Finding Trout in the Winter
Trout relocate during the winter months. Fish engage in a maintenance diet during cold months and experience very little growth. In order to conserve valuable energy, trout move into slower moving water. They generally prefer deeper water (greater than 3 feet) in larger rivers for added safety. The migration towards wintertime holding water produces dense concentrations of trout in a handful of slow and deep runs. The majority of the river becomes nearly devoid of trout. To be successful while fly fishing in Montana in the winter, anglers must focus on these slower and deeper runs that hold fish. Once you locate a good run they can be productive for several hours (on larger rivers) due to the high trout concentrations. Often the bottom of the river in especially good winter holding water will be black with the backs of trout that are packed like cord wood.
Time of Day
Trout are cold blooded and feed when water temps reach their peak during the winter months. Don’t bother fishing before 11am since trout will be in a thermally induced coma. The best hours to fish in the colder months is from noon until 4pm.
With some exceptions, winter fly fishing is generally a nymph fishing game. Different patterns work well on different rivers. In general, egg patterns, stone fly patterns and midge larva are a good bet. On tail waters and spring creeks scuds and shrimp patterns trailed by a midge larva is a good bet. The most important aspect of wintertime nymphing is to get slow drag free drifts right on the bottom of the river. Trout are not going to move far to take your flies so it is imperative that long leaders with adequate weights are used to ensure the flies get down to the fish. Takes are very subtle since the trout are not moving far during a take and they are in slow current. Both factors result in very little motion of the indicator. I exclusively use yarn indicators in the water since they help detect these delicate takes. Often a yarn indicator will simply flutter back or twist slowly. Strike first and ask questions later!
Not All Rivers Are the Same
Winter success is largely dependent on water temperatures. Rivers that have elevated temperatures from dam releases or springs are a great option. Freestone rivers can also be productive, especially just before spring but sometimes can be challenging due to ice shelves and very lethargic trout. Tail waters and spring creeks have warmer water than other locations and allow the trout to feed more actively during the colder months.
Dry Fly Opportunities in the Winter
Midge hatches occur in the early winter and again in the early spring. On Montana rivers like the Ruby, East Gallatin, Spring Creeks and Bighorn these hatches can be very strong. Great dry fly fishing can be experienced on these fisheries under these conditions. I prefer sunny days for good midge hatches. Some of the best match the hatch dry fly fishing of the year can occur in February and March before some anglers have even brushed the dust off of their fly rods!
Brian McGeehan is a Montana fly fishing outfitter and owner of Montana Angler Fly Fishing. He spends a significant number of days fishing Montana rivers and spring creeks during the winter months.