The warmer waters from spring-fed rivers and tailwaters mean that winter trout remain active and you can fish 365 days a year through the winter season and into early spring and catch trout on every trip.
In some parts of the world, like the tailwaters of the Frying Pan River in Colorado, winter fly fishing for rainbow and brown trout is a reality.
To be successful when trout fishing in winter, you’re going to need the best winter trout flies for the job. Here are the fly patterns to carry in your winter fly box and how to fish them. We’ll start with the winter flies first and then winter fishing tactics second.
The Best Flies That Catch Trout In Winter
The best cheap flies for winter trout all revolve around the natural imitation of two aquatic invertebrates and aquatic insects, midge patterns and blue winged olive dry fly plus there are a few other natural-looking patterns you should have in your fly box.
Most of the fly patterns you need for the winter months are going to be in sizes 18-22 so you can leave your bigger flies at home and from a color perspective, black flies are best but a bright fly pattern or two is worth having.
The zebra midge is a classic pattern for winter trout and it catches fish after fish, so make sure this is featured in your fly box heavily.
The reason the zebra midge fly is so effective is that it imitates midge larvae which are in the water system year-round but are the main parts of the trout’s diet during the winter months.
It’s a very basic pattern with nothing but a thread body with a striped pattern. You should have these fly fishing trout flies in your box in sizes 18-22, in colors such as black, copper, and red plus in different weights too.
A few bead head options and tungsten bead head flies are a must as the feeding trout will be sitting in deep pools.
Anglers who fly fish with this fly will catch fish and experience great success especially with the heavier nymph option that allows them to get deep into the water column. Ask any winter fly fishing guide and they’ll tell you how many large fish tend to fall for this fly.
Craven’s Jujubee Midge
Charlie Craven is a fly tyer of not and has been in the business of making flies that fool trout since he was 8 years old. Charlie has come up with a lot of revolutionary flies and one that is deadly during winter is his Jujubee Midge nymph.
This fly is all about attention to detail which is why it has more than 10 tying steps and it fools some of the wisest trout in the USA, notably those in Cheesman Canyon of the South Platte. Be sure to get a few of these in blue, black, red, and chartreuse in sizes 18-22.
These are generally not weighted to fishing them as your point fly with something heavier underneath to get it a bit deeper into the water column is a good idea.
The pheasant tail nymph is another good pattern for anglers to have in their fly box but you’re going to want it in sizes 18-22 as it’s going to be imitating tiny midges, not the nymphs you’d imitate after the snow-melt.
It’s a good idea to have these flies in a range of colors and weights so you can fish low water runs and deeper areas too. They also work well unweighted when fished with a heavier fly.
You can see our post here for a full guide on how to tie a pheasant tail nymph.
The rainbow warrior fly is great for fishing in winter when the water is a little dirty or high and this is because it has a lot of flash in it. The flash means most fish can spot it when the visibility is bad but it won’t look totally natural when the river is clear.
When fly fishing with a rainbow warrior, you’re imitating a baetis more than a midge but it can easily be mistaken for either by a trout.
Again, you’ll need a few of these flies in sizes 18-22 and various weighted heads to match the water depth you’re fly fishing in.
Egg patterns tend to work anytime between September and April and this is beacuase it’s after spawning season has begun when the fish have laid eggs into the gravel. Some of the eggs then get washed downstream and fish love to feed on them and thus an egg fly will consistently catch fish.
It’s best to fish this as your point fly with something heavy like a tungsten Zebra midge under it to bring the fly down deeper in the flow.
San Juan Worm
Another fly pattern that works all year round is the san juan worm fly or other worm flies such as the Squirmy Wormy. Just a handful of these flies is all you need in your box, just be sure to have them in different colors in sizes 14-16 and in different weights too.
The reason these work so well is that worms are always in the river system and in winter they are particularly tempting for trout as they get to slurp up a lot of protein for not much work. A fish might have to eat 1000 midges to get the same amount of food as one worm would provide.
If there is one large fly to have in your box during winter, it’s a wooly bugger in olive and black in sizes 2-8. The great thing about this fly is how versatile it is.
You can strip it through a pool like a streamer to tempt a winter fish into grabbing a huge protein dose or you can dead drift it with a nymph as it looks like a large stonefly nymph.
Brooks Sprout Midge
You might be surprised to hear that dry fly fishing in winter is effective but when you see fish rising while snow is falling you’ll believe me. One of the best dry flies to have in your box for these occasions is the brooks sprout.
