I was visiting the local watering hole on a cold wintery night and when I asked the inn keep if he would make me something hot one of the guys asked, “what were you doing all day playing in the snow?” I cracked a smile and nodded my head back and forth a bit, “no”, I said, “I was fly fishing”. “Do you actually catch anything fly fishing in winter?” he asked. I thought about his question for a second or two and I’ll admit the fishing isn’t as productive, but if you know what are the key insects for winter fly fishing you stand a better chance of landing a trout.
What Are The Key Insects For Winter Fly Fishing? Wintertime fishing uses the same insects we fish any other time of the year, Midges, Mayflies, Stoneflies, Caddis, Scuds, and Sowbugs. Add in egg patterns or worm patterns and you have the key insects.
But, (and here comes the “but”), trout are feeding this time of the year on about 7 out of about 12 major food groups. During the winter months, the availability of insects dwindles simple because hatches have slowed or are nonexistent. Of the 7 groups, I mentioned trout may only feed on 2 to 3 of these groups on any given day. The good news is finding a fly that works isn’t too difficult if you spend a little time and work the box.
Why is Winter Fishing so Different?
Well, of course, the obvious answer is that it is winter, meaning it’s cold and battling the cold is the toughest part. Ok, I realize you have to be very passionate about fly fishing to fish during winter and at the same time I’d venture a guess and say a bit of insanity is probably needed as well. Few guys are willing to head out during the winter months which is why tying flies become the true go-to activity during the winter months.
But there is a certain beauty to the landscape during winter’s grip that is difficult to explain. The contrasting dark grays and shades of white that color the winter scene along with the bare leafless trees has a beauty all its own. Most days you can fish and never see another soul and having the creek to yourself has its rewards.
During the winter months, most insects are dormant and wildlife, in general, has slowed the activity. Trout also become a bit lethargic and don’t chase nearly with the same enthusiasm as they do at other times of the year. Add in the ice that can choke a stream and if it covers the stream, well, you’re done at that point. The real lure (pardon the pun) of winter fishing is the chance to catch big fish. Catching large numbers of fish on a given day is not going to happen, but catching a big fish might.
Wintertime is a time to practice casting skills, drifting skills and work on the mechanics while on the stream, as catching is more limited this time of the year. But that all said three things are needed in winter in order to catch fish, productive location, proper fly selection, and an effective presentation. Sound familiar?
What Fly Families To Concentrate On?
I mentioned in the opening of this post that knowing what the key insects for winter fly fishing are will help you catch more trout. Knowing that will give you a better ability in choosing a productive pattern. Now a bit of common sense here can go along way as well. Gone this time of the year are flying insects, for the most part, so dry flies are out and can wait for spring. Sure a Blue-winged Olive may work but realistically playing the odds, I wouldn’t waste my time trying those unless I can see activity that is dictating me do so.
Narrowing down your choices from the families of insects we typically rely on, such as Midges, Mayflies, Stoneflies, and Caddis will help simplify your fly selection. In other words, forget hatches and think more along the lines of nymphs.
- Midges make up the majority of a trout’s diet and when it comes to winter fishing I say they are the go-to fly. Their activities spikes during the midday with 10-3 pm being the active window.
- Mayflies through the winter are primarily consisting of Blue Winged Olives. They do hatch through the winter and although it sounds contradictory to what I just mentioned, if the water temp rises above 38 degrees, don’t be surprised to see BWO’s.
- Stoneflies are a staple that can be fished any day of the year. But why they are important in winter is the fact that they have a three-year cycle which means they are always present. Trout are used to seeing stonefly nymphs year-round.
- Caddis during the winter months are only present as a nymph and the larva are either cased or free form. As a free form, they resemble midges but are more grotesque or monster-like. When in a case they remind me of little hermit crabs scurrying between the rocks.
- Scuds and Sowbugs are a good choice if you are fishing a Limestone stream or tailwaters where enough vegetation is present for them to survive.
- Annelids or aquatic worms are in the water and active year-round. These guys become vulnerable during times of high water and are flushed downstream.
- Eggs exist because of the brown trout spawn which happens through the fall. Water flow can dislodge eggs from the stream bed and big changes in water flow carry eggs down the stream where trout can feed on them all winter.
