Winter can be the most rewarding season of the year for fly anglers. If you can stand the cold, you just might have the river to yourself, experiencing solitude that’s rarely found when the mayflies are hatching in spring and summer. But there’s another reason to get out and fish between December and March: Winter can also be the most technically challenging season, demanding precision and skill more than any other time of the year. If you can catch fish now, you can catch them any time.
The trick to catching fish with flies in the winter boils down to four simple rules: Slow Down; Size Down; Tone Down; Present Down(stream).
Now, here’s the lowdown.
Tip 1—The Trout Forecast: When water temperatures drop, the trout themselves slow down. Their metabolisms decrease. They become more lethargic. They don’t chase flies as actively as they would when the water temperatures are in the ideal trout zone of 45 to 65 degrees. One way around that, of course, is to fish in tailwaters—rivers that flow from bottom-release dams. The water released from those dams remains at a relatively constant temperature (usually in the 40s or 50s) throughout the whole year. So the fish don’t feel much difference between July and January—though shorter days and seasonally different insect hatches do indeed change the angling paradigms substantially between summer and winter.
Tip 2—Stalk Softly & Cast High: When trout are in the slowed down winter mode, the angler should slow down as well. Rivers are usually at their lowest and clearest in midwinter. Bright-white, snow-covered banks reflect light and exaggerate shadows more. While winter trout typically aren’t as “jumpy” as they are in the summer, that doesn’t mean they are much less spooky. I typically try to slow my pace and movements by at least 25 percent when I fish in the winter. I am particularly concerned about the position of the lower winter sun, so I can be careful not to cast long shadows over the runs I target. I also spend more time high on the riverbanks spotting fish before I cast. If you can see and then specifically target trout, your odds of hooking up are exponentially greater than they are when blind casting in the winter.
Tip 3—Make Slow & Short Strips: Streamer fishing can be good in winter, especially in tailwaters. But again, I tend to slow the tempo down a tad in winter. Instead of the long, aggressive strips I make with my fly line in summer in fall, I’m more apt to make slow, choppy strips in winter.
Tip 1—Be a Nymphing Maniac: I typically fish with smaller flies in the winter, and 99 percent of winter flyfishing is nymph fishing. At any time of the year, midges comprise more than 50 percent of a trout’s diet. So these small insects are extremely important for anglers to understand and imitate in every season. But the midge game is especially important in winter, because there is not much mayfly or terrestrial activity then.
Tip 2—Black Stoneflies Are Best: Another very important bug to key into during the winter is the little black stonefly. While these stoneflies share the same basic shapes and dark colors as their spring and summer counterparts, these insects are typically much smaller (like size16 or smaller). While egg flies (small ones) and, in some cases, attractors like Prince Nymphs are useful winter patterns, an angler cannot go wrong in most locales if they fish little black stoneflies and small midge patterns (like zebra midges, juju midges, and black beauties) the vast majority of the time.
Tip 3—Lighten Your Tippet: I also make a point to size down on my fly rig when I trout fish in the winter. If I normally fish a river with 4X tippet, I’ll usually drop down to 5X. I think the light and shadow contrast on bright winter days added to the low clear water is a recipe for making trout more leader shy than they might normally be in summer. It’s also important to drift flies directly to the trout in winter, so smaller tippet helps with presentation.
Tip 4—Same With Your Strike Indicator: I never throw big, gaudy strike indicators in the winter. Instead, I prefer to use small pieces of yarn, pinch-on foam, or when the water is really low and slow, I’ll use a dry fly like as small parachute Adams as my de-facto strike indicator.