Wading Into Winter: A Guide to Fly Fishing for Cold Weather Trout

Wading Into Winter: A Guide to Fly Fishing for Cold Weather Trout

I’ve been date-less on the last two Valentine’s days. Now, before you go feeling sorry for me, you should know that both years I found lovely dance partners in the form of big, banana-yellow brown trout. A dozen girdlebugs cost a lot less and last a lot longer than a dozen roses anyway, so I always head into Feb. 15 feeling like I put one over on everyone. Fancy restaurants were probably booked solid, but I had world-class trout water all to myself.

Winter is under-appreciated and under-utilized among trout fly fishermen, because, I assume, they’re afraid of being chilly. I grew up in Western Washington—steelhead country—where winter often provides the greatest fishing of the year, so when I moved to Montana it felt right as rain to start fishing as soon as hunting season ended. Over the better part of a decade in the Rockies, I’ve found that wintertime trout are hungry, lie in obvious places and become less wary under reduced fishing pressure.

Why Winter?
If you get your fishing fix for the year during the splashy wet-wading months of summer, by all means, don’t read any further. Enjoy your ski hill or sofa. But if you spend icy nights inventing new fly patterns, dreaming of bonefish and tropical weather or you’re simply itching to get some fresh air, there’s really no reason to wait for May.

Sure, the weather can suck. Fly fishing isn’t going to be super fun in 40 mph sideways sleet. So, don’t go if such forces conspire against you. But if it’s been sunny and 40 degrees for a week, I’d personally rather save the hundred bucks on a lift ticket to self-arrest down crappy, crusty old snow. Thick wool socks, base layer and fleece pants under your waders, coupled with a good jacket, base and mid layer, fingerless gloves and a beanie can make anything feel possible. A lot of my hunting and skiing gear plays double duty.

Fishing will be a simpler affair north of 32 degrees. Below freezing, ice accumulates in rod guides, which hinders casting. But with a positive attitude some de-icing paste (or Chapstick) for the guides, much colder temps can be manageable and productive. The flesh of winter-caught trout is often firmer and cleaner tasting too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Most trout and char spawn in the fall or spring. That means they are often in transition through the winter. My two big V-Day browns were found holding in the small water post-spawn before flushing back out to the main river. Around that same time of year, I often encounter pods of large, bright rainbows starting to move up from a larger river to occupy their own spawning grounds in the coming months.

Which Water?
When you look at a segment of stream in the winter, the trout probably are right where you think they are. That is to say, the biggest, deepest, slowest, most obvious holes tend to make for the best salmonid overwintering habitat. Fish will accumulate in these areas because the easy, consistent current allows them to expend minimal energy in the lean months. Deep water protects them from avian and terrestrial predators, as well as scouring ice floes.

That said, trout don’t hibernate, so they often must travel to feed. Tail-outs and riffles adjacent to deep runs can provide good grocery shopping outside crowded holding water. Make sure to fish all the way through any particular stretch.

Many coastal and southerly areas don’t have to worry about their rivers freezing over, but in the mountainous and northern states it must be a consideration. Tailwaters (streams flowing below dams) typically offer the most consistent, above-freezing water temperatures and thus the most consistent fishing. Spring-fed and geothermically influenced waterways offer similar advantages.

Plenty of freestone streams also sport great cold weather fishing, but geography is important. The more sunlight that reaches the water, the less ice will develop. Western Montana’s Blackfoot River, for example, in its narrow, east-to-west running canyon, ices up quickly with so much shade. The nearby Bitterroot, however, stays open most of the year in a broad, south-to-north valley with lots of southern solar exposure.

What Works?
“Low and slow” is not only a tenet of quality bar-b-que, it’s the mantra of the winter trout angler. The refrain relies on the above observation that trout will sit deep and expend as little energy as possible. In general, that means they prefer presentations they don’t have to burn energy chasing down. Nymphing deep with a good deal of weight and a long leader is often the best approach.

The immature, nymphal forms of many aquatic insects are active year-round, swimming, crawling and digging around the riverbed in preparation for their spring or summer hatches into adulthood. The same stoneflies, mayflies and caddis you’d try to match in the warmer months are in the river right now, creeping around with an extra layer of exoskeleton. Imitate accordingly. Once you find water you like, experiment with pattern, size and color until it starts to click. Sometimes a tiny, red #20 Zebra Midge is the hot ticket for me, but other times the fish are more inclined toward a larger serving size and a leggy, #8 Pat’s Stone really turns them on.

The conventional wisdom of “low and slow” is good advice, but certainly not without its caveats. Every time I’ve fly fished since moving to Bozeman in December, at some point I’ve seen good sized trout rising to hatching midges. Those feeding windows may not last long enough to hastily rig up the necessary dry fly leader and nearly microscopic presentation, but it certainly is possible to target trout on top.

Likewise, streamers can also be surprisingly productive in the winter. Mature trout, especially browns and bulls, often become piscivorous (mostly eating other fish). All year, they’re looking for that one big meal every day or so. Put a tantalizing hunk of marabou and rabbit fur in their zone and they might make a bad decision after weeks or months without other anglers educating them.

On a recent trip to the Madison River, I tried probably 15 different nymph patterns to no avail. Just before dusk, I decided to throw a Hail Mary in the form of a fluffy, conehead Wooly Bugger to amuse myself while wading back downstream to the truck. I started getting grabs right away and landed six fish before darkness claimed the river. The air was well below freezing, but something about that fleeing retrieve and big meal really triggered those hungry, wintertime trout.

No one is arguing that summer, with its airy sandals and fluffy, foamy dry flies, should lose its status as most anglers’ favorite season. Winter can be cold and uncomfortable, but the essence of dedication is persistence. Fishing throughout the year will make you a better fisherman and may even give you the shot at your biggest trout ever. I promise, a dreary December or solitary Valentine’s Day will be brightened by a thick, colorful trout tussling on the end of your line.

Feature image via Joe Ferronato. 

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