If you are an angler, you already know that fishing in the summer is a much easier prospect than fishing in the winter. When water temperatures dip in the snowy surroundings—and when a trout’s metabolism is at its slowest—fly fishing in the snow can present a number of huge obstacles.
However, just because a trout does not need to eat during the short days of winter, it does not mean it won’t eat if provided an opportunity.
Because fly fishing with nymphs when snowing can be so much more problematic than fishing at other times of the year, you will have to bring your entire bag of tricks out to land a few trout during these times.
In this article we have outlined some of these tricks and techniques as we highlight some of the best tips for fly fishing in the snow.
Midday Is Best
During the cold and snowy days of winter, the midday, between 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM, will give you the best chance to hook a trout when fly fishing. Fishing is almost never good before 9:00 AM on the winter days during December, January and February.
Truth be told, most fish in these cold streams will not even be moving around very much until about 11:00 or 11:30 AM. Trout are usually on the move most after the water temperatures have had a chance to rise a few degrees.
Even the aquatic insects on which trout are known to feed do not move around much in the morning, instead waiting for about midday to become most active. As such, it is pointless for trout to start moving about or feeding until that time.
If you plan to fish from about Noon to 3:00 or 3:30 you can usually hook into a few trout before they start to cease their movement again as the skies begin to darken in the wintry mountains.
Choosing Your Fishing Spot
Being able to “read the water” is a skill that only the best anglers have mastered. As such, those anglers will almost always outfish those who fish indiscriminately in any type of water. And reading the water is even more important when attempting to fish during the snow or in the winter.
Shallow riffles and long stretches of pocket water are not as rife with trout during the winter as they are in warmer months. As such, you would do well to skip the swift water in favor of slower flows during these colder times.
In the summer, trout move to the swifter water when food is more plentiful, but during the winter and particularly during a snowstorm when insects are not very active, they tend to lie in slower water.
One of the most premium places to fish during the winter when it is snowing is the point at which a shallow riffle transitions to deeper, slower water. When fishing areas such as these, cast your fly into the riffle so it has an ample opportunity to sink, falling naturally into the deeper water to more closely mimic the “real thing.”
You should also be aware of slow pockets within stretches of pocket water. Of course, not all pockets will be productive in terms of bites, but every now and again they will, giving you the best opportunity on these non-opportunistic days.
Patches of dead water that are framed by swift water are also prime trout locales during the winter. Additionally, if the snowstorm breaks, look for stretches of water that are receiving ample sunlight.
This direct sunlight adds a little extra warmth to the water, which, as we explained earlier, can get both the insects and fish moving about. Chase the sunny spots during your next winter fly fishing outing and chances are you will see a few trout rise.
Pick Your Fishing Days Carefully
Although snowy days are never the best time for fly fishing, some snowy days might be better than others. Try to keep your eye on the extended forecast and look for temperatures rather than precipitation.
A string of cold nights with temperatures at or below the teens followed by days that struggle to hit the 30s, are good signals to NOT go fishing, as it very doubtful that the fish and insects will be moving around on such cold days.
Cold nights and days like these, especially when they are strung together, can have a massive effect on the water temperatures. Some mountain streams during the wintertime can approach and even plunge below the freezing mark, which completely clamps down on any trout activity.
Fishing is extremely slow, say experts, when the water gets below 40 degrees F. On the flip side, fishing can dramatically pick up when the water temperature climbs just two degrees to 42 degrees F. Therefore, if you hit a string of unseasonably warm days during the winter, with similarly warm nights given the season, it might be time to grab your rod and head out.
Snow and rain mean clouds, which act like a blanket at night, often keeping the nighttime temperatures in the 40s. This also helps to warm up the water for the next few days, which can really get the stream buzzing with both trout and insect activity.
Consider Using a Split-Shot Sinker
Ask any experienced fisherman about his thoughts on the split-shot sinker and you are bound to get a groan of disapproval. However, according to fly fishing experts, this small piece of equipment can be your best friend when fishing in the winter.
A $5-$6 dollar investment in these small useful sinkers can help amplify your snowy fly fishing experience more than the most expensive rod and reel combination. Depending on the depth and current of the water, the best sizes for split shots are usually those that range from size 4-8.
To use these split shots, just pinch it on your tippet about 6-8 inches above the fly or in between two nymphs tied as a dropper. By doing this, you can be assured that your fly sinks to the desired depth quickly, and a fly that sinks rapidly is a fly that not only reaches the strike zone sooner, but also remains there for a longer period of time, enhancing your chances for a big bite.
Always Use the Proper Strike Indicator
Strike indicators are useful devices that help fisherman realize when a trout strike has occurred. In the winter months, and on snowy days, you should expect that the strikes from the trout will be very soft and subtle.
For this reason, you will need a strike indicator that can adequately support the weight of heavy nymphs—nymphs that can reach the strike zone more rapidly. If you currently use a strike indicator that sinks under the surface of the water on every other drift, chances are you will miss a subtle strike on those occasions when the trout do bite—and missed strikes mean going home with your creel totally empty.
Yarn is often a good choice for your strike indicator, but it should be a fairly large piece of yarn or you may miss some strikes. According to experts, things like foam footballs and other high-floating indicators are the best choice, while sticky pinch-on indicators do not allow you to make depth adjustments and are often too small to adequately float a heavy setup.
Consider Using a Heavy Tippet
While some fly fishermen are dead set on using the lightest tippet they can find, experts say this is not the proper decision in cold mountain streams during the winter. Lighter tippets are acceptable when fishing small midge patterns in slow water, but in cold mountain streams they offer zero benefit whatsoever.
Most fish eat size #8 – #14 flies better than those in the range of #18 and smaller. This is probably because the fish are opportunistic and they see the larger patterns better.
In addition to the patterns, a tippet that is heavier in weight can better cast heavy nymph rigs than a lighter one. When fishing with a leader that has dual nymphs, a split shot sinker and a strike indicator, a clumsy cast would be assured with a lightweight tippet, but a heavier one helps to turn the rig over better.
Thus, when fishing in the winter, on snowy days and in cold mountain streams, turn to tippets in the 3X to 5X range depending on the size of your fly.
Use a Dropper Rig
Last but not least, cold weather fly fishermen may be able to benefit from a dropper rig—a great way to maximize your fishing when the fishing is slow. There are two major benefits of fishing with a couple of flies instead of one.
First, you can use this rig to lure a single fish with two flies, giving the fish an option of baits to bite. The second benefit is the ability to fish at two different depths from the same rig, which can help lure double the amount of fish to your bait.