Tips and Tricks for Winter Fly Fishing

Published on 01/17/2023 · 11 min readFly-Fishing Expert Josh H. guides you through some tips, tricks, considerations, and must-haves for fly fishing in the solitude of winter.
By Fly Fishing Expert Josh H.

Photo by Joy H. 

Fly fishing in the colder months can be a challenging endeavor. Nothing seems to work as intended: fingers get numb, arms and legs stiffen, guides ice up, and even your breath betrays you. Along with the obvious weather challenges, anglers must contend with the lack of food sources available to fish, a metabolism reduction in your quarry, and tiny, often minuscule insects—which typically mean small, minuscule flies. Oftentimes, this is just too much for anglers to contend with, so the waders are hung up until the mercury takes a turn in a warmer direction.

Although, if you manage to ‘weather’ the difficulties, the late fall and winter months can be a glorious time to wet some flies. Incredible things can happen when the temperature plummets, flows drop, fair-weather crowds diminish, and the fish are excited about anything edible that floats or drifts into their face. Taking advantage of these blessings bestowed upon us anglers can prove to be some of the best fishing you’ll ever experience. But, you have to be there. So come along with me as I provide you with some of my wintertime wisdom and go-to fly fishing gear to get you through the tough stuff.

1. Slow Is Fast, Fast Is Smooth

Photo by Joy H. 

Because fly fishing is often a solitary activity, safety should take precedence over all else. The hazards of this time of year should be approached with an increased level of awareness and attention to detail. This is especially true when terrain can make for a difficult, possibly obscured trek through snow and create some undesirable traction underfoot due to ice or slippery conditions. The serious threat of hypothermia is just waiting in the wings.

I often choose to wear a wading boot that gives me the ability to apply more aggressive traction on-call. I recommend wading boots such as the Simms Guide BOA Boot or Orvis PRO BOA Wading Boots with options like screw-in studs and cleats. I also prefer high-ankled variations, to protect from sprains, and options that employ the BOA lacing systems, as they dial in the appropriate tightness level easily and accurately so as to stay secure but not cut off circulation.

For added safety, I wear my wading belt and never leave my truck without a wading staff. In most instances, I assemble the staff before I even start my walk to the water. I suggest selecting a wading staff with the option of a metal spike, rather than a rubber foot; hard rubber does little on frozen ground or ice. The Orvis Ripcord Wading Staff—which comes with a helpful accessories kit—or the Simms Wading Staff options—both of which sport capable metal tips—are my picks.

Additionally, take your time getting into the water. No need to rush things; it only ends in disappointment.

2. Read the Water

Photo by Josh H. 

Fish metabolism is reduced in the colder months, as available food sources are typically scarce and water temps are low. So, reading the water at this time is more important than ever—the areas you had success with in warm weather months might be vacant in the winter.

Fish tend to populate areas where they don’t have to expend copious amounts of energy to find a meal. Focusing your efforts on slower, deeper parts of the river or stream will increase your chances of netting fish. Headwaters can be incredibly difficult, as they are typically slow to a trickle and rarely climb into favorable temperatures for the fish; these factors can lead to an entire day without much to show for the effort.

When it is blistering cold, I tend to stick below dams. Tailwaters often have a higher water temperature and remain more constant than waters that are affected by overnight lows. Seek out meandering, slow-moving riffles—especially ones that deposit into deep pools—deeper flat water where lazy seams can form a conveyor belt of food straight to lethargic trout, and any available obstacles, eddies, or semblance of pocket water that provide a respite from energy-sapping currents.

I also focus my efforts on these areas during the afternoons. There will be much more available insect and fish activity when the day and water are warmer. So, I tend to sleep in during the late season until the ambient temperature in the air climbs above freezing (if it does), and when the water temp has the best chance of touching 40 degrees.

Carrying the unobtrusively sized Orvis Stream Thermometer will help determine whether it’s the right time to wet flies or go ahead and cook breakfast. In addition, I often carry a quality pair of binoculars with me in the truck—eliminating some walks I would be required to take—as I can observe the water and its characteristics from afar without leaving the comforts of my heater. I also enlist a pair of fishing-oriented sunglasses—the water gives up its secrets more readily when using polarization to peer into its depths.

3. Fly Selection

Photo by Josh H. 

By observing what is happening around you, an angler can often come to a pretty good conclusion regarding fly selection and how to put that bug in front of a fish. Subsurface presentations are usually a good bet.

Indicator fishing, dry-dropper rigs, and euro nymphing can be extremely effective during short days in cold waters. Fish are almost “in pods”—sticking close together due to the abundance of available food in favorable water. If using an indicator, I tend to choose something that lands delicately. I find that a Thingamabobber or an Airlock tends to put fish down; instead, I choose yarn, wool tufts, tabs, or an inline Oros, and it always increases takes.

It is common for fish to deviate only a few inches off their feeding lane to ingest the aquatic insects they seek. So, pass after pass of a nymph rig has the opportunity to produce incredible results. If an angler can keep the excitement to acceptable levels while connecting with fish, it is not uncommon to have double or even triple digits in the net by day's end.

Although it seems logical that subsurface presentations are the go-to during the winter months, there are hatches that take place all winter long. Midge hatches can be enormous, blue-winged olives—or whatever baetidae terminology you choose—and come off in great numbers. When the temperature is right, even little black stoneflies turn the snow black at times.

Dries and emerging patterns can—and will be—the ticket when the needle rises. There are even times I will just tie on some “crazy idea” flies, mayflies, or attractor flies in a larger pattern and the water erupts at the sight of a big protein snack floating by, so don’t count out a dry fly. Just because it is winter doesn’t mean the fish only look down.

