Trout fishing is a three-season affair for most fly fishermen. By mid-October, trout streams everywhere are void of anglers, save for a few die-hard souls who know that trout do indeed eat a fly when the water dips below 45 degrees. Like all fish, trout are cold-blooded and can survive without eating a single bite for days, even weeks in the winter. That doesn’t mean they won’t grab an easy meal if it’s offered. For those dedicated anglers who understand that, winter fishing can be a great way to spend a day outside.
Slow and Low
Most of the time, winter trout fishing means dead-drifting a nymph under a strike indicator through deep, slow pools and around logjams and undercut banks. Nymphing isn’t quite as glamorous or exciting as drifting dry flies down a swirling stream, but this time of year, it’s the most effective way to catch trout. With a little practice, however, you’ll get the same jolt of adrenaline when you feel the slight tick of a trout taking your nymph.
A variety of attractor patterns will work in many streams, especially those that don’t receive a lot of fishing pressure. Prince nymphs, pheasant tails, bead-head hare’s ears and other common nymphs are good choices, but in some cases, it’s vital to fish with look-alike nymphs. Pressured streams or spring creeks with finicky trout require larvae flies that look like the real things. Check with a local fly shop to see what’s native to the local streams and buy a handful of the right flies for the water. Egg patterns are also good, especially in streams with rainbow trout, which spawn in late winter.
In streams with larger brown or rainbow trout, try something like a crawfish or sculpin pattern. Contrary to popular belief, trout don’t eat only insects in the winter, and a two-inch crawfish can be tempting to any hungry trout. Simply crawl it across the bottom of deeper runs and let it bounce through slower riffles. Trout will pick it up much like a bass inhales a jig.
Winter Trout On Top?
A few sunny days can create an awesome winter hatch on spring creeks and even some freestone streams. It’s not uncommon to see clouds of midges swirling above your favorite trout stream later in the afternoon when the winter sun’s effect is the greatest. The trout will certainly have noticed, and like the insects that stir with the warmth, they too will become more active. On some streams, there might even be a light mayfly or stonefly hatch, and a light hatch can mean trout will be less likely to pass up an artificial bug drifting over their heads.
In some cases, especially on Eastern brook trout streams, wild trout will take a gaudy attractor fly off the surface, even though it looks nothing like a real insect. A Royal Wulff, a parachute Adams or a Stimulator will fool hungry trout all year. Wait until the afternoon to use them and keep an eye out for insect and fish activity. If you see a fish rise, it’s time to start throwing dry flies.
The real key to catching trout in the winter is simply having the mettle to grab your fly rod and waders and head to your favorite stream. Of course, you’ll need plenty of warm clothing, but once you start catching fish, you’ll forget about your numb fingers and toes.