Volumes of books and thousands of articles have been written about fly fishing for trout during the winter months, and the pattern-by-words seems to be: Fish small flies slow and deep, and on sunny days use size No. 20 gnats and midges. It was the big brown on a Montana river during a cold December afternoon that made me again toss those written rules aside.
I was on the East bank of the Gallatin River, slowly picking my way through 6-inch-deep snow and across slippery ice, when I first saw the fish rise. In disbelief, I stood and stared as the trout almost fully cleared the water and re-submerged.
With the thermometer hovering at 25 degrees and snowflakes swarming down around me, I doubted there was any hatch underway. I slowly slid into the icy river and began wading across the frigid waters. The rising trout had sent out the challenge no angler can resist—topwater action and surfacing trout.
A few minutes later I was in position and made the first cast. The brown slowly rose and grabbed the yellow foam strike indicator. On the subsequent cast, he rose and then missed the strike indicator. Game over.
Another trout in the next pool upriver also rose to the surface and missed the yellow indicator, and by the time I waded into the third pool, I had replaced the “mandatory small nymph” with a big Madam-X dry fly with a bright yellow body. This time, another big brown rose with enthusiasm, grabbed that grasshopper-like fly, and my fish fight began. It was difficult to see my line sometimes through the heavy snowflakes, but I did soon bring the trout to hand—and thought about the odds.
ADAPT TO THE FISH
To be successful in the winter when pursuing trout with a fly rod, you need to adapt. Pay attention to the water and when you see active fish, make the move. Think ahead and give them what they want.
Sometimes you need to be alert to discover how to adapt. During winter on Wisconsin’s Rush River, I used snowshoes to move across 3 feet of snow to reach the river’s edge. There I was, running the mandatory weighted bead nymph and streamers without much success, when I saw a trout rise. I quickly went to the bank and began observing. There, emerging through the deep snow on the riverbank, were midges and small gnats. I changed flies to a size No. 20 Griffith’s gnat, waded back into the river, and was soon fighting a fish. This fishing action was the result of searching for clues—and adapting.
A dry fly often used during summer months, the Stimulator, and the frozen eye on a flyrod during a raw winter day fishing trip.
Much like summer fly fishing, during winter it pays to scour the riverbanks when fishing action is slow—or missing. That is the place where you could discover possible trout foods. If there are no foods on the banks, you’ll make a safe bet in guessing fish are feeding on an underwater food source. Bouncing a net along rocks and through sandbars under the water could help you find clues to what fish are feeding on. During winter, the fish food options are very limited.
MAKE PLANS TO SURVIVE
Anyone planning to fish during winter months should make careful plans. You’ll need to prepare to move on ice and snow—much different than walking on grass and mud—and you’ll need to prepare to stay warm, plus possibly survive a submersion.
In addition to good wading shoes or boots with cleats, it’s a great idea to always use a wading staff. The more points of contact with Earth’s surface and the riverbottom, the more stable you are. Slippery rocks in summer are also very slippery during winter months. You can also increase your traction with slip-on chains like those many homeowners use on icy sidewalks. Snow and ice present challenges, so make preparations and take precautions. If cold feet are a concern, ThermaCELL’s remote-controlled Heated Insoles are a great addition to your footwear.
Next, you should always have a cellphone when fishing during winter. Stormr makes a great waterproof jacket to store the phone in, and it’s transparent so you can dial without having to remove the phone from the case. That removal could take critical seconds or be impossible if you’ve fallen in and the cold has taken control of your body and hands. The Stormr Cell Jacket is on a cord and can be worn around your neck, making it easy to pull out of your coat.
The author during a winter snow storm. Wearing layers helps to keep the cold at bay.
Another important part of staying warm is staying dry. Use a hooded raincoat with a breathable inner membrane to keep snow, ice and rain away from your clothing. Selecting a coat with a hood ensures that the moisture will not be dripping down your neck or running down your face. Moisture quickly translates to cold. Not good.
If you’ll be fishing alone, a final winter fishing survival step is to let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll return. Make plans, communicate them and follow the time frame.
Unlike ducks that use water, trout don’t migrate or leave on vacation during winter months. They are, however, much slower at movement and feed a lot less than during summer. But trout do feed during winter, and they can be caught. Stay alert and adapt your fishing strategy, and you, too, could land a winter trout on a surface fly.
