Gerald Almy: Fly fishing for cold weather trout

With a flashy splash, the pink-cheeked rainbow broke through the river’s surface and snatched the Blue-winged Olive dry fly. My hook-set seemed slow in the cold winter air, like I was partially frozen. But luck was with me. The fish held onto the fly, the leader tightened, and I was fast to my first trout of the day on that frigid winter outing.

Not many anglers would choose winter as a favorite season for trout fishing, with its bleak gray and white landscape and cold, raw air. But if the alternative is no fishing at all, never mind the weather! We’ll make the plunge, waddling out into the currents bundled up awkwardly in thick layers of clothes and warm hats to ward off the chill.

If you are part of this diehard group, three keys can help make your winter forays a success. These include:
1. Choosing the right waters.
2. Timing the trip for the best weather patterns.
3. Using the appropriate flies.

The right waters
Spring creeks and tailwaters are particularly good because their temperatures seldom drop as low as freestone streams. Baitfish and insects remain more active. And so do the trout. If you don’t have any of these nearby and must fish freestone streams, choose shallow ones that warm quickly after a few days of sunny, moderate temperatures.

This factor can be very important for successful winter trout fishing. If temperatures in your local waters hover in the mid-30s, the best advice is to stay home. When readings rise above 40, the situation changes and good fishing is possible, but it will be mostly a bottom-scraping affair. As temperatures climb into the mid-40s to low 50s, superb action is on tap.

As much as the exact temperature, though, it’s important to pay attention to the direction the mercury is heading. When you get a two- or three-day warming trend, go on the peak day of the warming cycle. If a cold snap comes, hold off and wait for better conditions.

Don’t bother getting to the water at the crack of dawn, either. Enjoy an extra cup of coffee and hit the stream in mid-morning. The warming air and sunlight can increase water temperatures 2 or 3 degrees during the course of a day. Expect peak trout feeding activity from 11 a.m. through 4 p.m.

The Flies–Nymphs, streamers and dries can all produce on winter forays. Here’s a look at each group.

One of the best ways to enjoy action on winter trout is by scouring the bottom with a nymph. I use a 9-10 foot leader tapering to a 3-5X tippet with a strike indicator. Top nymphs for cold water trout include the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Montana Stone, Scud, Mr. Rapidan Bead Head Nymph, and Cress Bug, sizes 8-18.

You can use weighted flies, squeeze a tiny split shot or two on 10 inches above the nymph, or buy versions with heavy eyes to take them down deep. Whichever of these three methods you choose, keep them close to the bottom, since trout won’t move far to take a fly now.

Deliver these flies dead-drift through heads and tails of pools during warming trends, in the deep mid-sections during colder spells. If you detect a pause in the strike indicator’s drift or sense a slight tap, set the hook immediately.

Trout love to nail a chunky minnow or sculpin in winter since it helps fill their bellies quickly without much effort. Use either split shot or a sink-tip line to take the flies deep and a short leader of 5-7 feet.

Crawl patterns like the Woolly Bugger, Clouser Minnow, Sculpin, Murray’s Marauder, and Zonker across the bottom, inching them along slowly. Cast across and slightly upstream, then let the fly sink as close to the bottom as possible. Keep the rod tip low to the water and strip the streamer with sharp 4-12 inch pulls and distinct pauses in between. You want to slowly tease winter fish, making your fly look like a wounded minnow helplessly struggling in the current.

On the coldest days, you probably won’t get much surface action. But when the sun peeks out and a warming trend sets in, some surprisingly good surface fishing can occur in winter. Watch areas in side sloughs warmed by the sun and soft back eddies as well as the tails of long, slow pools. The fish will likely be feeding on midges, small dark stoneflies, stray caddis, or Blue-Winged Olives (Baetis). These are the staple patterns for winter dry fly aficionados.

Stock a selection of these flies in sizes 20-22 for the midges, 14-18 for the stoneflies, caddis and Olives. I particularly like the Griffith’s Gnat, Mr. Rapidan Delta Wing Caddis, Elk Hair Caddis and Little Black Stonefly, plus parachute, Sparkle Dun or thorax style Blue-Winged Olive ties.

No, the action won’t match that of spring and early summer. But if you’re like me, a few trout grabbing hold of your nymph, streamer or dry fly helps immensely in getting through the cold, gray days of winter.

Dress warm, and bring a thermos of hot cocoa or coffee to ward off the chill!

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.