Nymphing For Winter Trout
October 04, 2010
When cold weather slows the action, the angler should mimic the pace of life. Slow, deep and deliberate nymphing will catch trout in the dead of winter.
Angler Jay Bennet with a fine example of a reservoir rainbow taken with nymphing techniques during the winter months. When surface temperatures drop low on lakes, the trout will school in the deepest spots they can find that hold sufficient oxygen. It's the angler's job to put a nymph right on their nose.
Photo courtesy of Keith Kern.
Metabolism: It's a fancy word for the engine that drives life. Fish are cold-blooded creatures and must follow fluctuations in temperature. When waters warm in the spring, trout become much more active. And so too, do the insects they feed on.
Spring, summer, and fall all have their differences, but there are active insects and equally active trout hunting them. When winter comes, trout don't hibernate, but do decrease their feeding. And there's usually very little insect activity on or near the surface for the fly angler to key on.
But the immature or larval forms of aquatic insects remain pretty active right through the winter. Imitating those bottom-dwelling creatures can help you catch trout, even when there's snow on the bank and water temperatures hover near freezing.
You may not find many hatches of winged insects in mid-winter, but you can still catch trout on the same basic nymph patterns that worked in other months of the year. You simply adopt different presentations and strategies.
Probably the most certain thing in winter nymphing is that the angler needs to slow down and be more methodical in covering the water. When trout -- or any fish for that matter -- are in very cold water, their responses slow down. They don't need to feed as often, so they won't go out of their way to chase food. You have to get your fly right under their noses.
Bass anglers refer to this as a small "strike zone." In warmer water, fish might move several feet to get some tasty tidbit, but in the middle of the winter, they may not move 6 inches to take the same food item.
Anglers casting wet flies or nymphs in such conditions need to slow down and work the water more carefully. There are times when a good-sized trout may take your offering on the first cast. Then again, sometimes it takes more than half a dozen casts to the same location to tempt a lethargic fish to snap at a fly.
In addition to the speed with which you fish, a change in fly sizes may well be in order. Fly-fishing guide Keith Kern owns K-Flies Guide Service. He fishes and guides on Big Bear Lake, a 3,000-acre lake in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. At 6,700 feet, Big Bear gets cold weather and frequent winter snows, and ices over for short periods. Keith fishes it right through the winter. He ventures out in a float tube or kick boat when weather and ice conditions permit. His hard-earned experiences can help anglers on any winter lake on the West Coast.
"On Big Bear, we mostly fish small midges in dark colors in the winter. The lake will freeze over at times, but if we get a few days of warm weather, it will thaw and we can get our tubes in the water and fish," Kern said. "We fish very light leaders because the water is so clear."
In the middle of winter, there's very little insect activity in Big Bear Lake except for midges and daphnia, tiny crustaceans too small to imitate. There are also minnows and small baitfish to consider, but fishing nymphs slowly over the bottom is probably the overall best technique.
"Big Bear does allow the use of some larger flies like a bead-head Wooly Bugger in small sizes," Kern said. "These mostly imitate baitfish, rather than insects. Again, darker colors -- mostly black. Occasionally, olive or dark brown.
"I will fish sections of the lake that I know from experience hold most of the trout. You also have to cover lots of water to find those spots where the fish are stacked up."
Big Bear is not a deep lake, and trout exhibit seasonal movements depending on water temperature and oxygen levels. When surface temps get really low, the trout will school in the deepest spots they can find that have sufficient oxygen. Even a shallow depression in the bottom will often hold a large number of trout. If you can find these, you should be able to catch them in most other Western lakes and reservoirs that don't have extreme depth.
Kern also suggested another bottom feature that often gets overlooked.
"Natural springs that flow under the surface of the lake are a good bet any time of year," Kern noted.
"In the winter, they are often slightly warmer than the surrounding waters. And in the summer, they are always cooler. The water there is always well oxygenated. These are major trout attractors."
Rivers in winter are always well oxygenated, so that isn't a problem. Here temperature plays a bigger role, and the fly anglers venturing onto a cold January river need to be thorough with their presentation, working all the water that could potentially hold trout. Kern River Troutfitters Fly Shop owner and guide Guy Jeans of Kernville, Calif., fishes extensively on the Kern River drainage from the Golden Trout Wilderness all the way down to Bakersfield.
The Kern is a big river and is split in two by massive Lake Isabella. Much of the fishing in spring and summer takes place above Isabella. But in winter, the best trout angling is often on the lower Kern.
"In the winter, we fish below Lake Isabella. The flows are better than above the lake, and it's somewhat warmer," Jeans said. "We fish a lot with a three-nymph rig called the Czech Rig that was developed in the Czech Republic. It uses a leader about the same length as your rod, usually around 9 feet. Then you have a triple Surgeon's Knot with a short dropper, then go down about 18 inches for the second fly, and add a third nymph on the bottom.
"Typically the Czech rig is used with weighted flies, but I often use a few tiny split shot between the bottom fly and the middle to get the flies down in the current.
"I tried out for the United States Fly-Fishing trials and saw it there. It increases your strike rates by 50 percent. I will put on the Kern Emerger, basically a Hare's Ear with different colored wing cases on it, and often use three different colors of the Emerger. Sizes can vary tremendously, anywhere from a size 8 to size 18. I vary the weights and sizes to get what the fish want."
Now three-fly rigs, known
as a "cast" of flies, are nothing new. For decades, some expert trout anglers have been fishing such setups, either with nymphs or wet flies of various kinds. These somewhat clumsy-looking rigs can be a killer when conditions are right.
The nice thing about such three-fly setups is that they let you cover three depths of water at the same time, and offer the trout more than one color or size to think about. What makes the Czech Rig different is not the construction of the leader, but the manner of presentation.
"When you are casting this rig, you use only about a yard of fly line out past the tip-top of the rod," Jeans said. "You cast this rig upstream and bring it down just slightly faster than the current. You don't want a drag-free drift for this presentation.
"It does two things. One is, it keeps the bottom fly up just off the bottom, so you don't get so many hang-ups. And it seems to provoke a strike response in the trout. It goes against everything we are taught about dead-drift presentations."
The other thing that Jeans emphasized is that with only a yard of line out, you aren't high-sticking the rod and you have the tip close to the water.
"It's very subtle. Right at the end of the sweep, you give the flies a twitch to see if it will get a following trout to strike. Then you just water-load the rod and flip the flies back upstream again. It will fish anywhere from 3 feet down to as much as 6 or 7 feet of depth. You can also put a Wooly Bugger, small streamer, or big wet fly in the bottom, and you can strip the line back at the end of the cast."
One neat thing is that most people don't realize how close the trout may be holding to you. We do use the dead-drift presentation at times, and we may decide to fish Wooly Buggers and streamers in a classic down-and-across presentation.
Anglers interesting in perfecting their winter trout fishing can learn a lot from these two guides. You can contact Keith Kern at K-Flies Guide Service, call him at (909) 585-3804, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His two-CD set of fishing information on Big Bear is currently being sold at Big Bear Sporting Goods and Big Bear Marina, or you can contact him directly at the phone and e-mail listed above.
For those wanting to fish the Kern River, you can reach Guy Jeans at the Kern River Troutfitters shop at 1-866-347-4876. Check out his Web site at www.kernriverflyfishing.com. Log on to the message section, and you'll get quite a bit of information on what is going on at the Kern.