It’s true that winter fly fishing is slower than the rest of the year, but the fish have still got to eat, and by picking the right rivers and moments to fish, you can be successful in the winter months and get that fix of trout fishing you so desperately need. Here are my winter fly fishing tips.
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Finding The Right River
The first key to success in winter fishing is finding a river where trout will be feeding quite actively and this all comes down to water temperatures.
Cold weather equals cold water, and if the water is too cold and you’re standing on a river with icebergs flowing down it, then you’re not in the right place for winter fishing.
Luckily, not all rivers are affected by the weather in the same way during winter time. A river that is fed by a dam or a spring will have a much higher water temperature than one that isn’t. The water released from a dam or spring is usually over 40 degrees F, creating a much larger range of food sources for winter trout to eat and making it warm enough for them to feed a bit more regularly.
Fly fishers should target tailwaters for their winter angling and great spots can be found around the Gunnison Valley. The Gunnison River flows through the Blue Mesa Reservoir in the Gunnison Valley, and below the reservoir is where the trout fishing is going to be best.
Other great rivers you can fish all winter long include the Frying Pan, South Platte, Bighorn, Madison, Snake River, South Fork, and Henry’s Fork.
Where Do Trout Sit In The Winter?
During winter, anglers are not going to find fish in fast riffles like they might in spring and fall. Trout tend to want to expend the minimum amount of energy and stay in the warmest water they can find during winter, which means the fish tend to be in slow water and deep pools.
The fish hold in groups during the winter, so when you find a good patch of slow, deep water, make sure to fish it quietly and not spook the school of trout that is hopefully sitting in it.
Fish will also tend to hold next to undercut banks so make sure to drift your fly slowly through sections like this.
What’s The Best Fly Selection For Catching Fish In Winter?
A trout’s diet in winter is mostly made up of aquatic insects and aquatic worms which means most of your tactics are going to involve some nymph fishing with a weighted fly and a strike indicator too. Trout will take the fly so subtly in winter that without a strike indicator, you’re going to miss a lot of fish.
This means you’ll want your 10ft euro nymphing fly rod with a floating fly line and a double nymph rig for 90% of your winter angling.
The flies you want to have in your box include Prince nymphs, Copper John, Perdigon nymph, Girdle Bug, and the ever-faithful Woolly Bugger. All of these flies work great as a point fly in a larger size of 8-12 and as a dropper with small flies in sizes 16-20.
You should also think about what insect hatches come off the river in spring, as these are the bugs being washed past the trout during the winter, and pick a fly pattern to match. Is there a prolific salmon fly or caddis fly hatch in spring? If so, you should be fishing a stonefly and caddis nymph.
Can You Go Dry Fly Fishing In Winter?
Yes, anglers can have some great moments casting a dry fly to rising fish during the winter. You’re not going to get very large bugs hatching in the winter, but you will find a consistent midge hatch on some rivers, and on warmer days, the Baetis mayflies might even make an appearance too, especially on sunny days.
Imitating midges is hard, as there isn’t a fly that is quite small enough to match them and you can only really go to size 24 flies for the job unless you have a magical local fly shop.
A great fly for imitating a group of adult midges in the surface film is a size 20 Griffith’s Gnat. Another great option is fishing a swinging Zebra Midge with a small glass bead tied on. It looks like the air bubble emerging insects use to float to the surface.
When it’s warm and you start seeing Baetis, switch to a parachute adams or blue-winged olives in size 20 and you might be pleasantly surprised as to how many trout come your way.
Streamer Fishing In Winter
Streamer fishing can be productive for big trout in winter. While the fish aren’t being particularly energetic, a trout might sacrifice some of its energy for a large dose of protein, and using a fly like an olive or black wooly bugger in sizes 4-8 is a good bet.
Whichever streamer you choose, make sure it’s weighted and you might want to add a sink tip so you can get the fly into the deeper pools where the fish are holding.
When fly fishing a streamer in winter, you’ll also need to take things slow. Just let the fly swing in slower water and add the odd short slow strip into the mix to see if you get a good tug on the end of your line.
Winter Fly Fishing Gear
Winter fly fishing is no joke when it comes to the cold. You’ll be fishing along a river in conditions that are close to freezing, and wearing the right clothing fly fishing is imperative to keeping warm. Hypothermia is no laughing matter and it can creep up on you, so here are a few tips on staying warm.
A full-body base layer is a must when fishing in the winter. This means from your toes to your neckline needs to be covered in a solid base that will not only keep you warm but wicks moisture too. The best base layers are made from merino wool, which naturally keeps you very warm, wicks sweat away from your body, and is antibacterial too so it doesn’t smell.
On top of your base, you’ll need several layers and you should start with thick thermal socks, fleece pants, and a fleece-lined jacket for your upper body. Keeping your legs and feet warm under your waders is very important especially if you’re wading in the freezing cold water.
Your waders should be built for winter too and either be fleece-lined or made from thick neoprene.
Further layers you should have with you include a down jacket, a windproof & waterproof rain jacket, a fleece neck gaiter (buff), a fleece-lined hat, and something to keep your hands warm.
Your hands are likely to get wet and chilly, and getting wet hands warm again isn’t easy especially when you have to de-ice your reel and rod guides. A lot of people use half finger neoprene gloves which keep their hands toasty while letting them use their fingertips for tricky tasks like tying on a size 24 fly. You should also keep a spare pair of gloves in your wader pockets which are always dry just in case.
You won’t be able to find all this gear at your fly shop, but between shopping online and locally, you should be able to get everything you need for winter.
You can see our post here on Cold Weather Fly Fishing Gear for a more in-depth guide.
How cold is too cold for fly fishing?
As we discussed above, it’s more about water temps than anything else when it comes to fishing in winter. So if it’s close to freezing outside, then some might say don’t go fishing, but the river can be around 40-50 degrees F which is great for winter fishing.
The rule I abide by is if the water is below 38 degrees Fahrenheit, then I won’t fish. You’ll need a thermometer to check the temperature though, so make sure you bring one with you.
What time of day is best for winter fly fishing?
The wintertime is not the time for getting to the river at sunrise as you need to give the trout and the water a bit of time to heat up before you start casting flies into the river. I always try to get to the river for around midday and then fish until it gets a bit chilly in the late afternoon.
This way I’m on the river for the most productive time of the day and if I’m lucky, I’ll be there for a midge hatch or two and get to catch some winter fish on dry flies, which is awesome.