Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in the Winter

Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in the Winter

Anglers willing to endure the elements can generally find uncrowded conditions and a few cooperative trout on almost any winter outing. (Pat Dorsey photo)

This article was originally titled “Secret Season” in the Feb-March 2012 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

Some anglers are saddened by the onset of winter, while others welcome the change of season. For many, winter is a time to tie flies and replenish their fly boxes, watch DVDs, or read magazine articles and books to refine their techniques. Others pursue their dreams by tromping around in Mother Nature’s Winter Wonderland trying to fool tough trout.

Winter has become one of my favorite times of the year to fish; especially when I’m seeking a little solitude. Anglers willing to endure the elements can generally find uncrowded conditions and a few cooperative trout on almost any winter outing. Snowshoes, skis, and snowmobiles are often the easiest way to get to some of the remote stretches that are buried under several feet of snow.

Winter is often the most challenging fishing of the year. Low, clear flows, sporadic hatches, cold water, and lethargic trout provide anglers with technical yet rewarding fishing. Toss in brutal air temperatures and inclement weather and things get real interesting.

Finding Winter Trout

I grew up in the Rockies and learned to fish on some of the best tailwaters in the country. It didn’t take me long to figure out there was something special about the water gushing from manmade impoundments.

Tailwaters have many advantages compared to precipitation-fed, unregulated streams called freestones. Some of the benefits include: clear water, controlled releases, weed-rich substrates, stable water temperatures, large trout populations, reliable hatches, and the one component that I have really come to appreciate—year-round fishing opportunities. Even during extended cold spells, the bottom-flow release from dams on deep impoundments stays open and free-flowing, and the trout feed there every day.

Freestones, on the other hand, are consistently inconsistent (i.e. clarity, water temperatures, hatches, flows, etc.), not to mention they are jammed with ice for several weeks during the winter.

Freestone streams can provide adequate winter fishing in mild or warming weather trends, and in late fall or early spring, the fishing can sometimes be stellar. But they are incredibly fickle, and tailwater fisheries in comparison are far more dependable, especially in the dead of winter.

In my home state, rivers like the Fryingpan, Taylor, Blue, and South Platte are well-known winter fisheries. Farther afield, the San Juan, the Colorado at Lees Ferry, the Bighorn, the North Platte, Green, and Provo rivers are all outstanding, and there are dozens of others that are less widely known, but equally worthwhile.

The Southeast is simply filled with TVA-owned dams and impoundments as well, and the weather can be far more pleasant there in February.

Between November and March, trout overwinter in slower runs and deep pools. These locations provide trout with the largest quantity of food, while expending the least amount of energy. Avoid fast riffles, runs, and rapids as these areas have fewer fish. Riffles are great feeding lies in the summer when the trout have a higher metabolism, are feeding heavily, and they are seeking highly oxygenated water. In the winter everything slows down, so plan accordingly.

Long, smooth, pool-like stretches called flats are outstanding places to find fish feeding on or near the surface. Better yet if this slow water is immediately downstream of a riffle (see above) and provides a constant influx of food.

Be careful not to spook trout that are sitting in shallow bankwater. Watch the trout’s riseforms carefully to decipher whether or not they are taking emerging pupae or adults. Flats are ideal areas to fish dry/droppers (i.e. a Griffith’s Gnat dropped with a tungsten beadhead midge pupa) because conventional nymphing rigs may spook trout suspended in the water column.

Many anglers overlook pocketwater (see “Pocketwater” in the March 2010 issue), which can be a huge oversight. Pocketwater has a mix of rapids, plunge pools, and slots, but it also has slow, glassy pools, soft cushions, and smooth seams. You can cherry-pick these classic winter holding areas in pocketwater and often find less pressured trout that are more willing to eat than the trout in larger pools. Methodically cover all the nooks and crannies, small pools, and deep slots between boulders that can easily house up to a dozen trout.

Winter Fly Fishing Tips and Tactics

Unlike the summer months, when conditions can be excellent at dawn and dusk, winter fishing is best at midday. Cold water (high 30s and low 40s) has a profound effect on the aquatic life and the trout’s metabolism.

Carry a digital thermometer and get into the habit of checking the water temperature regularly. If the water is below 40 degrees the odds are pretty good that the fish will be lethargic and unwilling to cooperate. You may need to go back to the truck and have a cup of coffee or a bowl of warm soup and wait for the sun to warm the water. It’s not uncommon to find anchor ice or floating slush before 10 A.M. If you’re fishing a tailwater, move closer to the dam (warmer water) and that should alleviate most of the ice.

By late November, most of the hatches are done for the season, leaving only sporadic Blue-winged Olives and intermittent hatches of midges. A trout that would have filled its belly several times a day during the summer months, now consumes only a few morsels each day.

