Winter Fly Fishing for the Novice
(Note- this story originally appeared in the winter 2020-2021 issue of The Fly Fishing and Tying Journal)
Fly fishing for trout during those warm months of April through November is the essence of the sport we love. Bluebird skies and pleasant temperatures are the norm, just like we see in our favorite videos and on the cover of our favorite magazines. Even on those wet, chilly days, conditions are generally tolerable. It’s a fun time to be on the water and ones we dream about.
Winter has always been considered a time of doldrums for trout anglers. If we fish at all, it generally involves travel to saltwater destinations or hitting streams of the Pacific Coast for steelhead. Trout are rarely in our thoughts. It’s just too cold for comfort fishing, and trout are rarely active enough to justify even a couple of hours on the water. These are the old arguments for staying home and putting in time at the tying bench.
Regardless of these tired sentiments, winter fly fishing has been growing in popularity for the past decade on many streams, particularly in the Rocky Mountain West. A number of factors – the opening of previous winter closures on some popular rivers, warmer winters, and a desire for solitude – have contributed to this recent surge. But perhaps nothing has contributed more than the continuing advancement in tactics, tackles, and apparel the sport enjoys.
Winter fly fishing is nothing to ignore. Despite the cold, despite the intimidation, and despite the mythic image of little production, winter can be a great time to fly fish many streams across the country. I live in ski country, where powder at 10,000 feet and shedding hard rules the day from Thanksgiving until April Fool’s Day. Nonetheless, I find myself on the water more and more each winter either fishing for fun or guiding guests. A decent number of my guests are uninitiated to the possibilities that are out there. They discover going in with the right strategy, tactics, knowledge, and apparel, can make this part of the year more than worthwhile for trout fishing.
Holding Water and Trout Behavior
Like fishing any stream any season of the year, the key to successful winter fly fishing comes down to finding the right holding water.
Most western rivers are at their lowest flows of the year from November through March. Tailwater-feeding dams are at minimal flows. Tributaries of both tailwaters and freestone streams experience reduced flows due to natural processes through freezing precipitation in the form of snow that will not be impacted by warming temperatures and runoff for months. All of this leads to reduced habitat on streams. Riffles, seams, eddies, and bankside troughs that were teaming with trout only a couple months before are now high and dry. Added to this is the fact that water temperatures are cooling. The body temps of trout are going to be close to water temperature. Even moderate current speeds are difficult to hold in, let alone feed.
These two conditions coalesce. The result is the concentration of fish in precious holding water where there is both sufficient depth as well as sufficiently slow current speeds. Pods of fish congregate in these areas because they have few options. This is one of the prime benefits of winter fly fishing. If you find a couple of fish in one pool, likely there are several, if not several dozen.
Even with low winter water levels, most trout streams still offer ample holding water where fish can congregate. The key is focusing on holding water with noticeably slow currents. Riffle current margins and tails are a case in point. Trout can lie in these slower currents at the edge of riffle and still receive significant forage from the faster main flow.
Backwater side channels are an even more productive option. They are essential pieces of holding water on high to moderate gradient freestone streams as well as tailwaters. Despite the reduced flows that occur during winter, there is still holding water of sufficient depth in certain side channels. This can be critical habitat for fish. Many are characterized by a subtle inflow from upstream. The inflowing current eventually dissipates into the motionless pool that makes up much of the side channel. The downstream periphery of this pool is defined by a seam formed along the main channel current. Often times, the downstream portion of the seam cuts back upstream to form and eddy. The eddy current moves upstream into the side channel before swinging back into the seam.
Fish congregate in these backchannel pools by the dozens to hundreds during the winter months. The deep, relaxed current give trout ideal water to hold in – their body temperatures are not but a few degrees warmer than the water where they reside. The result is often significant lethargy. At the same time, they still receive forage from the upstream inflow, the seam along the main channel, and the eddy. It is the kind of water most winter fly fishers seek out first.
These two examples, however, are just a drop in the bucket. There is plenty of water where trout will pod up for the winter. The one element all of this holding water has in common is slow currents that meet fast currents supplying forage. Those points of transition should be your focus when fishing trout streams in the winter.
Finding the right target is one thing. Fishing it effectively is another. Covering your water thoroughly is important no matter what time of the year it is. But in winter, when stream levels are low and water temperatures are at their coldest, deliberate coverage is required. Fish will not move much for the miniscule forage available to them. They will, however, eat if you get it in their face. Where in the heat of the summer I might make two to three casts before moving upstream or down several steps, in the winter it will be at least twice as many presentations. And when I do move upstream or down, it is only two or three steps at most.
Winter Trout Forage – More Than Just Midges
Ask a hundred fly fishers what trout foods they associate with winter, most likely all of them would say chironomids, and for good reason. Midges seem to always around no matter the water temperature. They make up one of the largest forms of biomass on most trout streams. I rely heavily on chironomid imitations on most winter days whether I am guiding or fishing for fun. Many times they are the only game in town. When you see fish feeding on the surface, there’s a good chance they are eating midges.
Yet many other forms of forage are available to trout during the winter. And at certain times, they can match or beat the production offered by midge imitations.
A continuously over-looked winter trout food imitation is egg patterns. Mountain whitefish are native to western North America and still populate many streams in strong numbers. Their spawning activity occurs late in the year – generally from October until mid-December – and occurs in main channel currents. Females do not build redds like most trout. Rather, they deposit their roe directly onto the riverbed. These eggs are readily available to trout waiting downstream. This timing and spawning behavior make egg patterns a good choice for fishing riffle pools and tailouts during the month of December.