For streamer fishing, pounding prospective water or rocky banks has produced some big trout and fantastic memories. Sculpins and small baitfish imitations are a good idea almost anytime, but full-sending a sink tip with a swimmer into a deeper pool in the winter months just hits differently for me. Oftentimes, I will not even fish a streamer until November because the dry fly hatches are still so prolific until then. But when I do, I am regularly rewarded.

Some patterns I use for fooling winter fish here in Idaho are:

  • Renegade
  • Midge Sprout
  • Little Black Stonefly or Winter Stonefly
  • RS2
  • Clone Minnow
  • Quasimodo Pheasant Tail
  • Zebra Midge
  • San Juan Worm
  • Slumpbuster
  • Griffith's Gnat
  • All BWO Variants
  • Black Ops Rainbow Warrior
  • Midge Dry
  • Mercury Black Beauty
  • Scuds
  • CDC Midge Emerger
  • Blue Dun
  • Pat's Rubber Legs
  • Woolly Bugger
  • Sculpzilla

4. Think About Tippet

Photo by Joy H.

During colder months, I have routinely found that fish are selective when it comes to the way flies react in the water with regard to their tippet. I have stood for hours throwing almost exact imitations of the food fish are eating only to witness refusal after refusal. After changing the diameter of the leader and/or the tippet concentrated on a dead drift, I’ve seen immediate improvements. The bottom line is: don’t go too big. Whatever the smallest tippet size you can get away with, for the presumed average size of fish present in the water, is the size you need to use.

It’s also worth mentioning that I have seen a measurable difference in the amount of fish I catch using monofilament with nymphing rigs in the winter rather than in warmer weather. The difference is negligible during other times of the year, but I exclusively use mono when I dunk my flies in the cold, clear, winter water. Streamer fishing is also affected; I tend to build my own mono leaders for my streamer exploits late season, as it results in more fish to my net.

5. Layer Up

Photo by Joy H. 

It is imperative that anglers stay dry and warm in winter conditions consisting of single-digit temperatures. The best way to do this is by layering. My setup starts off with Under Armour Men's ColdGear Base 2.0 crew and leggings against my skin. My next layers, again Under Armour Men's ColdGear Base 4.0 crew and leggings, are specifically made to retain heat when inactive. The pants I wear over these are the Orvis PRO Under Wader Pant, which has a fleece interior and elastic stirrups to keep them in place. My next torso addition is a North Face Alpine 200 Fleece Full Zip Jacket, and I top that off with The North Face Stretch Down Jacket.

With this combination, I have been in single-digit temperatures and have been completely comfortable. Though regardless of how prepared I am, I always keep a full, seasonally appropriate change of clothes with me in the truck.

6. Protect Your Face, Hands, and Feet

Photo by Joy H. 

The face, hands, and feet are linchpins that are prone to pain and drive anglers back indoors. Due to that, I wear a polypropylene neck gaiter that I can pull up if the elements threaten chilblains or wind rash. A product of a military think tank, my neck gaiter is a leftover from that time in my life. But, we also carry multiple equivalent options that will keep the rash at bay.

Further, your boots need to be secure but not so tight as to cut off circulation to the feet, which can cause pain and frozen-solid toes. I wear a size 12 wading boot in the warm weather months but opt for a size 13 during cold-water romps. I also wear two pairs of socks. The first is a merino wool sock, not unlike Sportful Merino Wool Socks (I like wool not only for its performance but its anti-odor properties). Then, I add either a thicker wool sock or Smartwool sock for added insulation. You can also find synthetic socks to wear under your warm wools, thermal insoles, battery-heated foot pads, or, if you really have trouble keeping your feet warm, the Action Heat Socks have heater strips built-in that are rated for wet-weather operations.

Hands can quickly become a life and limb situation if they are not attended to properly, especially when mixing wet and wind. A good friend and phenomenal fly tier, Jeff, introduced me to using latex surgeon's gloves as added protection under winter gloves and mittens to mitigate the effects of the cold when handling line and fish. It truly is a game changer, as it allows me to use foldover gloves or mittens while keeping the water off my skin and facilitating almost full-finger functionality.

Further, I never find myself at the river without my rechargeable hand warmers. An effective radiant heating device, they can be switched to different intensities depending on how much heat I need and where. For instance, I may keep one in my waders pocket on medium to help defrost my hands, and one inside my waders on high to distribute heat to my core. They also serve as a power bank when I need to give my phone a boost. And I usually keep them in a watertight bag similar to the Orvis Waterproof Pocket. They have been a lifesaver on day trips into the backcountry.

Connect With Us

Photo by Joy H. 

Hopefully, I’ve given you some ideas and incentives to visit your favorite waters this winter. As I mentioned above, fishing this time of year often presents anglers with challenges. But with a little bit of knowledge and a truck full of initiative, I have no doubt you will be rewarded for overcoming them. The only way to gauge how good it can be is if you get out there and experience it for yourself. So grab a coffee, hop in the rig, and go.

Also, come chat with us at Curated. Us Fly Fishing Experts are out there braving the unknown and casting our hopes into waters day in and day out. We would be happy to get you geared up for any adventure that comes your way or any water that provides possibilities.

Josh H., Fly Fishing Expert
Josh H.
Fly Fishing Expert
With many years as a program manager for fly fly fishing nonprofits, an industry professional, or just fishing for the love of it, let me share the knowledge I have gained with you. .Here to guide you-- let's get you setup for success, with the gear you'll love!
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Written by:
Josh H., Fly Fishing Expert
Josh H.
Fly Fishing Expert
With many years as a program manager for fly fly fishing nonprofits, an industry professional, or just fishing for the love of it, let me share the knowledge I have gained with you. .Here to guide you-- let's get you setup for success, with the gear you'll love!

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