It doesn’t matter how many boxes filled with neatly organized flies we carry with us on the stream. Split shot, strike indicators, spare leaders, and spools of tippet are great accouterments, but none of it translates into finding trout during the harsh of winter.
A perfectly weighted rig with beautifully tied flies means nothing if there aren’t trout present. The truth is, the most important component to any productive fishing excursion is the fish itself. At no time is that more of a challenge than during the frigid winter months.
Part of the hardship of finding winter trout is locating any open water at all. Starting around December, the one component to be mindful of most is the low temperature near the streams and rivers we hope to fish. Rain, snow, wind, angling pressure, and the million other factors that can impact a day on the water pale in comparison to what a few nights of lows in the teens can do.
This is something that can be utilized for trout and steelhead, since both species can feel the wrath of frigid arctic conditions.
Once it seems like the temperatures have cooperated enough to justify a fishing trip, the next key is finding the fish once we hit the water. Typically, deeper pools will be good bets as they will be hugging the bottom trying to conserve as many calories as possible. The trouble with this is that the deepest pools can be some of the first to freeze over, or at least get the thin shelf of ice that is still enough to make our casting futile.
Typically, deeper pools will be good bets as they will be hugging the bottom trying to conserve as many calories as possible.
Since this is where the fish like to hang out, the best course of action is to drift our flies right at the head of the pool where the faster run or riffle empties into the depths. Look for the color changes that indicate the most dramatic of depth changes, and hammer them hard. Those steep underwater drop-offs will be a congregating point for trout and steelhead who are looking to hang out near the bottom but still have plenty of food drifting right in front of them from the faster water upstream.
An overlooked key to finding lethargic winter fish is angler persistence.
Trout care about few things, but near the top of the list is consuming and conserving calories. Winter trout and steelhead won’t be nearly as aggressive in their pursuit of flies so it’s imperative that our offerings float right by their nose. This can be accomplished, in part, by persistence in casting. Spots that might warrant half a dozen casts during the spring and summer might now need several dozen before we can be certain our chances have been exhausted. The reason for this is that it might take that many casts before our flies drift close enough to the fish to justify their feeding. It takes a lot of patience, and a stronger commitment compared to fishing in other seasons, but it’s all part of the process of winter fly fishing!