Back in the day, winter trout fishing was illegal in many places. But even where it was legal, most anglers considered the off-season approach folly. These days, many trout fisheries remain open year- around, and an ever-growing segment of the angler population is discovering winter fishing.
Admittedly, standing in ice water freezing your butt, with numb fingers desperate to keep a grip and just the glimmer of hope this might work is not every angler’s idea of fun. And in most cases, winter trout fishing is not likely to gain equal billing with the long traditions of summer any time soon.
But as a lot of us have discovered, even in the notorious cold spots, winter trout fishing does work. Assuming you play your cards right, winter trout fishing can be fun, productive and, better still, somewhat predictable – as much as any trout fishing can be anyway. Beyond the very real possibility of reeling in numbers of trout, there are other, less obvious advantages. For starters, famous rivers lack crowds, and trout haven’t been harassed of late. Perhaps best of all, you’re fishing. Who really cares if you’re catching? Right?
To take full advantage of the season, however, requires a bit of study. Knowing just what makes the trout tick pays dividends in any season, perhaps none more so than winter. In short, trout are cold-blooded. Metabolisms (thus feeding activity) do slow down as the water temperature falls away from the ideal. Trout motors are revved to the max when water temperatures reach the about 60° F, give or take a degree or two for different species. That said, trout need to eat to survive, even when water temperature dips into the 30s.
The key to consistent winter success is to monitor the water temperature trend. Hit the creek when the trend is steady or, better still, upward – the faster the better. Downward trends make for tough fishing. For example, say the water temperatures have been holding steady in the mid-40s, but a sudden cold snap sends them spiraling. Better to put the fishing on hold. Wait a few days for when sun and high pressure take over and water temps start to soar (relatively speaking). Then clear the calendar and go for it.
Be aware that water temperatures almost always follow air temperatures but at a slower pace. Realize also that snow/ice melt usually drives water temperatures downward, the exact opposite of what the warming trend promises.
The colder the water, the slower trout metabolisms work, and the less likely the trout become to move far or fast to eat your bait, hardware or fly. Accurate casts to prime holding water are paramount. S-l-o-w and s-l-o-w-e-r become the operative words. Stick with slowly drifting or barely crawling your offering of choice, unless the trout dictate otherwise – which, trust me, doesn’t happen often in icy water. Because fighting current takes more energy (burns more calories) winter trout tend to hold in slower water eddies, slower runs, deep pools and such.
Even in the coldest areas, some sections of most streams stay open and provide decent angling opportunities through all but very worst cold snaps. Lakes and ponds that stay open all winter due to a mild climate and/or influences of underground springs are primo. In open water lakes, look for trout to hold at depths where water temperatures are most comfortable. Experiment at various depths. Eventually you should hit pay-dirt.
But if all this sounds like so much mumbo-jumbo, just remember two things: Low water temperatures and downward trends do translate to slow fishing, but seldom are conditions so bad you can’t catch a trout or two. And forget that old idea of 45 degrees (or whatever) as being the absolute low end cut-off to feeding activity. It just doesn’t hold water.
Bear in mind also, stable rivers fish best. Rapidly rising (or falling) waters tend to turn trout feeding activity off, sometimes to the point of making you wonder if there really are trout in the first place. One of the best ways to avoid the skunk is to fish waters that are least likely to fluctuate wildly, which includes some tailwaters and all spring creeks. Undammed freestone streams tend to be much more volatile; however, certain dams that generate electricity fluctuate even more wildly – sometimes on a daily basis. Timing is everything on these streams. Get there before the sirens go off and you should find hungry trout – trout whose lives are forced to revolve around sudden surges.
Ice-water and sudden flow changes aside, I’m a big believer in the idea that the time to go fishing is now. Just don’t get your hopes up too high should you find the river rising and/or water temps on the skids. Besides, if you believe as I do that any day spent fishing is about as good as it gets, why not… .
Not all trout rivers are open to angling during the winter, but most lakes are (although, obviously, many are frozen-over at least part of the winter). Municipal and “family” fisheries often receive heavy trout plants prior to the winter season. As long as they remain ice-free, these can provide trout fishing bonanzas. These are also close to home for a lot of people, eliminating any need to negotiate often dangerous snow- and ice-covered highways, which, of course, is always a big plus.
Some waters are restricted to artificials or fly only. Bait fishermen be sure to check the regulations as restrictions often apply regarding what baits are legal. Winter season catch and possession limits are often lower, while many others are catch and release only. Across the board regulations vary widely, so be sure to check first.
The winter hatch chart is simple: midges and, well, midges. My go-to river rig is a size 14 or 16 egg pattern trailing an even smaller midge; with enough weight on the leader (not legal in some waters so check the regs) to keep the tandem rolling along the bottom. By cycling through a variety egg and midge patterns invariably the trout, sooner or later, reveal a preference. Should the trout show a distinct preference, egg or midge, I usually double-up the hot pattern.
