Winter Fly Fishing Tactics
Recently I have been lucky enough to fish a few different winter fisheries in various parts of the country. I would like to share my experiences and hopefully you can turn that into some tight lines for yourself.
As many know the late fall/early winter can be a great time to target fish if you are lucky enough to catch the rivers at the right level. Brown trout, especially the migratory ones, have likely completed their spawning cycle by early December, and usually feed hard before they settle into a "low power" mode for the coldest part of winter. Most call this the "post spawn", and this is regarded as a time when big browns let their guard down and "strap on the feed bag". I personally try to spend as much time as possible on the river during this peak time. My favorite way to target these fish is with big streamers. These days there are practically no limits to the size of streamer that fly fisherman will sling and this particular time of year is not the time to hold back. My personal all around favorite is Kelly Galloups pattern the sex dungeon in natural, olive or rust colored. It may just be a confidence pattern for me, but you will find the manner in which you fish your streamer has a much to do with success as any factor. Sure you need to put it in the right spots, but without confidence you will lose the head game and will not be prepared for the strike. This subject has been covered in great depth by author George Daniel, in his book Strip Set. I implore you to pick up a copy of his book if you seek more knowledge on the subject.
If its big lake run rainbows that you seek, such as those that inhabit the lake Erie and lake Ontario tributaries it may require a shift in tactics. Certainly you can try to feed them a streamer but usually you are better off serving up a two fly nymph rig with the anchor fly being a big stone fly nymph, and the point fly being an egg pattern, or small natural such as a pheasant tail or hares ear nymph. There are myriad egg patterns around, but they should match the eggs naturally available in the water in color and size. In general you will need bigger eggs for lake ontario tribs, when and where salmon are present, and slightly smaller eggs for the Erie tribs or for the spring when the steelhead lay. I prefer egg patterns that use egg veil or loopy yarn as they give the angler a little extra time to detect the strike and are not easily spit. I have had some success fishing emerald shiner patterns to fresh fish right out of the lake, but after they settle in to pools to winter over, you will need to bring the food right to them. That means weighted nymphs down through the green water. These rainbows are moving in to stage to spawn in the spring, not feed. Usually they need to be coerced to feed, so drag free drifts right in their strike zone is the name of the game. I like to tight line nymph in the pocket water and below the ledges (see pic) and then use indicators, preferably corqs in the long consistent pools. Worth mentioning as well is the importance of adjusting weight. This can be done with the flies themselves or split shot. You should be ticking bottom throughout the deepest part of your drift, if not adjust, it can be annoying with gloves on or numb thumbs but it will mean the difference between drifting over fish or through them.
If you happen to be in an area where lake run fish are not available then chances are your tactics will be a little different although there are many parallels that can be drawn when it comes to the deep winter. Sure there are days where you may be fortunate enough to encounter some small blue winged olives hatching or solid midge hatch, such as we did visiting the soho in Tennessee. Many times the rises you encounter are a squad of small to mid-sized fish who have not yet learned to keep their swimming to a minimum in the colder water. The larger fish tend to stick to the same type of winter holding water, back and down in the larger pools, and move very little for the plentiful midge larva and pupa. Usually my rig will include a flashier pattern and a true match for the insect present. For the flashier pattern eggs work well as well as searcher patterns like the rainbow warrior or a bigger red midge. Usually the smaller pattern is a size 20+ midge or BWO nymph for the streams i frequent in the winter. For more on midge life cycles, pattern recommendations, a generally knowledge see the classic by Dave Whitlock "Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods" .
Understanding the subtle differences in the various stream systems is something that comes mainly through experience but you can cut the learning curve by employing a guide. Even for one day, having a guide who is familiar with the habits and food available to the trout in a particular river or stream is invaluable. Recently we visited the "roaring fork" in Colorado, and while I pride myself in doing as much research as possible beforehand, we had a limited time frame. We contacted Roger Morse of "Aspen Fly Fishing". For a reasonable fee he picked us up at our rental and deposited directly into a pool of wild rainbows eager to chase the midge patterns he provided. Rodger and I had a interesting back and forth about his midge patterns and I'm convinced that even if we had made our way to that particular pool, my patterns were quite different from what he generally fishes, and we would have had less success. Sure we could have spent more time on the water at less expense but vacation time for most is a finite resource and I personally like to get tight, often, in the limited time I have!
In general its easy to make excuses to wait for the bountiful spring hatches to dust off the waders. I personally think its a bit sweeter to get into a winter fish when you know your buddies are at home on the vise or trolling the interwebs. Just slow down and think like a fish, make it easy for them to eat!