The thermometer registered the frigid Colorado air at 5 degrees as I parked my Explorer and I stepped into an icy blast that threatened to quickly penetrate my parka, jacket and down vest.
I pulled out my 5-weight fly rod, pre-rigged with a pair of midge larvae on the 6X tippet, and began descending the slope to the Taylor River tailwater. Immediately, I saw the subtle ring left by a rising trout.
More rise forms followed. Two huge browns were feeding on tiny midges in the surface film. My frosted fingers fumbled as I hurriedly changed the flies to a size 20 Griffith’s Gnat and a size 22 midge emerger dropped 18 inches behind.
Many fly fishermen put their gear away and find a spot near the fireplace when the snow flies and temperatures drop, perhaps because they think good fishing is over for the year, or that winter wading is just too challenging.
They’re wrong—on both counts. Winter offers fly anglers great fishing opportunities, and many days can be quite comfortable.
The extreme cold on the Taylor River that day was mainly due to its 9,000-foot elevation. That’s not typical of many western trout rivers in the winter, however. In many cases, the weather can range from toe-numbing to warm.
Winter trout angling in the mountain states also often means tailwater fishing and targeting oversize browns and rainbows with tiny flies and ultra-light leaders. The water flowing from a reservoir remains a constant temperature and is typically ice-free for some distance downstream, even on the coldest days.
Tailwaters are also fertile, producing ample insect life on which trout grow fat. The benefits of targeting winter trout are many, not the least of which is that you may have the stream to yourself.
Slow Water, Heavy Cover
Shallow, clear water equates to lethargic, but spooky, trout. Look for them in slower currents with heavier cover. They’ll often be on the bottom, but will rise to feed on tiny emergers. At times, they will migrate to the shallows to feed, as well. As a general rule, trout lying deep in pools or tailouts are not focused on feeding. Look for slightly more aggressive trout at the heads of pools, or in the shallows.
Midges are more active than other subsurface forage during the coldest months. Hatches occur under bright sunlit skies, and this triggers trout to feed. Dead-drifting a midge pupa below the surface is productive, especially on a warm, sunny day.
Mysis shrimp, mayfly nymphs and minnow imitations also attract trout, and as March approaches, Baetis hatches become important as trout become selective to these tiny mayflies.
Fly size and color are important when fishing midges, as winter trout can be selective. If takes are scarce, change fly size, then color. A size 18 is large, so stick to sizes 20 to 28. As for color, black, red, olive, gray and yellow are tops.
I emphasize three key factors for productive winter fly fishing: successful fishermen sight-fish, winter trout demand precise presentations, and anglers learning new waters should make use of a guide’s experience.
I recommend hiring a guide when fishing new waters because a knowledgeable one can teach you more about identifying good lies, proper presentations and productive flies in a single day than you can learn on your own in week. If you’re fishing familiar waters on your own, spend a lot of time visually searching for trout rather than blindly casting to vacant waters.
I carry a small pair of binoculars to assist my search. Winter rise forms are usually quite subtle and the binos help me locate fish feeding on the surface, as well below the surface. High-quality polarized glasses and a thermometer are also invaluable to finding trout.
It’s nearly impossible to hook trout unless you position yourself to make a precise flawless drift, because winter trout rarely move far to intercept offerings. I use a downstream cast to feeding fish by stealthily positioning myself to the side and slightly upstream, as close to the trout as possible.
From this position, I can make sure the fly arrives in the strike zone before the leader or line. It’s the first thing the trout sees, so you won’t spook a skittish fish.
Cast far enough in front of the fish so the fly has time to sink to the proper depth before reaching the trout. In slow current, two or three feet is usually enough lead, but each situation is unique. Watch the fish for any indication that it has accepted your offering. If it turns to the side or opens its mouth, wait long enough to avoid pulling the fly out of the trout’s mouth, then gently set the hook. If you are using an indicator, set your hook at the slightest deviation.
If you must blind cast, select likely lies—holes or bends, slower flows and areas with protective cover. You can also use your thermometer to pinpoint areas where the water is warmer, like those created by sub-surface springs or above- ground seepages. Often, only a 2- or 3-degree difference is enough to attract winter trout. Likewise, pay attention to stretches exposed to sunlight, and avoid cold, canyon-shadowed runs.
It’s also important to fish quickly, but with purpose. If, after a few well-placed casts, you see no sign of trout, move on. Don’t waste time on marginal water.
When probing deep areas, begin fishing midge larvae and pupa patterns, although nymphs, streamers and scud patterns take numbers of winter trout, too. Use enough weight to scrape the bottom with a drag-free drift. Again, remain alert for a subtle take; you may want to use a sensitive strike indicator.
Though most of the action will be below the film, you may notice surface disturbances. That’s the time to switch to emerger pupae patterns. I generally use an adult pattern with an emerger dropper. If there are several rising trout, focus on a single fish rather than casting to the school. Time the rises and cast accurately to drift the fly precisely through the feeding lane at the right time.
Winter fly fishing is a unique, and enjoyable, sport. Large trout, the potential for significant hatches and uncrowded streams await you. With a little planning, a trip to a Western river in the winter can reap major rewards.