Bass fishermen have known the secret for years—some of the biggest fish will be taken in the cold months of winter. When I was guiding for smallmouth bass for a living, a group of us guides would regularly float rivers in search of trophy fish during the winter off-season. Not only did we learn how to catch lethargic bass, we learned what kinds of water they preferred when the mercury in the thermometer bottomed out.
When the waters are cold, fish tend to lie in areas where the current is moving slow and not much energy is required to survive. What we learned is that if you can concentrate on areas where there is some current adjacent to still waters the results can be phenomenal. Eddie lines, behind large boulders, or deep cuts against the bank provide the perfect place for fish to live slow and yet watch for that easy meal to present itself.
Knowing that cold fish don’t have to eat everyday because their metabolism is slowed, concentrating on these areas and presenting an easy meal generally leads to the biggest fish of the season. By allowing the lure to ride along the current line between fast moving waters and slow moving waters, gives the bait the most opportunity to entice a fish to strike.
I now use this knowledge to scout trout waters. When the water is really cold, I forget the normal runs and head for the waters that resemble what we learned to concentrated on in the big waters. A trout stream has all the characteristics of a big river only on a miniature scale. There are runs or rapids, shoals or shallows, pools or still waters, and even the same hiding spots depending on the time of year. Warm months mean trout need fast moving water with plenty of oxygen and lots of food. Cold months mean trout need a good place to rest with the possibility of a meal floating past every once in awhile.
I start by watching the water and identifying the current lines. Many times there will be more than one current line in a section of trout water. By following the currents, you can begin to read the water and determine where the food would end up. In other words, if you dropped a leaf on the surface, where would it float to?
Current lines that end in shallow waters or feed into rapids or shoals should be avoided. Current lines that run against deep pools or areas where trout could lie on wait should be concentrated on. Determine the depth of the water and use flies that can be presented naturally. Forget the small flies, tie on a large streamer and weight it enough so that it can suspend in the current in the bottom half of the water column.
By skipping the obvious runs and concentrating on slow waters against current, I can generally find out the quality of trout that live in the stream. I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that a tiny little creek, which would be more so in the summer months, can hold such nice fish. Once you determine the waters hold mature trout, you have the confidence to return to it in the summer months in search for trophies again.
By learning to read currents and choosing flies that suspend in the current lines, winter time fishing can quickly become very productive and not just an excuse to get out of the house.