Winter can be a hard time to catch trout, as our cold bloody quarry becomes less active and harder to coax into a bite. However, by using the correct patterns you can continue with your passion for fly fishing year-round.
The major guidelines for winter trout fishing include:
- Match the Winter Hatch
- Go Small and Go Slow
- Find The Right Water
- Be Safe
But first, you have to consider your reasons for trout fishing in the winter, and what special challenges and joys come from the pursuit. Initially, you have to come to the realization that winter trout fishing will likely never involve large numbers of fish - the trout simply will not be as active and will not bite as easily. But the joy of winter fishing more than makes up for the difficult challenge. Imagine the complete solitude you will feel when you go to that favorite deep pool that is usually packed with anglers but now is all yours.
You will see unbelievable beautiful sights. The winter cold strips the leaves from trees, opening up wide views of the trout’s wild lair. When it snows, you will see images right out of a postcard - a red cardinal or a blue jay perched on an icy tree branch out in the middle of untouched snow. The ability to get out, exercise, get fresh air, and enjoy nature are always part of trout fishing - and they are the essential elements that balance the cold weather and more finicky fish.
With the right presentation, you can catch fish throughout the entire winter, particularly where water temperatures remain at or above 40 degrees. Finding the correct pattern is the beginning of success.
Matching the Winter Hatch
Just like all the times of the year, matching the natural prey is paramount to success as an angler. In fact, it may be even more important at this time of the year, as the trout will be feeding less aggressively.
Trout winter diets are primarily made up of insects and their larvae. Predominantly, trout feed upon nymphs and full-grown midges and stoneflies. Both insects continue their life cycle through the winter months making them one of the few insects available for trout to prey upon.
Midges continue to breed in large swarms throughout the fall and early winter months. Therefore midge larva, pupa and full-grown adults will be the main source of prey for trout. A midge pattern is always the go-to first choice in the winter until proven otherwise.
Stoneflies are unusual because they are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Stoneflies go through a very long metamorphosis process for an insect, lasting several years. Therefore stonefly larvae, pupa, and full-grown adults can all be found in bodies of water throughout the entire year. A stonefly pattern is one of the most successful winter flies.
There are a few other patterns that will work under some conditions. Winter is also a good time to use small worm imitators. Trout will prey upon small worms which wash into the water and float downstream, so red worm patterns are successful.
On occasion, trout will also eat larger prey during the winter months. Large trout will eagerly gobble up a crayfish or a minnow that wanders close to them. However, trout will rarely move far to seek out these prey items. You may be surprised to learn that winter can be a good trophy-sized trout time. These larger fish really don’t want to chase thousands of midges around, and might just be teased into slamming a streamer that floats in front of their face.
Go Small, Go Slow, Go Low
So we know that the trout will be much less aggressive than any other time of the year. They will have a somewhat sedentary existence, moving as little as possible. Therefore, it is really important to use small flies, slow presentations, and drop them right down to the fish.
Dry fly action is not impossible during the winter, but you should see dry-fly hits as a pleasant exception to the winter rule. In the wintertime, you should stick to nymphing almost exclusively - even adding a small split shot when the water is deep enough. The trout will not be surfacing to feed, but rather waiting for their next meal to drift by slowly where they can reach out with little effort.
You are advised to use smaller flies than other times of the year. For midges, small sizes between 18 - 22. You can use slightly larger stonefly imitations around the 14 - 16 sizes. If you are on a body of water where trout are clearly preying on minnows - try a size 8 streamer. Many anglers also slide down a tippet size, with around 5x - 6x the best for winter. This will let the nymph drop lower into the pool.
No matter the fly, try a slow retrieve. Let the nymph sink slowly down into the holes and pockets behind the best structure. Keep in mind that trout will really seek out the best pools - so if you catch one fish try a few more casts in the same spot and you might find a second bite!
Find the Right Water
Finding the right water is just as important as anything else to winter trout success. In the wintertime, the right water means slow-moving water that is relatively warm and stable and temperature.
You can see the clear pattern that the trout are attempting to conserve as much energy as possible. Therefore they will avoid turbulent water which requires more of their power to navigate through. Trout will also avoid shallows to hide from predators - birds, cats, mink, bears, and all sorts of warm-blooded animals will be looking for the sluggish trout. They find safety in deeper pools.
Additionally, trout prefer to eat insects floating by slowly, and not coursing through rapid water - so stay out of fast water or stagnant water. So the best location is a moderately moving stream with enough water structure to provide some quieter water. Rocks of course will work - but many anglers recommend logjams that slow the water significantly to be the best structure. Make sure to look for eddies and deeper pools created behind the structure.
Water that has a consistent temperature, especially if it's relatively warm, will hold the most trout. The best water is usually spring-fed channels. Springwater actually remains at stable temperatures throughout the whole year. So while this may seem like very cool water compared to sun-warmed summer water, the spring water will likely be above the average water temperature during the wintertime when the ambient water temperature plummets.
Another excellent spot for winter fishing is a tailrace. A tailrace occurs when waterfalls over a dam, water wheel, or other structure. Tailwaters virtually never ice over and push bait downstream to the trout. The water temperature is typically stable and a bit warmer than the rest of the stream, because the tailwater is dumping directly out of the reservoir - and large bodies of water do not cool down as low or fast as a small stream. Flowing tailwater almost never ices over, so it can be fished all winter. Look for the previously mentioned structure and deeper pools slightly downstream of the spillway.
Fishing is an outdoor pursuit and always involves some small safety risks like any other sporting activity. Winter conditions make everything a bit more dangerous, so you should take proper precautions.
Some safety guidelines are:
- Consider fishing from the bank only and not wading into the cold water. If you do wade in, make sure to wear winter graded gear.
- Never walk on ice over a flowing body of water no matter how safe it looks.
- Bring a buddy fishing so you can help keep eachother safe.
- Don’t forget raincoats, hats, gloves, and other accessories.
- Be aware of the fast setting sun - nightfall comes so fast compared to the summertime, and you do not want to get caught out in the woods in the dark.
Overall, winter trout fishing is more challenging than any other time of year - the combination of finicky fish and chilly weather is challenging. But you will have the ability to catch fish consistently if you use the right flies and know the best water to match the behavior of winter fish. Winter is also the most beautiful and peaceful time of year in the wonderful natural areas that trout inhabit. By following these tips, you can make trout fishing a 12-month pursuit.