What Fly Patterns To Concentrate On?
Now that we have identified what are the key insects for winter fly fishing we can narrow down the pattern choices to a small few for wintertime fly fishing. From the many conversations I have had with fly fishing friends, fly fishing groups, along with the materials I read, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on – fish midges.
Midges are the most basic and most important food source for trout. They are the bulk of a trout’s diet especially from November through February. Midges hatch throughout the winter and in freezing temperatures to boot. Drifting midge larvae are something trout will key in on and depend on them for easy pick’ins.
Zebra midge is a good midge pattern. In sizes 18-24 they are without a doubt one of the best flies for winter fly fishing.
Thin Blue Midge is another good midge pattern. They too can be fished near the bottom but is a better pattern for near-surface fishing. Also in sizes 18-24. Using both these patterns in tandem is pretty deadly. Using a Zebra as a dropper to the Thin Blue works well. But, I have to say is a bit tricky. I tie the Thin Blue to my tippet and leave a long tag end to tie the Zebra midge to. It takes a little practice to get these tied right but they work really well once you have them set up.
Blue Winged Olive Nymph. Resembling a member of the Baetidae family, they are free swimmers in colors from dark brown to olive or emerald. They are slim, minnow-like nymphs and classified as swimmer nymphs.
Pheasant Tail. This is a great fly period. It can be fished year-round but in the winter if you go small in can be very productive. Sizes 18-22 is a good choice for winter.
Beaded Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear. This is a variation of the classic Hare’s Ear nymph. The hackle pulsates and moves to look like an emerging nymph. The wiggle and squirming action provoke strikes. I use this throughout the winter and catch fish, but to be honest, I don’t know why I mean it’s an emerger pattern and Mayflies aren’t emerging through winter typically. Again small sizes 16 – 20.
Frenchie. It is really an attractor nymph and doesn’t really match any hatch. Again of tied smaller 16 -20 it will trigger a hungry trout into striking.
Stonefly nymph in standard patterns sizes 12-16 and in colors of black, brown, and yellow.
Crystal Larva I don’t know how widespread this pattern is. I came across it and liked it because of it resembling a cased caddis larva and use it throughout the winter months. Fish it near or touching the bottom.
Cased caddis nymphs there are a lot of cased caddis nymph patterns and most are easy to tie. Davie McPhail, a well know fly tier has a great video on how to tie a Cased Caddis. (Davie McPhail’s Cased Caddis)
The remaining items I mentioned were the Sow and Scud bugs, Annelids and Egg patterns. Sow and Scud bugs look much like little shrimp and are easy to tie. Because they are a year-round pattern every fly box should have a few and if you don’t have any well it’s time you did. They can be used almost anywhere, but are most prevalent on Limestone streams and in tailwaters.
Worms are also a year-round pattern and the two most popular, in my opinion, are the San Juan worm and the Squirmy worm. Both are good wintertime patterns especially as water levels rise.
How To Fish In Winter?
It’s one thing to have a knowledge of the patterns to use during the winter months and another thing to actually get out there and fish. Winter is a different beast when it comes to fly fishing. Winter with all its beauty is also a time to fish with caution.
Cold is a nasty element and adding water into the mix can get dangerous. Falling while wading is the most obvious concern. For us older guys, the footing is something we no longer can take for granted. Sure we like to think we’re young but the body doesn’t seem to care what the mind says. Winter has snow, mud, dampness, and ice all waiting for you like bobby traps. When moving around be careful and calculate your footing. I’m not just talking in the stream but more importantly to and from the stream and while walking the banks. You young guys out there take note too, because a slip or fall in the woods can be a very serious problem, so take care.
Dressing for the occasion is extremely important too. Wearing the proper clothing while out is a must. Breathable waders are a great thing to have and wearing layers of breathable clothing will keep you warm and dry. Hypothermia is a real threat, so don’t underestimate the cold and go unprepared for it will kill you.
Now That I Have Scared You Half To Death
Winter fishing is a demanding time to fish and requires a bit more precision and skill than the rest of the year. I’d venture to say the guy who can catch trout through the winter can catch trout anytime.
Winter is a slow time of the year and when you hit the stream slowing down, taking your time is the best advice I can give you. Spend a great deal of time studying the water looking for trout. In other words, hunt for them like you would play one of those hidden objects games. If you can see a trout before he sees you and spooks you now have a better chance of a hookup.
