Though it’s been more than three decades, I’ll never forget my first winter stream trout expedition. Towering pines stood watch over the snow-covered banks down which I trudged to reach the dark, frigid flows swirling coldly past. As ice-water rain turned to stinging sleet, a cruel north wind rattled the treetops and gnawed through my jacket. I was tempted to turn back. But the river held the tantalizing promise of hard-fighting browns and rainbows, so I pressed on.
I wasn’t disappointed. The browns in particular seemed to thrive on the miserable conditions above the surface, and willingly hit the small baits I fished just slow enough and close enough to their lairs to match the trout’s ramped-down metabolism.
Indeed, those who brave bitter conditions to wade icy rivers in the dead of winter are often rewarded with excellent fishing for a variety of stream-run trout on presentations ranging from spinners and spoons to nymphs and minnow baits. Along with the fish, one of the major benefits is you often have the streams to yourself, as fair-weather fishermen turn to indoor pursuits.
The trick to it all is understanding how trout behave in winter—and tweaking your summertime arsenal and approaches to match.
While many anglers pack away their gear with winter’s first snows, trout remain active as long as the water doesn’t get too cold. On average, they prefer temperatures from 50 to 60 degrees but will feed in colder conditions.
“Once it drops below 40, however, they pretty much shut down,” says Western trout legend Buzz Ramsey, who resides on the rugged banks of Washington’s Klickitat River near Yakima.
Winter-run steelhead are Ramsey’s main quarry, but brookies, browns, cutts and rainbows comprise the bulk of the catch throughout the West (some streams or sections of streams are closed in winter, and tackle restrictions may apply, so always double-check the regulations before heading out).
Many factors can affect water temperature, such as elevation and weather patterns, but Ramsey says winter temps in the low 40s to 50s are common in the waters he fishes in Washington and Oregon. Such ranges may also be found across the West in select tailwaters below dams. Throughout the Rockies, however, high-elevation streams may get too cold for good fishing—or even for trout to survive.
As you’re scouting, keep in mind the best streams and tailwaters offer consistent flow and temperature. Slight variations in either are normal—and can work to your advantage as we’ll discuss—but drastic swings can stress trout, causing poor fishing or even winter kills. Weather is the wild card.
“In stream fishing, a little warm rain can really fire up fish,” Ramsey says, noting that fish activity often peaks just as water levels begin to recede a few days after the rain. “Warm, sunny afternoons can also raise the water temperature just enough to spark a good bite.”
The reason? Warming water increases the fish’s metabolism while jump-starting the food chain with insect hatches.
At water temperatures over 40 degrees, winter trout hit flies and hardware, but their activity levels are still lower than during summer. This requires adjustments in location and presentation. Ramsey recommends seeking slower, deeper water than you might fish in summer.
“I tend to look for larger holes and the deep edges of riffles, as well as undercut banks and flooded brush (particularly for browns),” he says. “Inflowing creeks with water warmer than the main river can be incredible.”
Such areas blend feeding opportunities with protection from the current.
Rob Crandall, a veteran trout guide on Oregon’s famed Deschutes River, agrees.
“Fish ‘softer,’ deeper water,” he advises. “If trout hold in two to three feet of water in a riffle in summer, I move down to five or six feet in winter, often at the edge of a drop-off into a trough.”
Crandall also targets back eddies and other areas where food collects. “These present great feeding opportunities because the trout don’t have to expend much energy for the maximum amount of food,” he explains. In rising-water conditions, shoreline areas also hold fish.
Though the surrounding landscape may be cloaked in grays and whites, many streams provide a variety of forage that can include subsurface insect life, intermittent hatches (which most commonly occur on sunny afternoons), minnows and mysis shrimp.
“Most of the food items in winter are pretty small, close to a size 22 midge,” says Colorado fishery biologist Dan Kowalski. “But that doesn’t mean only small presentations catch trout.”
Indeed, a range of offerings from flashy spoons to dainty flies and artificial softbaits trigger coldwater strikes.
Purists favor flies, but Ramsey knows the power of spinners, spoons, scented softbaits and good old-fashioned livebait. “Where legal, worms are deadly,” he says.
Waxworms, salmon eggs, hellgrammites and sculpins also account for numbers of Western trout each winter on basic-yet-deadly split-shot rigs. Besides a natural profile and action, such baits appeal to trout’s sense of smell—a key faculty in feeding behavior.
“Scent-filled artificials like Berkley PowerBait Trout Worms are also great choices,” he says.
One of Ramsey’s pet presentations is a Trout Worm threaded onto a size 6 or 8 wide-gap Eagle Claw steel head hook, so the barb protrudes about a third of the way back on the bait’s 3-inch frame.
“Pinch a small shot about 20 inches above the hook and you have a great rig for drifting in runs or making crawling retrieves in slack water,” he says.
In most cases, 4-pound mono like Trilene XL gets the nod. Only when exceptionally large trout are in the mix does Ramsey bump up to 6-pound test.
Another Trout Worm trick is rigging it wacky-style, then suspending it beneath a small slip-float.
“Use a do-nothing drift or bob the rig up and down with slight rodtip twitches,” he notes. “Balance enough shot about 12 inches above the worm so the float submerges with little resistance.”
For both setups, lifelike colors like natural and pumpkinseed produce well in clear water, while yellow-orange and shades of chartreuse work better in turbid and low-light conditions.
Spinners are solid options as well. Ramsey recommends a wide, slow-turning blade like the one on Worden’s new Rooster Tail Lite, which can be fished slowly through trout-holding lies.
“I let the spinner do its thing, pausing or slowing my retrieve in response to surges in the current,” he says. “Most people are too rigid; they hold the rod too steady. You have to flex your wrist and let the spinner thump ever so slowly as the current changes.”
