Tips and Tricks for Winter Fly Fishing: Stay Warm and Catch More Fish

Many anglers shy away from winter fly fishing thinking that the chances of catching fish, say a winter trout, is pretty minimal due to the conditions. If it’s super cold outside, chances are the fishing is going to slow right?

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.

Finding The Right River

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. Just make sure that your cold weather fishing gear is all set before going on a trip on these waters.

Where Do Trout Sit In The Winter?

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?

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 fly 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. Which should also be your choice of fly rod if you are nymphing fly fishing.

The flies you want to have in your box include prince nymph pattern, copper john fly pattern, Perdigon nymph, Girdle Bug, and the ever-faithful woolly bugger. All of these winter trout 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 nymph pattern and caddis nymph.

Can You Go Dry Fly Fishing In Winter?

Can You Go Dry Fly Fishing In Winter

Yes, anglers can have some great moments casting winter dry flies. 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 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 winter streamer fishing, 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 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 the best winter fly fishing 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.

How cold is too cold for fly fishing?

winter 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?

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.

Photo of author

Jamie Melvin

Growing up fly fishing on trout streams in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fly fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles, there aren't many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.

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