Presented by Abel Reels

When the cold of winter enters the equation, especially when it comes to fly fishing, many people think twice about getting out there. Often times, this is because the winter can be an intimidating time to fish. Flows are lower, fish metabolism slows down, and the risk of going home numb, cold and empty-handed becomes a deterrent to those who have not perfected the craft of wintertime nymphing. This craft, however, is not as complicated as it seems, and by making some adjustments to your standard nymph rig, fly selection, and approach; the winter can be one of the most productive times to fish.

Guide Alan Dunlap observes the water before making a cast on a cold winter day.
Guide Alan Dunlap observes the water before making a cast on a cold winter day.

Rigging Tips:

Most people have heard about the standard indicator nymphing rig. If you haven’t, check out this video: This rigging is quite standard and can be used throughout the year. However, some adjustments can be made during the winter that will make this setup much more effective. 

 One of the most important things to remember is to keep rigs light. With low flows on tailwaters across Colorado, fish are holding in shallower water compared to the rest of the year, and are easier to spook. Downsizing indicator, tippet and split shot sizes can help minimize the disturbance a rig makes when it lands on the water, which can offer some room for error when it comes to spooky fish. Having a smaller indicator also offers more sensitivity when detecting the subtle takes of lazy trout.  

Some major mistakes people make are fishing without ample weight, or fishing their rigs too shallow. When adjusting your indicator, a general rule of thumb should be to keep it 1.5 to 2 times the depth of the water away from your split shot. When applying split shot, add enough to where your flies are ticking the bottom, but not dragging and snagging on things.  

Fly Selection:

When it comes to fly selection, take into account what happens to insect life in the wintertime. Coldwater has an effect on the types of bugs that are most active, and most larger insect species become less prevalent. Because of this, trout key in on what is most readily available; midge larvae.

Midges mature and develop year-round, allowing trout to depend on them as a steady food source even throughout the winter. These bugs are small, and a fish must eat large amounts of them in order to meet daily nutritional requirements. The plethora of these insects in the water makes fly selection relatively simple. Small midge and emerger patterns in sizes 18-22 are the names of the game. Flies like the Black Beauty, WD-40, or Zebra Midge are all very effective, though any smaller pattern can do the trick if presented properly.

Another insect to keep an eye out for is the Blue Winged Olive. These small mayflies are some of the most common insects found across the country and can hatch in huge numbers on warmer days in the winter. Though a dry fly seems like a good option during these hatches, its best to stick to small mayfly nymph or emerger patterns (sizes 16-22), since the majority of trout will be feeding subsurface. Flies such as Barr’s emerger, Juju Baetis, or your classic Pheasant Tail will do the trick in imitating these insects in almost all situations.   


Perhaps the most important part about fishing in the winter is the way you approach the water. For starters; sleep in. The fishing will always be best in the warmest parts of the day. On the river, plan your attack carefully. When approaching fishable water, it is best to come from downstream and work your way upriver. Feeding fish will almost always be facing upstream, and by coming from behind them, you can stay out of their line of sight.  Focus on fishing deep pools and their bailouts, and walk slowly, keeping a low profile to minimize your figure.   

Before you trudge in and start casting vigorously, take some time to observe the water. It is easiest to sight fish in the wintertime because the water is low and crystal clear. If you can get eyes on a trout that is feeding consistently, your odds of catching it become much greater. 

When it comes time to make a cast, make sure you create as small of a disturbance as possible. This can be accomplished by casting well above where fish are feeding. Doing so ensures that the splash of your rig landing in the water does not spook fish, and also gives your flies ample time to sink before they reach the feeding zone. Most importantly, be persistent. Small bugs and low fish metabolism mean that your flies must pass through a very small zone in order to be eaten. It often takes many casts to obtain that perfect drift, so keep at it, even when it’s tough. The more casts you can put in, the better.

Next time you decide to brave the cold and get out there, keep these things in mind and keep your hopes high. The winter is a beautiful time to be on the water and can yield great rewards for those who are willing to tough it out. Fish hard, be safe and remember to have a good time while you’re at it. Oh, and don’t forget the whiskey.

Ameen Hosain is a content creator and fly fishing guide based out of Boulder, CO. Follow him on instagram @thefishboulder

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