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. And the winter fisherman is one of them.
The winter angler is a quiet ghost among a muted forest.
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. And 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.
What follows below is an overview of a winter system. As our winter season progresses, I’ll flush out more of these topics in detail. But here are my methods for catching trout in my favorite season.
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 he’s persistent.
The rewards for finding a winter fishing system are both high numbers and larger trout. The range for error is wider. It’s harder to hit the mark. But when you do find the target, success flows freely.
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Quick disclaimer: These are my experiences, mostly on Pennsylvania waters. My new friends in Tennessee tell me they have a Blue Winged Olive hatch 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 US 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 in 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.
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.
And 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 right through if you stand in one place for long. Inevitably, something starts to hurt.
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 limited 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 to go out today and prospect 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, 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.
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.
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 I just fished. Most often I wade down and fish up, 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.
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 early 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.
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 — 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, we’ll get beneath the surface of some of the concepts above. There’s much more to come in this winter fly fishing series.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N