Michael D. Faw’s career spans nearly 30 years as a full- and part-time professional outdoor writer, editor, book author and photographer. His written works and images have appeared in numerous outdoors publications and websites. He has fished for trout across America. Faw also ties thousands of trout flies each year and builds many fly rods. He was a licensed hunting and fishing guide, and then a game warden. You can download his book, Fly Fishing for Trout: A to Z, for your Kindle.
This spring or next, tailwater trout await fly-fishermen across the country.
Much of America is fully aware of winter’s prolonged grip on the land—and waters. Deep snow and cold temperatures have meant frozen lakes and waters abound in many areas of America. Warm, sunny spring days have eluded anglers everywhere. Anglers seeking casting action, however, have an option when it seems the entire globe is in an icy deep freeze: Visit the tailwaters.
The water released from dams remains open during much of winter in nearly all regions, and those frigid and turbulent waters are often prime trout habitat. By some estimates, the United States has more than 70,000 dams, and they range from the tailwaters of Fontana Dam in western North Carolina to the water outlets below California’s Shasta Lake. Those waters tend to always be cold … and always open to fishing. Yes, when it’s winter, the swiftly moving tailwaters are often open—and fishable.
BEFORE YOU WADE
Before you ever step into any tailwaters, you need to learn the details. Many tailwaters are the result of hydro dams, where turbines that generate electricity are energized by moving water. As daily demand for electricity (warmth in winter for electric heat or cooling air conditioners during summer) rises, so do the water levels and flow rates. This can cause flood-like conditions in some tailwaters.
Places like the TVA dams in eastern Tennessee near Johnston City often sound sirens to let anglers know more water is coming down—and anglers need to move to the bank immediately. Tailwater sites such as Tannycomo, outside of Branson, Missouri, have signs warning anglers about rising waters and in-water debris. Read these warnings carefully before wading in.
Your safety comes first when fishing tailwaters of dams. Pay attention to warning signs and schedules that show when water will be released.
The good news is many dams have websites that will tell you when the release is anticipated or scheduled for each day. As a precaution, consider wearing inflatable suspenders or a floatation vest or coat when fishing in these tailwaters. Should you notice the water seems to be rising or flowing stronger, move to the banks and get out. Don’t hesitate.
FISHING THE TAILS
The great news is that many of America’s most popular flies readily work in tailwaters. These can range from No. 20 midges up to the huge coned-head streamers, such as the muddler minnow. Bead head Prince nypmhs and red or pink San Juan worms also work well when washed through tailwaters.
For anglers who are watching their dollars, note that standard fly rods and lines work well in most tailwaters. In wide tailwaters, those longer and popular rods often seen only on open rivers of the West can also be used. In those below the dam discharge areas where the water is channeled, expect to cast more and mend more to keep the presented fly moving naturally.
A fly angler enjoys tailwater fishing on Lake Tannycomo near Branson, Missouri.
Don’t have a clue of what the fish are biting where you plan to cast? It’s always a great idea to visit the local fly shop(s) and read whiteboard notes on flows and flies used; talk to the staff behind the counter about local fishing conditions; and look closely at the brag boards. Always look in the mouth of a huge trout any angler is hoisting in a photo—where you could see the fly that angler used. Websites can also reveal the preferred equipment, flies and other fishing clues from local anglers that could help you catch the trout of a lifetime.
CLUE ON STRUCTURE
Much like streams everywhere that harbor trout, be certain to keep an eye open for structure. This could be root wads, submerged rock ridges or ledges, or logs and other debris. Trout in tailwaters seem to stick close to structure. This could be because it’s easier to swim there in calmer guarded waters, or because the structure helps keep the fish in dark shadows and out of sight of overhead eagles and ospreys.
Discover what hungry tailwater trout are eating and you could catch the fish of a lifetime.
Anglers can often visit at low tide (generally the first or last hours of the day) to note any structure that could hold fish. Take a quick photo with a cell phone or digital camera to help remember where something promising is located.
Tailwaters across America offer some top sites to fly-fish for trout. When you wade in, remember to stay safe—and have fun.