Fly Fishing in the Winter — Egg Tips

by | Jan 5, 2020 | 23 comments

 

** NOTE: This is Part Seven 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, Three, Four and Five and Six. **

 

Smith and I found ourselves on another late December, post-Christmas fishing trip with light snow and good winter fishing. Air temperature: 26. Water: 40. There’s something special about this annual excursion. We fish together often enough that we don’t need an excuse or an event to bring us to the water, but this week-after-Christmas full day trip has become something of a tradition. While many of the annual trips I do with my Dad or other friends come with difficult water conditions all too often, winter weather has a way of balancing everything out.

In our area, most winter precipitation is delivered in occasional shots of snow. And even if a winter storm dumps twelve inches in one day, that doesn’t do much to the river levels. So around here, if you can deal with the colder temperatures, the river conditions are more predictable than any other time of the year. Mid-to-late December is about the point on the calendar when all of that begins. It’s also when the egg bite really turns on.

Smith passed me on the bank as I hooked a decent wild trout. I looked over to see him standing against the spruce forest as a backdrop. Greens and dark browns were dotted with white-capped boughs that hadn’t yet dropped their snow from the previous morning.

“Egg?”

Smith hollered the one word question, punctuating it with a gesture toward the energetic trout at the end of my line.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Been this way all morning.”

I netted the fish and worked the hook loose before looking back up to Smith.

“You doing any good?” I asked.

Smith kicked the snow around a bit with his dripping wading boot.

“Not yet,” he said and walked upstream.

An hour later the same scenario repeated in reverse. This time Smith passed me walking downstream on the canyon side. Bordered by enormous chunks of cold limestone and winter-green moss, Smith showed up as I released another trout.

“Are you still on the egg?” I heard him yell across the water.

I nodded yes, placed my net back in the holster and flipped the line forward. I was about to ask Smith if he’d had any luck, but when I looked over he was already gone.

Photo by Bill Dell

Smith fishes fast. He likes to cover a lot of water, so our general leap-frogging technique for sharing the river usually devolves into something else pretty quickly. And today, I caught glimpses of Smith up and down the river, both close and far away, every time I had enough of a break through the evergreens and around the canyon walls. I figured he’d surely find me around noon for an unplanned lunch break — that happens a lot between two friends on the river. But he never showed up to take the second Christmas-ham sandwich I’d stashed in my vest. No Smith. So I ate the extra sandwich and chuckled at my own selfishness.

It wasn’t until about 2:30, with just a few hours of winter daylight left, when I next saw my friend. He showed up with a river-worn exasperation, just as I hooked another foot-long wild trout.

“Alright, Dom. What the hell are you doing?” he demanded boldly. Smith takes pride in finding his own path and solving his own puzzles. But like every good angler I know, he’s humble enough to ask the right questions at the right times.

I landed the trout, released it and joined my friend on the river bank. I glanced down to see his egg pattern, similar to my own in both color and size, attached to the hook keeper.

“That’s the right fly, but I’d rig it a little differently,” I said, pointing to his Nuke Egg.

“Alright,” Smith said.

“And . . . I don’t know,” I said. “They’re just really picky about the way an egg drifts, man. So, there are a few things I focus on and do a little differently when I’m nymphing an egg pattern.”

Smith knelt in the crusty snow. He dug into his pack and pulled out a pint of stainless steel. Then he poured steaming coffee into the lid of his small thermos.

“I’m listening,” he said to me.

Here’s what I told Smith . . .

Photo by Bill Dell

— — — — — —

Deader than Dead

The predictability of the winter egg bite can be excellent — if you’re nymphing skills are tuned up. That means true dead drifts. No motion. Think deader than dead: no flies sliding across current seams, no being pulled downstream at top-water speed and no lagging on the bottom.

Our favorite pea-brained fish seems to understand that eggs have no propulsion system. The egg is a highly visible protein pack, and it’s carried along naturally with the current. It doesn’t swim, dart, slide across lanes, or cling to rocks. Trout know it. And because they are masters of the current, they know where to expect the egg. Fishing an egg fly forces you to improve your drift. Think about everything you know about good nymphing. Get it just right. Now make it better.