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The best fishing is typically between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. Under normal winter conditions, the water temperature will gradually rise a few degrees throughout the day. A 3- to 5-degree temperature increase can make a huge difference in the outcome of your day. On unseasonably warm days, the water may increase 5 to 10 degrees, causing the trout to go on a feeding binge.

Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in Winter
As their metabolism slows in late fall, trout congregate in slow runs and deep pools where they can conserve energy. Long, smooth pools called flats are good places to find trout feeding on the surface. (Cathy & Barry Beck photo)

Always be on the lookout for any evidence of a midge hatch. If you start to see a few adults buzzing around, you should begin to see a few trout moving from nonfeeding lies into feeding lies, taking advantage of emerging midge pupae. It is important to make the most of this feeding activity while you can—the window of opportunity may only last for an hour or so.

Once you determine a midge hatch is in progress, concentrate your efforts in the transitional zones—mid channel shelves and gravel bars—because these areas offer both food and protection. During the height of the hatch, aggressive feeders will move into shallow riffles and drop-offs because heavy concentrations of food outweigh the risk of predators.

Sight-Fishing in Winter

Spotting and stalking trout is the most effective strategy during the winter. Take advantage of the low flows while you can because the river is considerably easier to navigate and there are fewer spots for trout to hide. Some of the biggest trout of the year are caught during the winter when flows are low and clear.

My buddy Mark Adams recently landed a 9-pound, 27½-inch cuttbow (pictured on the opening spread) on the Yampa River. Steve Henderson, a local guide and owner of Steamboat Fly Fisher, spotted this massive fish sitting underneath an overhanging willow. After a few precise drifts, Adams fooled this fish on a chartreuse egg pattern. During higher flow regimes, trophy trout like this disappear into the depths and are much harder to find.

Another effective strategy is to locate a small pod of fish instead of targeting a single fish. This increases your odds, as you can usually entice one or two of them to eat. After you hook up, apply some downstream bankside pressure to persuade them out of the hole so that you do not spook the other fish. After you land a couple fish, move on because the remaining fish will have a tendency to get lockjaw from all the commotion.

Large schools of fish sitting in slow pools require a little more patience. Cover the water thoroughly with a gridlike approach from the tailout to the head of the run. I would spend 30 minutes to an hour in these areas. Don’t leave feeding fish to find fish, but at the same time, be courteous to your fellow anglers and don’t be a hole hog.

Lighting conditions vary greatly during the winter. Surface glare is your biggest enemy when it comes to sight-fishing. There are two types of glare—direct sunlight, and reflected glare from clouds or snow on the opposing stream bank.

While overcast skies provide optimum fishing conditions, cloud cover produces flat light and harsh glare on the river’s surface. These conditions make spotting fish difficult at best. Although a bluebird day isn’t ideal for fishing, I prefer fishing on sunny days because they are favorable for sight-fishing.

When you are trying to spot a fish, keep the sun behind you. This alleviates the blinding glare that you’ll experience when you are facing into the sun. Cup your hands around the sides of your glasses, and stare into the river. Smooth currents, called windows, will temporarily appear, allowing you to see to the bottom. Look for silhouettes of fish and color.

Carefully watch the silhouette for any movement. I have been fooled many times by a sunken log or long rock that looked like a fish. If the object you are looking at doesn’t move, more than likely it’s not a fish.

Locating a feeding fish is the greatest challenge you’ll need to overcome during the winter. For every dozen fish you spot in slow, clear water, only a few will actually be feeding. It’s not difficult to catch a feeding fish, but trying to force feed a nonfeeding fish is nearly impossible and a waste of valuable fishing time.

After you locate a fish, take a minute or two and carefully observe its behavior. Look for any clues that would suggest the fish is feeding. Is the fish suspended? A fish high in the water column is usually feeding. Look for flashes, opening mouths, fish rising in the water column, or trout that might be sweeping back and forth. These are all indications that you have spotted an actively feeding fish. Avoid fishing to plainly visible trout that are hugging the bottom—these are non-feeders.

Fish holding in slower runs and clear pools provide anglers with the ultimate challenge. In most cases, you’ll only get a cast or two before you spook them. Trout positioned in slower currents are more sensitive to overhead threats, therefore fly lines, strike indicators, and weight splashing in the water can easily frighten them. Trout in slow, flat water also have the luxury of additional time to inspect your flies. My preference is to try and find fish in bumpy water (not fast water) because it increases your odds of catching them.

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Winter Nymphing Strategies

Most of the action will be subsurface during the winter. On smaller streams, short-line or high-stick nymphing is most effective strategy. Long-line nymphing requires false casting and mending, which has a tendency to spook fish. On larger streams, short-line nymphing has its limitations, so be willing to adjust your tactics when necessary.

