Winter Trout Fishing: Braving the Elements

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Winter Troute Fishing: The Intrepid Anglers

Wintertime means snow on the ground, skiing, sitting at home around the fireplace, and generally staying indoors until it warms again.    However, there are the few anglers, the intrepid few, who embrace the winter, and the many fishing options the winter months have to offer.

It is rare for rivers to completely freeze over in the lower 48 in the winter, and this means it is an ideal time to head out for some trout action.

Some may think the wintertime angler should have their head examined.    After all, who in their right mind would leave the comfort of a warm bed, hot coffee, and roaring fire for a frigid stream, cold fingers, and the potential for bad weather?    Besides, winter is the time to tie fresh flies, get in some skiing, and prep for the spring hatches.

A serious trout angler with a strong desire for trophy trout is who would do that and likely have no one to share the river with except the trout.   Plenty of trout is taken out of streams, rivers, and lakes on the coldest days of the year. It does not take any special techniques, but it does take the steel reserve to be out on the water fishing. Are you ready to see what winter trout fishing has to offer you?

Here is how it is done.

Winter Fishing Clothing

The number one thing to have when winter trout fishing is layered clothing. Dressing warmly in the morning is fine, but as the sun rises and you begin to sweat, it is wise to ditch some of the layers not only to cool down but also to give you needed flexibility in casting.

Waders are the second absolute. Keeping your legs dry could mean the difference between a trout meal and hypothermia. Shoes should have no slip bottoms for traversing rocks in the river or stream.

  • Neoprene – Much better wader choice for winter. Neoprene keeps warmth in, but does not breathe well.

  • Nylon – Much lighter weight and breathes, but layered clothing is much more important for nylon waders.

    Gloves or mittens that fold back to expose fingers are a solid choice. A warm hat, preferably fleece or wool, polarized sun glasses and sun screen, yes, sun screen will round out the basics for your clothes.

  • Gloves – Thinsulate™ means lightweight, and the fingertips fold back for fine motor skills.

  • Merino wool – Merino is known for lightweight with all of the properties of wool.

  • Polarized glasses – These have larger temples at the eye to block peripheral glare from the water. You can buy more expensive glasses, but if these get broken or lost, it is not a blow to the pocket.

  • Sunscreen – The sunscreen specifically for babies is ideal. It lasts longer, is waterproof and will not sting if it drips into the eyes.

Grab your favorite light weight fly rod, a box of freshly tied flies and head for the river.    Here are our tips on your winter fishing success.

Winter Flies

Trout and fly fishing are as peanut butter and jelly.    The two belong together.    Winter trout, however, need some changes from the spring and summer trout seasons.    Here are the ten best.

1. Slow is the word of the season – Trout during the winter are slow and lethargic but still need to eat.    The trout will not expend unnecessary energy on food, so presenting your flies as close to their face as possible is key with as little movement as possible.    Keep the streamers and wet flies at home.    You should be thinking nymphs on the bottom.

  • Fly tying – If you do not already tie your own, now is a great time to learn. Nymph and wet fly patterns are some of the easiest to tie since they are not complicated or require carefully attached wings for balance. There is some degree of initial cost for fly tying, but you reap the benefits on the water.

  • Nymphs – Matching what the trout are feeding on can be tricky. Best to have a selection of sizes and colors on hand while on the river or stream.

2. By bottom, we mean deep – Slow moving water is the best for cold blooded trout.    Again, energy conservation is self-protection.    Deep pockets and pools should be your target.    Weigh down your fly with a bit of lead to get the fly even closer to the fish.

  • Fly lead – This lead can be wrapped around the shank of the hook before tying the fly or attached to the tippet to help get the flies down to the trout’s level.

3. Size it down – Large, juicy hatches are not going to be trout fare, so thinking small is necessary.    Go down to your size 20 and under – even if it means using a strike indicator.    Go lightly colored with that, as the brighter colors can spook fish in clear water.

  • Strike indicator – These New Zealand varieties more closely mimic what trout may see on the water and will not spook them.

4. If you want dry – Nymphing is much more likely to produce your winter strikes, but the die-hard dry fly angler can still find success as midges will hatch in the winter.    Watch for a hatch, but do not bet on trout rising for your dry flies.

The two fly method can help in this instance as the larger fly can act as an indicator.    If you are not sure how to use this method, contact your local fly shop for help.    Yes; there are videos on Youtube, but these pale in comparison to local knowledge. Besides, local fly shops and fishermen will have the inside scoop on what works well on the local waters.

  • Midge patterns – These are appropriate for wet or dry action and small enough for winter trout.

5. A streamer – Much like the dry fly fan, there are an equal number of streamer fans who simply cannot let go – even in the winter.

It is a hope you have the concept in your head that SLOW is vital to wintertime success.    Fish a streamer as you would a nymph.    Big fat meals are rare in the winter, and there may be a trout willing to snack.

  • Wooly Buggers – These are a standard trout streamer and feature plenty of action to tantalize even winter trout to a bite.

6. Small tippets – Fly presentation is always important for trout, as a single size line crashing onto the surface will do nothing but spook trout away.    You are going small with the fly and need to do the same with the tippet.    6x or smaller is best.    It is rather difficult to get anything larger through the eye of a midge as it is.

  • Tippet material – Buying tippet material in packs mean you can customize the presentation of your fly from winter to summer patterns and can do so on the water.

