Fly Fishing in the Winter — The Go-To Nymphing Rig

by | Dec 30, 2018 | 23 comments

 

** NOTE: This is Part Four of a Troutbitten series on fly fishing for trout through the winter months. This will all read a little better if you back up and find Parts One, Two and Three.

 

I walked to the familiar counter and laid a bag of orange material among the aged fly fishing stickers that covered the coffee-stained wooden slab. Seated on a stool, the shop manager looked up from his magazine and over to my small package of orange fluff. Then he slowly brought his gaze up to mine. We made eye contact and he grinned until we both slowly chuckled.

“It’s all you need out there right now,” he said.

“I know!” I nodded. “All winter long, really. If they don’t take the egg, they take whatever I have paired with it. And if they don’t take either of them, I know I’m screwed.”

“Yup.” My friend agreed as he rang me up. “Three bucks,” he said.

I exchanged three green bills for one bag of orange McFly foam and walked out the door. Mixed with the sound of the little metal bell ringing behind me, I heard, “Don’t beat ‘em up too bad, man.”

I waved without looking back, and headed home to my tying vise.

Simply the best

In the cold, I fish nymphs as a first option. And my go-to rig for winter fishing is an unweighted egg at the point, with a split shot five inches away. A beadhead nymph hangs from a tag about twelve inches further up the tippet. There are specifics and nuances to it that I’ll quickly run through below, but this is the heart of a rig that works for me all winter long.

It looks a lot like this:

 

“I thought the trout were done spawning . . . “

They are. In my rivers, the spawning wild brown trout finish up around mid-December, at the latest. Decent action on egg patterns can happen during the spawn, especially in certain sections of the river (we don’t fish for spawning fish). But the best action on eggs starts right as trout are wrapping up their recreational activities. And the solid action on egg patterns lasts all winter long, until about the middle of March.

READ: Troutbitten | Redd Fish – Should we fish for trout through the spawn or stay home?

All crazy trout fishermen have a theory (about everything), so I’ll give you one here . . .

I think trout eat eggs so greedily in the winter because it’s the last significant source of easily available protein they’ve seen. The imprint of that food source remains. (It’s probably not fair to call it memory.) And trout might even be looking for it. Months later, are they still looking for eggs? Yeah, it sure seems like it.

Trout are naturally conditioned to eating eggs, and they’ll take yarn and fluffy orange balls all year long. In fact, even in the summer, a yellow sucker spawn is a staple in the change-up section of my fly box. What’s more, I find that winter trout are eager egg-eaters even in water where no spawning takes place. They just eat eggs. It’s in their genes. So why argue?

But while a trout’s propensity for egg-eating is always there, I find it to be strongest in the winter. With limited food options — with most of the aquatic insects either dormant or in a juvenile stage — the base of a trout’s winter diet is often quite small and kinda boring. What’s active down there? Not much. Tiny midges, maybe a few Olives, a stray stonefly and some cress bugs if you’re lucky. Combine that with cold water and a lower metabolism, and trout aren’t real keen on moving much for a nymph — until an egg rolls by.

READ: Troutbitten | Eggs for breakfast, eggs for lunch, eggs for dinner

The Incredible, Edible Egg

Here I’ll tell you that you can use any reasonable egg pattern and expect results. But I’ll also tell you that I’ve already done that. I used everything out there for many years, and I eventually simplified my egg lineup into two patterns: an Orange Nuke Egg and a Yellow Sucker Spawn.

The Orange Nuke Egg. McFly Foam (Orange) with Egg Yarn for the veil (Oregon Cheese).

Buy the McFly Foam Here

Buy the Egg Yarn Here

 

Sucker Spawn. Yellow Yarn, with Fire Orange thread.

Notice how these eggs are composed of the same color scheme. While the Nuke Egg is mostly orange with a little bit of yellow on the outside, the Sucker Spawn is mostly yellow with a little bit of orange on the inside.

Read: Troutbitten | Troutbitten Fly Box — The Sucker Spawn

These eggs are unweighted. Yes, I know that beadhead eggs catch trout. But I promise you, I do much better with an unweighted egg and a split shot. Keeping the shot close to the egg (4-5 inches) limits the loss of strike detection caused by having weight in between you and the fly. It’s an acceptable compromise. As a crazy fisherman, I have another theory for you. Follow me here . . .

Eggs have no ability to move. They can’t swim like a mayfly or caddis. So their flow in the current is much more predictable to a trout than are the movement of a stonefly in the same current. Trout need a really good looking dead drift on an egg to buy in. Eggs are also fairly neutrally buoyant. Sure, they sink, but not like a tungsten bead. And an unweighted fly with split shot (fished well), has a soft glide to it. Unweighted eggs work with the currents and simply drift more like the real thing. An unweighted egg catches more trout.

I don’t vary the size much. I tie both the Nuke egg and Sucker Spawn on #12, #14 and #16 scud hooks, but the 14’s get the bulk of the swimming time. I don’t overtie them either. There’s no sense packing extra materials onto the hook, because a sparse egg probably looks more natural anyway.

