Standing with a fly rod in a cold, free-flowing stream full of hungry trout without another angler in sight: that’s the beauty of cold-weather fishing. Fair-weather anglers are at home warming their toes by the fire. They believe winter trout fishing is a waste of time — all that cold for no fish. Those suckers don’t know what they’re missing.
If you’ve never wet a line in cold weather, the truth is that winter fly fishing is ϋber-productive when you know what you’re doing. Possessing local stream and species knowledge will get you fishing the right spots with the right flies. Layer solid fishing techniques on top of that, and you’ll catch trout on the fly all winter long.
Know Your Stream
Knowing your stream is paramount to productive fly fishing. If you don’t know your stream, you’ll struggle to catch trout during the cold weather months.
Start with an obvious question: Is this a wild trout stream? If it’s not, and the trout populations are dependent on stocking, thermal stress from the summer may have killed most of the fish you hope to catch. Unless there is a fall stocking schedule, all your efforts will be met with a long, slow day. A quick look at your state’s fish stocking schedule will help you figure out the best stream choice.
What should you look for? A wild trout stream will be fed by a larger body of water upstream, by springs, or both.
Because they’re supplied by springs in the East, limestone streams and the streams they flow into maintain stable temperatures year-round, usually with an average of around 50 degrees. Tailwater and freestone streams also stay pretty stable temperature-wise since lakes, reservoirs, or snowpack supply them.
These temperature-stable streams are also nutrient-rich, making them aquatic fertile crescents with lots of plants and lots of bugs, which means lots of food for trout. The entire stream likely has solid trout density. Bonus: These streams are easier to fish during the cold water months because aquatic vegetation density decreases.
Throughout the spring and summer, fish the middle reaches of perennial streams. They stay cooler because they’re closer to the headwaters. But during colder months, as stream temperatures drop, trout will spread to the lower reaches of a stream closer to where it empties into a river or bigger body of water. The whole stream becomes more productive. Don’t be afraid to put some miles on your wading boots.
Once you understand the type of stream you’re fishing, and where the trout will most likely be found, it’s time to consider food sources. Although trout have a varied diet — brown trout more so than rainbow trout — they feed mostly on insects.
Aquatic insects have a long life cycle. For example, the caddisfly’s life cycle lasts about one year. That’s a long time under the water.
Do some research about the common spring season hatches on your stream and work backward. The trout are eating the same flies, mostly in their nymph stage. If you’ve never fished the stream in the spring and can’t find any information, grab a fly fishing entomology book, get your ass out there, and turn over some rocks.
Keep in mind that trout also feed on small crustaceans like scuds — especially in limestone streams — and opportunistically feed on smaller fish. Consider all of the potential food sources in an area, and you’ll be able to put together a good picture of what’s going on under the water.
Know Your Species
Each trout species has a particular set of behavior patterns that must be understood to consistently and successfully catch them. Brown and rainbow trout are great examples to look at.
Brown trout tend to hang in the slower pools and pocket water. They aren’t big-current fish, meaning you’ll typically find them where the stream gradient is less severe. They spawn on their redds in the fall but don’t fish for them when they’re posted up there. Let them take care of their business. They eat land and aquatic insects, crustaceans, and smaller fish. They’ll even dine on small mammals and crayfish.
Rainbows tolerate more current and faster water. Even in the winter, you’ll find them in fast-moving riffles and where the stream gradient is high. They’re on the redds in the late winter and early spring, so again, avoid targeting them when they’re in the bedroom. Like brown trout, they eat land and aquatic insects, crustaceans, and smaller fish. But they’ll also chow down on eggs.
Knowing the stream and the trout in it gives you the necessary intel to choose the correct cold weather flies.
Use the Right Flies
Fly anglers are a hot mess of superstition about our flies. Our confidence in a fly falters based on look, hook size, and past successes or failures. Without confidence, you’ll probably give a fly a half-hearted effort and then toss it back in the box. Be warned: Winter trout fishing will test that confidence.
As a rule, small nymphs work better than big nymphs. But when eyeing up a small nymph, it’s easy to think that you’d have a better chance of watching God wipe his ass than catching a fish with that tiny thing.
If you’re going to nymph during winter, you’ll often find the most success fishing the smallest patterns that mimic flies that live in your stream. Hook size is dependent on the species, but midge patterns as small as size 24 will entice fish to eat more often than not. You don’t have to match the fly perfectly; small generals work, too.
While trout mainly feed by sight, they will also take something that resembles food into their mouth, test it out, and then either swallow it or reject it. So, if you drift your fly in the right line and at the right depth, there’s a good chance that the trout will take your tiny fly in to test it out. Then it’s up to you to set the hook and make a good play.
It’s also a good idea to keep some small dry flies on hand in the case of a hatch. Winter hatches only happen when the weather gets warm enough and with certain flies. Blue-winged olives are a good example, as are midges. If you have those flies on your stream, keep some small patterns in your box. The Griffiths gnat is a great midge pattern for this application.
Like the weather, winter fly selection is a matter of extremes. Although you’ll consistently fish small nymph and dry-fly patterns, streamers can also be an option at times. Bunny strips, circus peanuts, muddler minnows — really any trout streamer works. Of course, you can never go wrong with the venerable woolly bugger.
The key to winter streamer selection is color. Light-colored streamers work best in winter, but there are always exceptions. Carry a spectrum of shades and colors. If the water is a bit murky, use a darker streamer. In clear water conditions, use a light-colored streamer.
If you fish streams that hold browns and rainbows, keep some egg patterns like sucker spawn or egg sucking leech in your box. Rainbows will still suck up egg patterns following the brown trout spawn during the late fall and early winter. They’ll also hoover San Juan worms, so have a few of those on hand, too.
Once you’ve tied on the right fly, now you have to fish it effectively.
Use the Right Techniques
Nymphing is a game of small adjustments. Make sure you rig your nymphs with enough weight, so they go down fast as they drift through the strike zone. A strike indicator (a bobber if you want to be real about it) rigged at the correct depth helps keep your fly at the correct depth.
Work your nymphs through seams where slack water meets current. Good winter flows let you stand tight to the spot you’re fishing because the water is broken up. Getting close allows you to keep most of your fly line off the water, giving you a more natural-looking drift.
If you’re not catching fish, try going deeper. If that doesn’t work, change flies. The takeaway is that you need to work spots over before giving up on them. There are fish in those seams and eddies. You’re just not moving them. If you’ve gone through a fly change or two and still haven’t gotten any interest, head to a different spot.
Streamers are a game of slow and low. Target deep, slower pools, channels, eddies, and tailouts with your streamers. Everything moves slower in cold water — trout and baitfish included.
Start with a dead drift or with little action on your retrieve. Try casting upstream of your position a few feet and letting it drift a seam or eddy. Casting upstream gives the fly a chance to sink deeper. After the drift, let the fly swing — fish will grab it as it floats across the stream in front of them.
You want to “hit the trout in the face” so they see an easy, opportunistic meal. Apply the same strategies as with nymphs. Play with depth before you change flies. Change flies before you change spots.
When all else fails, be thankful you’re not stuck inside sitting at a desk.