Winter Trout Flies
September 24, 2010
As winter trout fishing becomes more and more popular, flyfisherman are finding opportunities to catch fish in the coldest months of the year.
Go look at the calendar if you must: It's late spring, early winter, depending on where you live, and things are really slow, especially if you're a flyfisherman.
Even your bait-fishing brethren are winding down on the winter trout fishing season, because in a few short weeks many of the lakes they've been fishing will be too warm to support trout, and by now bass anglers are flocking to low-elevation waters, looking for pre-spawn fish moving up from deep water.
As a fly-angler, you're looking forward to the warm days of spring to bring out the green in the hills and warm days that produce blizzards of hatching aquatic insects for trout to eat. But for many, late February and early March are a time for television reruns of outdoor TV shows interspersed with a bit of fly-tying and a fishing club meeting or two where they'll hear some guy talk about a place they won't be able to fish for weeks.
The weather outside is fitful. It may be blue skies and warming trends on Monday and cold, miserable rain on Wednesday or snow flurries on Friday. Many high-altitude lakes and streams are snowed in; some are frozen. Even worse, the low-elevation streams may already be seeing the first signs of the swell of spring run-off. It's enough to make a frustrated fly-angler want to take up bowling.
Hey, snap out of it! Winter can have some great fly-fishing.
We've all seen photos of an angler knee-deep in a stream with snowflakes whizzing by as he casts for trout. You can do that, too - but why would you?
South-facing slopes will be the first to show signs of retreating snowlines and warming conditions for insect life. Photo by Richard Alden Bean
We aren't talking about wading around in freezing streams in a blinding snowstorm. With just a bit of research, every angler with a particular interest, especially the trout enthusiast, can find great places to fish at any time of year.
First, let's take a look at the kind of fishing you will find. Compared to other regions in the country, we in the West are blessed with relatively mild winters. We get enough snow for skiing, and winter rain can be fierce, but there are winter days when air temperatures rise enough to require an angler to be in shirtsleeves by midmorning, and there are often hatches of caddis and mayflies in January.
Low-altitude waters, especially on the coastal side of the mountains, often have days that offer prime conditions well above freezing, if not quite spring-like, and conditions do nothing but improve with each passing week. So your first check should be in the regulations booklet: Check to find the waters you can legally fish now. There are some nearby, I promise!
Your next stop is at the local fly shop. Buy a handful of ties, tippets or whatever, and you'll find yourself the recipient of good hotspot information just for the asking. At this time of year you won't be fighting crowds.
WEIGHTED WINTER FLIES It's possible to find some surface activity at times. For the most part, however, the winter fly-angler will concentrate on subsurface presentations. The use of nymphs and wet flies is more productive over the long haul. Carry some dry flies for those days or parts of days when the fish start to work the surface, but realize that you'll probably do most of your fishing with sinking flies.
On small streams and modest-sized lakes, a full floating line is all you will need even for presenting a nymph to trout holding in the depths of the larger pools. A weighted nymph or wet fly gets down pretty fast and can be fished as deep as you need on small waters. It matters little if you add internal weight to your nymph patterns as you tie them, either, with lead wire or a beadhead design, or add the weight externally.
Generations of fly-anglers have used small split shot on the leader to get the fly down among the rocks and bottom gravels to reach fish. What you need to look for are the tiny shot that are perfectly round and don't have the little lips projecting out like bait-fishing shot. Those lips allow you to open and reuse shot, but they also hang up on every little obstruction on the bottom.
With the lipless shot, you'll need to crimp the shot on the leader with hemostats or a small pair of pliers. Where you place the shot is up to you and is dictated by conditions. In ponds or small streams that flow gently, I like to position the shot at the knot between the leader end and the start of the tippet. This allows the nymph a more natural action. There are times, however, when placing the shot at the head of the fly makes sense. In fishing rough pocket water where you need to get the fly down quickly in a small area, the closer the weight to the fly, the faster it reaches the trout. Of course, this need is matched very well by using a bead-head fly.
Fishing a "cast" of weighted nymphs or wet flies is another excellent way to get the flies down toward the bottom. Two or three flies - one tied at the point of the tippet, and the others on short droppers - can sink quite well, and you have the added advantage of being able to present different colors, sizes or designs all at once. Be sure and check regulations before using multiple-fly rigs.
GETTING DOWN On larger rivers and in deeper lakes, however, sinking flies only happen with sinking lines. A decade ago, experts recommended sink-tip lines as the solution for fishing the depths, but the reality of sink tips is that while they can get the fly down, even the best of them has an awkward "hinge" where the sinking portion joins the floating line. There are also modular lines created of short sections of sinking line that can be tailored to give a sink-tip approach or a sink-belly design depending on the need. These are better than the older sink-tip designs, but suffer oddities during casting.
One of the quick ways other than adding lead shot to the leader or weight to the fly is to create a mini lead head. This is a short section of leadcore line with loops in each end that can be inserted between the line tip and the leader; this sinks the tip of a floating line quickly. Couple that with a short leader, and it will take a fly to the bottom quickly; also, it can be removed easily for other conditions. The only requirement is that you use a looped connection at the end of the line and on the leader butt.