Even the #16 Nuke Eggs are larger than a single trout egg, but the nuke egg looks like a clump of eggs — same as a sucker spawn. Trout eat them in high water and low water. I tend to fish the smaller eggs in clear water, and I usually start with the more subtle Sucker Spawn. The Nuke Egg, though, can work just as well in low, clear water. And I let trout make the choice, day to day.

The Beadhead

I’m pretty locked into my egg choices for this rig, so I’m more apt to change up the tag nymph. I rotate through a few favorites until something gets eaten. I use nymphs like the Bread-n-Butter, Beadhead Pheasant Tails, Walt’s Worms, Higa’s SOS and Perdigons. I also keep them on the small side — #16’s on a short-length hook get the most work on my tags during the winter.

I prefer tags over trailers because I’m in touch with both flies, and strike detection is better too. I wrote a full article discussing all of that here:

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — Tags and Trailers

However, since winter trout won’t come up through the water column as readily, I like to rig the tag lower in the colder months. While my standard distance between flies is about twenty inches, in the winter I may space them as close as fourteen inches. So, with a four-inch tag hanging down, and a split shot in between the two flies, the tag nymph rides pretty close to the bottom. Ideally, it hangs right at the top of the strike zone, in that cushion of water near the bottom that’s moving slower than the rest.

Photo by Bill Dell

How To

The key to this rig is the egg. That bright little protein package gets their attention, and trout either eat it or move to the egg and eat the tag fly. I’ve had plenty of days where trout hammer the tag nymph often enough that I replace the egg with another beadhead to match what was on the tag. Inevitably, the action slows down. The egg is part of the formula.

Also, I use a Mono Rig for most of my winter fishing (streamers and nymphs), and I prefer to tightline wherever it makes sense. But adding a Dorsey Yarn Indicator to the top of the tippet section allows me to fish a tightline-to-the-indicator method, often giving me the perfect dead drift for the glassy slicks and soft side water where trout like to feed in the winter months.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing with an Indicator — A Mono Rig Variant

Either way, winter trout will test your dead-drifting skills. But if you find trout and show them an egg with a little bacon on the tag, you can have success all season long.

Next time . . .

There’s a simple variation for this go-to rig that I cover in the next article of this series. It pays to have options ready, because just when you think you have trout figured out, they change their minds and leave you making excuses about water temperature, sunlight, snow melt, fishing pressure and . . .

Fish hard, friends.

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

 

There’s much more to come in this winter fly fishing series.

— Subscribe to Troutbitten and follow along —

Photo by Josh Darling

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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23 Comments

  1. Good work, Dom. Your ideas are always interesting and perceptive. Here are a few random reactions:

    1. Adjusting (i.e., removing) split shot is always a challenge for me. Some solutions that have worked are to use tungsten putty, or to make a little tag using a piece of mono by
    tying a uni knot, leaving a tag end, and placing the shot on the tag.
    2. Alternately, an egg with on a drop-shot rig works well.
    3. Question: if you think that you get a good dead drift with an unweighted egg and shot, shouldn’t that be the preferred way to get a dead drift with a traditional (unweighed) nymph?
    4. Finally, an unrelated question: I’m in the market for a new reel. What reel do you like to use with a mono rig?

    Alex

    Reply
    • Hey Alex,

      I wrote a good bit about split shot use, removal, efficiency, sliding, etc. in these two articles:

      https://troutbitten.com/2016/08/22/stop-the-split-shot-slide/

      https://troutbitten.com/2017/01/26/split-shot-vs-weighted-flies/

      I think putty is more trouble than convenient, especially in the cold.

      And egg on a drop shot rig is a lot less productive. That’s my own experience. I want it to work as well as the rig posted above, but it doesn’t for me. I like drop shotting, but not for eggs anymore.

      In regard to your #3. I do get a better dead drift with an egg and shot rather than a weighted egg. Sure, I could do that with all other nymphs too, and I have unweighted versions of many of my favorite beadheads in my box. But the point I made above is that some food forms do not move — think eggs and worms. They have no swimming ability, and the trout know it. So it’s extra important to get as close to a pure dead drift with such flies. That’s my theory.

      My favorite Mono Rig reel is a Sage 3850.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Thanks for the split shot links. I don’t know how I missed the first one. It’s really helpful.

        Regarding a dead drift: is your opinion that, if one wanted to achieve a drift as close to dead as possible with traditional nymphs, unweighted flies plus split shot 5″ up the tippet is superior to beaded nymphs?

        Reply
        • Well, yes, if I wanted an actual DEAD drift. I think the split shot setup gives the fly the best chance to drift freely. That five inches provides a little wiggle room — a little room for user (angler) error.

          But I prefer to fish weighted flies. I like the direct contact.

          Reply
  2. Thank you for your insight Domenic.
    This article reminds me to keep it simple especially during the slow winter months. Most of my winter fishing is for steelhead on the South shore of Erie, but a few times I get down to some put and take trout spots in middle Ohio where this lineup will clobber the trout. I think the next dozen I catch will be thanks to you.

    I am stubborn about using eggs because I truly love to fool the trout with more natural bugs. But in the winter I’m tired of seeing the spawn sac crowd dominate so well compared to the fewer fly fisherman on my home waters. I think I will use this rig and try to even the odds again.

