Winter Fly Fishing Tactics

We are certainly on the good side of winter but we are not out of the woods just yet. While the warmer days are giving us some great fishing conditions the reality is that the days of throwing big dry flies is months away. We absolutely can still catch fish on small adult midge patterns when the conditions are right, but lets face it if you want to consistently put a bend in your fly rod nymphing is going to be your best bet. Here are a few simple tips and techniques that can aid in your winter fishing success.

Eagle River Rainbow Trout. Winter Fly Fishing Colorado
Eagle River Rainbow Trout. Winter Fly Fishing Colorado

Timing- Unless you are trying to secure your favorite hole on a busy tailwater there is no reason to set the alarm. Winter fishing is generally best during the warmest parts of the day. Of course this is not a rule merely a suggestion, but experience tells me that winter fishing tends to be its best between 11am and 3pm. Often times there will only be a short window when the fishing turns on then shuts off again. Although warmer temps make it more comfortable for us to fish in, it also melts the snow and can cool off the water significantly. Don’t be surprised if fishing slows down after a few warm days.

Flies- Don’t over think it but be prepared to change your flies.. Midges are going to be the main fare on the menu. Be sure to have a variety of colors, sizes and styles. One day red might be the hot color while black or gray is the color of choice on another day. There have been many days where one midge pattern is cleaning house then the next day fish will not look at it. The trusty egg pattern or bead is a favorite amongst winter fly fishermen but more often than not the egg gets ignored later in the year. While the egg is an excellent attractor pattern be sure to try other aquatic insects that call the river home. Small Stones, Mayflies and Caddis Larva are also excellent lead flies and will out fish an egg pattern as we head deeper into winter.

Roaring Fork Brown Trout. Winter Fly Fishing Colorado
Roaring Fork Brown Trout. Winter Fly Fishing Colorado

Depth- Deeper is not always better. Of course you are going to have to run a deep nymph rig to find fish holding on the bottom. But when the insect activity starts to pick up fish will move to eat, especially in areas where the water is a bit warmer. This often will bring trout up in the water column to feed on emerging insects. This is when you have to be ready to shorten up the leader and lose the weight. A small bead head or glass bead can be just enough weight to find trout feeding just under the surface. Detecting a strike while employing this technique can be challenging so a good rule of thumb is set on anything that looks out of place.

Indicator- can we call them bobbers? use something light. A small thingamabobber or pinch-on indicators work well especially when fishing with very little weight. A smaller bobber also allows you to be a bit more stealthy when fishing in low clear water. If fish are suspended you can also try the dry dropper method. I have seen some larger midge patterns tied with small indicators that are real effective in the right situations.

Clothing- This sounds like a no brainer but staying warm is a major factor when it comes to winter fly fishing. Dress in layers and bring an extra layer just in case. Our warm sunny days can change to blustery snow storms in the mater of hours so be prepared for the worse. Especially if you plan on hiking in to a remote section of water. If you prefer to wear gloves while fishing be considerate of the fish and take the glove off before handling the fish. That layer of slime is there for a reason and a dry glove or hand will remove the layer of protective slime that covers a trouts body. Like always wet your hands prior to handling a fish.

If you have any winter fishing tips that you care to share please do so. All information is welcome.

1 thought on “Winter Fly Fishing Tactics”

  1. Great post- and fantastic advice. Would add one more thing to the list of tactics: Move often. The tendency in winter is to go straight to your favorite productive hole and hammer it over and over with cast after cast. Not only will your legs and feet become uncomfortably cold, but you may be casting to non-feeding fish. Move around and look for suspended fish, explore other likely wintering lies and don’t linger too long in the same spot. And when you do move, treat the next spot as a new opportunity to adjust you rig, your flies, and your approach. It’ll keep you both warmer and more engaged in the hunt.

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