It’s been bitingly cold and snowier than normal in my corner of the Rockies. We need the snow – drought continues to threaten fly fishing throughout the West – but the weather has made winter fly fishing tougher than usual.
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Now, I’ve fished throughout the winters for as long as I can remember. I enjoy the cold, and the lovely silence of a river covered in fresh snow. Despite what you might think, the catching isn’t half-bad in that setting, either.
But where do you start with winter fly fishing? What do you need to know to be successful when most folks have the common sense to stay home, tie flies, and think about warmer days?
It’s not much different than fishing any other time of year. You need a few tweaks to your standard setup, and you’ll be ready to enjoy the serenity of winter fly fishing.
It starts with layers
Yes, you need the right rig, but the perfect setup won’t do you any good if you’re too cold to fish. Start off by layering correctly for a day on the water, and you’ll surprise yourself with how comfortable you can be.
I won’t lie and say you won’t be cold. Your toes and fingers will likely go numb at some point. That’s just the cost of doing business during winter on a trout stream. With how good the fishing can be at times, I reckon that’s not a bad deal.
You can beat most of the cold, though, with the right layers. I start with a base of merino wool. I’ve used synthetic materials, but I’ve yet to find another product that keeps me as warm, dry, and comfortable as merino wool. You’ll pay a premium for it, but it’ll last for years.
Darn Tough makes the best merino wool socks, and it’s not even close. I’d highly recommend a pair of their Heavyweight Hunting Socks. They’re thick, but not bulky, and help keep your feet plenty warm when the water temps are in the low 30s.
Now, when it comes to choosing base layers, I really love the products from Icebreaker. However, they are a bit pricey, and in full disclosure, it feels weird to recommend underwear to other folks. Any base layer made from merino wool should do the trick, though.
Your next layer needs to be a pair of insulating pants. I prefer the Orvis Underwader Pants, because they’re insanely comfortable, durable, and warm. When Orvis put these pants out a few years ago, I remarked to the product team there in Vermont that I practically live in the Underwader Pants during the winter, and it’s true. These are such warm, comfortable pants you won’t want to wear anything else.
Moving on, you’ll want to grab more merino wool for your torso. Chances are if you’re fishing in the winter, you’ll work up some kind of a sweat. Whether it’s busting through snowdrifts or a long walk to the only open water, if you sweat, you’ll get cold. Unless, of course, you’re wearing merino wool. Again, I recommend the products from Icebreaker here.
Finally, your coat is an important choice, too. I highly recommend the Orvis PRO HD Insulated Hoodie. I recently reviewed this for Hatch Magazine, and I’ve only come to love it more since that review published. It’s wonderfully warm, waterproof, and insulating. In fact, it’s become the only coat I take with me, which is saying something since I live and fish in southwest Wyoming.
Finding the fish
Once you’re properly outfitted so you won’t freeze, the next step in successful winter fly fishing is locating places where trout are likely to hang out. During the summer, trout enjoy fast-flowing, highly-oxygenated water. Riffles and runs are the go-to spots for most anglers during any season other than winter.
When the weather finally turns, though, trout move out of the fast water and into the slow stuff. I recently took some friends on a float down a river here in Wyoming, and with the exception of one rainbow, every trout we caught came from water that was barely moving.
Big, deep pools, or the soft water on the edges of fast current seams, are great areas to target. You also want to look for patches of slow water between fast riffles. Trout pick these places to live during winter because it’s where they can expend the least amount of energy for the most amount of food. With no major insects hatching, trout don’t have a reason to stay in the riffles. Expending that energy for midges just isn’t worth it.
This cutthroat trout came out of the slack water just off the inside edge of those riffles. I drifted nymphs right on the inside edge of those riffles for ten minutes without a bite. So, I made my next drift into the slack water, and almost immediately hooked into this gorgeous trout.
That’s the exact water you want to find – slow, but next to a faster current that’s sure to deliver a steady stream of bugs right to a trout’s mouth.
Presenting the flies
Which brings us right around to the most important part of winter fly fishing – presenting your flies. Presentation is always paramount in fly fishing, but even more so in winter. Fish aren’t going to move a few feet to eat your size 16 Frenchie. They’re certainly not going to move if there’s even the tiniest hint that its drift isn’t natural.
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To combat that, I use long fluorocarbon leaders. I start with 4x and taper down from there. My top fly is usually a foam ant or hopper, and I do that for two reasons: I’ve caught fish on hoppers in January before, and it’s a much more effective strike indicator than a bobber. If you don’t Euro nymph, I’d highly recommend a hopper-dropper setup. Often, trout take a fly so softly during the winter that a bobber just won’t move. Foam bugs provide less surface resistance, meaning they’ll be more sensitive to the slightest bumps during a drift.
Below that foam bug, I like to fish smaller flies. Size 18 zebra midges are my go-to, although a size 16 scud is a great producer, too. The key is getting those flies deep enough that fish don’t hardly have to move to eat them.
For that reason, I tie all my own flies with tungsten beads (and if you’d like some of my flies, send me an email). I often add wraps of lead to the hook shank, too, to help the flies sink quickly. Try to avoid using split shot, since I’ve found is messes with the ability to sense and see when a trout eats your fly.
Lastly, I’ll reiterate what I mentioned earlier – make sure your drifts are perfect. You have very little room for error when fishing during winter.
Land them quickly
Once you’ve found a likely trout hidey-hole, and you’ve presented your flies properly, you’ll hook into something. When you do, crank that drag down and get the fish in quick. Trout slow down a lot during the winter – from their metabolism to their desire to move for food. They’re not as equipped to handle the stress of a long fight as they might be during spring or early summer.
Landing fish quickly is a good practice to observe year-round, but I place special emphasis on it during winter. There’s no point in prolonging the fight.
Winter fly fishing is something I look forward to all year long. I love the solitude, the quiet, and the thrill of catching fish when most folks have the good sense to stay indoors. The wildlife is often a bit more inquisitive, and the shorter days keep you on the water for just the right amount of time. If I couldn’t fish during winter, I’d likely develop a terrible case of cabin fever.
Take these tips, find a local fishery that’s open, and give them a shot. You never know what you’ll catch.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, bamboo rod builder, and fishing guide from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent and a regular columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.
Lots of good advice, I first discovered merino wool when I worked for the railroad. Now that I’m retired I still use it when fishing here in Pa. during the winter.
Thanks, Jim. I bet merino was a revelation on the railroad!