Remember, deader than dead.

Soft Hits and Soft Seams

Because trout know the egg isn’t going anywhere, they’re in no rush to capture it. Trout are supremely efficient animals that don’t waste energy rushing to eat an egg. Instead they capture it casually and with confidence, because they know the egg isn’t alive. It can’t swim away, and its course is predictable. So trout slide over a few inches and intercept an egg — almost leisurely.

Rarely have I seen wild trout dart to grab an egg (but it does happen).

These soft, non-aggressive and casual takes of the fly become obvious to the winter angler with some experience. In cold water temperatures and with a lower metabolism, a trout has no good reason to be over-eager with an egg.

Anglers talk about missed hits and hook sets on a winter egg bite, saying the trout were picky. Damn right they were. Wild trout, especially, take eggs lightly, and they want the drift just right.

Compounding this difficulty, trout tend to feed in soft seams through the winter. For me, this doesn’t mean fishing the pools as much as finding the soft edges of feeding lanes or the shorts stalls in pocket water (or maybe a good spillout). Trout may hold in very slow water in the winter (a deep pool). But I find them feeding in the same sections that I find them all year long. However, they often move into the slower, softer edges of these sections. Often, success in the winter is about finding very specific water types. And when the fish agree with your presentation, it’s best to look around for another piece of water which is exactly the same.

Be Edgy

To convert on such specific opportunities, a good winter nymphing angler is on edge — ready to strike at anything and strike immediately. This is another reason I don’t recommend riding the river bottom but instead gliding through the strike zone. Try not to touch the rocks very often. Then set on anything unexpected.

Fishing egg patterns with consistent success requires your best nymphing skills of the year — so dial it up a notch. And be ready to set the hook. Strike more. Guess less.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone

Rig with Split —No Bead

Earlier in this Fly Fishing in the Winter series, I detailed my primary and secondary winter nymphing rigs. ** Spoiler Alert ** They both feature egg patterns.

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

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

Both of these rigs also include a second fly. But I should mention this: Many days, I fish a single egg and nothing else. When trout are eating well, all I need is the egg and the shot. Split shot? Yeah, let’s get to that.

I’ve made this argument a few times here on Troutbitten, but in short, using split shot for weight allows the fly some freedom of motion. With the split shot five inches in front of the fly, we are in contact and in control of the shot. That gives both us and the egg a little grace — about five inches of grace.

The logic for split shot stems, once again, from the unique qualities of real eggs in the water — they drift deader than dead. On a tight line and connected to our nymph, every tiny movement of the rod tip is transmitted to the fly. With split shot in between us and the fly, some of our unintended movements are deadened or insulated. We are granted some grace.

Just as important, unweighted flies have a sort of neutral buoyancy. That looks a lot more like the real thing than does a tungsten beaded fly constantly dropping toward the bottom.

What’s the downside of split shot? Strike detection, of course. By putting shot in between us and the fly, we lose some contact. That’s partially good — allowing the fly more independent movement. And it’s partially bad — loss of strike detection. For me, keeping the split shot five to six inches away from the fly is the sweet spot. I never place my shot twelve or fourteen inches away from the point nymph, because there’s just far too much slop in the system. It’s too easy to be out of touch.

Photo by Austin Dando

— — — — — —

Smith capped the thermos of coffee and stood up. With a couple hours of daylight left, he seemed eager and renewed.

“One thing I don’t get, though. . .” Smith said. “Spawning season is over. There are no eggs drifting around down there right now. So why are trout so keyed in on them.”

Smith had asked the question I’ve asked myself for many seasons. So I gave him my best guess . . .

I explained that I don’t think trout are actually keyed in or looking for eggs the way they might be when looking for, say, Grannom nymphs in April. And Smith was right. There are no eggs in the system right now. But in some way, I believe the memory of those eggs remains for trout.

Our spawning season ended in early December, and dropped eggs are the last significant food source that our trout saw. Trout eggs are colorful enough that they easily stand out in the flow down there. While most of what a trout eats is small and brown, an egg must seem like a large ice cream sundae with rainbow sprinkles.

