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Winter Fly Fishing in the Western US

Published: 2nd March 2021 | Author: Jordan Register and Brooke Belohlavek

It’s All About Mindset

Fly fishing in the winter is usually pretty slow. It requires patience and the right mindset. Before you even decide to fly fish in the winter you should make sure your intentions are to enjoy a day outdoors on the water. If you make it it all about catching fish, you might not enjoy it. It should be about developing a deeper connection with the water and its inhabitants, and the many changes they go through throughout the year. 

If the fishing is slow and you find yourself getting frustrated, take a break. Look around and breath in the calm of the winter. Crack a cold one (maybe use some hot hands while doing so) and remember why you’re out there. Make the most of trying out different flies, techniques and water types. If you have the right mindset, winter fly fishing can be an incredibly rewarding learning experience. It will keep you humble and grateful.

The calm of winter fishing.

Typical Winter Scenarios and What to Use for Them

As far as aquatic insects go, in the dead of winter midges are what you see on the water. In fact, warmer days can really be productive when you have midges hatching. There are many variations of midge patterns in all stages of their life cycle. One awesome example is the black beauty midge, pictured here on a Fulling Mill lightweight Grub Hook. Additionally, if you see fish sipping on the surface, there are plenty of dry fly and emerger patterns to choose from. Generally flies in the 18-24 range are best. 

On days where there’s no activity on the surface, you’ll want to use the regular old nymph rig. Make sure to throw on an indicator of your choice. A weighted nymph like a perdigon is great for the upper fly on a dropper rig with something smaller trailing behind. A zebra midge, or another small midge nymph are best for this. 

Typically winter water levels are low, so fish can be picky—especially in areas where they get more pressure. Lighter fluorocarbon, like 5x-6x, is best in those situations. Of course it doesn’t have to be fluorocarbon, but fluorocarbon has a lower refractive index than monofilaments. And, it’s stronger, thinner and more abrasion resistant. It’s one more thing you can check off your list when you’re trying to figure out why some fish aren’t taking your flies. 

When we get closer to the end of winter and into spring, rainbows start spawning and fish start to eat egg patterns. We recommend adding these to your rig once things are just beginning to thaw. This early thaw can also bring out more anglers than the previous months, so be mindful of pressure and picky fish, as mentioned before.

When winter fishing you can run into picky fish, so make sure to carry a range of small flies and light tippet.

Why We Love Winter Fly Fishing

We’re going to leave you with a few encouraging words as to why winter fly fishing is well worth the patience, cold and struggle that it comes with.

First, trout tend to be darker and richer in color in the winter, making each fish even more worth the time. Rainbows can be a rich red with deep purple hues. Browns can be seen with darker oranges and glimpses of a more red brown. 

Then there’s the perk of there being way (seriously WAY) less people on the water. Most people are enjoying the outdoors in other ways during the winter. If you’re not a skier or snowboarder, powder days are even better for you as a fly fisher since people are flooding to the mountains. And finally, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. There’s nothing quite like a glistening river in the quiet of a crisp winter day. It’s even better if you get to share it with a trout or two.

If you want to read more about winter fishing, check out this piece by about winter flies by Sean Platt. If you haven’t read it, have a look at our collaboration piece with Keep Fish Wet on winter fish handling.

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