Fly fishing in the winter can be challenging but, also, highly rewarding. Most people do not venture outside their homes so winter fly fishing keeps the crowds away, and often times you’ll have the water all to yourself.
Generally speaking, trout are a smidge sluggish in the winter as they become less active in, literally, wader freezing temperatures. We don’t recommend that you fly fish in the winter because it only adds further stress to fish that have not recovered from the summer.
But, if you were to fly fish during the winter, here are our top 15 winter trout flies:
When growing up, trout are always reminded by their cannibalistic parents to “eat your midges because they will make you big and strong.” Midges are, basically, the most important source of food for trout. In fact, midges are the bulk of a trout’s diet November thru February. Midges are a major food source year-round for trout.
They hatch in freezing temperatures and hatch by the thousands. Basically cockroaches. When aquatic insects are less inactive in the winter, opportunistic trout key in on drifting midge larvae. Because midges mature and develop year-round, trout depend on them for easy pick’ins.
Here are just a few of our favorite midge flies we recommend fly fishing for trout in the winter.
Typically, you’ll find swarms of these guys over slack water. Be sure to use a light tippet and target the slow-moving water following a pool.
One of the most successful searching fly patterns for trout, the Tungsten Rainbow Warrior Midge fly pattern combines a tungsten bead with a bit of flash to produce spectacular results.
Zebra Midge flies have been around for decades and for good reason — they catch fish. We love incorporating the Zebra Midge within our nymphing rigs as the first nymph followed by a heavier tungsten beaded fly. Midge larva can be found in nearly every level of the water column at all times so we make sure to keep a good variety of this pattern in our boxes. Across the board, it is a reliable trout fly in streams, rivers, and stillwater.
This light-weight midge larva pattern is another wet fly we recommend for our nymphing rigs. While you can fish this fly near the bottom with great success, it is best fished near the surface in slack water. On some days, you may be able to visibility see trout feeding close to the surface and sipping adult midges on the top. A great tactic would be to drop the Thin Blue Midge off the back of a dry fly pattern and cast to trout feeding both off the top and just below the surface.
Use A Two-Fly Nymph Rig
The Two-Fly Nymph Rig is an important technique that not only helps present subsurface flies better but also improves your chances. Well, sure, with an extra fly in the water you have a higher probability of catching a trout, but let’s not make this into a numbers game. Trout don’t know numbers. It comes down to the presentation of each individual fly. Trout will only move a few inches to eat an insect so you have to make sure that your fly is presented within those few inches.
With the Two-Fly Nymph Rig, both flies work together to get down into those narrow feeding lanes. The heavier larva/nymph pattern pulling the lighter emerger/pupa down.
October thru December, brown and brook trout spawn. During this time, opportunistic trout will lie downstream of the reproductive activity for drifting egg clusters. CAUTION: Please do not target trout on a redd. Redd is the spawning bed and is characterized by turned over gravel (usually bright). Please leave these trout alone so we can expect future generations as they are making more trout.
Great Searching Patterns:
This fly is extremely effective during the spawning season in heavily stocked streams. Fish this fly downstream of the spawning area to awaiting trout. Although, during an abundant midge or baetis hatch, these will often be ignored.
The two-toned body with a thin outer “shell” will blend together perfectly in the water to make a realistic offering that trout will find irresistible.
Baetis (Blue Winged Olive)
Baetis (BWO) nymphs are one of the most common nymphs across the United States. During the winter months, you may find BWO’s hatching during a few days of warmer temperatures.
Foam emergers are great for selective trout, which is great for the winter because most of the activity is found in slower, slack water. These look great with the tapered segmented body and have an amazing profile from nearly every angle. Foam para emergers also sit low in the surface-film, just like the naturals. We love using these blue-winged olive flies in the winter in particularly small sizes and often adding more than one dry fly — a multi-dry fly rig.
