The weather not only makes it tough on the angler, numbing the fingertips and making casting and stripping line nearly impossible, but it’s rough on the fish as well.
Like many species this time of year, the trout’s metabolism comes to a screeching halt, so they’re more sluggish and aren’t as quick to feed as they are in the spring through fall.
Then there are the river conditions, which become more challenging with every passing day, with ice, runoff and debris giving frost-bitten anglers even more obstacles to worry about.
The conditions are tumultuous on the fish as well.
In hopes of keeping these challenges to a minimum this time of year, here are some winter fly fishing tips to help you enjoy more success on the water:
1. Watch the Weather
First of all, never put yourself in harm’s way when going out into the outdoors. Going out in freezing conditions is not only unproductive, it’s unsafe. Always keep an eye on the forecast, especially when heading up to the mountains, and get off the water at the first sign of thunder or snowstorm, which could lead flash flooding or lightning strikes.
Fish aren’t going to bite in these conditions, so it’s no use risking your life.
2. Fish Close to Home
No use driving five hours if you’re only gonna fish for a couple of hours of daylight.
Stay close to home instead, and fish the waters you know better than anyone. Fishing unfamiliar waters in the winter when the conditions are at their worst is just a bad idea. Give yourself the best chance at success by fishing the waters you’re confident on.
3. Fish in the Late Morning, Afternoon
In terms of the time of day to fish, I have a rule that I don’t get out of bed early if it’s below 40 degrees. You might still be able to catch a trout at sunrise in those conditions, but is it really worth it?
Wait until the sun hits the water on those coldest mornings, burning off some of the morning frost and giving the fish a reason to come out for a quick snack.
You’d probably be better served to sleep in, drink a cup of coffee and a nice warm breakfast before you hit the water in these conditions anyway.
4. Fish the Slow Runs
Slow metabolisms means you have to fish slow as well.
The tendency is to fish stretches of water that are in direct sunlight, but you’ll also want to stay away from swift runs and stick to the slower water where bugs and baitfish might be more active. Remember, the longer you can keep your fly in the strike zone, the better your chances are going to be at hooking up.
My favorite approach is to fish riffles that flow into deeper pools, allowing the nymph to tumble over small fall or dropoff and naturally sink to the trout’s wheelhouse.
If you don’t make it easy on the trout, they’re going to make it tough on you.
5. Get Down Low
Now that you know when and where to fish, be sure your fly is getting in front of the trout’s snout.
Using beadhead nymphs or splitshots will help you bounce your fly off the bottom and get it where it needs to be. If you’re not against using a splitshot, start with a size 6 about 8 inches above the fly and see if you need to go lighter or heavier on ensuing casts.
You could also use a streamer like a wooly bugger or muddler minnow and fish it like a nymph as well. I’ve caught some of my largest browns on a woolly bugger using this approach.
If you feel like you’re getting hits, rather than bouncing on the bottom, but aren’t hooking up, you can always try a strike indicator.
I’m not a big fan of strike indicators, but if you’re not a fan of or skilled at high stick nymphing, an indicator is probably the best bet. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to strikes in the winter.