February 21, 2017
By M.D. Johnson
I have a confession to make. I've never really been a fan of February.
Spending, as I did, much of my time north of the Mason-Dixon Line surrounded each winter by the snow and cold that embraces that part of the country during that season, I just couldn't find enough to keep myself occupied. Outdoors, that is. Waterfowl season was over. Deer was over. Turkey season was two very long months away. And well, ice-fishing just didn't do it for me. Sorry, ice-anglers.
Then in 2015, I moved to western Washington state, where I quickly learned, there's always something to do outdoors, regardless of the word in all-caps at the top of the calendar page. In short order, I discovered winter steelhead. And February Canada geese. And clamming. Perhaps most enjoyable of all, however, were the trout. Small streams chock full, it seemed, of rainbows and cutthroats set in some of the beautiful scenery imaginable. Ultralight rigs and tiny Panther Martin spinners. A 4-weight fly rod and an old breath mint tin, modified of course, stocked with a selection of nymphs, midges, and streamers. Occasionally, I'd combine the two, and work a small sculpin pattern behind an equally downsized clear casting bobber. Live bait — mealworms, waxworms, or the tiniest crawdads I could capture — where such presentations were allowed. In short order, my thoughts on "Bad Old February" took a turn for the better.
But my change of attitude regarding February, thanks to this newly forged love affair with trout, revealed something interesting, yet understandably obvious. February trout are quite different from June trout. Or September trout. The reasons behind this change? Water temperature, an often dramatic high-to-low fall, is a huge factor. So, too, is forage, both availability, i.e. quantity, and the type of forage. With the former, trout, like all cold-blooded creatures, slow down biologically; that is, their metabolic rates drop, and they spend more time sedentary than in an active feeding condition. That's not to say they don't feed, but rather that meals are widely spaced due to these newly lowered metabolic requirements. Ice anglers are well acquainted with these conditions; however, such a scenario can, and often does develop in open water during the winter months.
Forage availability and type is another issue winter trouters must deal with. Many of the insects that trout rely on, i.e. grasshoppers, beetles, ants, and others, throughout the summer and fall months have gone underground — or are simply gone due to the extreme temperatures and snow. Aquatic insects such as mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies are still available; however, often only in their water-based forms. Other food sources are determined by the specific water; rather, leeches in some, crayfish in others. Sculpin, assorted minnows, smaller gamefish, scud bugs, and hellgrammites might be on the menu, again depending upon the water. Here, winter trouting mirrors that of other seasons in that matching the hatch, whatever that hatch might be, is typically the key to success.
So, to recap. Winter trout are often slower fish in terms of their overall activity, which includes feeding activity. This assumption, of course, depends largely on geographic location and water temperature. Winter trout are more precise trout; that is, they're not so inclined to make radical changes of location in order to feed, but rather will wait, moreso than during the warmer months, for nourishment to come to them. Casts, then, must be more accurate. And the ability to read the water — a current seam here, a drift line there — becomes more significant. Finally, the food sources themselves may have changed or be in flux. Are, then, winter trout impossible? Angling's Holy Grail? Absolutely not; however, a change of tactics might definitely be in order, and these five strategies just might help unlock the doors.
Leaders, hardware (i.e., lures), and ultralight spinning outfits are certainly on the list when it comes to downsizing for winter trout. Winter often means lower, clearer water conditions — not always, but often — spelling a need for fine 5X or 6X leader material, tiny spinners such as Mepps' 1/18-ounce Aglia Ultra Lite, non-flashy fly patterns and subdued strike indicators. This is a subtle time of year, with many of the fish an angler encounters operating at half- or even quarter-speed out of a sense of biological necessity. Trouters, too, should follow suit.
Dull means just that. Losing the aforementioned flashy lures of summer and fall, and trading them for a selection of midges and nymphs tied in blacks, browns, tans, and greens — and again, all downsized — can make a difference with these slower-moving fish. Dull also applies to the angler himself, and his presentation, both in body to the water being fish and to the target itself. A lime green shirt and blaze orange ball cap will, without question, stand out against a snow-covered stream bank, and while trout, it's been assumed, have a low degree of fashion sense, they will take note of such an ensemble and sulk elsewhere. Camouflage clothing then? Tiger stripes might be an unnecessary stretch; however, it does make sense to tone down one's dress, as well as to make a stealthy approach to pre-cast water. Successful winter trouters, like the best spring bass anglers, take more time studying the water before they ever make that initial cast.
In keeping with this "Slow down" mantra associated with Winter trouting, so, too, is the scientific approach a most worthwhile bit of a advice for the February fisher. It's worth mentioning again, this concept of intently studying the water. From a reasonably concealed or low-profile position, watch the water. It's as simple as that; however, many anglers, year-round, are in such a hurry to get a line in the water, they forget to do what we'll call their pre-cast homework. As in turkey hunting where the very first call — the first sound — a hunter makes is the most important, so, too, is the winter trouter's first cast.
What one casts is likewise important, and similarly can be approached scientifically. Lacking a definitive hatch — say a warmer afternoon that stimulates a modicum of surface activity — it's not wrong to try a black or brown stonefly or stone-esque pattern, either alone or as a tandem rig with a dropper. Midges, too, are an excellent choice. It's thought that midges make up some 50 percent of a trout's year-round diet, with much of this percentage coming in the winter. That's not to say that catching winter trout is as easy as knotting on a No. 24 Olive Emerger and laying it softly atop the surface; it's not. Midges are small, often plentiful, and winter trout, especially large fish, won't move far to snatch them. Therefore, casts — and often multiple albeit subtle casts — must be ultra-accurate and fall within what often is a very narrow feeding lane. Again, patience, persistence, a knack for observation, and pre-cast thought fall into this scientific angling category.
GO LIGHT ON HARDWARE
Year-round, I'm partial to artificial lures versus fly-tackle for the lion's share of my trouting, and none so much as during the winter months. No, February trout, particularly those in cold water, aren't thought of as being aggressive; however, there are times when a slow-rolled spinner, thin spoon, or little lipped crankbait can bring out the beast in even the chilliest rainbow or brookie.
The key, and to admittedly repeat myself here, here is slow. Some days, a lightweight spoon like Mepps' 1/16-ounce Bantam Syclops will be the ticket, often best tumbled downstream on a tight line in an act of realistic sculpin imitation. The Aglia Ultra Lite is another choice, as is one of my favorites, the black-and-yellow Panther Martin Original, also in 1/16-ounce, but sporting a downplayed perfect-for-winter copper blade. Surprising to some, if not many, crankbaits offer an exciting alternative to more traditional trout hardware. Rebel's 1/10-ounce Teeny Wee-Crawfish is outstanding, as is the company's wildly popular 1/8-ounce Super Teeny Wee-R.
Winter trout and patience go hand-in-hand. It's essential one slows down, taking time between each cast, particularly when casting to visible fish. There's no need to hurry now; certainly, the fish aren't in a rush.