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