The wind is swirling, the eyes on your rod are freezing, the feeling in your hands and feet has been gone for the last hour, and the ice is threatening to break you off on every fish you catch. These are just some of joys of fishing in the winter. Many people pack it in and hang up the rod for the year, waiting for the warmer months and opting to tie flies, prepare for the spring, or just take some time off to avoid the cold. However, although less than at other times of the year, trout still continue to feed in the winter, and taking the right approach and using the right patterns can yield some amazing results. I have caught some of my best and most-memorable fish during the coldest months of the year. For those who are willing to brave the conditions, there are a lot of great opportunities to catch some good trout.
Fishing in the winter requires a much different approach from the spring, summer, and even the early fall. The lack of cover in the winter, especially from the loss of greenery and overhanging branches, makes the trout feel vulnerable and causes them to change where they hold in the streams and rivers to avoid their many predators. The runs that held fish all summer and fall will no longer provide a viable habitat for the same trout in the winter. Not only do these runs not provide enough cover from predators, the caloric expenditure required to sit in faster currents cannot be met with the lack of significant hatches and insect-life. You’ll find most of the trout in the bigger, deeper pools that have enough current to bring the bugs along to the feeding trout, especially holes that have logjams because they provide abundant during a time when not much is to be found. Because there is less bug activity in the winter, the flies and the approach you take also needs to change. The main patterns that we throw in the winter include midges, blue-wing olives (baetis), small black winter stone flies (mainly as nymphs), big golden stone flies, worms, eggs, pheasant tails, and hare’s ears.
The winter often brings a prominent decrease in bug activity and trout are required to adapt to these conditions. Big pools with slower currents offer more cover from aerial predators as well as refuge from the stronger currents that their limited winter diet cannot allow them to withstand. Therefore, we are mainly fishing under indicators on deeper rigs and light tippet, although there are certain days that will offer decent blue-wing olive and midge hatches. Typically, the water clarity is much more pronounced in the winter, and this can work against the angler. To combat this, we usually throw 5.5-7x tippet in fluorocarbon. This makes the tippet less visible and also is suppler than heavier tippet to use with the smaller, light flies that will allow them to get deeper much faster than with heavier tippet. Our rigs generally start with a 9 foot, 5 or 6x leader on floating fly line. We generally add a piece of fluorocarbon tippet in 5.5x and smaller before adding our first fly. We tend to fish a heavier tungsten bead fly like a pheasant tail, black stone fly, or hare’s ear, above a zebra midge, stream-bottom nymph, WD40, or rainbow warrior.
Having confidence in your flies is easy in the winter. Typically trout are eating midges, (which consist of 50% of a trout’s diet and even more so in the winter) stoneflies (little winter black stones, pat’s stoneflies, and big golden stones) and small mayflies in the baetidae family (pheasant tails, stream-bottom nymphs, panty droppers, soft-hackles, and micro mayfly nymphs). In the winter, the cold makes it increasingly difficult to tie knots and the diet is more limited than in the summer. With that being said, change the depth of your rig and the weight on the rig before arriving at the decision to tie on a different fly. I will move my indicator before adding weight because it’s easier to do. If that does not do the trick, I will add weights in increments until I have the fish dialed in. This can require some patience, but when you figure out the proper depth and weight in a big pool, you can have some good days of winter fishing. Come swing by the shop and we’ll get you set up with everything you need for a good day on the water. Also, if you need any gifts for the angler in your life then come by and we will be glad to help you find anything to make this a great holiday.
-Jeff Bowers, Guide at Watauga River Fly Shop
Ok, guys and girls. It's that time of year again when local anglers are trying to catch those elusive big browns. You've seen all of the hero shots of big 'ol browns and you probably want a piece of the action as well. Hell, we all do! Do you know why these fish are being caught this time of year? Well, I'll try to help to explain why these fish are all of a sudden catchable and the do's and don'ts during this time of year.
First off, brown trout spawn during the Fall. Once the weather starts to cool off in October, these fish are instinctively programmed to run upstream. This run means the trout need to be in great shape to be prepared to spawn. This makes brown trout hungrier and more aggressive during the Fall. On streams, browns will come out of the deep holes they were hiding in all year and head towards shallower water. This is also true on the tailwaters of the Watauga and South Holston. These fish will emerge from the lakes or from the lower deep holes and head upstream. They are looking for gravel beds with small, pea sized gravel that has the proper amount of sunlight, has the right amount of oxygen and is at the right temperature. Small sized gravel is best, so the female can clean the gravel by fanning her tail and create a crease on the surface to lay her eggs. This cleaned out area of the streambed is called a redd. (Bass fishermen will call them beds, but you will usually hear them referred to as redds when it comes to trout.) So, once the female has laid her eggs, the male comes by and fertilizes the eggs almost simultaneously. Next the female will cover the eggs with the cleaned gravel. This helps to protect the eggs while also allowing for the proper amount of oxygenated water. Once, the eggs are laid, fertilized and covered, the female will generally leave the redd. The male will then stick around and protect the redd for a period of time.
So, what's all of this mean to me? It sounds like a great time to be fishing? Yes, it is a great time to be fishing. Big browns have come out from the depths and are now visible, aggressive and hungry. Well, the spawn puts these fish in a very stressful situation. They are in the open, shallower water and they are trying to reproduce. All of the other predators (fish and insects) in the stream are eagerly awaiting to feast on these tasty brown trout eggs and the reproducing browns are feverishly trying to protect their eggs from all of these predators. If these eggs are actually able to be fertilized and have the proper environment to flourish, the small fish (fry) they produce are easy prey for other fish. There may be thousands of eggs on each redd, but the odds of these eggs turning into adult fish are very slim. Now here come the anglers trying to pluck them off of their redds.
This can be a delicate subject for many anglers, but you don't have to stop fishing. One thing to particularly look out for are the cleaned out areas on the streambed, or redds (see pic below). Please try to avoid damaging these areas. Go around them and leave them be. If you are dead set on fishing for that big fish that is planted on the redd, at least try not to damage the redd and be particularly careful with these fish. If it is a female, she may still have eggs in her so grab her with one hand on the tail and the other cradling her under the pectoral fins. Try to keep them in the water as much as possible and if you really need that hero shot, do it quickly. Spawning fish will need to eat, so these fish can be particularly easy to catch since they are usually visible and they will stay put on that redd at all costs. Leaving the redd, leaves the eggs susceptible to other predators and a fisherman wading through a redd can damage thousands of eggs.
You can still fish all of the same rivers without specifically targeting a reproducing fish. Plenty of big fish are moving around the river and not sitting on a redd. It's not illegal to target spawning fish and most of your friends will 'like' your Instagram post of that big brown. It's your decision to fish it or not. Just be informed of the consequences.