Winter Trout Fly Fishing: Catch more winter trout on the fly tomorrow!

As promised in part one of the article here are some simple tips and tactics to catch more trout on the fly TOMORROW, in the winter cold. The common tip we often hear is fish deep and fish slowly, but let’s dig a little deeper. For new readers our goal is always to make learning about trout fly fishing more accessible rather than scientific, and I rarely wax poetic (well, OK sometimes….)

Last Saturday morning was spent fly fishing after a very abrupt cold snap in which I caught ZERO fish, had ZERO takes, and froze my you know what off on a river I know WELL. While I had a great experience I decided I needed a refresher on the particulars of winter trout fly fishing. How should I alter my winter trout fly fishing game with regards to trout behavior, fishing techniques, and fly selection? Here is my distillation of lessons, changes, and choices you can put in practice tomorrow. Enjoy and thanks for being a part of the community!

Cold weather, especially abrupt changes, slows a trout’s metabolism. They eat less and move less. Well sure, most of us know that you’re probably thinking. It bears keeping in mind these fish live on the razors edge of calories in exceeding calories out. Things can go badly quickly. Lesson for fly fishers? Sure trout can be picky, but not TOO picky. Not for long anyway. Trout eat during the winter- they certainly eat less but they continue to consume and metabolize- calories in exceed calories out right? They’re not bears. So let’s get dialed in on the what and the how to present the right food imitation in the right way at the right time.

Add more weight. Yes, more. No, even more than that. I once watched a speedy riffling current zip down a run on the surface while just 8 inches below the surface a bright yellow leaf ever so slowly turned over in a stationary position. I stared in wonder at the seemingly physical impossibility, or at least improbability. One lesson new and even intermediate fly fisherman take a while to learn is that the layering of the water occurs vertically as well as horizontally. There are streams within streams that are perhaps best pictured as a complexly woven rope, with the weave representing the vertical and horizontal changes of the various sub currents within the watercourse. Accepting that what is happening on the surface to your line and leader is NOT indicative of the speed, direction, or behavior of your fly subsurface is one of the most powerful lessons any fly fisherperson can learn! So add more weight and get connected with your nymphs on the bottom!

The flybox I am never without when winter trout fly fishing
The flybox I am never without when winter trout fly fishing

 If you’re not ticking rocks or occasionally getting hung up, you’re probably  not deep enough. A corollary to the above, we’re all SURE we’ve added enough weight to get down into those feeding lanes right on the bottom. If you’re not ticking the bottom so often you think that trout are sipping your nymphs ever few seconds, you’re probably not deep enough.

 Go smaller. That applies to your tippet, your nymphs, your strike indicator, and your casts! Yep, all of it. Depending on your locale winter water can be some of the cleanest and clearest. As well, threading 4X through a #20 Zebra Midge is a skill I just don’t have! Trout will take a little more of a look at things when it is colder, and that includes you. Be aware of yourself and your motion as you would on a smaller wild stream with clear water. These are not the wild days of spring when trout are throwing themselves out of the water with abandon at a cloud of Mayflies! I found one suggestion of particular interest- cast quartering downstream. I am so used to upstream casts, presenting quartering upstream, mend and strip slack (rinse and repeat) that I admit it did not enter my head to actively tight line nymphs quartering downstream. Sure I did a little swinging with the streamer dropper combo last Satur-skunk-day, but I didn’t focus on the technique. Seems a good way to slow down the fly and tight line to stay connected with your small nymphs for the sipping strike. That one is getting tested next time I’m on the water!

Nymph, nymph, and when nymphing doesn’t work, you should try nymphing. Has a nymph ever looked you straight in the eye and said “It’s not me, it’s you?” Happened to me last Saturday. It hurts let me tell you. Of course we all see the occasional Midge and Baetis/BWO adults buzzing around in the winter. We might even be lucky enough to catch a minor to middling hatch on a warm mid-morning or mid-afternoon while on the stream. Dry flies (i.e. adult insects) make up a very small percentage of the winter diet. Trout subsist on aquatic insects and other year round aquatics like minnows, crayfish, etc. In order to ‘match the hatch’ in the winter we’ve got to nymph, nymph, and then nymph. Stripping a streamer is perfectly OK as well, just make sure it follows the standard fish deep, fish slow mantra, or even drop a (yup you guessed it) nymph off the back.

Fly selection– Midges, Baetis (BWO), small black stoneflies, and year round aquatics (minnows, crayfish, etc.) are pretty much the mix for most areas with fishable winter waters. Keep in mind that selection could encompass hundreds if not thousands of species nationwide. Go small, possibly even smaller than you’re comfortable with. Time to break out those 20’s and 22’s. I really gravitate toward the size 18 nymphs (first fly I fished, and caught a trout on, was a #18 Pheasant Tail) so I force myself out of my comfort zone to fish the smaller sizes on 2 and even sometimes 3 fly rigs. Next week I plan on sharing an article on specific nymphs, what type of nymph assortment I like to carry in the winter, and we’ll even take a brief foray into some technical info on how to best tie and weight 2 and 3 fly small nymph rigs. Check back in next week with the trout blog!

So, the next time all you succeed in pulling out of your fly box after a winter day’s fishing is Pepe Le Peu (aka, the SKUNK), take a shot at embracing some of the info we’ve collected and shared. This weekend just keep in mind what the nymph said: “It’s not me, it’s you.” Heck, maybe it’s the weather? J

Tight lines and catch ‘em up,

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