Many fishermen find winter to be a miserable time to fish, the trout are sluggish and the temperatures cold. Well, they are missing out, because on warm winter days the fishing can be spectacular.
In this article, I will share some hints on how to catch trout during even the coldest of months.
Surface – Winter Dry Fly Fishing
It is commonly quoted that trout feed from the surface only around 10% of the time. Well, that is an oversimplification due to the lack of insect activity over the winter months, trout will spend even less time there than during the summer.
For this reason, it is only worthwhile throwing dry flies when you can actively see trout surface feeding.
In most of the country midges and the occasional blue wing olive mayfly (BWO) hatch make up the majority of winter food taken from the surface.
Both insects usually hatch during the warmest part of the day, which is usually between 10 am to 3 pm. BWO typically only hatch when the water temperature is above 38f, but are much more likely in temperatures above 40. Midges, are less temperature dependent and will hatch when their lifecycle dictates.
BWO are olive, to dark olive while the midges range from white to black. Their sizes range between #18#-#26, although due to ease of use, few fishermen will go smaller than a #24. When trout are surface feeding, it is generally better to fish smaller, rather than larger.
There are dozens of midge patterns, here are a few examples
- Black Beauty
- Zebra Midge
- Griffiths Gnat
- Flashback Midge
Blue Wing Olive Flies
- Sparkle Dun
- Blue Winged Olive Parachute
Subsurface winter fishing
Few flies will out fish an egg pattern during the colder months, trout seem to hone in on them. This even applies to streams where no spawning takes place.
While trout will eat egg patterns year round, the best time to fish eggs is towards the end of the brown trout spawn, right through to early spring.
I prefer to fish unweighted egg patterns between #12 – #16 in size. For added weight, I use a single piece of split shot a few inches above the egg. I find unweighted eggs float more naturally through the water resulting in more takes, but split shot is still required to get a deep enough drift.
Just like their duns, trout will feed on BWO nymphs during the hatch. I find #14 to #22 to work well. Below I will give a few examples but any mayfly pattern should work including the classics.
- Barr’s emerger,
- Juju Baetis,
- Pheasant Tail
- Blue wing olive, CDC Emerger
Stone fly – Nymph hatches occur coast to coast and during their hatch, they can make up a significant portion of a trout’s diet. Winter stone flies are nearly always black. Hatches most commonly occur on bright sunny days with temperatures between 30-40f.
During the early winter months I typically fish stone flies in sizes between #18 – #20, Starting in late February larger species start to hatch that can be represented with flies between #10-#14
- Little Black Stonefly
Worms – Just like during the rest of the year, trout find it hard to resist a worm pattern that smacks them in their face.
Winter is a great time to swing streamers. The brown trout are often hungry post spawn and few are willing to give up a protein rich snack if it basically hits them in the face.
The key to success is to fish streamers low and slow but just as important is to keep moving, and cover as much water as possible.
Target slower water than during the summer which is about 3-4ft deep. A slow retrieve, slightly quicker than the current is usually ideal but do not be afraid to dead drift. Trout are less active than during the summer.
I generally prefer to fish streamers between #1-#6 in size, favoring larger streamers in bigger water. Although even in winter never be afraid to tie on something gigantic, winter seems to be the prime time to target large brown trout and at times a big streamer is the only thing that will trigger them.
With regard to patterns, I honestly do not think it matters much. Just fish whatever you have confidence in, and change colors with some frequency,
The same tactics that prove successful for streamer fishing transfer over to the spinning rod.
Although, I find it is easier to fish even deeper spots.
When spinning over the winter months, I like lures that have plenty of action even at a slow retrieve. Some examples will include jointed Rapalas or flatfish lures. (Check my article here for more examples).
Cover plenty of water, and target trout holding near the bottom towards the head of a pool. Do not be afraid to use a little extra weight to get the lures down quicker.
For more in-depth tactics on winter fishing jerkbaits check my guide here.
How fast should lures and spinners be retrieved?
Water temperature dedicates the optimal retrieval speed. In icy conditions, when water temperature is below 40f (6c) slow down your presentation. The colder it is the slower the retrieve needs to be.
In slightly warmer winter waters, above 40f (6c) the trout remain active, and sometimes will even respond to a moderate-fast presentation. Even in ideal water conditions, trout rarely respond well to extremely fast retrieves.
This section is less relevant for winter fishing, but as water warms above 68f (20c) trout become sluggish due to the decline of available oxygen in the water, this again requires slower presentations.
How deep to fish during the winter months?
Trout often hold deeper in the winter months compared with summer, the most consistent fishing seems to be close to the bottom in water between 3-4ft.
It is important to get the flies down deep and allow the current to give them a natural drift while minimizing drag.
In still water, trout can hold even deeper. They often prefer the shallows, even as little as a couple of feet. When in the shallow flats, the trout typically stick close to the bottom.
At other times, they gather in deeper water down to around 15ft in depth. In these deeper spots, do not expect the trout to be holding tight to the bottom, but they either work the drop-offs or suspend the mid-water column.
Where to find trout in winter?
Trout will congregate in slow flowing pools over three feet in depth. Winter is a very lean time of year, so they are even more likely to seek out structures such as submerged logs or large boulders to shelter behind.
Even in winter, trout prefer water with a little current. That is because they want the food to come to them, rather than having to use energy to chase it down.
Trout seat low in their pools, because the water is ever so slightly warmer at depths. This is usually because the influence of great water swelling up is greater. Spring flows are warmer than surface water.
This brings me to the final place to find trout, which is around spring eruption zones, or even in spring fed streams. As I mentioned above, spring water is warmer. So the trout seek it out.
For more advice on where to find trout over winter, check my guide here.