This barbless euro nymph is scattered across our entire site and recommended everywhere, and that is for good reason. It catches fish. In this particular case, the olive variation in small sizes is a fantastic blue-winged olive nymph pattern. You can use this however you like but, for us, we like to fish this under a small indicator with smaller midge nymphs tied in above it.
This is a variation of the classic Hare’s Ear nymph pattern you commonly know. Tied as a soft hackle, the Partridge Hare’s Ear fly pulsates and moves just like how emerging nymphs wiggle and squirm on their way up to the surface. On the other hand, you can also add a non-beaded version of the Hare’s Ear Soft Hackle into the top of your nymphing rigs or off the back of a dry fly.
WD40 flies are fantastic un-weighted patterns that we fish anywhere in our nymphing rig. You can add it to the top, off a dry fly, or trailing off a heavier nymph, but as long as you have it in the water it works wonders.
Aquatic worms are totally natural and are a select part of a trout’s diet. They are found in sediment on the stream bed and are constant year-round. We prefer the Squirmy Wormy over the San Juan Worm because its flexible body provides more motion. They may not be as durable, but when winter fly fishing gets tough, you call in the big guns. When scouting for trout we use flashy patterns like this to see if fish respond. Once trout become more selective, we switch to more natural-looking patterns like the Pheasant Tail.
Squirmy Wormy flies are great — they wiggle and squirm like no other worm fly and catch fish like crazy — but the durability of the material they are made from is their downfall. They will degrade even when taking good care of them or even leaving them in mild heat. Trust me, we’ve recycled hundreds of dozens of these patterns before they ever hit the shelves. After speaking with a few fly designers on material options, we’ve made squirmy wormy flies that last longer by using micro chenille on the body rather than the soft plastic worm material.
A heavy worm pattern we like to use in deep water for big browns and rainbows. The added flash and sparkle creates a wonderful contrast that sparks interest. Sometimes all it takes is a bright fly.
Scuds & Sow Bugs
Trout can be found eating scuds and sow bugs year-round. In streams with plentiful underwater vegetation these shrimp’y thingies usually take up most of the food pyramid (sorry carbohydrates). During winter months, trout heavily depend on scuds to make it through the winter. We tend to find that the most natural colors perform better in the winter: olives, browns, blacks, grays.
There are so many scud patterns out there to choose from but this simple design is incredibly effective. It features a streak of flash on the back and copper ribbing for added durability. The presentation of this scud pattern is enough to fool hardy winter trout holding deep. Just get this fly down rolling near the bottom.
Streamers & Baitfish
Trout are known not to chase during the winter. They try to exert as little energy as possible and still get what they need. That being said, you should refrain from stripping and, instead, dead-drift or swing your fly. Think like a baitfish, be the baitfish. Give slight twitches to the line so that it adds a little movement to your streamer. Most trout will not pass up streamers either due to hunger or territorial instincts if presented correctly. Tip: Cast above the pool and allow your line to swing down and across so it looks like your fly is trying to evade being lunch. Following the swing, let your line straighten out and troll your fly for a bit; this pause in motion will give impulsive trout a chance to take the fly.
Out of all the streamers available on the market, it is hard to beat the classic Bead-head Woolly Bugger. Typically, we like to fish a darker woolly bugger in black or olive in a smaller size by striping and swinging it through deep pools we know trout hold.
This super buggy jig pattern not only has the pulsating movement from the marabou tail but also the wiggling tags of rubber legs. Masterfully designed, the combinations that make up the Tungsten Jig Bugger makes this one of our favorite winter patterns and flies for our euro nymphing rigs. You can swing, strip, or dead-drift it anywhere.
Winter Fly Fishing & Strategies
- Target a specific fish out of a pod rather than fishing blind
- Concentrate your fishing to deep, slow pools
- Focus on fishing from around 10:00 am to about 3:00 pm. This is when trout become most active during the day.
- Best fishing occurs when water temperatures are around 40 degrees Fahrenheit
- Don’t be afraid to switch patterns frequently
- Dead-drift streamers as baitfish are more inactive