The Fly Fisherman’s Winter Trout Survival Guide
By Robert Fravel
Here in the northeast, winters can be downright brutal. With blizzards and sub-freezing temperatures lasting well into April. Once the calendar changes from November to December, a lot of fly fisherman begin what they call “tying season” and don’t hit the water again until spring. But for those of us willing (or crazy enough) to brave the cold, the rewards of winter fishing can be immensely satisfying. Fly fishing in the winter presents a unique set of challenges, but following this advice will help you overcome those challenges.
Narrow your fly selection.
In winter, there really are no prolific hatches, so it is unnecessary to bring fly boxes containing 50-75 different patterns. Keep it simple. Do your homework on the waters you plan to fish. Find out what trout feed on during the colder months and limit your fly selection to those food sources. Here in eastern Pennsylvania, I will typically use some combination of five different patterns during the winter.
- Zebra midge, size 18-22
- BH pheasant tail, size 14-18
- Scuds, size 12-18
- Griffith’s gnat, size 16-22
- Parachute adams, size 14-20
Use fine tippet and keep a low profile.
During the winter, my initial setup on my home waters is typically a tandem nymph rig fished under an indicator. Since water levels are generally low and the water clear, I will use 6x or 7x tippet on my setup. I absolutely hate big bulky, football-looking indicators. Sure you can adjust the depth of your flies with ease, but they also spook 90% of the trout in the stream. I prefer to take a foam, pinch-on indicator, cut it in half with my pocket knife and then take that half and fold it around my tippet. I find that this method spooks far less fish and is still buoyant enough to support my flies.
Be persistent and thorough.
Trout are sluggish during the colder months. They are less likely to chase flies this time of year. As a result, you literally have to put your fly on top of their nose. In order to increase your chances of this, you need to thoroughly cover every area that looks like it holds fish. This could mean making 15 to 20 drifts through an area. Make the effort and you will be rewarded.
Apply cooking spray.
Yes, you read that correctly. If you are fishing in below freezing temps, ice will start to clog up the eyes on your fly rod. In order to combat this, spray your rod eyes with cooking spray before rigging up. This will prevent the ice from forming for at least an hour or two. If you do not have any cooking spray handy, you can also try using WD-40.
Bring a thermos full of hot liquid and something to start a fire with.
Obviously, any time you are wading into a body of water there is some degree of risk involved. That degree of risk is exacerbated when you are in a remote location and/or in low temperatures. In my opinion, fishing in the winter time is more dangerous than any other time of year due to the risk of hypothermia. If you slip and fall into the water, you are in serious trouble. During the winter months here in Pennsylvania, temperatures can frequently fall into the teens and occasionally even single digits. If I took a spill and managed to get the clothing underneath my waders wet, I could become hypothermic within minutes. Carrying a thermos full of hot coffee or tea is a great way to help raise your core temp and having a lighter, matches or another way to start a fire could potentially save your life.
Lower your expectations.
As I mentioned earlier, trout are sluggish during the winter months and there are no dazzling hatches like the spring and summer. Don’t expect to see dozens of trout rising to pick bugs off the surface. Set your expectations accordingly. In the colder months, I approach a day of fly fishing with the expectation of catching one fish. That way, if I manage to net three or four trout, I feel like a fly fishing guru.
Enjoy the serenity.
In my opinion, the best part about winter fly fishing is the lack of other people. Fishing a mountain stream surrounded by a valley blanketed in freshly fallen snow, without another soul in sight is something that cannot be replicated through pictures or words. Go out and experience what the great outdoors has to offer. And while you are out there, take some time to absorb your surroundings and cherish the moment. You just might find yourself searching for that wild sense of unbridled adventure, rather than fish.