Fly Fishing in the Winter — The System

by | Dec 18, 2018 | 17 comments


** NOTE: This is Part Three of a Troutbitten series on fly fishing for trout through the winter months. Find the full series HERE. ** 

Imagine a late spring afternoon in Pennsylvania. A high sun warms the earth and the streambed. The forest is alive with green plants and busy woodland critters. And here, at the peak of hatch season, thousands of insects fill the air. Mayflies lay spent at the edges as caddis pop from the riffles. The daily batch of midges seem lost among the larger bugs (but our trout notice), while stoneflies crawl onto damp, bank-side rocks to shed their skins. And for every trout that slashes the surface or gulps down a Green Drake dun, there are ten more feeding underneath, darting, sliding and swimming to intercept a buffet of easy, available food in the water column. Life is everywhere. Motion is everywhere.

Winter is the opposite of all that.

When the days grow shorter, winter tucks away those easy opportunities for a later time — for warmer days in April. Here, a winter life slows down. Winter is wonderful because life is sparse. Where once there were green leaves swaying in the breeze, bare limbs now face the winter wind. Where once the air was filled with the pungency of streamside earth and dead bugs, a sterile cold now enters our lungs. Mammals are in hibernation. Birds have flown south. Where once there were thousands of living things present, now there are only a few.

The winter angler is a quiet ghost among a muted forest.

READ: Troutbitten | Absence, Goodbye Winter

And then . . .

For a fisherman to last anywhere for long, he must catch fish. The idea of “It’s just nice to be out there” is a ruse. It’s a cover up. And a fishless angler may last the day or the weekend, but he will not return. Not often, anyway. And especially not against the winter weather.

So a good fisherman must adapt and adjust to the winter pattern. Since life has slowed with the winter cold, shouldn’t the angler follow suit? Should we move at half speed and run all our presentations low and slow?

Not at all. In fact, I might often suggest the opposite.

The System

What follows below is an overview of a winter system. As our winter season progresses, I’ll flesh out more of these topics in detail. But here are my methods for catching trout in my favorite season.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — The Go To Nymphing Rig

I’ve grown to love these bitter months, not only for the solitude and peace beyond the dead end roads, but for the challenge of a different game. And once you dig in, when you spend some time fighting, and you finally gain comfort against the elements, you’ll find a season more predictable than any other. Because winter feeding options are limited for a trout, and the angler may take advantage of that — if she’s persistent.

Photo by Matt Grobe

The rewards for finding a winter fishing system are both high numbers and larger trout. The acceptable range for error narrows. It’s harder to hit the mark. But when you do find the target, success flows freely.

— — — — — —

Quick disclaimer: These are my experiences, mostly on Pennsylvania waters. My new friends in Tennessee tell me they have a Blue Winged Olives hatching all winter long. We do not. And while we sustain a decent midge hatch on many winter days, further north into New England, they do not. Likewise, some northern waters across the States are better for ice skating than trout fishing. Things are different across this wide, wide world. Let’s get to that . . .

Find your water

Finding ice-free productive trout water is the first trick. And that may not be easy. Where I grew up in western Pennsylvania, my winter fishing chances were limited, but there are places . . .

I now live here in central Pennsylvania because our limestone streams make trout fishing a twelve month possibility. (If you want that experience, find the Troutbitten guide page and I’ll show you all of this, first hand.) During an extended cold snap, shelf ice may build on our largest rivers, but there are always places here to get into trout.

In fact, winter is a time for more stable river flows, and that’s where some of this predictability starts.

The springs that feed central PA rivers keep the water flowing at over forty degrees Fahrenheit for much of the winter. And I’ve found thirty-nine degrees to be a marker. Years ago, I carried a stream thermometer and diligently took temps wherever I fished. There was a marked drop off in fish catching when the mercury dipped into the thirties.

Look for tailwaters and look for rivers with spring waters. They are far more productive in the winter than mountain freestoners.

Find the Feeding Water

A good winter river will not grace you with willing fish at every bend. It fact, trout may not be sitting at the bends at all. In my favorite home water, the often abused expression “There’s a trout behind every rock,” is pretty much true. Trout are everywhere. But they aren’t feeding everywhere. And in the winter, locating where trout are really feeding is paramount to success.

READ: Troutbitten | Find Feeding Fish

Some generalities hold true: fish slower stretches and expect trout to be a little deeper than usual. Sounds like pools or flats, right? But while trout may hold in those places, they may not feed much there at all.

Winter trout often hold in the same riffles and runs as they do all season. But they find the soft seams of those areas, behind rocks, near the bank, under the bubble line. Slower and a little deeper — look for this kind of water. Target specific areas rather than casting broadly, and you should find trout on the feed.

When you do catch a trout, analyze the location. Then look upstream for another lie exactly the same, and move to it.


Here’s a common misconception: the best winter fishing happens by standing still in a soft glide and working flies low and slow. This is not how I fish!!

