It’s hard to drag yourself out of a cozy house to stand in a freezing river in the middle of winter. It’s made even harder knowing the fishing may be slow, and you’ll probably get your hands wet at some point. But, for those willing to brave the weather, the rewards can be worth it. Despite the fact that the fishing may slow down a bit in the colder months, trout can still be caught.
Fishing aside, there are other benefits to hitting the river in the winter. First of all, and my favorite, is that you’ll probably have the river to yourself. Lots of anglers take a few months off to take advantage of other activities like skiing or fly tying. Others just flat out don’t want to deal with the cold. If you put in even a moderate effort to get away from the road, you’ll likely see no one on a cold day.
You’ll also get a chance to practice a much more technical version of fly fishing. Anyone can throw on an Adams during a mayfly hatch and get a strike in the summer, but if you can turn up lots of trout in the winter, you’ve proven your skills. Take advantage of trying some techniques you don’t get to do much in the summer.
If you’re ready to give winter fly fishing a try, keep these eight tips in mind.
1. Slow down
In the winter, everything slows down, and your presentation needs to do the same. Trout aren’t nearly as active in the winter as they are in the summer, and therefore won’t be eager to chase down food. Instead, they’ll lay low, feeding opportunistically when food comes past. And by that, I mean when it nearly hits them in the face.
This means nymphs are the name of the game through most of the winter, since a dead drift is the most effective way to hit a trout in the face with a fly. Even if you have the correct nymph tied on, making sure the presentation is right is key. You want to serve the fly to the trout on a silver platter, ensuring they have to do very little work to eat. If they don’t need to expend much energy to bite, they’re much more likely to take the fly.
It goes without saying, then, that more aggressive techniques like stripping streamers or quickly swinging wet flies are not the way to go.
2. Look for deep, slow water
Since the fish will be taking their sweet time in the winter, they’ll naturally want to hold in water that makes it easy on them. Unlike in the summer, when trout will sit in faster and shallower runs gobbling up food coming past, in the winter they’ll want to expend as little energy as possible. This makes fast water undesirable.
Instead, fish your flies deep in slow, calmer water. If you can find deep, slow pockets that sit alongside faster water, these can be good options. Food will still be getting washed past, but the trout can take advantage of the pocket to save their energy.
3. Size down
The majority of insects aren’t hatching during the cold months, but subsurface flies like midges and stoneflies (little black stoneflies are a staple), work well. It’s best to imitate these bugs, but even if you’re fishing something other than a midge, keeping flies small to stay in the trouts’ wheelhouse will likely produce the best results.
Apart from flies, keeping tippet and indicators light is a good idea, too. A lot of winter fishing will be in crisp, clear water, and thick line or an obnoxiously large indicator can keep fish at a distance, especially when they’re already hesitant to chase food. When in doubt, size things down in the winter.
4. Fish tailwaters
One of the best ways to find success in the winter is to fish tailwaters. Since tailwaters are released from dams, they stay pretty consistent year-round in terms of temperature. These are the closest conditions you’ll find to summer fishing, even if they’re not quite up to speed.
If you learn your local tailwater in the summer, you’ll already have a head start on fishing it in the winter. You may need to alter your fly selection to be a little smaller than normal, but in general you can probably fish similar nymphs to what you’re used to.
Be warned though, this is most likely where you’ll find the majority of the other winter anglers, so you may not have as much solitude as you would on a freestone.
5. Know your winter dry flies
Despite the fact that nymphs will make up the majority of the winter menu, dry fly fishing can work if the time is right.
Most insects don’t hatch in the winter, but two that do are midges and BWOs. Now, that’s not to say they’re always hatching in the winter. There will still be days that you won’t touch a dry fly. But, if you get to the river and notice rises here and there, it’s a safe bet that the fish are taking one of these two bugs.
You’ll still probably want to keep the flies fairly small. If you’re having trouble seeing a tiny midge dry fly, consider tying on two dries to get better visibility. A larger BWO followed by a tiny midge with 12-18″ of tippet between can act like a dry fly indicator. If you see a fish rise near the larger fly, set the hook.
6. Sleep in
One of the best things about fishing in the winter is that there’s no rush to get out the door first thing in the morning. Sleep in, enjoy a cup of coffee, and roll out in the late morning or early afternoon.
Trout are sluggish all winter, but they’re extra sluggish in the chilly temperatures of the morning. Giving them, and their food, a chance to warm up and become more active will give you the best chance at success. Plus, you’ll be more likely to actually stay out and continue fishing if you’re not freezing.
7. Target warm days
Similar to the idea of hitting the afternoon warmth is trying to target days with nice weather.
This is obviously something that’s nice to do at any time of the year, since fishing is always better when it’s nice out. But, in the summer it’s mostly for the comfort of the angler. In the winter, it’s also for the fishing.
Since trout are more sluggish when it’s cold, picking your days wisely to match up with warmer weather means you’ll be targeting fish that are trying to feed while the conditions are good. If you have a nice day after a cold snap, you may find fish that are eager to eat after resting through the bad times.
8. Try dead drifting a streamer
If you’re a streamer fanatic and just can’t help yourself from pulling one out of your box, try fishing it differently than you would in the summer.
In case it hasn’t become obvious, trout slow down a lot in the winter and aren’t willing to chase food as readily. But, a big hearty meal is hard to resist if it is delivered properly.
If you really want to fish a streamer in the winter, you may want to throw it under an indicator and fish it like a nymph. While many fish may still reject it in favor of the tiny stuff, there are sure to be a few who want to capitalize on the big meal if they don’t have to chase it down.
What are your go-tos in the winter? Do you like to hit the water or stay inside and enjoy hot cocoa? Let me know in the comments!
And, don’t forget to check out the other seasonal tips: