Trout Tips for the Dead of Winter
It wasn't more than a week and a half ago that most of the Mid-Atlantic was enjoying 70 degree weather in January. However, those seasonably warm days seem to be a thing of the past with air temperatures - and water temperatures - dropping rapidly into the low 30s. For some, this may spell the end of fly fishing opportunities. For most of us (as demonstrated by a recent Instagram poll of mine), the cold only presents an minor inconvenience to our sometimes unreasonable mission to spend as many days as possible on the water.
For me, winter can be a very rewarding time to be on the stream. Not only are there less anglers on the water (except of course for the rare warm day), but winter fishing can challenge even the best angler, forcing uncomfortable and unfamiliar fishing situations which require adjustments to succeed. I'm not an angler with all the answers, but having received a lot of messages asking about my winter tactics, I am going to share some tips I use on the water. Hopefully these tips are different from the obvious ones, and help you have a successful day on the water.
1. Dress in Dull Colors: Winter trout fishing usually means low and clear water. Add clear and sunny skies, which can be common in winter, and you've got some tough fishing conditions. Dressing dull prevents you from adding yet another tough condition to the list. Avoid bright colors and colors that contrast with the surrounding landscape. There is no need to go full camouflage - just keep it dull.
2. Keep Moving: Anytime water temperatures drop into the low 40s (or colder), trout become less active and have a slower metabolism. This doesn't mean they don't need to eat; however, at any given time fewer fish will be actively feeding. Covering water doesn't only help you stay warm, but it also gives you the best chance to find actively feeding fish. Pick stretches of water that allow you to stay on the move.
3. Go Big, or Very Small: I've had a lot of success throwing streamers in winter, and this is usually one of my go to tactics (I've linked an article of mine specifically discussing this, above). When fishing streamers, you're looking for aggressive fish. These are usually few and far between in the winter, so be sure to also use tip #2 and cover water. However, I've also had a lot of success throwing small nymphs (size 16 and below). Patterns like zebra midges, little black stone flies, and small prince nymphs will catch the eye of active fish. Also, be prepared with the proper gear to use either tactic. Changing it up can sometimes turn your day around.
4. Wear Fingerless Gloves and Bring a Net: These might not seem to go hand in hand, but to me they work in tandem in the winter. Keeping your hands warm is the key to a long and comfortable day on the water. Therefore, keeping your gloves dry is the key to keeping your hands warm. And, therefore, having a net is the key to keeping the fish healthy, while also keeping your hands and gloves dry during the release. (Yes, you still have to wet your hands if you handle the fish - so leave them netted in the water while you take off your gloves.)
5. Take Care of Yourself: At times, winter fishing can be much more strenuous than fishing in any other season. I've found myself standing along a river, drenched in sweat and out of breath, standing knee deep in snow on a 20 degree day. Be sure to listen to your body when you're on the water in the winter. Prepare ahead to be sure you have plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and other essentials that might not be as top of mind as they are in the summer. Stop fishing periodically and make sure you are hydrated, nourished, and feeling comfortable. Also, be sure you've got the proper layers packed so you can shed and add as needed.
6. Make an Educated Stream Pick: When you're deciding where to fish on particularly cold winter days, do your research to find streams that might be more productive than others. Tailwaters, spring creeks, and spring influenced rivers are likely to have higher water temperatures and therefore more active fish and forage. Some USGS gauges also provide water temperature data that can help you decide where to fish.
7. Prepare for Icy Guides: Ice forming in guides is the number one complaint most fly fisherman have in the winter. If someone developed a fail-proof and affordable product to address this, they'd forever have their name enshrined in fishing history. Nonetheless, there are some decent products available for this very niche situation and you can find them in most fly shops. My opinion is that buying these specialty products is a waste of your money, and that home remedies often work just as well. Here are a few that I have tried with decent success: Bert's Bees Lip Balm, Olive Oil, and Cooking Spray. Simply apply to your guides before hitting the water, and reapply as needed. I like these options because they are natural products that have minimal impacts on the waterways and environment. Although, there is an even more natural way to get ice off your guides: your breath.
8. Get Out and Fish: The one thing you shouldn't do in the winter is pack it in. Get out and enjoy some solitude on the stream - you just might be surprised how good the fishing is.