The Weighting Game: Making the Most of Fly Fishing in Winter
When fly fishing in winter, the weight of your fly patterns in relation to depth and flow of the water is the single most important factor in consistent success. This is never more important than during the colder winter months when fish will be hard on the bottom of the river.
Insect Life while River Fishing in Winter
As we get the first frosts and then move into the depths of winter there is very little insect activity. The exception mat be a brief midge or olive hatch on the mildest winter days, but they’re not frequent. It is, however, safe to say that even if there is some surface activity, it will be limited to a very short period of time. As a result, nymphing close to the bottom will be the most effective method during the majority of your time on the river.
As the fish are holding on the riverbed, the most successful technique will be to fish nymphs close to the bottom and maintain the drift in this ‘taking zone’ for as long as possible. During the warmer months when water temperatures are higher, hatching nymphs and drowned insects will be closer to the surface. As a result, fish are usually happy to move up in the water to accept a nymph higher in the water column. This is rarely the case in winter as there is very little food higher in the water. Additionally, as fish are focused on saving energy, they look for the food on or near the riverbed.
The weight and presentation of your flies become critical to catching fish during winter, below are my top tips to help you maximize your success during the coldest days.
Carry A Selection of Fly Weights
The first and most obvious tip is to ensure that you have your favorite winter patterns in a selection of weights and bead sizes. You will be looking to drift your nymphs as close to the bottom for as long as possible, and it’s vital that you have the correct weights to do this. The weights that you require will depend on the size and depth of the rivers you fish. However as a general rule of thumb, you will want to concentrate on beads sizes 3 – 4mm unless fishing in very shallow or slow water.
During the warmer months, you can often fish with lighter flies as the fish are prepared to move up in the water to take them. This is not the case in winter, and changing your flies to heavier beads ( eg. from 2.8mm to 3,3mm) can often make a significant difference. I have lost count of the number of occasions I have fished a short section but felt I was not getting to the bottom early enough in the drift, changed to the same flies with heavier beads, and taken several fish on the same patterns. Clearly they they were not reaching the taking zone soon enough.
The Shallow Water Exception
Returning to the shallow and slow water exception, remember you are looking to drift your nymphs close to the bottom for as long as possible and NOT to just hit the bottom as soon as possible. In shallower and slower water, reducing the weight of the patterns can prevent them from snagging the bottom or drifting correctly. In these cases, changing to lighter flies will extend your drift in the taking zone.
When in Doubt, Pick Your Heavier Flies in Winter
When I look at a section of the river, experience will tell me the bead size range to go for. As an example, I might arrive at the river and estimate that I should be using beads/weights in the 3 – 3.5mm range. If I was fishing it in the summer, I usually go for the lighter beads in my estimated range (and almost always on the dropper if fishing a team of nymphs). Going lighter to start will reduces chances of scaring fish and also picks up any fish feeding higher in the water column.
During winter, however, I would advise that you go directly to the higher weighted flies in your anticipated range. If you go too light, you will almost certainly miss opportunities by fishing too high in the water. It is better to be slightly ‘overweight’ as you will have a better chance of success with a fly hard on the bottom.
You can also use a longer rod and euro-style leader to lift the flies at certain points in the drift to help control the drifts of heavier flies. If, however, you are constantly snagging due to excess weight, you must change to lighter flies.
Leaders and Weight Distribution
When using European nymphing leaders most anglers will fish 2 or 3 flies. There are often debates and confusion as to which position the ‘heaviest’ fly should be on the leader. In my opinion, there is no single correct answer to this question as the time of year, technique and angle of presentation all play a part in the decision.
During summer I would usually advise that the heaviest fly goes on the point position. This gives direct contact with all the flies and ensure they are ‘straight’ in the water, whilst allowing the flies to fish different levels.
During winter, I would not recommend this set up as a lighter weight fly on the upper droppers will constantly be lifted high in the water during the drift as contact is maintained with the heavier fly on the point, particularly as the flies drift under the rod tip. In winter you are aiming for all your flies to be in the taking zone, so consider fishing a team of similar weight or the heaviest fly on the middle dropper. This is particularly important on larger rivers and/or if you are fishing across the flow as the current will help to keep contact as the flies will drift and then swing close to the river bed.
Consider an Indicator in Slower Water
In slow water it’s very difficult to maintain a drift in the taking zone with a euro leader. Without enough current to move the flies along your nymphs will continue to sink to the bottom. Therefore, you will find yourself constantly dragging bottom, even with relatively light flies. If you wish to fish longer drifts in slow water you should consider using an indicator or large buoyant fly to suspend your nymphs. When using this method, it is important to accurately measure the depth of the water as the method is ‘fixed’ by the distance from indicator to the nymph. It is therefore best to start slightly longer than estimated and reduce the distance until your flies are just off the bottom, alternatively use a sliding indicator.
Sacrificial Flies and “Bombs” Can Save the Day
My final tip is to carry some very heavy flies or ‘bombs’ incorporating preformed tungsten bodies. At certain times during the winter, often on the coldest days, it is vital to slow the drift and fish as hard on the bottom as possible. I have witnessed anglers get exceptional results with this method at times when I have struggled when fishing what I consider ‘heavy nymphs.’ Whilst these bombs will take fish themselves, I usually use them to control other flies as they allow you to pull ‘normal’ flies close to the bottom. In deep and fast water it allows you to fish patterns that simply would not have the weight to reach the taking zone without this assistance. This method can often save a blank day or catch a few extra fish from a deep pool that you otherwise would not be able to fish correctly.
I hope these tips give you some ideas to help improve your winter fishing techniques. With grayling fishing becoming more popular hopefully they will help you extend your fishing season and catch a few more fish. Just remember to wear the correct clothing and keep warm when you go out fishing!
To read more by Simon Robinson, check out his other pieces on our blog!