mind? There are many who would argue that I lost it many seasons ago! This year I have found less friendly conditions on the water, and I've made a conscious decision to take a break. Can you still expect to catch fish in the SE USA during winter -- YES! In the past 5 years I have experienced great winter fishing in the SE. It is still there, we just have to be smart and pick our fishing days.

On one occasion three years ago, I fished a day on the Unicoi Outfitters water in Helen with morning air temp of 15F and a 10 mph wind blowing. Cold -- best your *$$! After warming at the gas logs in the fly shop, and dressing, I summoned the courage to hit the water. The sun came up and offered hope, but it was cold. The water was gin clear. I stepped through quarter inch thick ice and slipped into the stream. I had to break ice off my line guides every three casts.

I remember thinking "what am I doing here?" It was slow going. I broke for lunch and warmed up. Then I went back during the highest sun period of the day. In one particular run, I was casting a size 12 heavily weighted streamer upstream and across, stripping it right across the sand. I noticed a pod of trout undulating in the current. They were strategically positioned all around a submerged log. I cast my fly upstream about 6 feet, letting it sink as it was swept downstream into the pod. Two fish swirled at my fly hopping across the sand bar, and missed.

Then out of nowhere, I saw a big silver flash, and felt my rod get heavy fast! I raised my rod for hookset and I realized that I had a monster on. When I regained my composure, I knew that I had to play this fish carefully. There were logs, roots, boulders in the immediate area and I was fishing a 2 weight rod and 4 pound tippet. Finally I saw the fish -- it was huge. I gasped! "Keep smooth tension on the rod, keep the drag light, lead this fish through the obstacles", I told myself.

After about two minutes, I had the lumbering silver rainbow at hand. I grasped it with my Boga grip and sighed with relief. I plucked the streamer from his gullet and quickly raised the fish for weight -- 6.5 pounds! WOW!! Double wow!! That was my biggest rainbow to date. Immediately I slid the big fish beneath the chilly water's surface. Once I was sure he was ready, I opened the jaws of my boga grip and he disappeared with one big flick of his massive tail. There were no witnesses, no photos -- just one happy, cold fly fisher, and one massive rainbow who had met, and parted with memories of this frozen moment.

One other major winter fishing experience that immediately comes to mind involves warm water species. It was cold that day, too! I was fishing a streamer deep counting it down to near the bottom in 7 to 9 feet of water. Once it settled, I gave it slow 2 inch strips. On about the third strip, my line quickly became HEAVY. I raised my Orvis Superfine 1 weight rod and set my size 12 hook on what was so strong, I expected a 3 to 4 pound bass. Curiously, it circled instead of running away. After a couple of minutes, I slid the largest female bluegill I'd ever caught onto my float tube. It was 12 inches with a 16 inch girth. I couldn't believe it. I have its image preserved, and you see a scan of it right.

After I wrote this article on Friday morning, I received my newest fly rod from Hexagraph later in the day. I couldn't wait for perfect weather to get this rod out on the water, so that afternoon, I hit a local lake to cast it and found surface temps of only 43. Then Saturday morning, January 25th, I drove up to the north Georgia mountains, to chase some cold trout with my new rod.

When I began, I had to wade through 1/4 inch thick ice along the stream bank. Air temperature was in the mid 30s. With my fishing gloves and polar tec clothes, I was fine. By 1PM, I had to start removing clothing! It was sunny, and the air temp peaked at 46 - comfortable, but the water was clear and 36F. I found fish, and persuaded two fat rainbows to dine on one of my favorite streamer trout patterns. The first scrappy rainbow weighed 2 pounds, and the second was about 2 1/2 pounds. Both were strong, but my new 7 1/2 foot two piece 1-2 weight handled them quickly, and without problem.

The action was slow, but given conditions I enjoyed my outing, and I enjoyed fishing my new rod. It was a joy to fish! If I have my way, it will meet thousands of fish in the coming years. Pick your days and hit the water!

Well, enough of SE winter fishing tales. Get the right clothing, use your head regarding temperatures, your physical condition, and what you want to attempt. Read my many articles on fly fishing in winter and consider the techniques. Then take some deep sinking streamers and enjoy the days that you can. Fish thoroughly and slowly. The rewards may amaze you!

Remember, this is also a great time for float tube, kayak, canoe, plus boat maintenance and repair. As I was reminded yesterday, if you have local service shops that attend to your boat engines, depth finders, trolling motors -- GET SERVICE and REPAIRS DONE RIGHT NOW! Otherwise, they'll be so busy with boat shows, and the spring onslaught of business, they won't be able to get your needs handled quickly.

I have suggested and proven that SE Winters don't have to be an off time for fly fishing. Enjoy the opportunities as you can. See you on the water!

Remember, spring is really coming again. Really, it is! In the meantime, we can still catch fish.

Bill Byrd