Lastly, trout seem genetically predisposed to eat eggs. And when nothing remarkable is active in a winter river, the site of an egg pattern triggers their opportunistic instinct.

“That’s good stuff, Dom,” Smith said. “I’ll try it. Now how about giving me a few unweighted egg flies.” Smith put his hand out.

“Yup,” I replied. Flipping open the lid on my chest patch, I plucked away a half-dozen of my favorite eggs for Smith. “That’s all you need, I said. Don’t even mess with other colors or ties.”

Smith nodded as he clipped off his tungsten beaded egg and tied on one of mine. Then he added a #1 shot five inches up the line.

“Good luck,” I said.

“Oh, I’m gonna catch ‘em!” Smith replied with determination.

“I know,” I nodded. “I’ll meet you at the truck after sunset.”

When Smith ducked out of sight among the darkening canyon shadows, I just knew he’d come back after dark with stories of success.

He did.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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— Read more about winter fly fishing here — 

 

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. You ever drop shot an unweighted egg pattern? Depending on the config you choose maybe could get a reasonable dead drift with slightly better strike detection?

    Reply
    • Hi Greg,

      I’ve used drop shot a lot, and I have specific times and reasons for going with it. But I don’t care to drop shot eggs anymore.

      Mostly, because the drop shotting actually forces the egg to ride too high. Drop shot does put you in touch with the flies. But I don’t actually want that. As described above, permitting that slight bit of freedom to the egg is exactly what I find to be so much more effective than anything else.

      Your results may vary. 🙂

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • I understand Greg’s rational. I lack the experience to question your vast experience (that is not sarcasm – I know that I truly lack the experience you possess). After a couple of years of tactical nymphing (I live on the east coast and only get to mountain trout-streams a few times each year), I’ve just come to feel I get it – and I catch fish. I was planning using egg patterns my next trip. I had planned to drop-shot with an unweighted egg on a tag. It seemed I could keep the egg off the bottom – the unweighted egg would drift naturally just above the stream floor and I could stay in contact with the egg. While reading your very informative article I initially became convinced that my strategy made sense. Then I saw your rig puts the shot before the egg. I intended to ask the same question Greg did, but he beat me to it. I just add a tag for the egg. Would not a drop shot 5-6″ below the egg on a tag allow for a more natural, free-flowing egg drift as compared to a shot placed 5″ above the egg? It seems the shot above the egg would drag the egg?

        Reply
        • I always welcome rig discussions and ideas. Rigging is really at the heart of all of success.

          Beyond the point I already made about contact and why I like the extra freedom granted by the rig I posted about vs drop shot, my question to you is this:

          If you rig your drop shot 5 inches below the tag, as you mentioned, then how long is your tag? Is it another five inches? If so, then you have a possible ten inches above the river bottom that you egg can regularly be drifting. Know what I mean? Now factor in all the times when you are NOT touching the bottom with your drop shot and you can be even higher. So, you can regularly be a foot off the bottom while drop shotting an egg.

          I’ve done it. I rigged it as I described in the last paragraph. I watched my orange egg ride way too high in the column. So I shortened the tag to the egg. Then I was in more contact and was riding a bit lower, but not enough. Sure, I caught fish, but after about fifty trips on the water A/B testing both rigs, there was no question that I caught more trout with the shot in line and in front.

          As I mentioned, I like drop shotting, but only for specific reasons and at specific times. Eggs are almost never that time, for me.

          Again, I acknowledge that everyone has their own goals. I’m just saying that it doesn’t fit my own goals.

          Cheers.

          Dom

          Reply
          • I will certainly defer to you, Dom. You’ve done it. I dreamed up my tactic in anticipation of throwing eggs next time I get to fish. Your tried and true experience trumps my inexperienced thinking. I truly appreciate your thoughtful reply and your willingness to interact. A smart man learns from experience. A wise man learns from the experiences of others.