    If I need to get deeper, my first move on this rig would be to put the shot above the Davy knot. If the nymph is down in the zone, I know the egg will be in zone especially in the slower water the fish enjoy during Winter months. I agree with your egg pattern choices, my only change would be color. I find the steelhead here love a light pink even more than orange. I do also carry orange, yellow as well.

    Happy New Year!
    Rick

    Reply
    • Right on. Change up the color for what gives you confidence. But if they don’t eat it, don’t blame me. HA!

      I’m not stubborn about patterns at all. Whatever they eat, that’s what I fish. They’re all flies, really.

      Reply
  3. Any idea if this works for ‘Bows? They, of course, spawn in the spring and there are no browns in the streams I fish. But it would be interesting to see what would happen… Conversely, I would imagine this set-up would be effective when they do their “thing” after run-off…

    Reply
    • Hi Les,

      My guess is that your bows will eat eggs all winter long anyway. Everywhere I fish for Rainbow Trout, they eat eggs all year long. They are better egg eaters than brown trout.

      Reply
      • Hey les, I find rainbows love eggs year round. At least in Michigan. Resident rainbows and steelhead both. Wether there’s a spawn going on or not.

        Reply
  4. Good stuff, man. Very prescriptive. It’s what we need! Dummy it down. From a well-described starting point, everyone can either follow the recipe exactly or vary it to their tastes (a little more garlic, a little more wine, etc). Thank you!

    Reply
  5. Domenick,

    I fish primarily in western Maine and northern New Hampshire. Both of these states have banned the use of lead shot to protect loons. I loathe using tin shot but it’s the only economical alternate at the present time. It’s miserable to use. If you don’t crimp it hard enough to compress the tippet it falls off on the first slight snag. And forget trying to remove it, even the “double slit” kind, from your tippet. Because of this I’ve been pretty much forced to use a drop shot rig when I need to add weight. The exception is when I’m Polish nymphing.

    In the past when I’ve fished eggs I’ve used the Polish nymphing rig, and with good success, especially during the white sucker run. Starting this year I’ll experiment with eggs on the drop shot rig using two tags, the top one for the nymph, and the bottom one for the egg, using looped tags for the attachment above tippet rings. This will allow me to use a tag off the bottom ring for the shot attachment. So if I crimp that tag using the tin shot it won’t affect my tippet strength. Because of this I would have been happier if you had experienced good success with drop-shotting eggs.

    Alton

    Reply
    • Hi Alton,

      HA! Well, I’m not saying I’ve had NO success drop shotting eggs, just not as much as I’ve had with the rig shown above.

      Why can you not set it up as above? Is it because of your trouble with tin shot? I actually prefer tin shot, and I use it all the time. Try some of the ideas in this article:

      https://troutbitten.com/2016/08/22/stop-the-split-shot-slide/

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Dom,
        I re-read the attached article (I always read all of them…remembering everything in them is the challenge). And I have used those tips with lead shot here in Connecticut. It’s the tin that gives me the difficulty. Like I said, putting it on so that it will stay on without weakening the tippet is difficult at best. Removing the shot is near impossible for me without destroying the tippet. Maybe I should try another brand. Any suggestions?
        Alton

        Reply
        • Hey buddy,

          I do real well with both Dinsmore and Boss tin shot. No problems for me. I just make it snug and no more.

          Reply
          • Thanks Dom. I’ll give it another go. Happy new year!

  6. we don’t have browns in our river so while eggs may in some ways always work, our spawn is all spring. I wonder if this is a reason though that hotspots or even more to point: orange beads are effective. hmm I get an egg and a nymph like the egg sucking patterns.
    rather than dropping a split shot, why not a drop shot rig with two tags?

    Reply
    • Mostly, because the drop shotting actually forces the egg to ride too high. And, while the drop shot puts you in touch with the flies, permitting that slight bit of freedom to the egg is exactly what I find to be so much more effective than anything else.

      I’ve drop shotted eggs and caught a lot of trout that way. But I catch more with the rig described above.

      Reply
  7. Re-read your Go-to Winter Nymphing Rig article the other morning–a cold one here in NJ–as I contemplated fishing one of our local creeks. I have had indeterminate success using egg patterns during the warmer months, but thought, “What the heck?” I took the one egg left in my fly box and teamed it and a beadhead hares ear nymph with a split-shot to approximate your rig. In a short session I caught five rainbows 15-inch or longer–all went for the egg! I was, like, “WOW!”

    Reply
    • Well cool. That’s how it’s supposed to work! Good for you.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  8. Is there any reason not to use a bead head nymph in place of the split shot?

    Reply
      • Hello Dom,

        I have used this rig recently with much success so thank you for this write up. I just set up a barrel stopper for the first time as well to stop my split shot sliding, so thanks for all your great tips!

        What would your thoughts be on adding an unweighted midge on a dropper from the beadhead nymph? Some of the tailwaters here the trout are a bit finicky and most of my beadhead nymphs are a little too big for them. I assume there will be a bit of lost strike detection, but any other issues to be aware of?

        Reply

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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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