When most people think of winter they think of building snowmen or shoveling sidewalks, but not fly fishing. The winter months can sometimes drag on and feel like years to anglers anxiously waiting for warmer months. Most people don’t realize that the winter months can be just as effective as other times of the year to catch fish on the fly. In the following, I have outlined some equipment and tactics for winter fly fishing that will help you become more effective at chasing the winter bite during the cold months of the year.
Winter Fly Fishing Gear
The most important tip myself or any other outdoor enthusiast can give you is to always dress for the weather. If you are not prepared for the temperature and conditions you are guaranteed to not enjoy your time in the water. It is always a good idea to put on some additional layers and investing in a good pair of socks to keep your feet warm can go a long way as well. Additionally in the winter while fly fishing, I switch from my breathable waders to neoprene for some added protection from the cold weather and water. I also take a cheaper or older set of lightweight gloves I have laying around and cut the finger tips off. Gloves like this can be purchased for very little cost at most outdoor stores. These gloves provide some warmth without restricting your dexterity while fly fishing in the winter. As for rod and reel, I always size down my tippet this time of year due to water depth and clarity. The water on the fishable days is usually very low and clear. Fish can see the larger diameter tippet much more easily in these conditions. Switching to smaller size tippet may just do the trick in enticing a fish to strike.
The Winter Fish
This next part may sound cheesy, but when you are out winter fly fishing, remember to think like a fish. Exposure to the cold slows your body down and the same is true for the fish. Their metabolism slows down, and they will not go out of their way very far to strike a fly. I typically use nymphs and midges this time of year because that is usually what is available for the fish to feed on during the winter months. In general, most of a trout's diet is subsurface but more so in winter since there are few if any hatches. That is why winter nymphing can be a highly effective fly fishing technique this time of year.
The most common patterns that I use in winter are black stone fly nymphs, zebra midges and black hare’s ears with red wire ribbing. Whenever I tie on a nymph pattern I like to set it at about 1.5 times the water depth. I have had a lot of success using that measurement while winter nymphing, but fish your nymphs as you would any other time. However given the opportunity, a fish will also take a minnow this time of year; but as stated above, they will not go out of their way very far to attack them. If I do tie on a wooly bugger I like to cast upstream and dead drift it down through the pool in the areas that I think a fish will be laying. I do not strip the fly much this time of year, but it is important to take out the slack in the line as it drifts in case of a strike.
Know the Conditions
Another important aspect to consider before heading out are the conditions you will be winter fly fishing in. Keep a close eye on weather forecasts when deciding to head out for the day or remain inside to tie up some flies. Weather will always play a big part in every fishing adventure but more so in the winter. One important thing to keep in mind when it comes to weather is if you’re not comfortable (within reason, sometimes the best stories involve inclement weather), you probably won’t have a good time.
Water conditions are also key. If the water is high and murky due to snow melt or rain events, it usually isn’t worth fly fishing. The fish are not as active and will not respond as they do during a spring or summer rain event. The weather and USGS water level readings for Pennsylvania are very useful to monitor creek and weather conditions before heading out. As I stated above, think like a fish. Whenever the weather warms up for a day, everyone is trying to get outside and enjoy the warmth while it lasts. Fish, and more importantly, fish food act the same way. Warm weather can trigger hatches, such as blue-winged olives, and the fish will actively feed on those hatch. If you are blessed with an unseasonably warm day, take advantage of it and head out winter fly fishing.
Tactics for Winter Fly Fishing
Spot selection still plays a big role when fly fishing in winter. Stick to what you know and have learned throughout the year. Heading to winter fly fishing destinations that have the capability to hold large numbers of fish will increase your odds of having a successful day. When fishing specifically for trout in the winter, I like to key on deep and slow pools. This is because you will typically encounter very shallow water conditions, very similar to late summer water levels. It is also important to take into consideration your approach up to your fly fishing spot. As always you want to move slow, but this time of year, shadows can also play a big part. A good spot can be ruined by spooking the fish with a careless stumble. Pay attention to your casting motion and move as slow as possible when mending your line while winter fly fishing.
Winter fly fishing can be a very rewarding time of year to fish, if you know how to set yourself up for success. I hope that you can use a few of these winter fly fishing tips and tricks to create success for yourselves. Remember the most important thing about fly fishing is to have fun. So, to all of you avid anglers out there, please be safe, and I wish you tight lines and many fish while on the water this winter!