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Winter Fly Fishing: Technique, Methods and Patterns
by
Eugene Macri

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© 2017 E. P. Macri Jr.

Winter Fly Fishing is something that most fly fisherman should try but usually don't. There are many reasons for this but usually it's because most books, websites, and fly fishing magazines don't mention it much. In Winter Fly Fishing if you have the right technique, methods and patterns you actually could be in for some of the best fishing of the year especially on certain waters. The reason that many fly anglers don't fish in the winter is because they feel that trout don't feed much and also don't understand the weather conditions.

Unfortunately, this is not true. As an aquatic scientist I know and scientific studies show that trout do feed in the winter. They must feed to get through the winter. First understand the two major types of trout water: 1)freestone streams and 2)spring creeks. In freestone streams trout feed less than in spring creeks because the water temperature is much lower. However, even in freestone streams trout do feed and on some days they feed more than others. In true spring creeks like Big Spring, Silver Creek, Falling Spring, English Chalk Streams etc. trout feed all year around because the water temperatures are the same, usually from 46 to 52 f. Now let's discuss each type of stream.

 

Winter Fly Fishing in Freestone Streams

In Freestone streams Winter Fly Fishing depends more on the elements than in spring creeks. But don't let that deter you because there is still good fly fishing to be had. First realize that this is a double edge sword. For instance, if you get a strange week where you get a couple of days when the air temperatures hits the 50's you should probably grab your equipment and head for the stream because a couple of warm days will warm freestone waters significantly to cause a feeding frenzy if you are there at the right time. Freestone streams warm quicker and cool quicker so monitor the temps. Next, the first rule of fly fishing in the winter: you want no wind or low wind. This is important because it affects your ability to stay outside (yes I know steelhead fisherman fish in the worst weather but we aren't talking about this type of fishing but some of the techniques of steelhead fishing will work for winter fishing).

The second most important point is to fish at the warmest time of the day. Usually this is mid afternoon. It usually doesn't make much sense to fish freestone streams in the winter in the early morning. Third, find a place you can fish that is protected from the elements and stay out of the water as much as possible so you don't get so cold. Locate a likely environment where the fish should be. For example, a deep pool at the tail of riffle where food will be brought to the trout and they can maintain some cover. One other point if there is any vegetation still in the stream: fish near it. The vegetation often times has invertebrates on or near it!

The next question is what and how do I fish? First, limit what you carry. You don't need  the stocked vest that you fish most of the year. Let's start with the methods: you are mostly like going to fish with two methods most of the time. These would include streamer fishing and nymph or wet fly fishing. Over the years in winter fly fishing I have calculated that this is the main fishing about 70% of the time in freestone waters. Techniques: your cast should be short and measured. Remember find an area where you can see the fish or think that they will be. You are not going to wade miles of water unless it is unusually warm. This is why most fly angler fail in winter fishing. They try and do the same methods and techniques that they do in the spring and summer. You will get some dry fly fishing even on freestone streams if you are on the water at the right time and fish in the right place. About 30% of the time you will get Blue Winged Olives (Baetis) in the winter. When the water temperature hits the mid 40's Blue Wings are usually coming off somewhere on most trout streams in the winter. Unlike in the rest of the year where Blue Winged Olives usually come off in lousy weather, at this time of the year they usually come off during the warmest part of the day. But the nymphs are substrate and current speed specific and are usually found in pockets along the sides of the stream and bank. So look carefully. Also, you will get midge hatches all winter long especially on warmer days. Trout will feed against the bank sipping these flies and most anglers never see them. I watched two brown trout over 18 inches on the Yellow Breeches on a cold day (around 40 degrees) with water temps at 42f sip midges for over an hour with not one angler spotting them!

Now use a streamer first to locate the fish! Don't waste time fishing water where you get no reactions. Why fly angler do this is beyond me. A streamer will make the fish move, chase, or hit the fly. You don't really care if you hook him you want to find out where the fish are. Here's a secret: trout often pound up or school up in the best areas of a stream in winter. If you find fish then you can work on them with wets and nymphs or even other streamers. Another technique you should realize: when fishing a streamer in the winter you usually must keep it near the bottom and must fish it a lot slower than usual. Yes, some days they will chase a fast retrieve but most of the time they won't!