A surprising number of winter days bring forth heavy enough midge hatches to lure trout to the surface. Sometimes the hot pattern is a dry midge, but more often a damp one seems to take trout more consistently. I’ll start with a long, tapered leader — 10 to15 feet overall and with 3 to 4 feet of 6X tippet, and add a dry/wet tandem to the end. Unlike conventional dry/wet tandems, which are normally separated by two or more feet of tippet, with midges I like tying the trailer just a few inches behind. The reason is that when trout feed on midges they tend to suspend mere inches below the surface, where they can simply tip up and gobble whatever comes along in the drift. In many cases there are more emergers drifting just below the surface than adults topside.
Winter midges mostly come in sizes 18 to 22. Colors vary, so be prepared with a good selection. There are a zillion midge patterns out there, and all are no doubt effective at one time and place or another. I suppose you could collect and carry them all, but a better plan is simply to consult the local fly shops and take it from there.
My box contains Parachute Adams, Griffith’s Gnats, RS-2s, WD-40s, Johnny Flashes, Midglings, Tailwater Tinies, Zebras, String Things and no doubt several others more or less lost in the mostly un-organized fluff that characterizes my fly boxes. Most are in sizes 18-22, covering the color gamut of black, olive, red, white, brown and gray. There are also a few in extra smaller sizes, down to No. 28s. In truth, of course, at my age the smaller sizes are more just for show than serving any real purpose.
Other fly styles to consider include the venerable Woolly Bugger, Sculpin, Muddler and Leech patterns, various egg styles, the San Juan Worm and even standard nymphs, such as the PT, Hare’s Ear, Copper John, various stones, scuds and soft hackles and Prince — to name just a few.
For midge fishing, an 8-foot, 4-weight rod fitted with a weight-forward floating line seems about right. For nymph fishing, I like a 9-foot, 6-weight rod fitted with a weight-forward floating line.
Standard and ultra-light rods and reels both work, but for me the ultra-lights are not only more sporting but useful in a wider variety situations. Ultra-light equipment handles the very light, small baits and lures that are so effective in the winter. It’s also better for handling lighter lines of 6-pound-test or less, which are often vital to success. Ultra-light gear allows anglers to gain the maximum excitement of fighting a trout. Most importantly, it allows the sort of precise casting necessary to adequately cover holding lies in and around brushy cover.
The spinning reel should be sized to balance with the rod. Rods of 5 to 6 feet in length should have the sort of quick, sensitive action that allows you to cast lures that weigh 1/16 ounce or less.
Naturally, if the water has a reputation for yielding larger-than-average trout, stouter, more conventional spin-fishing gear is in order.
Artificial lures for trout come in a variety of styles but are generally smaller than, say, bass lures. In-line spinners, spoons, plugs and a variety lead-head jigs are most popular. Where average-sized trout are the norm, some of the best spin-fishermen I know swear by the smallest lures. Upstream casts are usually better. Casts can be relatively short-range with a retrieve speed ever so slightly faster than the current. The lure appears more natural and, because it’s moving relatively slowly, it’s easier for winter’s semi-lethargic trout to pursue and pick up. All can be dressed with a variety of materials, including marabou, soft plastic, etc. to add appeal. Regardless what you’re pitching, slow retrieves get it done.
A visit to the local tackle shop should reveal what’s hot at the moment.
Spin-fishing gear and even fly rods are popular and useful for bait fishing for winter trout. Done right, bait-fishing often produces when other methods fail. Scent probably is a significant factor, but my theory is that even the coldest trout have difficulty passing up natural food if it hits them on the nose. Cast your baits accurately to the right places, and you should find a willing trout, even under the worst of conditions. As with fly- and spin-fishing, baits drifted slow and deep through eddies, slow runs and deep pools work best. Retrieves should be throttled down as water temperatures fall.
Natural baits for winter trout include a wide variety of items, among them red worms, minnows, crayfish, fish eggs, mayfly, caddis and crane fly larvae, wax-worms and numerous other insect larvae. Be aware that not all baits are legal everywhere. Always check the regs first. Useful hooks range from No. 6 to 14, more or less matching bait size with hook size. Thread your bait on the hook in a way that presents the bait in the most natural possible manner.
In the hands of an expert, minnows (where legal) are deadly and account for many real lunkers. Hook the minnow through the back or lip and drift it through the deep pools and runs. Another way is to string the minnow through the mouth and out the gills and slip the hook back in near the tail. A third way is to slide a minnow rig through the mouth and out the anus and attach a single or double hook. With the latter two methods, employing a strip retrieve works best.
Small crayfish, fish eggs (salmon eggs) and insect larvae, both land born and aquatic, are also productive when drifted. So-called egg hooks work well for such baits.
Prepared trout bait and such grocery items as cheese, marshmallow and canned corn are also very effective baits. Present these offerings with a dead drift, suspended beneath a bobber, or use a heavy slip sinker and simply let the bait rest on the bottom until a trout comes along and picks it up.
In all cases, attach enough weight to the leader to keep the bait down on or near the bottom.