Even when you dress for the conditions — if you’re fully prepared for the brunt of wind and weather — the chill of a winter river cuts through if you stand in one place for long. Inevitably, something starts to hurt.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — Your Hands

So moving is part of the game. Move to find feeding fish, move to cherry pick the next best spot where trout are feeding. Move to stay warm and to make the most of a wide river with abundant opportunities. Remember, the key to winter fishing is in finding feeding fish. Winter trout habits are narrower. Move to find them.

Nymph as a first option

“I’m going out today to prospect and search for these winter trout with a #20 Griffith’s Gnat, just for the challenge.”

My friends and I joke about that.

In the absence of decent hatches, trout fishing is primarily a game of searching for (willing) trout. And you may want to fish dry flies, but prospecting with a small dry is most often a sad, fruitless affair in the dead of winter. Guessing and hoping with a dry fly is the surest way to draw a blank once January rolls around.

Instead, try nymphs as a first option.

Good nymphing presentations start with a dead drift near the bottom (find the Strike Zone), and that sounds a lot like the low-and-slow mantra of winter. Trout eat nymphs all year long, and they are especially tuned in to what is available in the food chain. Winter brings them limited food options in the current. And most of it is near the bottom, so get down there and do everything you can to get a natural drift in exactly the right seam, because trout don’t move far to take a winter bug.

Nymphs need not be small (necessarily) . There’s a lot of talk about using tiny patterns in the winter. And it makes some sense. Turn over the cold streambed rocks and you won’t find many adult mayflies or caddisflies. Much of what a trout sees and eats in the winter is small — lots of midges and half grown mayflies. But cress bugs and scuds breed throughout the year, so adult sizes are available in the winter. And because most stoneflies have a two year life cycle, they’re in our waters in all sizes (small to large) all year long.

Tiny nymphs are standard fare for many tailwaters. But in my rivers, I use the same nymph sizes that I do in every other month. I just present them a little differently.

Nymphing is home base for me in the winter.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — The Secondary Nymphing Rig

Streamers as a change up

After nymphing upstream for an hour, the cold might start to seep into your bones. And it’s time to move again.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

I regularly switch to a pair of streamers in the winter, swapping out two nymphs for a pair of long flies and working back down through the water that I just fished. Most often I wade down but cast up and across, hitting the banks and likely structure. If I missed a good fish on a nymph a half hour ago, behind a submerged root wad, I make certain to show him a good look at the streamers as I pass.

I walk downstream, delivering only a cast or two toward each likely spot.

And while I move fast, my retrieve is slower. There are surely times when trout respond to fast streamer strips in the winter — where they give chase and eat the fly. But, as in most seasons, I do better by showing the trout an easily available meal, often imitating a dead or dying baitfish instead of one trying to escape. Sometimes that’s a dead drift, but more often, it’s a series of jigs and short strips that keep the streamer moving along. Think like a dying sculpin for a change.

READ: Troutbitten | Streamers as an Easy Meal — The Old School Streamer Thing

I have friends who consider winter season to be streamer season. And dedicating a full day to covering water and fishing the big flies can yield outstanding results.

Watch for risers

Running into a winter hatch is one of the true joys of the season. From the corner of your eye you catch some motion. Was that a rise? And a minute later there’s no doubt you’re into a hatch when you see a dozen noses poke through the surface in the glassy slick above the tailout.

Often, these are smaller fish. But given the opportunity for rising trout, I’ll take it with delight.

Midge patterns and the occasional BWO are the standards here. Fussy trout may require a fly change or two and some long far off presentations. Success may come from emerger styles or an unweighted nymph dropper. But most of the winter risers I run into are strong feeders that are making the most of a short hatch window.

A decent pattern with an excellent drift is required for midges. However, I have memories of fishing Blue Winged Olives during thick falling snow in March, where the trout fed with reckless abandon. The pattern didn’t much matter if the size was close. And if the drift was passable, the trout agreed as they moved two or three feet to take my fly.

Joey was proud of this one.

Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

Anything is possible in the winter, so be ready for it. Trust not the weatherman, and be a good Boy Scout — be always prepared. Don’t believe that low-and-slow is your only option. If the action is spotty, change things up to find feeding fish. Cycle through nymphs and streamers in the winter, and be ready for your chance with a dry.

Above all, enjoy the unique peace that winter brings, because it only lasts for a short while.

Next time . . .

As winter moves on, get beneath the surface of some of the concepts above. There’s much more to read in this winter fly fishing series.

Fish hard, friends.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Winter Fly Fishing

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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Be helpful. And be nice.


  1. Hello Domenick:
    Thanks for your consistent encouragement and teaching on the website.
    Best wishes to you and your family and the Troutbitten family as well for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

    • Thanks, Rick! Same to you, man. And thanks for the support.


  2. Hi Domenick,

    I echo Rick’s thoughts – right down to the holiday wishes!

    I have one question. If you have a moment, can you elaborate a bit on your ‘Find the Feeding Water’ section above? My semi-newbie brain would benefit! 😉



    • Thanks Charlie.

