This article is written by Michael “Sal” Salomone a trout fly fishing guide and writer based in the mountains of Colorado at Vail Valley Anglers. Photos by the talented Nolan Dahlberg. Follow along with them at @vailvalleyanglers for the latest in trout fishing in the west.
Approaching the river in winter can be an intimidating fly-fishing experience when the water is as clear as glass. However, it can be extremely productive if an angler is aware of the conditions and presents flies with focused intention. An understanding of the river and the bugs that inhabit the local watershed provides a helpful start. Deciphering the day-to-day conditions as the sun warms the river leads to stellar winter fly-fishing.
Wintertime slows growth down to a sluggish pace. Narrowed by bank ice and covered with shelf ice, river levels are at the lowest of the year. Bugs are held for an extended period of time at immature stages of development. Midge larvae become primary food items for hungry trout.
Anchor ice accumulates on the river bottom smothering the rocks and detritus. A foundation in anchor ice prevents bugs from becoming dislodged in watery currents. Extended periods of anchor ice can stifle fishing in an area for days.
Trout congregate in deep pools below oxygen infusing riffles. Spending a few extra minutes observing the behaviors trout are exhibiting leads to more productive winter outings. Trout that are suspended in the mid-column of the river during the winter months are feeding trout. Activity will be centered on a small feeding lane making accurate, controlled drifts a necessity for success.
Winter conditions are more technical when dealing with your presentation. Dialing in your rig to present tiny flies within a specific zone often calls on some trial and error. Micro-shot assists in adding or subtracting weight to present flies correctly. Tossing on a heavy, single weight results in poor, unnatural drifts that hinge and fold around a rock. Instead, employ a series of smaller weights spread out over a short distance equaling the same amount. A string of weights has a tendency to mold around the rock and roll over. Think about Mardi Gras beads and how they roll over curves, get the picture?
Concentrate on locating fish bankside before entering the river or beginning to cast. Blind-casting announces your presence and will inadvertently spook fish from a feeding lane. Wait and watch, read the trout’s reactions and how it is feeding to optimize your first few casts.
Winter is all about the nymph. Dry fly opportunities can occur, although they are few and far between. Sun on open water can create the correct set of magical circumstances for a dry fly bite; otherwise, head subsurface.
Midges rule the stage. As a year round protein source, midges become the only food source available in the winter months. Popular colors include red, green (chartreuse), white, brown and black. Productive patterns for winter nymphing would be the zebra midge, juju midge, black beauties, miracle nymphs and top secrets. Ultraviolet fibers breathe life into such miniscule offerings. Any small fly tied with UV materials looks like bubbles or gives the illusion of movement.
Subsurface presentations require a lot of mending and attention to line management, set on anything. Bites are subtle in the winter and cause little disturbance. Light tippets and dialed in weights equal a good presentation where flies are suspended exactly in the feeding lane at the same height and speed as the feeding trout.
You have to earn it in the winter. Bites are fewer in the cold weather. Be prepared for the bite and turn every chance into a catch rather than a missed opportunity. Trying a larger lead fly such as a size 12 beadhead followed by a smaller offering like a size 22 midge larva can be a productive presentation. Surprisingly, often the large tempting morsel is eaten.
When fishing streamers try to retrieve with a low and slow pace, fished deep in the water column. Short hopping retrieves imitate a dying minnow, baitfish or trout. White is a great choice for the winter months. Keeping the streamer close to the bottom is critical to success in wintertime. It is not a chase scenario we are trying to create but rather a slow moving, “dead drift.”
Fishing a streamer in tandem with a midge larva imitation can be the ticket to success when winter bites become hard to come by. Often referred to as a Happy Meal, a streamer and nymph rig covers all the bases for tempting hungry trout. A small dark-colored stonefly also works effectively in tandem with a streamer. Here again, it is the dead drift we are trying to achieve for proper presentation of a Happy Meal.
When it comes down to cold temperatures, the choice of reel becomes more important. Click and Pawl reels have a tendency to freeze up more than disc drag reels. Sealed drag reels could be the ultimate choice for dealing with cold weather and freezing water. Whatever your choice is a reel dunked into the river for any reason will begin to give you problems in the cold.
Wintery conditions routinely cause guides to freeze on your rod and coat fly lines with an icy sheath. Both will create frigid fingers when combined with the river water temperature. Hand warming hot chocolate kept in a thermos bankside works wonders.
Ask around and you will get numerous homemade remedies for preventing ice from forming in your guides. Stanley’s Ice Off Paste has been the best performer for preventing ice on my rods.
Winter water conditions require anglers to size down in tippet. Smaller diameter tippet, especially fluorocarbon, results in a more stealthy presentation. The slow, clear water demands low visibility to help prevent trout from detecting imitations. Lighter tippet also aids in presenting a natural drift.
Once again, Micro-shot is a key component for dialing in desired results on thin tippets. The lighter pound tippet also aids in tying on the ultra small nymphs in sizes 22 and 24. Sizes 18 and 20 become too large. The cold water holds midge larva for an extended period of time in the premature stage, accounting for the success found with teeny nymphs.
Avoid brightly colored clothing like red hats, which stick out in the stark conditions found during winter. Dull earth tones assist anglers in being undetected.
Along the same path, shy away from brightly colored indicators. Spooking fish, especially timid winter fish happens easily with large, colored indicators. Bright pink is good for you but bad for your nymphing, causing fish to avoid your rig. Small white or clear indicators are easy to adjust and won’t appear as obtrusive during your drift.
The best window for opportunity typically falls after the 10:30 a.m. time period. Stay as late as the sun allows. Careful planning and positioning can have you lined up for late afternoon sunshine. The angle of the sun will increase productivity and your warmth and also extend feeding activity for a longer period of time.
Winter’s sun casts long shadows that penetrate the tumultuous surface currents all the way to the riverbed, spooking fish. Anglers who inadvertently cast their shadow across productive water need to reposition to achieve success. Repositioning also is a key component in preventing the ice shelf from cutting your line while fighting a fish. Long-handled landing nets assist in preventing the same problem and reach over obstacles to land your well deserved winter trout.
You will fall at some point. How gracefully you do it depends on how you approach the frozen river. Falling and cracking an elbow on the ice can result in a broken arm or rod. Studded rubber-soled boots work wonders but any type of felt will accumulate ice dangerously. Many winter anglers are prepared with slip-saving footwear such as inexpensive ice cleats that easily attach to your boots. Your wading staff from the summertime can double as a good support on the ice too.
Catch and Release Tips.
Avoid excessive handling in the cold temperatures especially when wearing any type of glove. Rubber nets are an asset for successful catch and release fly fishing allowing the angler ample time to revive lethargic winter trout after the fight. However, both nets and gloves remove the protective coating trout need for a healthy existence.
Minimize the extended amount of time trout spend out of the water. Soft tissue like gills and eyes begin to freeze relatively quickly when removed from the safety of the river water. Keeping a hooked trout in the water and in your net is the responsible way to remove flies.
Arming yourself with the appropriate gear and knowledge removes a lot of the anxiety fly anglers have surrounding winter fly-fishing. Approaching the river with an understanding of the bug life that is present in the cold and the techniques used to present those flies will lead to repeatable winter fly-fishing success. Remaining aware of the hazards winter fly-fishing can present is another step in preparing yourself for a successful winter fly-fishing experience.
Mike “Sal” Salomone is longtime fishing guide and writer based in Vail, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling Vail Valley Anglers at 970-926-0900. Photos courtesy of Nolan Dahlberg, @dahlberg.digital.
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