I use a tandem nymphing rig consisting of two or three nymphs (check your local regulations for specifics), a split-shot covered with moldable putty for easy adjustments, and yarn strike indicator. I typically use longer leaders in the winter (9′ or 12′) so that I am prepared to nymph deeper water where the biggest concentrations of fish are found.

Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in Winter
Trout in flat water have extra time to inspect your flies. Look for water with a slightly bumpy surface. This indicates good bottom structure, and allows the fish less time to make a decision. (Cathy & Barry Beck photo)

Begin by getting as close to the trout as possible without spooking them. This allows you to minimize the amount of fly line on the water and often alleviates the need to mend. This also reduces ice buildup in the guides.

Roll-cast your flies upstream at a 45-degree angle and immediately lift all the fly line (and butt end of the leader) above your strike indicator off the water. Drag can arise when you allow part of the fly line to sit on the water. When you do this, a small belly forms and the flies prematurely swing in the current, causing drag. You’ll need a precise dead-drift, and oftentimes you’ll need to bump the trout in the nose to get them to eat.

Carefully manage the fly line from behind your casting hand’s index finger, by stripping any slack with your noncasting hand’s thumb and index finger. Once your flies drift downstream from you (about 45 degrees) slowly lower your rod tip to extend the drift. After your flies swing in the current, get into the habit of setting the hook (regardless of whether or not you detect a strike), because the uplifting action that occurs when your leader tightens often triggers a strike.

If you are sight-fishing to a particular fish, immediately recast your flies once your flies have drifted past your target. With this approach you are concerned with a particular fish and you are not worried about fish you cannot see. Cast your flies 3 to 4 feet above the fish, let your flies drift past the fish, and immediately recast. You can maximize your drift by keeping your flies in front of fish and you are not wasting valuable fishing time by fishing to fish you cannot see.

There are many options to choose from when selecting a strike indicator—choose one that best fits your needs. Yarn strike indicators are by far the most sensitive to subtle strikes, plus you can adjust them easily with an orthodontist rubber band. If it’s windy or your yarn freezes, you might want to fish with a Thingamamobber.

Most anglers keep their strike indicators adjusted to 1½ to 2 times the depth of the water from the weight. The greater the distance between your flies and your strike indicator, the longer it will take to detect a strike.

Strikes during the winter are subtle. Up to a third of your strikes will go undetected by your strike ­indicator because there is a belly (slack) between your flies and your indicator. In faster water the leader tightens quickly, indicating a strike, but in slower current, where you’ll find the heaviest concentration of fish during the winter, your indicator will barely twitch when a trout takes your fly.

Carefully watch the fish as your flies drift into their feeding lane. Look for a fish to rise in the water column, move to the right or left, or watch for the trout to open its mouth. If any of these occur, set the hook.

Winter Fly Selection

Winter trout feed on different food sources than they do in the summer, which means your winter fly box should be substantially different than your spring or summer fly selections. Think simple, sparse, and most importantly small.

Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in Winter
Midge, Baetis, and egg imitations should be the most significant portion of your winter fly selection. Midge larvae live along the bottom where trout spend their winters. They come in many colors but red larvae seem especially effective in slow, oxygen-poor water with silt and debris on the bottom. (Pat Dorsey photo)

That’s not to say that you won’t pick up an occasional fish or two on caddis larvae or stonefly nymphs, because you will. But you’ll catch the majority of your fish on tiny midges and Baetis nymphs because that’s what tailwater trout eat in the winter.

I would recommend carrying an assortment of midge larvae (pale olive, cream, and red) in sizes 18 to 20. A red midge larva has always been one of my favorite winter fly types. It’s hard to go wrong with a Mercury Blood Midge, Barr’s Pure Midge Larva (pale olive or red), or a Rojo Midge (red). Larvae patterns fish well anytime, and are especially effective drifted close along the substrate where the heaviest concentrations of fish are found.

You’ll also need a thorough assortment of midge pupae in sizes 20 to 24. If a midge hatch becomes evident, you’ll need to swap your larvae for pupae. Pupae imitations can be fished anywhere in the water column, but I have had my best success suspending them higher in the current. A small split-shot is usually sufficient enough for weight; in fact too much weight is problematic because your flies are drifting below the fish. Keeping your flies in the correct feeding zone is as important as choosing the right fly. Some of my favorite midge pupae include: Dorsey’s Mercury Black Beauties, Medallion Midges, Top Secret Midges, Egan’s Rainbow Warriors, and Craven’s Jujubee Midges.

