Winter is not a season that is synonymous with fly fishing. By as early as late October, many anglers hang up their waders and resign themselves to the vice. Others will ski, hike, and ice fish while longing for warmer days. However, for more inclined anglers, winter is a beautiful and exciting time to wet a line. The crowds of summer are long gone, but the fish are often still there. It is just the simple matter of getting them to bite!
(Photo above by Brent Doscher – Taken of angler Max DesMarais during a New Hampshire storm)
Low and Slow
Colder temperatures are the norm during New England winters. Water temperatures dip into the 30’s and often hover just above the freezing mark in most New England freestones (34-35˚F). Tailwaters fare a little better at around 38-39˚F.
These temperatures are not ideal for trout fishing. Since trout are cold blooded animals, their metabolisms rely solely on the outside environment. They perform best between 55-65˚F, which is when they are targeted most frequently. At this temperature range, trout feed actively and will move considerable distances to take flies. When temperatures drop below 50˚F, trout still feed on nymphs but will seldom move more than a few inches to take a fly. Feeding practically ceases when temperatures drop below 40˚F. However, that is not to say that trout do not take flies at all. Even in their stupor, trout will not pass up an easy meal if it is presented well.
The key then is to present your flies low and slow. If they aren’t on the bottom, they aren’t in the strike zone. Nymphing really shines in the wintertime due to the ability to present flies close to the bottom. Pairing a large, buoyant indicator with your flies allows you to make long drag free drifts, detect strikes, and gauge the speed at which your flies are moving. If the indicator is moving slower than the current, you are doing it right!
Reading the water is an important skill any time of the year, but it is more so during the wintertime. Bearing in mind that trout metabolism is low and that hatches are sparse; the scope of productive fishing spots is limited. Avoid traditional lies such as riffles, pocket water, and faster runs. Instead, target deep, slow water and the seams between fast and slow water for the best results. These spots provide an area for trout to conserve energy and pick off occasional morsels.
Fly selection during the wintertime is tough to narrow down. You ask ten different people and you get ten different answers. Some people swear by one or two patterns. Others tell you to fish a spot where you expect fish to hold and rotate flies until one works. Ultimately, the short and sweet of it is that anything goes. Patterns such as San Juan worms, squirmies, Y2K’s, egg patterns, rainbow warriors, Frenchies, Pat’s rubber legs, stonefly nymphs (golden, black, and brown), and scuds all produce. Streamer patterns such as wooly buggers, Zonkers, bunny leaches, and smelt are also known to produce some larger catches. Since fish are lethargic in the winter, a little bit of flash, ice dubbing, or bright color on a fly can trigger an aggressive strike.
This goes without saying. If you plan to spend a few hours in near-freezing water, you better go well prepared. A good rule of thumb for any sort of winter activity is to avoid wearing cotton. Although it may feel warm at first, cotton is an absorbent material that quickly soaks up sweat and condensation, resulting in a cooling effect down the line. This can be dangerous on cold days and increases your chances of hypothermia and frostbite. Instead, wear water wicking liners and wool socks. Since winter fly fishing is a fairly sedentary activity (particularly if you are standing in one spot for a number of hours), wear gear that is rated for low activity. A good outer shell to round out your winter outfit is a goose down/ synthetic goose down jacket.
Although it is a common tendency to layer up in cold weather, you don’t want to fill your waders entirely. Instead, you want to leave some breathing room in your waders. This way, warm air recirculates throughout and keeps your body warm. On the other hand, if you later up excessively, heat from your body slowly radiates out through your layers and into the surrounding water. You also run the risk of constricting blood flow to your legs and feet thus exposing yourself to further danger.
Fly fishing in winter is not for the faint of heart. The fishing is often slow as fish metabolism slows down considerably. You simply aren’t going to catch the numbers that you catch in the spring, summer, and fall. Furthermore, below freezing temperatures can create potentially lethal scenarios for both the angler and the fish (if you practice catch and release).
However, if you address these considerations, winter can provide a beautiful and peaceful time to hit the river. Many anglers often catch their largest fish of the year during the winter, particularly larger holdover and wild brown trout. If you brave the winter conditions, you have to do so with zero expectations and a willingness to work hard for your catch. It can be worth your time to do so.