Winter Trout Fishing
Michael Alberghini / Sportsmens Compass Team Member
I think 80% of the difficulty in winter fishing is a mix of actually getting yourself on the water, being thorough and staying there long enough to catch a fish. I have experienced many winter skunkings that in hindsight were probably due to the fact that nobody (myself included) really put in enough effort to get anything done.
Think about your average day of fishing in the spring. You are willing to change flies often, cover as much water as you can and generally be very focused. In the winter, you’re pretending your not cold, trying not to let your buddies see you shiver. You might be wearing gloves that are numbing your sensitivity to your nymph rig. Maybe your streamer isn’t getting deep enough but you are loathing the thought of tying another fly on. Think about a recent winter fishing experience and how much effort you put in. Now picture that day but pretend it was a day in May. You will quickly see yourself as the laziest angler on the water.
To me, this is precisely the hurdle most of us are not willing to jump in the winter. If you are willing to be precise and really cover every inch of the water you’re working you can have success in the winter. You will also need to understand a few things about the water you’re working and the trout you are targeting.
Trout do not know months of the year. Trout understand photoperiods and water temperature. When the days are shorter and the water is in the 30’s, trout cannot metabolize food quickly. They are limited to feeding during the warmest parts of the day, and can’t afford to move much. When you target winter trout, you need to locate “wintering holes.” These are deep pools that provide protection as well as slow current and possibly slightly warmer water.
Depending on your technique, there are a few different places I like to target wintering trout. If I’m using a nymphing rig, my ideal location to fish would be a slow riffle of about 3 foot depth feeding a very deep but short pool. If this pool is conducive to holding fish in the winter, it gives them a nice slow riffle to move into if they decide to feed. The ideal riffle is concentrated rather than very wide, giving you less total area you need to cover. In the winter you really don’t want to skip anything. Trout are not going to move much for a fly so you really need to be thorough and fish every inch.
If I’m fishing streamers, I’m a little less picky with location, so long as it’s deep enough for trout to winter in. You have an
ability to change your streamer approach to meet the needs of each pool more so than you do with nymphs, and you can also cover water faster with streamers.
The name of the game here is slow down, and fish deep. With nymphs I want to be on the bottom as long as I can. I also try to use as little weight as necessary to get down to maintain as much sensitivity as possible. Takes will be subtle and easily missed. Like I’ve said previously, I try to put my nymphs through every inch of the run. Most fish tend to sit in the soft pockets, be it on the edge of a seam or a small depression somewhere in the run that could hold a fish. While I make sure to always fish with a sub-size 18 midge pattern in black or red, super small is not always necessary. Hot spot nymphs work great in the winter, and I like to use pinks, oranges and apricots anywhere from a 14-20. If I had to pick one size hot spot-style fly to fish all winter it would be an 18, but I do use 16s often and 14s when I need a lot of weight. Besides those, I use tiny hares ears and pheasant tails and the occasional stonefly. Many
insects in the drift at this time will be juvenile mayflies at varying sizes so I think generic attractor patterns are great choices. Of course if you have a lot of caddis, especially net spinners in your river, they are always kicking around and are a good idea to imitate.
For streamers I downsize, and by that I mean I drop from a 6” or 7” fly to a 3” or 4” fly. I also thin the profile out which aids in sinking as well as making the fly a little less intimidating. I prefer to use a floating line wherever I can, but often have to use a 200 or 250 grain sink tip to get my flies down to the bottom. I want my fly to just barely be moving, so I dead drift with either a slow retrieve or a slow swing. For color, my go-to is white. White works well for me in all light and water clarity conditions. Blacks and olives are also good choices but I think that each system will have its color and that’s something you’re going to have to experiment with. As a rule of thumb, I start with either white or black for high contrast, and move into the neutral middle colors like brown, tan, gray or olive if those don’t work.
So now let’s talk about when to get out there. A bright sunny day is an obvious choice, but what you should really concentrate on is water temperature. Here’s an example forecast for you:
Many anglers’ first instinct is to make sure they get out fishing on Friday. However if I had to pick one day, it would be Sunday. So let’s say we have a peak water temp of 34 Thursday. Thursday night this is going to decrease, as the low is 29. Friday the high is 44, so the water will warm, but water is much slower to warm than air, so it will probably only rise a few degrees here, depending on how high the river is and if it’s a tailwater or not. The fish will become more active from this temperature rise during the day, but the warming from the sun and air will be short-lived, as it will drop into the 20’s Friday night. Because of this, the water temp will not be substantially higher Friday night than it was Thursday night, lets say it’s 34 degrees.
Here’s where the real warming begins. At some point Saturday morning, the air temperature will be above the water temperature, and this will remain true for about 36 hours. Even as night falls the water will be warming because Saturday’s low is still warmer than the water temperature. This steady warming really wakes the fish up, and while the water temp probably wont hit 40 degrees, a 3 or 4 point swing can really help. So here are my guestimated waters temps for this forecast:
So you can see from this that while Sunday is the coldest day out of the three days, the water will be the warmest then. This is crucial to understand and be able to predict if you want to make your outings count in the winter. While these forecasted water temperatures are fairly rough, it is the concept that is important to grasp. Another thing worth mentioning is that water temps peak a few hours after sunset. Low water also concentrates fish and allows the water to warm up fasters during the day, so look out for that.
So go take a look at a temperature gauge in a river near you. Watch the water temperature patterns as they relate to air temperature. Take some time and get out there these winter months, you may even be fortunate enough to find some fish feeding on the surface to midges. Whatever the conditions may be, just be sure to give it the ol’ college try.