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.
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