Classic Pro Tips: How to Catch Trout in Winter


Written by: Phil Monahan

This Henrys Fork rainbow trout is worth cold hands and feet.
Photo by Mike Dawes, World Cast Anglers

The very first winter trout I ever caught came from the Musconetcong River in Hackettstown, New Jersey, more than 20 years ago. I didn’t really believe it would happen and was completely shocked when my indicator went under. But when I raised my rod, I came tight to a foot-long brown. Since then, I’ve enjoyed lots of cold-weather fishing, in places as disparate as New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Montana. On one memorable day, I arrived at Armstrong’s Spring Creek in Paradise Valley with the mercury stuck at 17 degrees Fahrenheit, only to find trout rising to a hatch of blue-winged olives.

That said, winter fishing is often about reduced expectations. Despite the above example, you’re usually not going to run into pods of fish feeding on the surface the way you might in June, and no trout are going to charge down your streamer in the way a spawn-enraged brown will in October. I always head out into the cold with the goal of catching a single trout; anything else is gravy. That way, if I catch three, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.


This fish ate a Blue-Winged Olive on a 17-degree day on a Montana Spring creek.
Photo by Brant Oswald

There are two keys to winter fishing: picking the right days and slowing everything down. In general, unless you’re fishing a tailwater or a spring creek, you don’t want to be on the water when it’s bitter cold out. It’s no fun for you, and the fish can be extremely sluggish. I’ve heard of guys nymphing on Colorado’s Taylor River when it’s 30 below out, but that strikes me as right on the edge of insanity. Ideally, you want a day that’s part of a warming trend, so if you see the temps heading upward—say, from the twenties to the low or mid thirties—plan a day to fish.

Winter fishing is almost exclusively a nymphing game, with a light leader under an indicator. I have never worried about matching specific patterns, choosing instead to go with generalist nymphs, such as a Hare’s Ear Nymph, Copper John, Scud, or Pheasant Tail Nymph. And because fish aren’t willing to move very far to eat your offering, fish a two-fly tandem rig. Two patterns in the water means a better chance of bumping a fish in the nose with one of them. Winter trout usually hold in slower water—deep pools, long runs, and at the base of waterfalls—so you’ll want to focus on these areas. Work slowly, making a lot of drifts through each piece of water. It’s amazing that you can drift through a spot twenty times without the slightest bump, only to have the indicator dive on the twenty-first pass.


Nymphing can produce some fine trout all winter long, if you choose the right days.
Photo by Phil Monahan

But don’t leave home without a few winter dry flies. About two or three years after I caught that first trout on the Musconetcong, I was fishing Big Flat Brook in the northwestern corner of the Garden State, when I was shocked again by the sight of several trout rising at the tailout of a pool. These were the first winter risers I’d come across. Luckily, I had a few Griffith’s Gnats in my vest, and I managed to take one of the trout by swinging the fly just under the surface. This was another proud moment in my maturation as an angler.

This wouldn’t be a proper article on winter fishing if it didn’t discuss preparing for the cold. But I’m guessing that you’re smart enough to put on a coat, hat, and gloves when it’s 30 degrees out. Am I right? Layer up, and most importantly, keep your body dry. One little leak can be more than an inconvenience when it’s really cold out.

10 thoughts on “Classic Pro Tips: How to Catch Trout in Winter

  1. Mike Valla

    An excellent installment on this blog, with great suggestions and insights. I particularly loved the photographs.

    Having suffered many blank days over the years, myself, pursuing the seemingly impossible dream of netting a nice trout on a fly in winter I can attest to two of the suggestions. They are so true:

    >”Picking the right days and slowing everything down. In general, unless you’re fishing a tailwater or a spring creek, you don’t want to be on the water when it’s bitter cold out. It’s no fun for you, and the fish can be extremely sluggish.” “But don’t leave home without a few winter dry flies”<

    ——–Two days ago I was driving by a favorite river pool located not a half-hour from Phil's office. I hadn't planned to fish but stopped to have a look on my way back home. We're having unusual "warm" December weather around here (upwards of 45-52F). It was a great day to simply admire the water. I pulled over, walked to the pool and just gazed around for a while. Then, there it was! A strong rise! That can't be happening. It's December! Holy s***!
    Well, my gear is always with me in the Jeep, no matter, and I scrambled back to crawl into my waders. Finding myself in the pool waiting for that rise (there were some midges here and there) I grabbed my fly boxes. What! No dry flies!! Not a single dry fly with me. Only big streamers and bucktails in my usual winter/early spring boxes.

    It's supposed to be another "warm" day tomorrow. I'll be there on that pool waiting—with my dry fly gnats!

    Thanks, Phil, for a timely post

    Reply
  2. Jed

    I used to be a bait fisher for a long time then after I got out of the army I got hooked up with project healing waters, and got hooked on fly fishing. Im still a complete novice fly fisher having only done it for a year or so but I am completely hooked so heres my favorite story.
    Last febuary I was on trip 10 to the Hams Fork river in Kemmerer Wy, the previous 9 trips I lost probably 100 flies and ZERO fish were caught. I was quickly becoming discouraged about fly fishing. This was it I had said if I come home empty again this time I am done. So my friend and his brother in law were reeling in decent fish from 14 to 20 inches long and I was bringing in jack and squat so I went walking down the river and ran into a guy from Utah. We got to talking and he looked at how I was rigged up and changed my fly from a nymph to a zebra midge and a thing-a-ma-bobber helped me out with my cast technique, told me where to throw and I did this for about 10 min and finally.. I got that bite which ended up being a 26″ fish that was just under 5 pounds.

    Reply
    1. Clayton

      First off, great that you found Project Healing Waters. They do great work, for great people such as yourself. I think there may be some articles floating around in this here Orvis site about them. Have a look. Secondly, it does’nt matter if you have only been fly fishing for a year! We all had to start somewhere at some time. The important thing is you are out there doing it. It is a never ending learning process. And,……less frustrating and expensive than golf!

      Reply
    2. Alec

      That’s awesome Jed i’m 17 and started fly fishing maybe 2 years ago, and the Ham’s Fork was the first place that I caught a fish on my fly rod. The funny part is that I caught it on a Zebra Midge too!

      Reply
  3. bob

    You’ve fished my FAVORITE river, the Musconetcong…..I’ve fished that river since the early 70’s…..I think I fish that river more than anywhere…..keeps calling me back….and always produces fish.

    Reply
    1. MeisterNJ

      Caught a 17″ ‘bow yesterday on the Musky in Hampton. It was a good afternoon. Missed a 22″ plus monster when it shot across the river and broke off.

      Reply
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  5. Tobin

    Since my job has me busy 24/7 for most of the summer, for years I have done more winter fishing than summer fishing. Living in MT and ID for the past 35 years has produced some great memories – and some nice fish. Now I can be the old curmudgeon and complain about how crowded the rivers are in the winter. Just last Friday, there must have been four or five other folks fishing on the South Fork of the Snake. Yikes!

    Reply
  6. Charlie@HockeyBias.com

    Thank you Phil,

    If you see this, could you please comment on trout gills and eyes freezing when handled above water on a cold day?

    What air temperatures are a ‘red flag’ for endangering the trout’s eyes and gills?

    Thank you,

    Charlie

    Reply
  7. Jim

    Good article. Mentioning keep em wet and encouraging anglers to release fish without taking photos is a huge part of winter fishing. Sub freezing air temperatures can really damage fish.

    Reply

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