Flymen guide Ben Rogers. Photo by Jason O'Donnell.
Winter Can Put a Damper on Even the Most Avid Angler’s Day – As a Caribbean Guy, I Know This Better Than Anyone
However, if you put in the little extra effort to get out of your cozy bed and head to your nearest trout stream, you could quite possibly have one of your best days on the water.
True, fish get sluggish with cold temperatures. The slowing of their metabolisms causes them to feed less than in the warmer months.
There's one exception to this rule: post-spawn trout expended a lot of calories when they were spawning, and, once rested, they put back on the feed bag they had in pre-spawn.
This time can vary based on your geographic area, so scout and keep notes of the spawn times. Usually within a few weeks these fish are well-rested and start to feed to retain a healthy weight through the rest of winter.
Winter also brings high-water events from rain with snow-pack runoff that will stir up the fishbowl and send nymphs drifting helplessly through the water column. During these events the biomass is so dense that fish will feed a little longer than normally expected in such cold water temperatures.
Dissect the Water
These fish aren't moving around a lot, so your cast needs to be accurate and your drift, swing, or strip precise.
Make sure you cover every inch of each section of water. If you don't get a bite in a section you're sure holds fish, then change up your flies – first by weight, then by color.
Usually the issue lies with anglers not fishing low enough in the water column – these fish sit fairly low as a buffer from the faster currents, which cause them to expend more calories, and the frigid air temperatures.
Fly Selection: Big Bugs and Small Streamers
Photo by Jason O'Donnell.
Fly selection is especially important in the winter because the fish key into a smaller area and focus on easy meals.
This is important to relay to your drift. I favor tight-line rigs mostly and sometimes I’ll use indicators while high-sticking for visual support.
Even streamers appear to be more productive tight-lining with a little twitch interval throughout the drift.
Predatory browns key in on the weak, injured, and dying. Use this knowledge to your advantage.
Big bugs and small streamers are your best bet: stoneflies, clinger mayflies, midges, and small sculpins are usually the first victims of high water.
Imitating the color and size of your stream’s food sources, and fishing in the correct column depth is a recipe for success.
The combination of realistic profile and proportion, tungsten weight, and natural colors make Nymph-Head® Evolution™ beadheads perfect for tying nymphs for these conditions, and the Fish-Skull® Sculpin Helmet™ is the natural choice for tying heavyweight, deep-swimming streamers like the Skulpin Bunny and Skulpin Bugger.
Focus On Areas With Depth and Breaks in the Current
Pockets, current breaks, and slower runs with head pools can be the most productive spots on the stream.
These fish are trying to gain and save calories, and they don't do that by sitting in fast water.
Keep in mind that while a run may look fast up top, with depth the lower-column currents are nearly nonexistent – don't pass up on this opportunity!
If it has depth, then it most likely has fish.
It may be cold, and Netflix is only a click away, but put the coffee on and warm up the truck.
Getting out this time of year is aesthetically appealing and can truly change the way you feel about winter. It also may be one of your most productive days on the water.
Keep your flies down and your drift true – I assure you it will pay off.
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About Ben Rogers:
Ben Rogers is the owner and head guide at Chasing Tails Fly Fishing. He's an ambassador for Soul River – an urban-focused fly fishing company dedicated to conservation of wild steelhead fisheries –, a signature fly tyer for Holly Flies, and a contributing editor for various fly fishing publications. After serving in the military, Ben put his specialized skills learned in the Army to good use by working in fly shops and guiding other anglers in the great outdoors and has now been been fly fishing for over two decades. Ben has also volunteered as a guide for Project Healing Waters, working with fellow wounded veterans using fly fishing as a therapeutic tool for recovery, and is a Trout Unlimited member.