Trouts Journal

Cold Weather Freestone Tactics

Ivan Orsic / Oct 30, 2017

As we move into November, the majority of anglers along the Front Range begin to eliminate Colorado Freestones as places they will be fishing for the next four to five months. Are there going to be times in the next few months when it makes absolute zero sense to be fishing these places? Yes, that is 100% a fact. However, for every day that conditions are that bad, (I’m talking highs in the 20’s or below and when the water looks more like a 7/11 Slurpee than a river) there are going to be 2 or 3 day, or even week long stretches when the weather is reaching highs in the upper 40’s all the way to the lower 60’s. It’s these days that can provide some of the best fishing you’ll have during the upcoming “down months.” If you don’t already keep an eye on weather forecasts looking out for days like these, it would be wise for you to start. Here are some tactics that can really help you have success on freestone fisheries in the upcoming months.


This is the most important part of winter fly fishing on freestone fisheries. It’s a safe bet to say you all have smartphones that give you access to weather forecasts as fast as you can spell the destination you want to check out. So UTILIZE IT! Very rarely are fishing trips unexpected this time of the year. If you know that you will be fishing next Tuesday, begin checking weather forecasts right away. Look for weather trends. There are three things I look for in the weather forecast this time of the year:

1. Stretches of warm days sequenced together

2. Sudden temperature changes.

3. Overnight Lows

These three things are so important because rivers this time of the year generally run about a half-day to full day behind what the actual weather is doing. So, why do I look for a sequence of warm days? If I see that the weather conditions have been consistent for a few days or more, then I know the river has stabilized and that means bugs will be active, which in turn leads to active fish. Now, you might wonder why I keep an eye out for sudden temperature changes. Remember, the river runs behind the weather. If I am fishing on Tuesday and the highs are in the 50’s but, Monday the high was only in the 20’s, chances are when I get to the river Tuesday morning, I may be able to get away with wearing a long sleeve shirt, but the river will be full of ice and fishing conditions won’t be good. Lastly, it is important to keep an eye on the overnight lows because they has a huge impact of when I want to be on the water the following day. If you see milder overnight lows, that means the water will warm up quicker than when you see really cold overnight lows, even if the following day’s high is projected the same. This time of the year any advantage you can give yourself on the water will go a long way, so take a little time and do your research before you head out.

Locating fish

This time of the year finding fish is a fairly easy task. While in the summer it might be easier because fish in freestones are literally probably just about anywhere you can cast a fly. In the winter due to low flows and colder water, Trout will stack in runs that provide consistent food in places they have to exert the least amount of energy as possible. This means shelves of deep slow pools and tail-outs. The most difficult part about locating fish in these runs is the depth at which they are holding. If you land a few fish at a certain depth, chances are there are plenty of additional fish in the run. Change depth, weight, and patterns at least 3 or 4 times before you move on from that run.

(A perfect winter freestone run, a deep riffle shelf with a soft inside edge.)


There is nothing I hate more than carrying two rods around with me during the spring, summer and fall. Laying one rod down on the bank, working up through a stretch, then going back to retrieve the fly rod left behind is truly more work than it is worth. That isn’t the case during the winter. As I mentioned above, fish will be stacked, so my emphasis on covering water this time of the year isn’t as important. This makes bringing an additional rod beneficial. The rigs on my rods this time of the year are really simple when fishing these freestones. One rod will be solely devoted to nymphs. My nymph rig will undoubtedly be a small stonefly, trailed by a baetis, and a small midge below that. My go to Stonefly patterns are: Pat’s Rubber Legs, Twenty Inchers and attractor patterns such as Hare’s On Fire and Purple Prince Nymphs. Some of my favorite baetis are, Mercury Pheasant Tails, Juju Baetis, RS2s and standard Pheasant Tails. Midges are even easier of a selection, Black Beauties, Juju Midges and Pure Midges are about all you’ll find in my box. My second rod is going to be a wildcard, most of the time it will be devoted to streamers. However, it also fills the void when you find yourself in a surprising BWO or Midge hatch. The last option for the second rod it to have a different nymph rig set up, whether it’s different bugs, set for different depths or even different size tippet. This can save you some time when you are trying to get things dialed in.

(During the winter, it never hurts to have a few rods rigged and ready to go at all times)

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