7. The weather forecast – All good hunters, anglers and people who love the outdoors pay attention to the weather forecasts, and the winter trout angler is no different.    Days when the sun is out and shining (sun screen!) is ideal for you and the trout.    If there is a cold snap the day before, all the better as the trout will be hungry after fasting.

8. Enjoy your rest – This is not the fall deer season when you want to be up, out and in the stand as the sun peeks over the horizon.    Trout are not going to be active in the early morning, cooler temps but will move around as the sun comes up.    Enjoy your morning coffee, and plan on being on the water around 10 a.m. as the sun is warming up the day.

9. Tailwaters – If your local river or stream has a dam, now is the time to fish it.    The temperatures at tailwaters are often constant and close to the summer temperatures.    Close, mind you, so remember to keep it slow.

You may have to share your space in tailwaters, so plan on a backup locale in case the area you want to fish is full.

10. Watch the water – High waters stained and dirty mean the trout are going to huddle down and stay there.    They have no desire to be bothered with silt and debris, and you should not either.    If the water is the color of your coffee with cream, go home, and have another cup.    Take the day to tie up some new patterns on your new fly tying vise and gear.

Winter Troute with Spinning Tackle

Mastering a fly rod takes time, practice and devotion.    Those who can tempt a trout in the winter on their fly rods have truly mastered the art, and it is an art, of the fly cast.    However, there are some who cannot use a fly rod or choose not to use one.    There is no shame in using a spinning reel and spinners for winter trout.

Spinning tackle is great for kids and is perfectly suitable for adults.    Here are the best reasons why leaving the fly rod on the rack at home may be in your favor.

1. Size of the water – Everyone loves the idea of a strong back cast and gentle presentation of a fly as the line lands on the water.    On tight streams and rivers where a proper back cast is not feasible, a roll cast is possible, but the precision necessary to reach the trout is sorely lacking.    A winter trout angler with the proper spinning gear can resolve that issue with ease.

  • Open face ultralight rod and reel – Anything longer than about six feet is too much. You may as well use your fly rod.  Six feet is on the high end of what is recommended as well.  Most anglers who go with conventional tackle find rods of four and a half feet ideal, particularly on tight streams.

2. Go loud – Spinners that add vibration and noise may help get a rise from the trout.    Look for spinners that clack and blades that churn as they turn.

  • Panther Martin – These are some of the best on the market and will make quite a bit of noise when retrieved.

  • DIY – Make your own spinners. Attach a midge, nymph or other fly to it. Add some weight, and fish like a standard spinner. It works exceptionally and surprisingly well.

3. Spinners help to slow it down – We continually go back to the speed, but the spinning blade allows for a slow retrieve and holds the lure in the water level for the optimal opportunity.

4. Spinners cover water – Since a spinner is a “throw it out, and reel it in” action, anglers can cover water quickly and easily.    The slower presentation of a fly drastically reduces coverage.

5. Gets the kids involved – Most kids do not have the attention span and patience to work a fly and fly rod.    The constant action of the spinner keeps them interested in the action and in the outdoors – protecting the next generation of sportsmen.

  • Spincast – The open face reel may be a bit challenging for small hands, but a spincast reel and a few minutes of instruction creates a lifelong trout fan.

WINTER TROUT IN LAKES AND BIG WATER

So far, we have shared plenty of information with you about trout fishing in the winter in streams and rivers, but trout can be found on big, open water – ponds and lakes – in the winter as well. Much like the previous suggestions, winter trout on big water is possible. You may have the luxury of most of the water to yourself as well.  Taking winter trout on lakes with fly gear is possible, but it is very difficult to do well.  Fly line is easily tangled on parts on the boat.  The necessity of deeper presentations also mean most anglers who fish with a floating line, the most common fly line, will not be able to get their flies to the depth where the trout lie.  It is far better to stick to standard tackle and presentations.

Here is what is recommended:

1. On the bottom – Trout are much more likely to be closer to the bottom on big water than on rivers and streams. Your presentation needs to crawl even more slowly to entice bites. Conservation of energy – remember that.

2. Fan your way out – Start all casts close and work your way out – not the other way around. Trout that are nearby could spook when a line or lure strikes them, and the trout will shut down for a good 15 to 30 minutes after. Chose a side, left or right, and work.

3. Hunt not fish – Winter trout mean you are literally hunting for the fish. Trout are not actively moving in search of meals. You are trying to put the meals in their faces. Fish an area, and move.

4. Lure choices – You need spinners, flash and noise. Just like we mentioned for the river trout. The approach and techniques to catch them are the exact same.

5. Warm days – If the day promises some sunshine and a touch of warm for the winter, this may trigger a plankton bloom. This will in turn attract baitfish, and baitfish attract hungry trout.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED

1. What are the best lure sizes to use in winter?

The smaller flies of Sz. 20 and below are ideal, along with 1x streamers. Spinners should be light as well, 1/16 oz. is perfectly sized. The links above take you to plenty of options that will meet your specific needs for winter trout. Best of all, these same lures will produce equally well the rest of the year.

2. Where do trout go in the winter?

In the winter, trout are going to head into the deeper water and pools because there is not much moving water. This way they can minimize their energy expenditures until the water starts warming again in the spring. Hence why nymphs, slow presentations, smaller lures and getting down under the water’s surface is so important for quality winter trout fishing.

3. How cold is too cold for trout fishing?

Have you ever heard of ice fishing? Anglers fish in all sorts of conditions. About the only time it is too cold to fish is in the middle of a blizzard or white-out. Otherwise, fish are biting somewhere.