Winter is my favorite time of year to fly fish. Spring is incredible – cutthroat runs are a beauty to watch – and the big terrestrial hatches of summer mean I can fish the same size 4 Chernobyl ant patterns for about a month straight. Fall is big brown and brook trout time – and splake, tiger muskie, and tiger trout, if you know where to look. Then winter hits and everything seems to die.
It’s not, though. The fish are still there. They’re just in a different place. It’s like when you bump into your high school sweetheart at the grocery store. You’re in a pair of waders, dirty fishing shirt, scratched sunglasses, and smell just like the river. In other words, you’re living the dream. She has four kids in tow, two of which are twins, and is happy being a mother among her many other jobs. You’re both in distinctly different situations but you’re still living life at the same pace.
That’s exactly how trout behave in winter. They’re in the river – they’re just living at a different pace when five feet of snow and ice are the riverbanks instead of willows and cheatgrass.
And it’s an incredible time of year to fish. After three or four years of focusing on winter fly fishing in particular, I’ve found three guidelines which define my time on the river. You may have different ones – or better yet, you’ll find them when fishing on your own – but to the uninitiated winter fly flingers these are great jumping-off points.
Learn how to find the fish
The biggest difference in the winter from any other season is where fish are located in a river. What really throws a wrench in this, though, is that location changes drastically based on temperature. Fish can be locked on the bottom, motionless for hours. Then if the temp creeps up just a few degrees and the baetis start hatching, the fish rise from the bottom to eat from the surface film.
Generally speaking, though, trout find the areas of a river where they can relax, pop a can of Cutthroat Pale Ale (that has to be the beverage of choice for trout, right?), and expend as little energy as possible while still being in position to eat food as it drifts by.
As you can see in this photo, the angler is shooting for throwing the rig into that dark seam just between the fast water of the main current and the slack holding water of the eddy. There will definitely be fish in the eddy – there always is, after all – but how does food get into that eddy?
By traveling along that seam, going back upstream, and drifting slowly in the eddy. Along the way, a few fish may park themselves on the seam and eat as well, though seams tend to be less productive than an eddy or a nice stretch of slack water.
Now consider this stretch of river:
It’s a long, innocuous riffle on the Lower Provo, but that’s a healthy-sized rainbow. The key here is that while longer riffles aren’t the greatest places to find trout in the winter, they still present a bit of key habitat – slow moving water.
As noted by Lance Egan, Devin Olsen, and Gilbert Rowley in their film “Modern Nymphing” (a must-watch for any angler) water runs at a slower speed near the bottom of a river than at the top. So when you have an exceptionally long riffle, like the one pictured above, you’re looking at a long stretch of slow-moving water. The trick is getting down to the fish with the right fly.
Obviously it’s easier to fish riffles like this in a tailwater than a spring creek during winter, but regardless of what type of stream you’re on these rules apply.
I’m a dry-fly nut. I own a ridiculous amount of antique graphite and bamboo rods because what they bring to the table in terms of dry fly presentation is unmatched – especially for winter hatches.
Typically there’s a generalized “midge” hatch on most tailwaters during the warmest part of the day. These midges can be any tiny fly, but are usually small baetis. Parachute midges from a size 22 – 26 are a stellar choice, as are spent-wing BWO patterns tied with quill bodies and sparse tails.
Fishing a hatch in winter – unless you’re lucky enough to hit a 35+ degree day with full-fledged size 18 BWOs popping – depends a ton on fly selection, but I’d argue that presentation is more important in the winter than any other season.
Trout won’t move from their feeding lane for a fly in the winter. They’ll chase one from ten feet away any other time of the year, but the most movement I’ve seen a trout make on a dry in winter was a few weeks ago on the Lower Provo River. I was fishing a tandem dun – midge rig, with a Sulphur yellow quill dry fly followed by a size 24 parachute midge. The brown turned and moved about six inches to take the quill.
Aside from that one instance, you have to get the fly in front of the trout. A long leader – 12 ft at least – with 7x tippet is your best bet for smacking trout on dries when there’s ice in your guides.
Now this last part is just as important to catching fish as the previous two. If you’re not comfortable on the water, you’re going to mess up something. Whether you miss a hookset, don’t feel the take through your numb hands, or icy line slides through your fingers while a fish peels off a screaming downstream run, the cold wreaks havoc on winter fly fishing.
First, get a great pair of gloves. The half-finger foldover mittens are easily the best design for fly fishing. Your fingers are left free but your hands stay warm. I recently started fishing the Simms Exstream half-finger foldover mittens and my hands have never been warmer.
Next, make sure you layer correctly. This means no cotton. Moisture wicking long johns, a wool, silk, or polyester undershirt, with a pair of sweats, wool socks, and then a heavier over shirt (slightly thicker breathable layer) with a down jacket will be more than enough to keep you warm.
Winter fly fishing is a tricky business, and it sure as hell isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you want to spend time on the river instead of behind the tying bench, try following these guidelines next time you go out. You’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy yourself.
Spencer is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and sports writer from Utah. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.