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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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’ll cover next time. 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.
There’s much more to come in this winter fly fishing series.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N