You’re going to want this fly in black in sizes 18-24. It’s technically an emerger pattern that has a large hackle and parachute-like top which keeps part of the fly on the surface and lets the rest of it sit in the surface film.
When the fish are sipping emerging midges or baetis off the surface, this is a dry fly pattern to try first.
We have all heard of this famous dry fly and its fooled fish from New Zealand to the chalk streams of England. In winter, anglers will want a range of Parachute Adams for fishing within sizes 18-24 so that they can imitate the midges and baetis hatching in the winter months that trout love. We have a step by step guide here on how to tie a parachute adams for your reference.
The benefit of the parachute means this is one of the few winter fly patterns that you can kind of see as it floats downstream, so when a trout slurps it up, it should be quite obvious.
The Griffith’s Gnat is another one of the flies you should be fishing for winter risers, especially when no other fly seems to be working. One of the biggest issues with dry fly fishing in the winter is being able to use a fly that’s the same size as a midge, which is often impossible.
The beauty of this fly is that it imitates a group of midges that have been stuck together on the surface after emerging so fishing it when the trout are rising but aren’t taking anything else you have put in front of them is a sure sign it’s going to work.
Grab a few Griffith’s Gnat flies in a few different colors and in sizes 18-22 and I suggest always starting fishing with it when trout are rising as it’s so effective and trout can not resist it.
Winter Fly Fishing Tactics
Where do the trout hold in winter?
When fly fishing in winter you want to focus on slower pools with deeper water. When the water temperature drops, trout start behaving in a certain way to conserve energy.
During winter they are using most of their energy to stay warm in the freezing cold water so they are going to do two things – move to slow water so they don’t have to fight the current, and sit in deeper water as it’s warmer.
So when you go fly fishing in winter, make sure you’re fishing slower areas and deeper pools too. Once you find some fish, don’t catch one and simply leave as trout tend to shoal up during winter as they all require the same spots to survive which leaves little choice.
Keep fishing in the same area until you have caught 5 or so trout and then move on and find another honey hole.
What are trout eating in winter?
You will already have a certain grasp on this after reading the winter flies section. The trout feed mostly on midge larvae or hatched midges in winter along with a few blue-winged olives, some eggs, some worms, and the odd baitfish.
The biggest part of their diet though is midge larvae which is why patterns like the Zerba are so important to have in your box.
Nymphing In Winter
When fishing with nymphs in winter, you’re going to want to fish two flies with a strike indicator. The reason for the strike indicator is that the trout are lazy in winter and this means very subtle takes that you’ll miss without one.
I highly recommend using a dropper rig with your dropper fly being a size 20 or 22 tungsten zebra as it’s an awesome searching pattern and the fly that gets the job done more than any other in winter. your second fly can be a worm or egg pattern, or you can put a midge or blue-winger olive emerger on there.
You’ll want to fish your nymphs on a floating line with a long 12-15ft leader and 6-7x tippet as the fish will have a lot of time to check out your flies in the slow water and since they are lazy, they won’t waste energy trying something if they don’t think it’s natural and worth eating.
Dry Fly Fishing In Winter
When fishing dries in winter, you’ll want to carry a rod ready-setup with a few midges on the end of the same long leader and 6-7x tippet you’d use when nymphing and again on a floating line.
Don’t start using your dries until you see fish rising or if you want to search, try a dry with an emerger that sits underwater as a searching rig.
Midges and blue-winged olives hatch in the warmest part of the day in wintertime, meaning 12-3 pm and they do it best in almost slack water. These are the areas you want to hang out around during a hatch.
The hardest part of fishing midge dries is seeing them on the water. You can add a second fly that is larger and more visible like a size 16 parachute and then swing the smaller invisible midge fly behind it. If you see a rise near the parachute, then set the hook as a trout has probably eaten your midge imitation.
Streamer Fishing In Wintertime
If you’re stripping a streamer fishing in wintertime, you don’t want to be fishing it as you would in the fall as the fish are not that active. Slow strips through slow deep pools with minimal action are what is required. We have suggestions here on the best fall trout flies that you can take a look at.
You should also consider fishing parts with slack water and casting upstream and then lightly twitching your fly back towards you. This makes your fly look like an injured baitfish and a very easy meal for a winter fish who is feeling lazy but in need of a lot of food.