It’s Sunday morning and the wind is blowing around 25 mph. The wind chill is making a 30-degree day feel close to bare bones 0 outside. Yeah, I’d agree. Either stay in bed or enjoy a hot cup of coffee. But what about those days peaking 35 degrees and up with minimal wind? Now we’re talking. It’s always tough staying motivated to fish in the Winter. Lately, the weather has been a roller coaster – snow one day, 40 mph gusts the next, and all to be topped off by a balmy 40-degree day with clouds and rain. There’s a method to Winter fly fishing. I have a system that I compare to a misery index crossed with cost effectiveness. It equates to a pretty accurate statement. How miserable am I prepared to be in these conditions to maybe catch some fish? Fly fishing the short days of Winter can be rewarding, but the most rewarding thing of all is that it will make you a much better angler overall. I’ll tell you the secrets to making Winter fly fishing your new favorite time of year to get on the water
Focus On the Weather
This isn’t necessarily for your own comfort, though it can really motivate you to get out if the weather is nice. On an average day of fishing, it is definitely important to hit the water at the peak of the day, especially if it’s sunny. However, the key to hitting a great day of fishing is watching fronts, pressures, and temperatures and how they relate to the fish. Sometimes a 40-degree plus drizzly winter day can have a higher misery index, but it may have a high cost effectiveness. The barometer affects macroinvertebrates more than we realize, thus affecting the trout. It’s all about food availability and water temperature. A small drop in pressure can increase bug activity, and a fraction of a degree or two can affect both bugs and trout. This change equates to a mid-Summer cold rain that can shut off the fishing except backwards. The same principle applies. Trends that I’ve recently noticed are overcast days that are unseasonably warm predating a cold snap or front bringing snow and wind. I’m sure there’s a much more scientific term for these periods, but I prefer to stick to being a trout bum, not a meteorologist. 40-50-degree drizzly days in Winter are one of my favorites. In my opinion, rain or shine, a day above 40 is worth a try in the heart of Winter.
Freestone, Limestone, or Tailwater? Choosing the Water
The source of the waterway you fish dictates the Winter fishery in more ways than just temperatures. Alkalinity, substrate, and geography heavily influence factors in a river system. Alkalinity and overall nutrient load heavily influence the nutrient chain which influences the productivity of aquatic insects. On many spring or limestone streams, we have a good nutrient balance which can sustain macroinvertebrate life. Paired with consistent temperatures from the source, bug life can be supported below the surface in high capacity, creating for great Winter fishing. Tailwaters work in a very similar manner. Bottom release dam systems release a consistent and insulated temperature water from the hypolimnion, which will generally remain a consistent temperature for a way downstream of the release point. Spring creeks and tailwaters get the hype for winter fishing – rightfully so. However, many freestone streams have isolated areas where Winter trout will hang out. Often you may find a “seep” or small bankside spring flowing into the system. Not large enough of an impact to influence the system, but that localized area can be an incredible source to hold a pretty heavy concentration of fish in the winter. Lastly, substrate often gets overlooked in freestone systems. Different substrates insulate heat better than others. This is often a daily up-down trend, but can influence activity during the peak of the day. Often geologic structures such as mountains and canyons can shade a system which will reduce the water’s ability to warm effectively. Keep these things in mind when you are selecting a Winter fishery.
Condense Your Fly Selection
Don’t make the mistake of spreading yourself thin. Hatches can be extremely small, insignificant, or non-existent on many rivers. Know what Winter bugs are on your water. Focus on those. I rotate between maybe 5 flies in the Winter, and that’s about the end of it. I know it’s cliched, but to catch a fish, think like a fish. There aren’t many big bugs tumbling down river in the heart of winter, less the occasional stonefly on western rivers. Here’s my top 5 patterns and why.
A. Perdigon Nymph – Nobody knows what exactly it imitates, and I think that’s the point. It’s a rough outline and profile of just about any smaller aquatic insect. They are heavy, they have a neat segmented look to them, and they’re small. Fish are less picky with smaller bugs. If you don’t have 10-20 in your Winter-box – get on it!
B. Walt’s Worm – One of my favorite flies for any tailwater or spring fed system, they can imitate anything from sow bugs, scuds, cressbugs, to small caddis pupae. In the right sizes and colors, imitating a small mayfly nymph isn’t a crazy idea. I often fish these with a hot bead in the Winter months.