Of more use are the nice full-sinking lines of intermediate sink rates. The extremely fast sinking lines are not generally used in streams, but a predictable sinking line of Type
I or II is a good line to start with. Type III or IV might be needed on larger lakes and really deep river sections.
Rod selection is also up to the angler. The author tends to like short fly rods for dry-fly fishing on small streams, mostly due to the difficulties imposed by brush and overhanging willows and such, but for fishing a weighted nymph or a cast of wet flies, a longer rod gives excellent control over the fly both in and out of the water.
If you want to go fishing in winter gales and snowstorms, then a 7-weight is not too much rod. For most of us, a 6-weight or even a 5-weight is more than enough rod if it is coupled to a rod length of 9 feet or more. This extra length translates into efficient casting on still waters, and is good for "high-sticking" a nymph or wet fly on streams.
PICKING A FLY The kinds of nymphs and wet flies you fish are not always as important as how you fish them. Many aquatic species are dormant in very cold water, so a bit of rock-rolling to investigate what's living in the water you're fishing at the moment is a good idea.
Nymphs that resemble a number of different kinds of insect larvae and nymphs are probably the most practical. Such old standbys as the Muskrat Nymph and the Hare's Ear are well worth carrying, as are imitations of large stoneflies and dragonfly nymphs. Flies that have served the author well include the Woolly Worm and its cousin the Woolly Bugger, and the Bitch Creek Nymph. These resemble a variety of aquatic critters. You could probably make up a list of your own to match your waters quickly.
The other classes of sinking flies of use to the winter angler are baitfish imitations. Small streamers and bucktails that mimic small fish are excellent winter flies, especially when the water is roiled or discolored with runoff. They also work when water temperatures are too cold for insect activity. We've already discussed such wet fly/streamer patterns as the Woolly Worm and Woolly Bugger, but there are some prime baitfish imitations that you should carry.
Small imitations of trout are often the best such streamer flies. It's the reason that patterns like Lew Oatman's Brook Trout or the similar Little Rainbow Trout and Little Brown Trout developed by Samuel Slaymaker are favorites. Big trout are known cannibals. They don't worry at all abut eating one of their own, and a small trout-like streamer drifted through the deeper pools on a winter stream can result in some shocking strikes and often a true trophy trout in the net.
Sculpin patterns are also a fine streamer fly design for winter fishing. These small, flat-headed little fish spend their time hiding among the bottom rubble, and when a trout notices one, it often becomes a quick meal. There are a number of fine sculpin patterns available; just remember that they need to be fished on the bottom to be effective.
Actually, trout in true winter conditions may not feed very aggressively, but they do need to eat when the opportunity presents itself, and a fat minnow or smaller trout is of more interest than any number of insect larvae or nymphs. Almost any small streamer will work, provided it has life-like action and isn't too far off of the color of local baitfish.
PRESENTATION Tactically, streamer fishing is opposite of the approach used for dry flies and nymphs. While most dry-fly fishing is accomplished by casting upstream, getting a dead drift, and up and across is a proven way to present a nymph; streamers are often fished down and across stream. This allows the angler to manipulate the fly to give it a swimming motion. When casting across - or even slightly upstream, the streamer fly at first has a slow tumbling action like a wounded or dead fish drifting with the current, but as the line tightens on the swing below the angler's position, the fly suddenly comes "alive" and starts looking like it is swimming against the current.
This is often the point at which a savage strike comes as the streamer disappears in the maw of a big, hook-jawed brown or large rainbow trout. Streamer fishing in the winter often produces the largest trout you'll see all year.
On still waters, winter streamer fishing can be even more productive, especially in those last weeks of winter when ice starts retreating from higher altitude lakes. Some enthusiasts of trophy brown trout will snowmobile for miles to reach waters where roads are still closed. On one California lake the resort operator books a helicopter to fly anglers into his lake weeks before the snows retreat enough to allow motorists to reach it. Some of the biggest brown trout of the season are caught right after ice-out on this lake.
Just slow-trolling a streamer on a sinking line is enough to catch big trout in the winter. While some hardy anglers do this from a float tube, a small boat is preferred. Old-timers used to fish with lines handmade from lead-core line, but these days, quick-sinking lines offered by manufacturers work nearly as well at getting the fly down. Don't forget that in those days between winter and spring that big trout are often found in quite shallow water, hunting bait along the shoreline. It's not impossible for the wading angler to score on a true trophy fish in just a few feet of water.
On those bluebird days when the sun warms the water early, you may see hatching insects and be able to cast a dry fly at rising trout, even in the middle of winter. The most common you'll find are midge hatches. Including a few midge patterns in tiny hook sizes is a good idea, although you might also wish to include some larger midges. For every dozen times you find winter trout eating size 20 midges, you will experience that one day when the hatching midges are size 16 or larger. Be prepared.
Caddis hatch at sporadic times during the winter months on many waters, so it makes sense to carry a few Elk Hair Caddis, or something close to it. Mayfly patterns are not often used, although I've seen strong blue-winged olive hatches in streams lined with snow.
Frankly, the situation for imitating specific insects is much like streamer fly-fishing, in that you needn't try to get it exactly right. General-purpose flies that mimic life but not a specific fly usually will work just fine.
For the rest of this winter, don't just sit around and chafe at the bit: Get out there and fish. You'll have much of the water to yourself, and you could easily catch the largest trout of your fly-fishing life.
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