Cutthroat Chronicles: How to select the right flies for winter

Winter is a tough time for a lot of fly fishermen; our favorite creeks get frozen over, the fish seem hungover and lifeless from their time spent doing nature’s work in the fall, and the frigid temps can make even the most impetuous trout bums think twice before heading out to the river.

On top of all that, there’s always the question of what the trout are going to be eating that day. Unless the temps climb into the mid-to-upper-30s, there’s not going to be much, if anything, in the way of dry fly action

This is perhaps the toughest part of winter fly fishing – how do you pick the best flies for your angling adventure?

This is where I can lend some of my (admittedly limited) knowledge about fly fishing. Winter is my favorite time of year to fish, and I’ve developed a decently reliable method of figuring out which flies will produce on any given day.

Don’t discount the classic flies

Fly fishing flyChad Shmukler, editor of Hatch Magazine and a buddy of mine, wrote an article about classic flies a while ago entitled, “Classic Flies are Classic for a Reason.” Chad is 100% right – flies like the Royal Wulff are overlooked by anglers because they’ve been around forever.
I was fishing a remote spring creek last year and tied a Royal Wulff on only to hear my fishing partner say, “You know those don’t work, right?

On my second cast, a 15-inch rainbow trout with a thick belly smacked my Wulff and shut my fishing buddy right up.

With that memorable occasion in mind, my best bit of advice is to not overlook classic patterns when you’re headed out to fish in the winter. As Chad said in his article, “I’ll often make it a point to carry these classic and sometimes rarely used patterns, laboring under my own delusion that the fish in the stream I’m stalking never see these flies anymore.”

It may be delusion, but I know for a fact I rarely see fishermen throwing Royal Wulffs, Elk Hair Humpy’s, or even an Irresistible Adams these days.

Go bigger
I was out on the Green River a few weeks ago with my friend Ryan Kelly, general manager of Dutch John-based outfitter Trout Creek Flies and a guide with decades of experience, when he suggested I tie on something bigger than my size 22 Zebra Midge.

Thinking he was nuts, I tied on a size 14 Pheasant Tail. On the second cast, I landed the fish below.

Fly fisher holding a fish
Since then, I’ve tested Ryan’s theory on every single outing, and guess what? He’s right.

Why he’s right isn’t really my place to say – I’m not a biologist or even all that good at fly fishing. But in my mind, it seems like a bigger fly presents a higher-value meal to a trout than a smaller fly, meaning the trout is more likely to move for a size 14 Pheasant Tail than a size 22 Zebra Midge.

I could be way off, and probably am, but this winter I’ve fished bigger flies than usual and have enjoyed more success than last winter.

Know the river

This rule applies to fishing year-round, but it’s especially pertinent in the wintertime. And, when I say “Know the river,” I’m not talking so much about having a Ph.D in that water’s entomology as much as I am knowing what kind of river you’re fishing.
Rivers like the Provo and the Green are tailwaters, with relatively stable water temperatures throughout the year and dependable hatches. As such, they attract the majority of the crowds in the wintertime because these types of rivers are seen as more a of a “sure thing” than freestone stream or spring creeks.

Freestone streams and spring creeks fish differently in the winter than tailwaters. The fish are often smaller than tailwater trout and tend to be spookier than usual thanks to lower flows and clearer water.

A few weeks ago, I fished the Logan and Blacksmith Fork Rivers, two streams that are decidedly not tailwaters, and had to adjust my fly choices accordingly. I actually ended up using smaller, flashier-colored flies than I’d been using for the majority of my fishing on the Green (the river that’s received 90% of my angling time this winter). Purple Zebra Midges, bright green glo-bugs, lightning bugs, and rainbow-dubbed scuds with bright red heads all produced better for me on the Logan and Blacksmith Fork than flies with traditional colors.

Pay attention to trout’s position in the water column

If the trout are sitting on the bottom of the river and not moving an inch, chances are they’re not actively looking for food. A streamer is your best bet in this situation.

But if trout are in the middle-to-upper section of the water column, chances are they’re looking for food. Taking a few minutes to study where the fish are at can help you decide if a dry-dropper rig might work, or a wet fly, or an emerger. You can even fish a nymph like a Zebra Midge with no weight or strike indicator and wait to watch the fish move on your fly. Granted, that’s a technique that takes patience and precision, but it pays off if the fish are spooked by an indicator or even a smaller dry fly that acts as an indicator.

My personal favorite way to fish when I see trout a foot or so below the surface is an Adams followed by a Hare’s Ear, in applicable sizes. During the winter, this technique has produced very steadily for me over the years.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of how to choose the best flies for winter fly fishing, but at the very least, it should give you a jumping-off point to identify a great fly the next time you’re out on the water with no clue what the trout are taking

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Spencer is a fly fishing writer based in Utah. His writing has appeared in Hatch Magazine,’s outdoors section, On The Fly Magazine, The Orvis Fly Fishing Blog, and in the Standard-Examiner. If he’s not on the river, he’s at home tying flies or writing. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram.