Last year, we introduced a new weekly “Ask the Experts” Column and asked you to pose some questions for our panel of experts. This question comes from an anonymous reader, who asked: “What parts of a river should I focus on for winter trout?”
I put the question to our panel of experts, and their answers are below. If you’ve got a question you’d like to ask our panel, write it in the comments section below.
Joe Demalderis, Cross Current Guide Service (Milford, Pennsylvania):
In winter, fish migrate to deeper pools, especially in the center, and deeper runs of slow to moderate current. You’ll frequently find them grouped in pods, so when you hook one, there could be more. Letting the water settle down for a bit can be a better tactic than going on a search for different water. Think deep or low and slow, and you’ll have your flies hunting in the right place.
When it comes to winter fishing, one very important consideration is the health of the trout. They aren’t eating much, their growth rate has virtually stopped, and in the case of brown and brook trout, they’ve spawned in the fall which has physically stressed them. Land them quickly, so they exert as little energy as possible. Another thing to keep in mind is the lethal damage below freezing air temperatures cause to fish gills and eyes. In seconds, gills and eyes can be irreparably damaged by freezing. Keep them fish in the water for hook removal. Your hands might suffer, but you’ll live through it; they might not.
Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips (Monticello, Minnesota):
Here in the Midwest, we are blessed with more spring creeks than you can shake a stick at. That being said, the water is still cold. Trout are cold-blooded creatures and really slow down. When the fish slow down, so does the water they hold in. Look to the deeper holes below riffles. This is the holding area, and the fish stack up there waiting for the feed to slowly role through. If you find these spots, you’ll find the fish.
Doc Thompson, High Country Anglers (Ute Park, New Mexico):
Look for springs that feed into a river and can keep the water temps a bit warmer in the winter. We often see trout near these springs.
Brown Hobson, Brown Trout Fly Fishing (Asheville, North Carolina):
Here is a long answer. Fish obviously aren’t driven by seasons, and while their feeding behaviors directly correspond to temperatures, their feeding is actually all tied to bug activity or lack there of. Devin Olsen measured arctic char digestive enzymes in Dillon Lake, Colorado, for his master’s research and found their digestive enzymes were present in highest levels between 45 and 60 degrees. The enzymes which can be linked to feeding activity follow a bell curve that peaks around the mid 50s. I have observed that trout follow a similar pattern and have evolved that feeding behavior because there is no food on the extreme ends of the temperature spectrum.
Bugs eat algae and small diatoms that also eat algae. There is less sunlight hitting the river in winter, so we have less algae. Therefore bugs aren’t eating as much and are not getting washed off rocks, meaning there are significantly fewer insects caught up in the drift. If fish have no food to eat, they can’t afford to sit in fast water burning calories. Conversely, during the summer when sulphurs are hatching in great numbers, you see fish sitting in super-fast shallow riffles.
So the short answer is to look for deep, slow runs with just enough current to push some food into a bubble line. Fish your flies deep and slow, so the fish don’t have to move far to eat. I often fish my biggest flies during the winter. If you are not hungry but a piece of bacon hits you in the face, you will likely eat it. If a grain of rice floats by just out of reach, you probably won’t even consider eating it. My favorite flies during winter are a big Hare’s Ear Nymphs and a San Juan Worm (or variant) .
That being said, during winter I also look for the sunny spots. I have found bugs move more when the sun is on the water, and that fish will move into slightly faster water once that happens. Even on days, sun will increase fish feeding activity. Look for slow water with sun on it, and you should find some winter fish.
Spencer Higa, Falcon’s Ledge (Altamont, Utah):
I would focus on the edges of banks to find trout in the winter. My last few outings have proven that the trout like to hang close to the edges out of the current as much as possible. Start at the edges, and work your way to the deepest parts of the river. .
Stefan Woodruff, Ellensburg Angler (Ellensburg, Washington):
When I fish our local rivers and streams in the winter, I focus my attention on a very specific type of holding water. When the water temperatures dip below 40 degrees (Dec.-Feb.), the fish become lethargic and tend to hold in slow, deep pools and runs. A good rule of thumb is to look for any water slower than “walking speed,” with a dark blue or green color, which indicates there is good depth, as well. Also, skip the water with a lot of boils and eddy lines and focus on holding water that is the same pace all the way across, since winter trout are trying to conserve energy and prefer flat, almost featureless water.
Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitting Co. (Troy, Montana):
During the winter, a trout’s metabolism slows down dramatically as water temperatures drop. To that end, it becomes critically important for them to conserve as much energy as possible during winter months. Keeping that theme in mind, trout will generally move out of faster water and main currents and into slower water and areas that offer shelter and cover.
In moving water, look for trout in off current areas like eddies, tight to the bank, in boulder gardens, rootwads, in woody debris and any other place that offers softer current speed in general.
Capt. Chuck Hawkins, Hawkins Outfitters (Traverse City, Michigan):
Winter trout lies usually involve soft water with a food delivery system! In my waters, lots of wood can create safe spots with slower water and a good seam close by.
Another often overlooked spot: when the main water flow is crossing from one side of the river to the other, there is often a soft spot on the downstream side at the beginning of that cross over. Also pay attention to the insides of bends. That shallow water, if it has structure, will at times hold surprisingly large trout.
Maggie Mae Stone, The Tackle Shop Outfitters (Ennis, Montana):
Winter fishing is my favorite! Not only are the crowds gone, but the fishing can be absolutely spectacular, as well. Your approach needs to be quite different from summer/fall fishing, though. Focus on slower, deeper pools and forget about the faster current. Nymph fishing becomes a popular choice, as the cold weather affects the hatches. Reading the water becomes very important, too, and you have to make the best of your daylight with shorter days.
When I approach any body of water, summer or winter, I stand away from the bank and examine the section I plan on fishing for a couple of minutes. During the winter, you still have the chance of temps reaching just warm enough for a nice midge hatch. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing fish slowly slurp a size 18 midge in the dead of winter. If nothing is hitting the surface, I look for those deep, slow pools. You don’t want stagnant water, just slow-moving current. I still search for eddies and log jams, as the fish almost always hang out where there is some type of coverage. You need enough weight to get your nymph down deep in front of the fish, as the fish aren’t going to be exerting themselves as much with slower metabolisms. I like to dead-drift larger nymphs trailed with any small beadhead.