C. Zebra Midge – Any midge with white, silver, red, or green rib will be found in my box. Midge larva are extremely hardy, often hatching in close to freezing water on days where the air temperature is above freezing. This fly compliments great on a tandem rig. However, its small size makes it a great single when sight fishing trout in more technical situations.
D. Pheasant Tail Nymphs – Rarely will I not fish a PT on a rig. I like to tie my PTs on size 14-18 scud hooks. This matches a small mayfly size – such as a Blue Winged Olive, which can be common sometimes throughout the winter. I will use tungsten beads and hot beads, though unweighted ones are great for technical situations in shallower water.
E. Hanging Midge – Surprisingly, I don’t often use this fly. However, it’s like a fire extinguisher – rather have than not need than need and not have. So many times, have I viewed trout just sipping and tailing like crazy in the middle of January and February. Sometimes a size 20-24 is just what they are looking for. This is a dry/emerger that I will fish on the surface or just below. Let me tell you, Winter fish on the surface cannot be beat.
Long story short, keep it simple and don’t get caught up on predicting a “hatch”. Most of the time trout cannot afford to be picky in the winter.
Rethink Your Technique and Rigs
I know I just listed a bunch of small flies without even making a peep about streamer fishing. I bring this up, because lots of guys pound the heck out of water with oversized bugs this time of the year. Occasionally you’ll move a couple of nice fish on big articulates for sure. However, my best experiences are dead drifting small streamers or fishing them low and slow. When I mean small, I’m talking size 6 and 4 on average. A lot of these patterns are simple leech or sculpin patterns, nothing special. It’s more about speed and the fishes’ activity level. I carry the same mentality with nymphing. I’m bit by the tight-line or Euro-style method. It’s a great and effective way to hammer on some slow moving held-up trout. With flies that are in contact with the bottom, they are generally right in the fishes’ zone. Which such a linear presentation, tight lining if often done by covering the first few feet of a hole, and reaching out to the other side of the hole along a seem or run. The idea here is that as you work across, you are likely passing within a foot or less of fish across your target area, ideal for slow moving or slow feeding trout. This time of the year trout will generally not move far for food, except some occasional situations where bugs may be plentiful along a warmer current. Understanding that trout will not move far for food, this brings me to the last point, and in many ways, one of the most important.
Learn to Read the Water
Spotting likely lies for Winter trout can be tough, and it can vary from river to river. I’m going to use the Madison River in Montana as a prime example. To the untrained eye, the river can look like one consistent riffle, and the general depth in the winter is pretty shallow. So, how do we approach such a river? Wave lines. These are the highest flow areas of the river, and often confused with riffles. They will have a greater distance between each wave and have a relatively high volume moving through. Some wave lines will hold trout, but due to the hydraulics trout will hold off to the edges if there is slower water available. Avoid wasting your time fishing directly in these quick sections during the winter. The key is finding where food is available to the fish with minimal effort. Buckets. Buckets form in a lot of different areas, but on the Madison, buckets seem to pop up randomly throughout shallow riffles and adjacent and below these larger wave lines. A bucket is simply a depression in the bottom that stalls the undercurrent forming a slow pocket that collects food and trout. Fast water may still rush over the surface, so beating the flies through the swift surface current is essential. Seams and Diamond Chop. Diamond chop looks like a bunch of little triangles poking at the surface of the water. This is caused by rougher water at the edges. However, where the diamond chop is, there is a seam, or section of slower moving water between two major currents. Some seams are virtually still as the current rushes past both sides. This offers trout a prime location to sit and feed with minimal effort. If you could sit on the couch, watch football, and eat wings all day would you? That’s kind of how trout prioritize their wintertime needs.
There’s a lot more to Winter fly fishing than just the above statements, however, getting out and experiencing it first hand coaches you along the way. The big picture is, don’t expect to hurl out an indicator with some nymphs and expect to just catch fish. Patterns change with the weather and the season, so our train of thought and our mentality must follow suit. I bet if you start to become proficient and understanding the timing and location of Winter trout, you will have some awesome days of fishing that may rival some of your summer days on the water.