When the water temperatures drop so does trout activity. They become a bit more lethargic as their metabolisms slow. They are not going to chase flies as readily as they do in the spring or when water temperatures are ideal. Winter trout may not be as weary as trout of summer, but never the less they are still cautious. Casting shadows on to them will spook them along with any unnatural movement. Remember too, there are no leaves on the trees or shrubs to hide behind. Water is usually clearer in winter so trout can see much more. The best advice is to slow everything way down. Subtle movements and slow snail-like movement go a long way to see and catching winter trout.
Along with slowing your movements down is being more deliberate. Make your casts count and take time between casts. Don’t be in a hurry. Make your cast, finish your drift all the way through and then wait a bit before the next cast.
Time To Think Smaller And Lighter
When we talked earlier about what are the key insects for winter fly fishing I mentioned that you should be fishing smaller nymph in sizes 16 -24 in general. With that is using a smaller tippet as well. I might spend the spring and summer using 5x or 6x tippet materials, for example, but drop to 7x for the winter.
The same holds true for strike indicators. With everything else going smaller, downsize your indicator also. You detect strikes, that will be more subtle, a bit easier. While I’m thinking about it, concentrate hard on your indicator while it’s drifting. Strikes will be hardly noticeable because trout will pick up your nymph with hardly any effort.
Another thing to consider is your usage of weight. I can’t tell you what weight size to use because it can vary widely depending on streams, flow, and depth. But what I can say is be prepared to change weight often. Either adding more or reducing weight is the name of the game. You have to be willing to play with your weight in order to get it right.
Precision, Precision, Precision
Trout, as we said, are lethargic. A nymph has to almost hit them right in the face sometimes for them to take it. Each cast has to drift into the trout in a precise manner. In other words, presentation during winter is more crucial than any other time of the year. So again, being deliberate with your cast will help you be more precise.
During the winter most of the trout will be found in deep pools and positioned along the bottom of the pool. Because current flow is slower typically in these pools the trout have a bit more time to look over your offering before deciding on whether to take it or not. This is another reason why you have to be willing to make changes often, whether it be weight smaller tippet or fly selection. If you can see trout and see how they react to your offering you’ll have a great chance at figuring out what you need to do hook one up.
Best Part Of Winter Fishing
Without question, for me, the best part of winter fishing is practice time on the water. Often when a newcomer to the sport comes along I try to get them out during the winter months. Not to frustrate them but to have them on the water during a time when there is less chance to get hung up in the trees and brush. Also, there is less in the stream regarding plant life to snag which again is an ideal time to practice nymph fishing.
Winter fishing isn’t easy and can challenge the best of trout fishermen. But if heading out to fish with little expectation of actually catching fish means one will concentrate on the mechanics of fishing. They can work on their casting, nymphing or streamer fishing techniques.
The best part of all of this is there is nobody on the water to see you “looking stupid”. I’m just kidding, but it is true you often will have the stream to yourself and playing or testing things out with nobody around is really pretty cool.
Get out and fish during the winter months. Practice, play and enjoy the cold, crisp days on the water. Dress for the occasion and wear proper clothing for the conditions. Take in the beauty of the day and while you’re at it pay attention to what wildlife may be around you. If you see insects, look them over and take notice of their size shape, color. Turn over a rock or two and see what lurks. Before you know it you’ll learn what are the key insects for winter fly fishing and either what’s in the fly box or what you need to put in the fly box to match your winter fishing. Fish on!
Do I need to Be On the Water Early in Winter?
One of the nice things about winter fishing is it is a more relaxed time to fish. Trout are not as active and they become more active as water temperatures rise. Therefore most of their activity will take place between 10 and 3 pm. So sleep in and don’t worry too much about being on the water early.
How Should I dress for Winter Fly Fishing?
Layers are the key to wintertime dressing. Also, stay away from cotton materials like sweat pants. Cotton absorbs moisture and as you move around and generate heat, even in winter, you will perspire. As the heat leaves your body the moisture gets trapped in the cotton and it gets damp. As it evaporates it works like air conditioning and yo get cold. Layer up in breathable materials to stay warm.
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