This story was initially written by Reid Baker in 2020. While some callbacks and references spoke to a different time and place in the world, many of the tips, tricks, and tactics are still valuable and provide anyone who reads a fantastic insight into the world of winter fly fishing. While we still have ways to go when it comes to cold temperatures and even colder fingers, Reid Baker presents excellent advice on what to expect as an angler this time of year.
Editors Note: if you’d like to learn more about winter fly fishing here in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountain West, check out the CURRENT Podcast, Season 1, Episode 9. The CURRENT Podcast can be found at Apple Music, Spotify, Stitcher, troutsflyfishing.com, and just about anywhere else you listen to your favorite podcasts.
It’s been a weird one, 2020. Looking toward ‘21 we are still sorting out Red Level, Purple Level, woeful Broncos and the usual Holiday stressors that hit even on the most normal of years. All I can say is: thank God for fishing. Perhaps now more than ever, finding time to escape to the outdoors has never seemed more cathartic. And with ski resorts adhering to strict safety measures this year --all at the same lift ticket price of course-- the next few months offer us a better-than-ever chance to pick up our fly rods vs boards and skis, a concept that may seem foreign to some given the mercury has dropped. I have always equated winter fly fishing to a bag of tricks. There are some key details to understand, but once they are adopted, success can be easily replicated from river to river, cold-month-after-cold-month. Colorado is fortunate that our rivers legally stay open year-round. If it’s not iced up and public, it’s fair game.
So how do we maximize our chances for success?
Tailwaters, or rivers below a reservoir, offer your most consistent and safe opportunities, more so than freestone rivers. Because most dams release water from the bottom of the reservoir, temperatures stay in a much more consistent range. As a result, the river resists freezing and is conducive to key insect lifecycles, and a trout’s metabolism. Water quality and angling pressure aside, this also can mean larger-than-average fish because they feed year-round.
Now that we’ve narrowed down our river selections, it’s time to talk gear. Like any outdoor activity in the winter, equipment selection becomes much more crucial to staying comfortable, and more importantly, safe. Layering is the best way to go, as it creates variable ways to stay warm and dry as conditions change. Cotton is not a good choice in apparel, as once it gets wet, it stays wet and cannot maintain heat—a bad combination. Sadly, this isn’t the time to fish in your favorite hoodie.
Base layers of wool, Capilene, or polypropylene are a great way to start. Followed by fleece, synthetic or down insulation layers- both underneath waders as well as above the waist. Lastly, a hooded wading jacket or shell that can protect you from wind, snow, sleet, or rain will round out your ensemble. You can also accessorize with your favorite beanie, fingerless gloves, or convertible mittens. It probably sounds obvious, but make sure you inspect your waders before leaving the house as this is not the time to realize you have a leak. That may have worked out OK in July, but January will be a very different story. Lastly, always keep a change of clothes in your vehicle. When you take that spill, you will be very thankful to know you can get dry.
If you are still unsure how to layer for colder weather check out our in-depth guide HERE
Once on the water, it’s important to understand how trout behave in winter to strategize how we approach everything from terminal tackle, fly choice, water selection, and presentation. Being cold-blooded, fish are always affected by water temperature. As the water cools, their metabolism slows down, as does their energy. They are only going to move inches, not feet, to eat even the best selected and presented fly.
Additionally, aquatic macroinvertebrate (aka bug) lifecycles are near dormant, except for midges and small mayflies—mainly blue-winged olives. Yes, larger insects like stoneflies and caddis are still in the river, but they are not active enough to be a consistent food source. Some rivers will have aquatic worms and freshwater crustaceans like scuds or shrimp, which make great attractor patterns when appropriate. So now we know that trout’s energy is lower, and their food sources are smaller. The result of these two facts are that they will seek out the slower deeper holding water that provides just enough current to convey these morsels of food, while not having to overspend precious energy. Simply put: they seek to maximize their ability to eat while minimizing having to work hard for it. Fast water or riffles are not your best bet when the mercury drops.
Fly Rod and Reel Rigging
From a rigging perspective, the fact of the matter is, winter is largely a sub-surface or nymphing game. Yes, when conditions are right there can be great opportunities for fishing dry flies, and some rivers can be productive for slow streamer retrieves. But by far and away, double nymph rigs will be most effective. For this article, I will focus on using an indicator vs Euro or straight-line nymphing techniques.
Given we are fishing small flies, and tailwaters tend to be more technical given angling pressure, rigging will focus on lighter tackle. I like to fish 9’ 4X tapered leaders and build terminal sections of 4-6X tippet depending on fly size and how technical I need to be. Distance between weights, to point fly, to trailing fly should be between 12”-18” each.
Weight is crucial any time when nymphing, and if I’m not ticking bottom occasionally, I know I’m not getting deep enough. Indicators should be set 1.5 to 2X the depth of the water off your weights, and the best anglers are constantly playing with depth to find the “sweet spot”. (WATCH: Starting Off in Fly Fishing | How to Set Up a Nymph Rig)It’s easy for us all to get caught up in fly selection. But remember, fish are generally eating only a small handful of food sources in winter. Unlike summer, when bug life is prolific and we need all sorts of species, subspecies, and life stage imitations, winter focuses on a significantly narrower range. Do not overthink it. Even as a full-time guide, I probably fished fewer than ten patterns, including dries, through this whole season. Always prioritize water selection and presentation over individual fly selection. A perfectly clean dead drift, in the right water, using a workable fly will outperform the perfect fly presented poorly outside a holding zone. When in doubt, come by the shop and talk to the team. They are always up to date on local rivers and what’s working: where to fish, what to fish, and how to fish.
Lastly, it is important to note a few key details that enable the health of our fisheries. Remember, these are lean times for fish. Combine that with the fact that we as anglers are using some of the lightest tackle, and it becomes more important to observe conservative landing and release practices. Fish should be landed as quickly as possible, using a rubber mesh landing net. Once landed, keep fish in the water, minimally handle with wet hands, no gloves, and do not be afraid to skip the photos to expedite your release, especially if it was a long fight.
Additionally, winter months both precede and follow trout spawning season. It’s crucial that anglers learn how to identify spawning fish behavior and avoid walking on trout beds, or redds. It’s well-studied that catching fish actively spawning significantly increases fish mortality rates as well as spawning success. A rainbow trout holding in inches of water over gravel in February is not the fish to be targeting. Again, if you ever have questions, come by the shop and talk to the team.
Soapbox aside, winter can be an amazing time to fish and offers anglers a great opportunity to hone their skills year-round. Keeping in mind safety first and how fish behavior modifies our approach, you can find fantastic days on the water that will help you forget about those COVID blues or Broncos record—hopefully.