Fly Patterns for Winter Freestone Streams

Here's what I carry for fly patterns for winter fly fishing in freestone streams:

  • Streamers: Maribous: size 6-12 in red, yellow, black and white 
  • Black Ghost Streamer: size 6-12; especially good for brown trout 
  • Streamers: Wooly Buggers: size 6-12 in olive and black, chartreuse, black, and white. You can use bullet heads or bead head models too 
  • Sculpins: size 6-12 Ed Shenk type or similar 
  • Clouser Minnow: size 6-12 in bright colors 
  • Nymphs: size 8-14 Hare's Ear G.R.; size 6-12 Black Stonefly; size 6-12 Yellow Brown Stonefly; size 14-20 Pheasant Tail Nymph; size 6-12 Muskrat Nymph or Casual Dress; size 8-16 Red Midge Worm; size 6-12 San Juan Worm in Various colors; Midge larvae and pupae size 16-24 
  • Wet Flies: You can use any wet fly but I prefer bright type steelhead patterns tied on trout hooks. Carry some in size 6-12 in a bright, medium and dark patterns. Try some of my patterns on Killer Wet Flies; they work great in the winter too. 
  • Dry Flies: Blue Winged Olives size: 16-22; Midges: size: 18-24 in Red, Black, Cream, Yellow, and White 
  • Midge Larva: Zebrza midges, buzzers, anything in the 16 to 20 range.  All colors work but remember that most midges emerging are usually brown, black, red, cream, or yellow.
  • Sucker Spawn; yes trout love this stuff; sizes 10 to 14 various colors.

This is my basic box for Winter Fly Fishing in Freestone streams. You could probably carry all of these in one fly box. These patterns are good just about anywhere in the country for winter fly fishing.

 

Winter Fly Fishing in Spring Creeks

Winter fly fishing in spring creeks is a different kind of animal. Because the stream temperatures are basically the same throughout the year you can find fish feeding at any time of the day. The difference in spring creeks is simply that the fish feed quite a bit on scuds (side swimmers), freshwater shrimp (which are a bit different than scuds), cressbugs, and lots of sculpins and minnows. Trout also gorge all winter long on midge larvae, pupae and adults.  In fact, midge fishing comes into it's own on spring creeks like Big Spring, Falling Spring and even Western Spring Creeks in the winter. The secret to spring creek fishing in the winter is this: Do Not Spook the fish!  The trout in a spring creek are wary all year long.  These trout can afford to feed selectively even in the winter time.  The light on spring creeks controls most of the feeding!  In the winter time is probably the best time to fish streams like Big Spring, Falling Spring, The Letort and similar spring creeks for big trout because the fish will feed in the middle of the day and come out from their lies because of CLOUD COVER!

Yes, that's right and I doubt if you'll find this anywhere else on the net or in any book (but you might because a number of guides and fly fishing websites copy my stuff as soon as I put it up!). These trout are very light shy during the regular season but in the winter the cloud cover causes the fish to feed during normal daylight hours.  In the regular season these large trout tend to feed mainly at night!

Use the same techniques and methods you would at any time of the year.  However, you are not going to get the hatches in the winter so the fly box you will use is exactly the same as the freestone fly box except add:

  • Remember to scan the water with binoculars and take your time.  You will find large fish feeding under cloud cover throughout the day in various sections of the stream. You will get quite a bit of dry fly action on these streams because the Blue Winged Olives have a number of different broods per years and hatch all year on spring creeks in some sections. My studies show that some weeks during the winter trout will rise over 50% of the time for food on some spring creeks especially for midges!

If you locate a large fish I would fish a small nymph first! Try and take the trout on a scud, or Pheasant Tail.  Watch carefully and see if the fish is on a feeding lie. Use a streamer or sculpin pattern next and approach the trout from the downstream casting upstream. Keep a low profile as always and remember to keep your casting to a minimum!

Here's my list for the best flies on spring creeks in the winter:

  • Midges: Zebra midge all colors and sizes; Griffith's Gnat-size 16-22; bead head midges but be careful because on some days they will spook the trout.
  • Small scuds patterns 14-20; the trout are suckers for these really flies; colors amber to orange
  • Pheasant Tail sizes 16-22; Copper John and similar flies in different colors sizes 16-22
  • Cress Bugs: Size 16 to 8; the small ones sometimes do it
  • Small Hare's Ears G.R. sizes 14-20; these work well
  • Red Worm larvae and San Juan Worms will work well and various colors and sizes down to size 20!
  • Egg flies; yes various types of egg flies.  Why?  Because trout in spring creeks tend to spawn much later than freestone streams and the eggs are available for the fish.
  • All the streamers from the freestone section work well in spring creeks too.

I wish you the best and winter fishing can be quite productive no matter where you are...keep warm and good luck.

 

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