Do Pennsylvania’s Brutal Winters Make Trout Fishing Worth It?Nathaniel Treichler
Fly fishing in the cold winter months is by no means a “walk in the park.” Pennsylvania can be very unrewarding to fly anglers who expect trout fishing to be just as easy as during the spring and summer months.
Sometimes you can go an entire weekend of fly fishing without catching a single trout. Despite all of this, fly fishing PA in the winter is a great way to avoid the crowds and get some quality fishing in. There is also little to no fishing pressure and there is still an abundance of insect activity subsurface.
Table Of Contents
- Can you fish for trout in the winter in Pennsylvania?
- When is the trout season open in PA during the winter?
- Is fishing the same spot best?
- Should I fish flies slow or normal pace?
- What’s the best type of fly to fish?
- What should I do when trout aren’t biting?
- What’s the best way to keep my guides from freezing?
Can you fish for trout in the winter in Pennsylvania?
Yes! Pennsylvania provides some of the finest winter trout fishing you’ll find across the USA. Free-stone streams, tailwaters flowing out of reservoirs, and spring-fed waters populate the countrysides with easy public access points. These streams and rivers promote dense winter hatches of midges and little black stoneflies later on in the season.
Is trout season open in PA?
In short, yes the trout season is open in Pennsylvania. Certain special regulation streams are able to be fished year-round with many being “artificial lures only” aka fly fishing. The long answer is that particular streams are closed during the winter months to recover from the long regular season. It can be a little complicated to break this down so I’ll quote the Fish and Boat Commission directly.
“Waters with this designation [Stocked Trout Waters Open To Year-round Fishing] are considered “stocked trout waters.” From 8 a.m. opening day of trout through Sept. 5, Commonwealth inland size and creel limits apply. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 20, and from Sept. 6 through Dec. 31, “extended season” size and creel limits apply. These waters are open to fishing from February 21 to opening day of trout season; however, no trout may be taken or possessed on these waters during this period.”
Basically, what they are stating here is that certain sections and streams are off-limits to catch-and-keep regulations after a certain date. In other words, if you plan to only catch-and-release then you can pretty much fish from January 1st to December 31st, 2022. But, please triple-check your local stream regulations or streamside postings before dropping a line. If you’re worried about it all, look up special regulation “artificial lures only” sections and start fishing there – these are almost guaranteed to be open the entirety of the winter.
Here are 5 PA winter fly fishing tips.
Don’t stay in one spot. Common wisdom says to stay and fish one spot over and over again until you land a hit. Just because you know trout are there doesn’t mean that they are actively feeding. Certain sections of water will be used as resting grounds while other areas are strictly for feeding. Find those feeding grounds.
Your best chance is to keep moving and cover a large area of water to target trout actively feeding rather than those resting.
See our go-to trout flies for PA’s winter.
Click the button below to explore the 14 flies we use all across Pennsylvania with great success. From barbless nymphs to the classics, we cover exactly what you will need for tackling winter fly fishing here in PA.
Change up your speed.
A lot of our winter articles touch on fishing your flies slow and low during the winter. While this is still effective, fishing your flies just like how you would in the regular season is just as productive. Targeting those seams, pockets, and runs at your normal pace will still be productive.
There will always be trout tucked away in the faster seams and pocket waters that are focused on feeding.
Active trout will still be found in the moderately-fast riffles and seams you’re used to fishing. They have two different areas they spend their time in during the winter months. One for feeding and one for resting. The deepest sections of pools offer the most safety and will be used for resting or hiding from predators. Deep sandy sections like this have little to no food so trout rarely ever feed here. On the other hand, trout will do most of their winter feeding in shallower water above, at the edges, or at the tail-end of the pool in the faster riffles and seams simply because this is where the food is. Target those trout — the ones actively feeding.
Use nymphs first.
Nymphs will absolutely be the most effective way to catch trout in the winter.
Suspending a multi-fly rig below a strike indicator will be a great tactic for trout out-of-reach and in slow-moving pools. For faster flows within reach, tight-line nymphing (euro nymphing) is the method of choice. For more a broad presentation to cover a large area, try swinging wet flies and nymphs down and across while keeping line control.
Rarely does casting a dry fly enter my mind when I study the water. Only a handful of times over the last decade have I been fishing on the water and actually made the effort with a dry fly midge presentation. Then again, my local PA streams aren’t known for hosting a dense midge hatch. There are some rivers in PA that are from reservoir releases that provide optimal conditions for dry fly action.
Switch it up.
When trout aren’t biting, switch it up. Make small adjustments and keep testing. If you’re not already using smaller size #16 to #20 nymphs, start there. Smaller nymphs and larvae will be in a higher abundance than larger, more mature insect broods during the winter months due to the nature of hatching cycles. While using smaller nymphs is recommended, you can still find great success fly fishing the same exact nymphs and sizes you fish during the rest of the season.
Why? Trout don’t have the luxury of being overly selective in eating what’s drifting by. Hatches are sparse compared to the density in the spring so trout will opportunistically feed on whatever they find no matter the size. Granted, larger bodies of water will warrant the use of larger flies as smaller streams can’t always support big populations of these more massive insects.
I’ll often start with a tandem-fly rig with a size #14 and #16. From there I can go smaller all the way down to a size #22 or larger up to a size #10 nymph. This all depends on how much weight I need to fish the run and my personal preferences.
If I spot a rising trout, I’ll take a look at what I discover either floating on the surface or just below the surface. Here in Pennsylvania, it will most likely be a trout rising to adult midges on the surface or taking the larvae just below. A size #16 to #22 Griffith’s Gnat is a great place to start and, from there, you can drop a size #18 to #20 lightweight larva imitation trailing 12-inches below.
Dead-drifting, swinging, or slowing up a retrieve with streamers is a great way to pull large trout out of their holes. I don’t have a specific ‘streamer rod’ or any fancy line. For me, I do just fine on a 4-weight 9-foot fly rod with a floating line and tapered leader. I keep it simple and fish streamers like woolly buggers in a size #8 or smaller – and do quite well. Of course, you go larger, and swing size #4 single hook or articulated streamer. It’s truly up to you.
Use a mono rig to prevent your guides from freezing.
A few years ago I read an article by Domenick Swentosky of Troutbitten located in Central Pennsylvania about using euro-nymphing leaders to reduce ice buildup. Sure enough, it works to a great degree. Domenick stated that no matter what you do here in Pennsylvania, it’s only a matter of time before your guides freeze up. The humidity in PA and on the East Coast makes the ice build-up rapidly. Besides constantly applying oils and de-icing pastes, the only real solution is to use thin mono rigs like euro nymphing leaders.
If you’ve ever watched the beads of water drip off your line, then you’ll note that fly lines are extremely thick and bring too much water back into the guides. On the other hand, mono rigs, as Domenick says, are incredibly thin and shed most of the water it carries. Less water in the guides means less water to freeze. When ice does build up you can dip your guides into the water and watch them melt away. The water is much warmer than the surrounding air so it’s a faster and safer way to remove ice.
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