Winter can be the most rewarding season of the year for fly fishing although it can also be the most technically challenging season, demanding precision and skill. You not only need the right fly fishing gear and flies but also the right cold weather gear. Remember: if you can catch fish now, you can catch them any time!
Location & Timing
Winter fly fishing offers fewer crowds, more fish, and you’ll probably have the river to yourself. You’ll see the most surface activity mid-afternoon on sunny days, or, all day long on gray snowy days without wind.
Tailwater sections are typically the best as they are controlled by dams. Located below reservoirs, the water temperature is relatively consistent throughout the year and provides a steady supply of food. With the abundance of food year-round, tailwaters are usually home to large, trophy trout. And winter can be an ideal time to target these fish.
If you have a few warm days in a row and you noticed temps get above 30 degrees, it’s not a bad idea to go fish a freestone river. Those bugs will likely be hatching in the afternoon when the temperature is just right, and you’ll find yourself in a feeding frenzy. Those are the days that can provide incredible fishing because those fish are eager to eat!
Concentrate on locating fish bankside before entering the river or beginning to cast. Blind-casting announces your presence and will inadvertently spook fish from a feeding lane. Wait and watch, read the trout’s reactions and how it is feeding to optimize your first few casts.
Midges rule the stage. As a year-round protein source, midges become the only food source available in the winter months. Popular colors include red, green (chartreuse), white, brown, and black. Ultraviolet fibers breathe life into such minuscule offerings. Any small fly tied with UV materials looks like bubbles or gives the illusion of movement. Subsurface presentations require a lot of mending and attention to line management, set on anything. Bites are subtle in the winter and cause little disturbance. Light tippets and dialed in weights equal a good presentation where flies are suspended exactly in the feeding lane at the same height and speed as the feeding trout. Be prepared for the bite and turn every chance into a catch rather than a missed opportunity. Trying a larger lead fly such as a size 12 beadhead followed by a smaller offering like a size 22 midge larva can be a productive presentation. Surprisingly, often the large tempting morsel is eaten.
For dry flies move around and look for rises, occasionally trout will rise during the winter, almost always for small midges or olive mayflies. One of the best spots is the point where shallow water transitions to deeper, slower water. Cast the fly into the riffle so it has time to sink and falls naturally into the deeper water.
When fishing streamers try to retrieve with a low and slow pace, fished deep in the water column. Short hopping retrieves imitate a dying minnow, baitfish, or trout. White is a great choice for the winter months. Keeping the streamer close to the bottom is critical to success in wintertime. It is not a chase scenario we are trying to create but rather a slow-moving, “dead drift.” Fishing a streamer in tandem with a midge larva imitation can be the ticket to success when winter bites become hard to come by. Often referred to as a Happy Meal, a streamer and nymph rig covers all the bases for tempting hungry trout. A small dark-colored stonefly also works effectively in tandem with a streamer. Here again, it is the dead drift we are trying to achieve for the proper presentation of a Happy Meal.
5X - 7X tippets and leaders are mandatory for winter. Try using 5X or 6X fluorocarbon for nymph-fishing and 6X or 7X monofilament for dry fly fishing. Make sure you carry an extra spool of each in your vest or pack, as running out of tippet can end your day.
Stay Warm, Dress in Layers
It is important to dress appropriately and wear several layers of clothing when fishing in the winter. We recommend wearing a thin liner and a pair of merino wool socks to keep your feet warm. A base-layer is a good idea to wick moisture away. Neutral colored breathable jacket, waders, and a beanie are helpful when it comes to outerwear (no bright colors). Make sure you carry two pairs of gloves (one flip mitt and one half-finger) along with hand warmers to keep your hands warm. To prevent slipping, studded rubber-soled boots work wonders but any type of felt will accumulate ice dangerously. Many winter anglers are prepared with slip-saving footwear such as inexpensive ice cleats that easily attach to your boots. Your wading staff from the summertime can double as good support on the ice too. Finally, a dehooking tool allows you to reach down and remove a hook without having to handle the fish and getting your hands wet. This will keep your hands dry and warm so you’re able to fish longer.
Improvise, Adapt and Overcome
Arming yourself with the appropriate gear and knowledge removes a lot of the anxiety fly anglers have surrounding winter fly-fishing. Approaching the river with an understanding of the bug life that is present in the cold and the techniques used to present those flies will lead to repeatable winter fly-fishing success. Don’t believe that low-and-slow is your only option. If the action is spotty, change things up to find feeding fish. Cycle through nymphs and streamers in the winter, and be ready for your chance with a dry. Remaining aware of the hazards winter fly-fishing can present is another step in preparing yourself for a successful winter fly-fishing experience. Above all, enjoy the unique peace that winter brings because it only lasts for a short while!
Winter Fly Recommendations:
Nymphs (as a first option):
- Pheasant Tail Nymph sizes 18 - 22
- Zebra Midge sizes 18 - 24
- Disco Midge sizes 18 - 24
- Lazer Midge sizes 18 - 24
- WD-40 sizes 14 - 16
- Beadhead Prince Nymph
- Beadhead Flashback Hare's Ear
- Copper John
- RS2 sizes 16 - 20
- Stone Fly sizes 18 - 24
- San Juan Worm sizes 14 or 16