Minnowbaits have their place as well, especially when luring beefy browns from tangled ambush points. Spoons are also effective.
“Fish a minnow-shaped spoon like a Krocodile on a super-slow retrieve,” he says. “Thin, cup-shaped designs like the Thomas Buoyant, can be killers, too.”
Success with spoons means matching the mood of the trout, if not the species.
“Cutthroats don’t like erratic retrieves, they like it steady,” he says. “Browns and ’bows, however, tend to prefer more activity. I reel six or eight turns, then raise the rodtip and quickly drop it again, letting the spoon fall on semi-taut line. Most strikes come on the flutter.”
One of Ramsey’s lesser-known spoon tricks is tipping the treble with half a Trout Worm.
“This tends to kill the wobbling action on a straight retrieve but allows you to impart an amazing amount of action with exaggerated lifts and flutters,” he says. “I’ve worked trout into a frenzy with this approach.”
While such wild maneuvers deviate from standard slow-moving winter strategies, the commotion attracts curious fish and draws reaction strikes.
In general, Ramsey prefers silver and gold for his spinner, spoon and minnow bait finishes.
“On bright days, silver is best,” he says. “Gold does better in dark water.”
Regardless of the specific tactics needed to trigger fish on a given day, Ramsey stresses the importance of staying mobile.
“Move around, covering as much water as possible looking for active fish,” he says. “The worst thing you can do in winter is stand in one spot all day.”
On the fly scene, nymphs fished near bottom are hard to beat unless a major hatch draws trout to the surface. Use weighted line and split shot to take nymphs deep without dragging bottom.
Crandall adapts to lower water temperatures and reduced fish activity with longer leaders, to make sure his nymphsreach the fish’s smaller strike window.
“Stonefly nymphs work really well,” he says. “They’re a standard throughout the winter months. Beyond that it’s a matter of matching the hatch for lake dragons, damselflies and such.”
Combo rigs like a small pheasant tail with a size 16 or 18 bead-head blue-winged olive trailing it—or a size 20 Griffith’s gnat with 22 midge emerger in tow—also take trout.
When sunlit afternoons trigger hatches, dry flies come into play. Midge pupa patterns dead-drifted just beneath the surface film will make you wonder why you have the river to yourself.
The Cold Truth
Great opportunities for flowing water winter trout abound across the West. Tapping these treasures is simply a matter of planning your attack and tweaking your techniques to meet winter’s demands.
Not all trout streams offer good fishing in winter and some, literally, are killers. “In general, the water temperature in natural freestone streams at elevations of 7,000 to 9,000 feet often hovers just a fraction of a degree above freezing,” says Colorado fishery biologist Dan Kowalski.
From his Montrose office, Kowalski oversees the iconic Lower Gunnison River and other blue-ribbon fisheries in the Centennial State’s southwestern corner. He knows all too well that at such frigid temperatures, trout enter a state of near-dormancy.
“Fish activity and metabolism depend on water temperature, and at a hair over 32 degrees, trout hunker down and try to survive the winter.”
He says the fish nestle into gravelly substrate and into nooks and crannies in rocks and woody cover—anywhere sufficient flow moves oxygenated water over their gills. To make a bad situation worse for anglers, the fish eat little if anything.
“Because their metabolism is almost at a stand still, their food requirements are almost nothing,” he says.
Where free-flowing streams run too cold for good winter fishing, Kowalski acknowledges the potential of tailwaters—but only if conditions are right.
“Warmer water might increase metabolism and feeding requirements, but if the river doesn’t offer an adequate food source, the fish can starve,” he says.
In the case of Colorado’s Frying Pan and Taylor tailwater fisheries, mysis shrimp washed down through the dams provide ample forage. Other systems, however, such as the Uncompahgre River below Ridgway Dam, lack suitable food.
To complicate matters, high levels of dissolved nitrogen in the water coming into the tailwater (say, 110 percent) can cause a condition known as nitrogen supersaturation and the accompanying gas-bubble trauma. The effect on trout is not unlike that of the bends in human divers, which can cause injury and death.
One final caveat: warm-water discharges from power plants and other sources may seem like boons to trout anglers, but Kowalski cautions that just the opposite can be the case.
“They can prevent the formation of surface ice, which along with snow helps insulate free-flowing rivers from extremely cold air temperatures.”
Along with certain natural conditions, power plant discharges can also foster the development of “frazil” and anchor ice, which also keep the river from freezing from the top down. Frazil ice—which forms in turbulent water as tiny ice crystals in liquid form—sinks to the stream bottom where it, along with cold conducted by rocks breaking the surface, sparks the formation of anchor ice. That can supercool the water and spell doom for trout trying to ride out winter in the depths.
Worst-case scenario, says Kowalski, is if multiple stressors collide. “Trout may be able to survive one factor like low temperature, but if you add gas bubble trauma, disease or a lack of food, you can expect serious problems.”
Bottom line? Do your homework before throwing gear in the truck and hitting the road. Calls to local fisheries offices, fly shops and guides can eliminate much of the guess work and put you on winter trout fast.
New Options For Nymphing
Cabela's all-new CZN fly rods($199.99) are designed specifically for Czech nymphing, a technque by which anglers fish two or three weighted nymphs almost straight below the rodtip. In face, often only the leader is in contact in the water during the drift-not the fly line itself
To accommodate this, CZN rods feature a supple tip that enhances line control and indicates subtle takes; a stiff butt section controls big fish. The rods feature woven graphite reel seats with aluminum rings, AAA cork grips, titanium-plated snake gukles and SiC stripper guides. Available in 9-foot, 6-inch 3-weight; 10-foot 4-weight; and 10-foot 5-weight models; all four-pieve.
For More information, click on Web Extras at FishingClub.com