In many rivers here in the Rocky Mountain West a trout’s diet consists of small midges, stoneflies, and mayflies. In most rivers during the winter, you’ll find fish more densely consolidated and sticking together in deeper runs. You will want to look for slower moving water that will bring the fish insects in a consistent manner where they do not have to expend a ton of energy.
“The winter months are the “small bug” time of year, Reid Baker, Guide Manager of Trout's Guide Service. “The plus side is, generally, fish are focusing only a couple species of insects: in Colorado this being midges and Baetis, or Blue Winged Olives. The downside they’re small bugs and subsequently their imitations are small and the terminal tackle is light. Also, given we are coming off of brown and brook trout spawning season egg patterns are deadly all winter into spring.”
That being said, the most productive means to hook fish in the winter will probably be a standard nymph rig – indicator, split shot, point fly, and trailer fly.
“Look to be spending the vast majority of your time nymphing,” said Baker. “I fish a lot of egg patterns as my first fly in a double nymph rig, and dropping a small midge or baetis pattern behind it. Water is typically low and clear this time of year, so this means between 4-6X tippet and I use fluorocarbon for added strength, abrasion resistance and lower visibility.”
Another go to point fly to think about all winter long – a stonefly imitation.
This isn’t to say that you will not see fish rising in the winter – you will and you should be prepared for it. Make sure to have a box of small midges, midge emergers, and dry flies in size 18-24 ready to go. If you are lucky enough to run into one of these hatches on a warm afternoon the experience can be surreal.
Just as important as the bugs you use is the depth that you fish them. Fish are not going to move as far to eat your fly so it is critical to use some type of weight to probe different areas of the water column. This typically means changing up split shot quite a few times in a single run. Don’t be lazy. If you are not popping off the bottom now and again you most likely are not fishing with enough weight and there is a good chance your bugs are flying over the top of a fish’s head.
“Weight is always important when nymphing, but especially in winter,” said Baker. “The common thing you’ll hear guides saying… and I always use is: ‘the difference between a good angler and a great angler can be a single split shot.’ Fish are in the deeper water and they’re typically going to be sitting right off the bottom. Get your flies down. Adjust your weight and indicator whenever you move. I like carrying a variety of split shot sizes, or using mojo mud, which can be easily added or removed and maximizes the time your flies are in the water.”
Another trick to help get your flies down quickly – tie a loop knot vs. a cinch knot. This will give your fly an ability to “dive” more quickly which ultimately will put your bug in the zone for a longer period of time. Plan to spend more time reading water in the winter.
“When on the water, look for depth and slower pace. Rather than the fast riffles or heads of runs, concentrate your efforts in the middle or tailout of runs,” said Baker. “I look for the “braided” texture of current, when the water has lost a lot of speed, but is just fast enough to still be textured on the surface. Take the time to look for fish, water is usually low and clear this time of year. And don’t leave fish to find fish. Presentation is key in winter and working on your presentation will go further than constantly changing your flies. You gotta bump the fish in the face.”
Another strategy is to be opportunistic about where and when you go fishing - especially from a weather perspective. Avoid planning a trip a long time in advance as the chances to get completely shut down by weather at the higher Colorado elevations is high. Watch the weather and look for a sustained forecast with clearer, warmer conditions without dramatic shifts in temperature or precipitation. Depending on the year, these windows of opportunity happen more than you think. When the right window opens, make your move.
Check back with us for our third installment of this series where we will talk about planning, preparation, and safety when it comes to a winter fly fishing trip...