How to Fly Fish in the Winter
The thrill of connecting with a fish in the dead of winter will likely make you forget the days of cold fingers.
With the winter season upon us, many anglers cozy up and resort to watching YouTube videos of fishing in warmer climates. While fishing is mostly associated with summer, I hope to challenge that association. Winter as a season can provide incredible intel on local fisheries.
Sure, the season will likely not provide the epic slow motion shots of winter trout sipping dry flies on top water, but the thrill of connecting with a fish in the dead of winter will likely make you forget the days of cold fingers. At the end of the day, fishing is still fishing. While many people pack away their fly rods at the onset of snow to pursue other interests, I like to keep mine at the ready. Fishing is all about the experience and the hunt for fish. To many, winter fishing won’t have the same allure as fishing in more temperate months; however, I enjoy the opportunity to get out. I am, after all, a dabbler. I like to mix up my seasonal pursuits and keep my interests varied. Consider it a winter hike with a rod!
Getting out there
Fishing in the winter is slow. But for me, slowing down is just what I need every winter. Fish may be holding in different seasonal locations, flows are different, and access to rivers and streams may be altered. I take this all in and see the experience as a time to explore. Nothing about fishing in the winter is fast. For me winter fishing provides a new perspective and piece of mind to my favorite sport and pastime.
Winter fly fishing offers solace. I am in no rush to get first light. In fact, I often sleep in and fish most often when the sun is high in the sky. Long gone is the stress of having a site snagged by another angler, or being high holed at your favorite spot. To me winter offers a time to slow down and trust the process. I often fish alone and appreciate the peace. I like to experience my home waters when the flows are low, and the rivers are changing into their winter coats. I take each outing as a scouting mission. I observe my surroundings with a keener eye. Winter fishing rounds out my understanding of fly fishing. I log my seasonal observations and make note of places to explore. I choose my flies carefully and practice my casts. I see winter as a great time of year to focus on the small things. Has my casting become lazy? How can I change the way I strip line? How can I minimize drag in my line? All of these questions on fishing technique swirl in my head. I take the time to practice how I connect with the water.
What to wear
For me, winter fishing starts with layering. Out here in Western Montana, standing outside in the winter requires forethought and planning for the unknown. Standing outside in cold water takes even more calculation. I always pack extra wool socks and layers, and layer up on the water. I am often found fishing in temps ranging from 15°- 40°F.
On the bottom, I typically rock a pair of wool long underwear, a pair of lightweight wading pants, and some thick guide wool socks under my waders. On top, I rock a wool base layer, some sort of fleece mid-layer, and a thick down puffy jacket. I like to put my puffy over my waders, just because it feels more comfortable, although many wear waders on top.
In terms of gloves, I rock a pair of Simms Wool fingerless gloves. While they are not the coziest, they provide enough dexterity. I typically stuff my hands in the hand warmer pocket of my waders when I am not casting. One day I hope to splurge and try out a pair of neoprene gloves.
In warmer winter weather, I typically drop one layer from the top. This is a trial-and-error recipe; some folks run a lot colder, some run hot. I like to keep additional layers handy, because a sudden drop in direct sun, or change in precipitation can drastically change the feels-like temperature.
Winter fishing is all about the experience, so next to layering, food is almost as important! Once I have dialed in my layers and packed a few extras, I gravitate towards what snacks I will want. Being cozy in belly and body is vital!
Choosing a location
For any angler, a good fishing adventure begins with studying maps, flows, and public access points. I try to find places where the conditions are right for the season. When reading a map, I look for braids in the river, or off chutes from the main channel. These are spots I will want to explore, and see how the water changes around those features. I am a wade angler, so I am looking for places where water access is feasible. Often in winter, I am returning to locations I have already scoured in more temperate months. I am returning to places where I know runs or riffles are deep enough for the low water conditions. I return to inside edges/ledges that have undercut banks.
I look for walking-pace water. Sometimes on the colder days/months, water that is too slow of a pace has a tendency to freeze (at least the top water) making these areas a no-go. This can also be the case if beaver dams are common on your home water. I take note of all of these things, keeping a log of places where water continues to move even as the air and water temperature drop.
The right day? Or is there?
When I close my eyes and picture the picture-perfect winter fishing day, it is either slightly cloudy or sunny, and 40 degrees with no wind. Occasionally I take an alternative approach. I have simply gone long enough without fishing that I decide not to check the weather, and pack up enough supplies to stay safe and warm. Sometimes I fish when it’s snowing, sometimes when it’s windy. While these days are far from my “ideal” conditions, I prefer the experience of being on the water. And hey, sometimes those days come to fruition!
When it comes to what I am fishing, I try to make it a simple process. I fish one rod and one reel (Sage Foundation 9ft 6wt and Lamson Liquid Remix). I fish this on medium-size creeks, backcountry lakes, and blue ribbon rivers. I like my gear to serve a wide variety of purposes and have found this combo to work great for my style of fishing on each of these waters. Some folks like to have dedicated rods for specific scenarios, and I support that. But for me, I like to keep the gear closet organized and to a minimum. One thing for sure is, I would not take a brand new expensive rod and reel out for its first use in the winter, as the conditions can be a bit less forgiving. Breaking off frozen guides on a $600+ rod eeks me out!
There are tons of articles and info on ways to match the hatch, or dive into the weeds of midge selection. During the shoulder seasons, I love this variation, and run all sorts of streamers. In the heart of winter, though, I mainly fish subsurface nymphs, usually on a double-nymph rig. My winter double-nymph rig typically uses some sort of stonefly nymph (Pat’s rubber leg/girdle bug, or others), and either a San Juan worm or other tungsten bead nymph. I usually run this rig either unweighted under an indicator/bobber, or at times, fish it without an indicator (Euronymphing style).
If I can tell I am not hitting the right zone, I will likely use 2 pieces of medium-size split shot to sink my flies a bit more. Like I said in the beginning of the post, I am a generalist. I don’t subscribe to only one way of fly fishing. I like to keep my process simple, yet effective. I don’t taper my own leaders, use color depth leaders when I Euronymph, or even change to a lighter weight rod with a longer length. I fish with what I have and I try it all! I typically use a tapered 7.5ft 3x or 4x leader in the winter, just as I do in most warmer months. I like to test different colors. This is something that for me has turned out to be quite effective. If fish seem to key into orange hotspots on my nymph, I usually run that through a variety of holes to see if other fish target that color.
There are tons and tons of videos on what flies and gear folks are using, and I find those resources incredible, but take this lesson from me. One time I forgot most of my fly fishing gear at home, and had only 3 flies when I reached the access. This was a great experience in simplifying my fly fishing. If I snagged or lost the flies, it was time to go home! It forced me to focus less on my gear and more on my surroundings. This is now true for most of my fishing, so take these recommendations for what they are, a way of honing winter fly fishing to the necessities so you can focus on what really matters. Like I said before, it is about the process of getting out there for me!
So get on the water, enjoy it, and stay warm out there!