Winter Fishing: Techniques and Tips
Ladies and gents. We are going to be doing a monthly topic and posting our thoughts on that topic on our blog at the beginning of each month. This month, because we are just getting into winter, we will discus topics related to winter fishing here in our area. A lot of this will also relate to other areas, but we will specifically be talking about our spring creeks, freestone rivers and tailwaters in Western N.C and Eastern TN.
Clothing: Don't Be Cold or Wet!
First off, winter isn't only for tying flies around here. Winter can produce good trout fishing, but you need to be prepared. There's nothing worse than being cold and wet, so layer up and choose your clothing wisely. Nowadays, most of the outdoor clothing manufacturers have layering systems for cold weather outdoor activities. You have your base layer, mid layer and outer layer. These layers are important when you are spending the day outside during the colder months. Your base layer is no longer your grandfathers 'long johns!' The synthetic and/or wool materials that todays' base layers are made from are specifically designed to wick moisture. If you over exert and start to sweat, this material will take the moisture away from your body and keep you dry. That way when you cool down again, you are not wet and cold. One thing many people make the mistake of doing is wearing cotton socks and cotton long underwear. Cotton does not wick away the moisture and has no insulative value when wet. Don't let your day be cut short because your undies can't cut it.
The mid layer would consist of your top such as a fleece pullover, hoody, flannel shirt, etc. For your pants, fleece is the most comfortable and will keep you warm. Jeans and chinos will retain moisture and may not be the best choice.
The outer layer will depend on the day. If it is a nice, but cold day, a down or synthetic insulated jacket may do the trick. If there is rain or snow, a waterproof shell will keep you on the water.
I fish all year, in all conditions. I have learned what works and what doesn't, and I try to tell our clients all the time to be prepared for the conditions. Most of your performance layers are going to cost a little more, but it will make your experience outside much more enjoyable. If you are going to spend high dollar on your fishing gear, go the extra mile and invest in your comfort as well.
Disclaimer* Gloves and fly fishing don't mix! I have not found any brand or style of gloves that you can effectively fish with. Yes, if you are not catching fish or changing flies, then gloves will work and keep your fingers warm(ish)...But every time you have to tie a knot, release a fish, or do anything that requires dexterity, you're taking the gloves off or getting them wet. I have learned to get over wet and cold hands. I put some hand warmers in my pockets and warm them up when needed.
Winter Fishing Techniques
Most people do not fish in the winter simply because the conditions are not ideal (for them). In the extreme cold (and heat) the metabolism in trout will slow down, they become less active and feed less. Trout never seem to go out of their way to eat your fly, but cold water trout fishing requires putting those flies right in their face. There typically aren't many 'epic' hatches occurring in the winter, so leave the dry flies at home! Now, saying that, we do have midges hatching all winter but imitating them with a dry will require flies size 22 or smaller! You can come across hatching BWO's as well, but even when you see these bugs hatching, there may not be much in the way of fish feeding on top. Never fear, they are still feeding. Winter is the time for NYMPHS, NYMPHS, NYMPHS. The smaller the better. 86% of the time, 92% of trout are feeding subsurface. Now, I made this stat up, but trout do most of their feeding underwater. Trout are almost always hovering just above the stream bed. The rocks and contours can protect them from the current and in the winter the further down, the warmer, and in the summer the closer to the stream bed, the cooler. So, when you know they will be hanging low and not going out of their way to feed, that means fish deep and in their face.
Another factor you need to consider...The fact that cold water holds more dissolved oxygen than warm water. Have you ever noticed the shift of where trout hold when its cold vs when its warm? Typically, trout will be in the slower seams or runs during the colder months and will then transition to faster, more turbulent water during the warmer months. One of the reasons for this is the fact that; the warmer the water, the less oxygen it is holding. The faster, turbulent water is creating oxygen and in the summer, the trout are looking for cooler, oxygenated water and in the winter, the oxygen is in the water, but the extreme cold, and decrease in bug activity, has slowed down their metabolism. This means they will transition to slower areas in the stream, where they will exert less energy.
One more thing...Typically, late summer and early Fall means some of our lowest water levels of the year. We are not getting much rain and all of the vegetation is sucking up water and resulting in less runoff, when it does rain. Once, the trees and vegetation go dormant, they are no longer 'sucking up' the same amount of water and much more of the moisture will runoff into the streams. All of this means the water table is up and that keeps the stream levels up. Therefore, the water is usually crystal clear. We might get some rain or snow melt, that results in cloudy, high water, but for the most part winter streams will be clear.
What does all of this mean? Fish the slower seams. Fish them deep. Fish small flies with small tippet. If winter means clear water, small bug activity, and the trout will down low in slower water; then fish small flies, deep, and on small line! Midges, micro mayfly patterns; under eggs, worms or flashy patterns (lighting bug, rainbow warrior, etc) are a staple. Err on the side of smaller. If what you start with is not working, go smaller. I will start with a size 20 midge and go smaller from there. I typically don't find you need to go below 24. Now fishing that size 22 midge on 4X will mean the knot you tied that fly on with will be bigger than the fly. Small flies mean go small on tippet, especially in clear water. I'd start with 6X in clear water, but if the water is 'cloudy,' go bigger. You might even be able to go bigger on your flies. Again, it's dependent on conditions...Which vary day to day. If you see fish coming to your flies, but backoff, go smaller on the fly, then the tippet. If you are fishing in clear water, with small tippet; use fluorocarbon! It is less visible and absorbs more water than nylon monofilament. The more water absorption means it will sink faster and get that tiny fly down faster. Now, the absorption and sink rate may be negligible, but it is still a factor. Fluorocarbon is stronger and less visible, so that is worth the cost difference...to me.
The Moral of the Story:
Don't let the fact that it is winter, keep you from fishing. Just because it is not 75 and sunny doesn't mean you can't fish. Get out there, but be prepared. Be prepared for the conditions. Be prepared for how trout act in winter. And be prepared for how they feed.
Winter fishing can be great days on the water. The solitude can be the best part. The rivers are not elbow to elbow and you can actually enjoy the sights, the sounds and the beauty that abounds us here in the High Country. There is nothing better than a cold snowy day on the water. It is so peaceful, you can literally hear the snow land on the water. Now, that's fishing!