The cold months of January and February often result in reduced habitat on small tributary streams due to declining flows and iced-over water. This can produce a surge of baitfish and juvenile trout into the more hospitable environs of downstream rivers. These fish seek out the same slow current backwater channels and riffle tailouts as trout. They are both food and intruders, and trout will hammer them if they trespass the feeding lines utilized by more dominant fish. This is when small forage fish imitations can produce in solid fashion.
Little black (Capnia) and little brown (Nemoura) stoneflies are collectively known as the tiny winter stones. Other than the ever-present midge, they are one of the first emergences of the year on many western trout streams, with hatches occurring from late February until early April. There are two key times when tiny winter stones are available to trout – 1) when the nymphs move en masse to shorelines to emerge from their shucks, and 2) when female adults return to the surface to lay their eggs (often while in a mad, wake-producing scurry). Tiny winter stones are generally in the #16 to #18 range. Patterns like the black Perdigon nymph or Furimsky BDE are amongst my favorite imitations and are go-to flies on streams like Montana’s Bitterroot River and Rock Creek.
Many tailwaters experience increased flows from dams in late winter to meet early season irrigation demand and create room in reservoirs for pending runoff. These events create a flood of additional forage for fish, most important of which are scuds and Mysid shrimp if they are present in the lakes feeding downstream rivers. Spillways - which often fish well all winter long due to relaxed currents and regulated water temperatures - become zones of frenzied eating. But #10 to #14 imitations can produce well downstream. On the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho, I observed healthy populations of these crustaceans over a dozen miles downstream of Palisades Dam after releases were increased in early March this past year.
Regardless of the trout forage you are imitating, it is still important to keep the conditions in mind. Water temps that are 35 to 41 degree range are common in the winter. Takes by trout can be brutally slow. Any subtle tap of your streamer, surface disturbance at your dry fly, or movement of your line or indicator when using a nymph rig, could be a fish. Be on the ball and set the hook slowly but deliberately.
Handling Trout in Winter
An argument can be made that winter fly fishing causes less fish mortality than in the prime months of summer and early autumn. We now live in an era of climate change and warming streams. Most of my local rivers in Idaho and Wyoming peak somewhere in the mid-60s to low 70s in August or September (this includes some very renowned tailwaters fed by bottom-release dams). The warmer the water, the lower the oxygen content. Hooking and fighting a trout can leads to its death. So, too, can that prized “grip and grin” photo we are all guilty of, including me.
In the winter, cold water temperatures equates to oxygen rich streams. Fish can recover quickly after being released. Precautions, however, are still required. As stated earlier, the body temperatures of trout are close to that of the water they live in. The touch of a dry hand can, quite literally, burn a fish. This is despite the protective slim layer that protects it from bacteria and fungus. Your best approach is to release your catch without touching it. And if you must hold the fish to release it, submerge your hands for several seconds to cool them close to water temperature. Yes, it’s cold and uncomfortable. But this is one of the small prices of winter fly fishing.
State of the Art Apparel – a Key Part of Successful Winter Fishing
In Steelhead Fly Fishing (Lyons Press, 1991), author Trey Combs asked a well-known fly fisher what innovations in the sport has made his pursuit of steelhead more productive. Most anglers would mention advancements in lines or rods or flies. The answer given by this particular steelheader? – “5mm neoprene waders”.
Improvements in clothing and wading gear is often overlooked, yet these advancements are just as important as what we see in tackle. Hardcore, extreme weather clothing has made winter fly fishing far more comfortable than it was three decades ago. And this makes the time we spend fishing far more productive. It’s not that much different than stalking steelhead in a driving snowstorm on Idaho’s Clearwater of Washington’s Grand Ronde rivers.
Base layers today are arguably the most important piece of cold weather clothing for the winter fly fisher. Technologies like capilene and marino wool are way ahead of the classic thermal underwear and heavy wool socks our parents used so many years ago. The glacial chill of sub-40 degree water is tolerable with this clothing. Sure, your toes are going to get numb after spending twenty to forty minutes working a good piece of water, but the rest of your body will be comfortable. Added insulation in the form of micro-down or fleece jackets, pants, and cap can take the comfort to another level.
The use of Gore-Tex or H2No in wader design has been around for many decades now. These materials, for the most part, render full neoprene and old school rubber obsolete due to their breathable qualities. This is important because much winter fly fishing involves marching good distances and, at times, through significant snowpack. It’s easy to build up a sweat with all that cold weather clothing beneath your waders. You are paying over $500.00 for this breathability, and it is worth it. Sweat, condensation, and built-up hot air escape easily. This will make you all the more comfortable.
With your core, arms, and legs thoroughly protected, the only part of your body that can feel the true sting of wind and cold air temperatures are your hands and face. These exposed pieces of your body are safeguarded with wool or fleece fingerless gloves and a face cover like a balaclava or buff. These provide protection from the wind and quickly dry when wet. With these added pieces of clothing, you are literally shielded head-to-toe from the elements. You can probably last hours while fishing the water of your choice during winter.
Do not get me wrong. It can still be cold. But it is bearable. In fact, all of this clothing can be so effective that many days I am shedding layers because I am just too damn warm. Cold temperatures and snow or sleet should be the least of your concern. Fish are always eating, even in winter. Using the strategies, tactics and apparel I suggest here can add a few more months to your fishing calendar.