          • Hi Folks,

            Let me chime in here. I’ve also tried drop shotting and writing eggs that have weight (I use tungsten putty) 5-8 inches above them, and, like Dom, I find that I have more success with the latter method. However, I don’t think it’s because of where the egg drifts but because of how it drifts. The way I set up my drop shot is to have a knot about six inches above the weight. I then make a small (1-2″) loop that has the fly in it, and loop the loop above the knot. The result is a free moving fly that stays six inches above the weight. I use this rig when I drop shot (usually with high flows or deep water) and I have found success with using it to fish eggs, but Dom’s rigging is better.

          • “writing?” I hate spell check. That should be “using.”

      • Yeah I suspected you may have already played around with dropshotting eggs before. You ever tied up any unweighted eggs w/the new eggstasy chenille? I’m going to try something different this winter besides just mcfly foam / yarn eggs….

        Reply
        • Hi Greg, I’m sure the eggstacy stuff works fine. But I have my own choices dialed in, and I’m no longer tempted to changed them. Ha.

          I like two tone, as well. You’ll notice that my two favorite egg patterns use the same color scheme. Sucker Spawn I do mostly yellow with a little bit of orange. And the Nuke Egg I do mostly orange with a bit of yellow.

          They are also, already two super-quick ties — two of the fastest flies that come off my vise.

          https://troutbitten.com/2019/01/09/troutbitten-fly-box-the-sucker-spawn/

          Cheers.

          Dom

          Reply
          • Love reading your articles and the comments. I created an egg pattern called Knotty Egg that is the fastest tie and deadliest egg pattern I’ve ever fished. And I’ve fished them all! It imitates a single egg and sucker spawn amazingly well. It has size, color and behavior. Is less dense and more translucent than most egg patterns because of the material. The hook up rate excels also because of how the egg sits totally on top of the shaft of the hook giving you 100% hook gap exposure. Check out …knottyegg.com and I can throw you a few to try out!

        • Yes, all of my eggs, weighted and unweighted, are tied with eggstacy, primarily the cream color. For the unweighted egg, I use a jig hook onto which I slide a red plastic bead which sits about half-way down the shank.. The egg is tied in front of the bead and folded back over the bead, which is supposed to imitate a blood dot. At any rate, it works well for me.
          Alex

          Reply
  2. I’ve got to try the egg without built in weight and your rigging. I got all excited and cranked out some eggs with a tungsten bead and it didn’t do any good my last trip out. Should have remembered to keep them u weighted and let them drift naturally. Will for sure tie them unweighted and use your rigging the next time. Thanks for the article and the links on your winter rig.

    Reply
  3. Catching is believing. Yesterday morning I caught a wild brown on my favorite local tail water using a Sucker Spawn fly with a split shot 5″ above. Nearly everyone else in the group I was with were skunked. Thanks for winter advice and the excellent story telling.

    Reply
    • Nice. I believe the shot and unweighted fly makes a huge difference.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  4. Well,this winter my regular water is packed,so exploring new water,but gotta admit a little tough. This article reaffirmed what maybe I’ve forgotten,you can’t half ass this stuff and catch fish. So let’s see what some dead drift eggs do tomorrow!!

    Reply
    • Definitely no half-assing.

      Reply
    • Winter freestone fishing is what I love. on most streams here I am the only one out there. It separates the crazy (me) from people that like to catch fish (most reasonable fishermen). However today I managed to pull out four nice brookies in an hour from 36° water. that makes me more proud than catching 100 on dries in May.

      Reply
  5. As far as winter fishing is concerned, what can we do to avoid walking on places where eggs have been laid? As the “redds” I am guessing are no longer visible. I would imagine we have to avoid any and all shallow water/gravel areas alltogether huh?

    Reply
      • Thanks Dom. Unfortunately, I live in a “no wild trout zone” known as southwest PA or greater Pittsburgh, and I do not get to intimatley know the Central PA streams to the extent that I know where the redds always are every year. So having read your article on the spawn again, I do think it is the correct approach to just avoid walking in any water that has the potential to be a spawning area. My son is making a State College trip tomorrow and I think I am going to join him! Hopefully we don’t get too much rain, looking forward to getting out there! Thanks again Dom.

        Reply
  6. I really enjoy your articles. What I would like to see are pictures
    of some of the ways you are setting up your line. Example fishing
    with eggs. More pictures the better for a guy new to fly fishing .

    Thanks John

    Reply

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