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Dry-fly enthusiasts find their fair share of rising fish too. Look in all the likely spots: slow-moving currents, along the streambank, and shaded areas. If a dense midge hatch is in progress, it will bring several fish to the surface, even the wariest trout will capitalize on this feeding opportunity. I use size 18 to 24 Matt’s Midges, Griffith’s Gnats, Cannon’s Suspender Midges, and Parachute Adams. Carrying two rods this time of year is a good idea—one with nymphs and one with a dry fly (dry/dropper) will help maximize your fishing time.

On some tailwaters, you’ll experience sporadic to heavy Blue-winged Olive hatches during the winter. Overcast days provide optimum conditions. My favorite dun imitations are size 20 to 24 Hi Viz Baetis, Sparkle Duns, and Parachute Adams.

Baetis nymphs are effective all winter as the fish are always looking for them. I always carry size 20 to 22 Craven’s Juju Baetis, Churchill’s Sparkle Wing RS2s, Dorsey’s Mercury Baetis, Stalcup’s Baetis, and Flashback Barr Emergers.

Whitefish and brown trout spawn in the late fall, suckers and rainbow trout spawn in early spring, making eggs most abundant in these winter shoulder seasons.

Trout remember eggs all winter long and micro egg patterns are excellent attractors in any winter nymphing rig. Tie micro eggs in sizes 18 and 20.

Egg/midge combos are deadly during the winter months, as are egg/BWO combinations. My favorite egg colors include: McCheese, apricot, and golden. Small San Juan Worms (#18) serve the same purpose.

Lake Stratification

Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in Winter
(Andy Steer illustration)

Large bodies of water experience seasonal temperature fluctuation based on the time of year, light penetration, wind, and air temperatures. During the summer, lakes and reservoirs stratify into three distinct layers, a process that is referred to as summer stagnation.

The upper layer, epilimnion, is the warmest, therefore the lightest and it remains on the surface. The middle layer, thermocline, is cooler and denser than the epilimnion. The lower layer, hypolimnion, is the coldest water, and most dense, so it resides on the bottom of the lake or reservoir. That’s why in the heat of summer, the water flowing from the bottom of a deep impoundment is much colder than the surface temperature of the lake above.

During autumn, air temperatures gradually cool down the water’s surface, and wind and other surface currents stir the lake mixing the epilimnion and thermocline causing them to equalize. Over time this occurs with the hypolimnion, causing the lake to become uniform from top to bottom.

As the air temperature continues to drop, the upper layer of lake water cools, and eventually it freezes. In a lake or reservoir, the densest water is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The water near the surface is colder, therefore less dense so it stays on the top of the lake under the ice. That warmest water is now on the bottom of the lake. This is referred to as seasonal lake turnover. It occurs twice a year—spring and fall.

The end result is that seasonal changes in temperate-zone bodies of water (bottom-release tailwaters) provide trout with warmer water during the winter months and cooler outflows during the summer. This phenomenon is what aquatic biologists refer to as “winter warm and summer cool.”

Winter Layers for Fly Fishing

With all the modern advancements in technical outer- and underwear, winter fishing is more comfortable and enjoyable than ever. Dress in layers so you can shed insulation in the afternoon when it gets warmer. A good base layer is the logical place to start for winter fishing. Merino wool or a stretchy synthetic base layer like polypropylene helps keep you comfortable by wicking moisture away from your skin. Wear synthetic fleece pants and jackets over your base layer.

Secret Season: Fly Fishing for Trout in Winter
(Brian and Jenny Grossenbacher photo)

To keep your feet warm, you should also have a tight, thin liner sock, and a thick insulating sock of Smartwool or a synthetic fiber. Your winter boots should be one size larger than your summer boots to allow for the extra sock and still permit adequate circulation. Tight boots cut off the blood flow and will make your feet much colder.

When you choose your outerwear, purchase something that is lightweight, breathes, and protects you from the wind. A soft shell jacket protects you from wind and snow, and you can add insulation layers underneath.

You should also carry at least two pairs of gloves. I carry a pair of half finger gloves, foldover mitts, and neoprene gloves for extreme conditions when you do not want to get your hands wet or when you’re rowing a boat.

It is a good idea to take some spare clothes in a waterproof duffel bag in the event you take an unexpected plunge in the river. Always consider using a wading staff, but especially in winter where a plunge can not only be shocking, but life-threatening due to hypothermia.

Winter fishing is a great way to overcome cabin fever and refine your techniques. Certainly there are many tradeoffs and compromises to the season, but they’re all worth it.

Pat Dorsey is a co-owner of Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen, Colorado. He is Fly Fisherman’s southwest field editor and the author of Tying & Fishing Tailwater Flies (Stackpole Books, 2010).

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>