      Trout might be everywhere. But they aren’t necessarily feeding everywhere. And in the winter, locating where trout are really feeding is paramount to success.

      So take your best guess on where the fish may be feeding, and start in that kind of water. Above, I suggest the softer and slower seams within pocket water. But maybe on your river it’s where a riffle dumps into a pool, in that transition. Point is, to keep experimenting on types of water, until you catch trout. And when you do catch trout, try to duplicate that success by targeting EXACTLY the same water type.

      Ultimately, you have to catch fish to find the water type they are feeding in (unless you can see them rising to something). So keep experimenting, and use every hit and every caught fish as positive feedback, as data for where trout are feeding at that time.

      In the winter it takes a more target approach like that, rather than just casting over large swaths of water and hoping for the best.

      Does that help?



      • MANY THANKS Domenick,

        That helps a ton! I look forward to reading more of your posts in general, and winter fishing entries in particular as it is something I enjoy and want to improve on!


        P.S. Your handwarmer-wristband trick worked like a charm.

  3. I’m a big fan of winter trout… the solitude….and the big boys are eating!

    I fished a bunny bullet on the mono rig the other day and did pretty damn good……caught my biggest bow on that stretch, ever….keep up the good work!

    • NICE

  4. Hi Domenick,

    I don’t do much wade fishing in winter anymore. I’ve grown increasingly concerned about stepping on the redds. In the fall the redds are usually bright gravel patches and easy to see and avoid. But as the weeks and months pass I’ve noticed that many redds take on some sediment and look a lot like the rest of the stream bottom. If people are going to fish in winter when trout eggs are incubating, they should probably wade as little as possible to avoid accidentally walking on redds and damaging the resource.


    • Jim, Domenick et al,

      I am concerned about the same issue, but have focused on fishing deeper pools/tail-outs in he winter.

      Such areas are not attractive spawning areas for the trout, correct?


      • Hi Charlie,

        See my reply to Jim above. ^^

        You’re right that they don’t spawn in those deeper pools. But they don’t often feed there either — not in my rivers, anyway.

    • Hi Jim,

      That’s a legitimate concern, for certain. Yeah, the redds silt over real quickly once the trout leave them. So it definitely helps to have a thorough understanding of where the redds are, and that starts in the fall. Some rivers have almost no spawning taking place, as the trout migrate to spawn elsewhere. Other rivers have miles of water where trout do no spawn. And on some rivers they seem to spawn at every available gravel bed. So it helps to learn and be familiar with your waters.

      I wrote out a lot of those thoughts here:

      My theory is that more educated anglers are, the better we can all take care of the resource.


      And thanks for reading.


  5. A couple of winters ago I managed to catch trout on BWO dry flies in Dec., Jan. & Feb. It was a mild winter.

  6. Luckily I can fish 5 days a week,52 weeks,and fish same water so able to note seasonal changes. We have awesome sunny days in Nevada,but water 40 to 45 degrees,so definitely cold. Lately have been using midges and #18 PT and killing nice trout,and definitely agree with finding feeding fish,cause with low water so many likely looking spots. Also finding beneficial to try different patterns before moving,many,many times 3rd nymphs did the trick!!

  7. So, I have a particular concern to note. Gripping my rod with a gloved hand causes my hand to ache and or to cramp. Especially if that glove is relatively thick or padded (such as a woven wool one like you prefer). It’s odd and a bit counter-intuitive….if the winter sport is something that already requires a firm grip (such as cycling or skiing) this is generally not a big problem. But if it requires a lighter grip, and especially if the thing I’m grasping is lightweight (like a fly rod), then grasping “through” a thick/padded glove requires me to squeeze harder than normal if I’m to have any fine control on the thing. And this causes cramps/aches. I actually just recently tried some thin(ish) neoprene fishing gloves and it was awful…just too painful to even do in fact….and I wear the same type of gloves when rowing a raft with no issues.

    Any thoughts?


    • Hi Dave,

      Well, you asked, so I’ll answer. Apologies for being blunt . . .

      I suspect you are holding the rod all wrong. If your hand is aching at all, something isn’t right. The gloves I wear are not nearly thick enough to change the grip necessary. Honestly, that’s one reason why I wear them. The gloves simply do not require to grip any harder. And I suspect that you are already in the habit of gripping too hard, even without gloves.

      So I see this a lot with my guests, and I often talk with them about it. The rod should all but hover in your hand. There’s no need to squeeze it. And in fact, you should not squeeze the rod until the power stroke at the stops on the cast. By NOT squeezing until the powerstroke, then you can use that split second of squeeze, to improve casting performance. (It’s not an overall rod grip squeeze, either, but more like a pus with the thumb, if you’re thumb is on top.

      When I see people squeezing the rod during the drift, it’s usually because they are holding in incorrectly and/or the rod is unbalanced with the reel. We should hold the rod so it balances on the trigger finger. This is how we can have that feeling of not needing to HOLD the rod (and definitely not squeeze it) but merely balance the rod in our hand. There’s more on that in these two articles:

      Make sense?



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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