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Winter Trout Fishing Tips

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

Question: Tell me the truth. Is it really worth fly fishing in the winter? I’ve read all the magazine articles and looked at the pictures, but I still don’t quite believe that an average Joe like me is gonna catch fish in January on rivers that no one’s ever heard of. Should I put my gear away, or what?

Mike P., Edison, NJ

Winter Cutthroat Trout

Phil Monahan with a winter cuttbow.

Answer: It’s funny that someone from your part of the world should ask that question. The very first winter trout I ever caught came from the Musconetcong River in Hackettstown, New Jersey, almost 20 years ago. Like you, I didn’t really believe it would happen and was completely shocked when my indicator went under. But when I raised my rod, I came tight to a foot-long brown. Since then, I’ve enjoyed lots of cold-weather fishing, in places as disparate as New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Montana. On one memorable day, I arrived at Armstrong’s Spring Creek in Paradise Valley with the mercury stuck at 17 degrees Fahrenheit, only to find trout rising to a hatch of blue-winged olives.

That said, winter fishing is often about reduced expectations. Despite the above example, you’re usually not going to run into pods of fish feeding on the surface the way you might in June, and no trout are going to charge down your streamer in the way a spawn-enraged brown will in October. I always head out into the cold with the goal of catching a single trout; anything else is gravy. That way, if I catch three, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.

There are two keys to winter fishing: picking the right days and slowing everything down. In general, unless you’re fishing a tailwater or a spring creek, you don’t want to be on the water when it’s bitter cold out. It’s no fun for you, and the fish can be extremely sluggish. I’ve heard of guys nymphing on Colorado’s Taylor River when it’s 30 below out, but that strikes me as right on the edge of insanity. Ideally, you want a day that’s part of a warming trend, so if you see the temps heading upward—say from the twenties to the low or mid thirties—plan a day to fish.

Winter fishing is almost exclusively a nymphing game, with a light leader under an indicator. I have never worried about matching specific patterns, choosing instead to go with generalist nymphs, such as a Hare’s Ear, Copper John, Scud, or Pheasant Tail. And because fish aren’t willing to move very far to eat your offering, fish a two-fly tandem rig. Two patterns in the water means a better chance of bumping a fish in the nose with one of them. Winter trout usually hold in slower water—deep pools, long runs, and at the base of waterfalls—so you’ll want to focus on these areas. Work slowly, making a lot of drifts through each piece of water. It’s amazing that you can drift through a spot 20 times without the slightest bump, only to have the indicator dive on the 21st pass.

But don’t leave home without a few winter dry flies. About two or three years after I caught that first trout on the Musconetcong, I was fishing Big Flat Brook in the northwestern corner of the Garden State, when I was shocked again by the sight of several trout rising at the tailout of a pool. These were the first winter risers I’d come across. Luckily, I had a few Griffith’s Gnats in my vest, and I managed to take one of the trout by swinging the fly just under the surface. This was another proud moment in my maturation as an angler.

This wouldn’t be a proper article on winter fishing if it didn’t discuss preparing for the cold. But I’m guessing that you’re smart enough to put on a coat, hat, and gloves when it’s 30 degrees out. Am I right? Layer up, and most importantly, keep your body dry. One little leak can be more than an inconvenience when it’s really cold out.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at OrvisNews.com.
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  • Coach Z

    Don’t forget the meat! Streamer fishing can be great in the winter. Don’t be afraid to go deep as well. If you aren’t getting the bottom on your drift, you likely aren’t deep enough.

  • BH206L3

    What I love about fishing this time of year is the utter quite and having things to myself! One of the streams I fish in CT, you have to walk a bit, more that usual. Yes you have to layer up, and I like hand warmers on my kidneys and some in my hat on each side of my head, I look a little foolish at times but I do stay warm, The key is wade a little as possible! For the nuts a bolts of it, I like to fish both streamers and Nymphs, my favorite rig is a 8’6″ rod for a 5 wt, with a indicator, and 6x tippet, nymphs are small, 16 to 22 so I put on a 16 hare’s ear, and then an # 20 Pheasant tail or a Zebra midge, over all a 9 foot leader is long enough thou you could go to a 7 1/2 foot leader, of course split shot and a thermos of hot coffee or tea! You will catch fish, but you also will work for them, I plan of catching at least one and if I get four I had a great day! In general because its cold, the outings are shorter, its rare for me to spend a whole day out, 5 to 6 hours is about all I can stand before I just cold soak! Just remember if you are cold, and its not comfortable, go to your car and warm up or stop, feeling cold is the fist sign of hypothermia, for me, my feet gets cold, then they hurt and then there is no pain at all, but at that stage you will get frost bite if not careful! Winter trout fishing is a very enjoyable thing, you just have to plan and adapt more and above all stay dry- even if you don’t feel wet, you may be do to condensation! I could go on and on with this, and fishing the Frying Pan in Feb is one of the great things in life, you buddies can go ski and you can go catch slobs!( big rainbows)