Classic Pro Tips: Top 10 Flies for Winter Trout in the Pacific Northwest

Written by: Stefan Woodruff, Ellensburg Angler

Winter fishing in the PNW involves going tiny with midges or going big with streamers.
Photo courtesy Ellensburg Angler

For most, winter fly fishing in the Pacific Northwest revolves around one species: winter steelhead. And while chasing chrome-bright fish in swollen coastal rivers can be a challenging and rewarding experience, most folks overlook some of the amazing trout fishing we see during the winter months, on rivers like the Yakima, Spokane, and Deschutes. Here are a few of our favorite patterns for chasing winter trout in the Northwest.

[Click the name of each fly to be taken to a place to buy, a recipe, or a video.]

1. Brassie
(Red; sizes 16-22)
Just like anywhere else in the West, midges make up a large part of a trout’s diet here in Sasquatch Country. And there is no better midge-larva imitation than a red Brassie. This one is rivaled only by the Zebra Midge in its simplicity: some red wire, a little peacock, and you’re done. We primarily trail a Brassie below a larger attractor pattern, such as a stonefly nymph or San Juan Worm, although it can be fished effectively in the surface film during a midge emergence.

2. Zebra Midge
(Red, black, olive and white; sizes 18-22)
This is another great midge-larva imitation, and is also super easy to tie. Throughout the winter, we fish the Zebra Midge in the same role as the Brassie, and tie it in a variety of colors. If you tie your own, tie a few with tungsten bead heads to get down fast.

3. Pat’s Rubberlegs Stonefly
(Black/brown, olive/black, olive/brown; sizes 8-12)
When fishing a two-fly nymph rig under an indicator, 9 times out of 10 our lead fly is a Pat’s Rubberlegs. This bug is an absolute killer, and it does triple duty as a weight fly (to sink smaller, lighter droppers), attractor (those legs would get anyone’s attention), and a big meal for hungry winter trout (midges are for sissies). A black/brown color scheme works great as a general imitation, but don’t forget to carry a few in olive/black or olive/brown, especially during late winter when Skwala Stones become active sub-surface.

4. San Juan Worm
(Red, pink; sizes 8-12)
Some love it, some hate it, but the fact of the matter is, this fly catches fish. When a warm front rolls, bringing rain and melting snow and ice, all of that excess water runs into our rivers, bringing with it plenty of worms. As the rivers start to drop and clear, fishing a San Juan dropped off the back of a stonefly nymph can almost seem unfair. Although red is the standby color for most anglers, Yakima River trout seem to love a Bubblegum Pink worm. Side note: tying worms with red or pearl braid-core chenille gives your worms a little extra flash, and helps your flies stand out.

5. Egg Fly
(Yellow, orange; sizes 10-14)
Winter in our neck of the woods means the whitefish are on the spawn, and as these fish congregate by the hundreds to do their thing, plenty of eggs end up in the drift. Smaller egg patterns (or even beads) in yellow or orange imitate whitefish spawn perfectly, but don’t overlook a larger pattern if the water is high or off-color.

6. Griffith’s Gnat
(sizes 16-22)
Although our local rivers are not incredible midge fisheries, late in the winter, mating midge clusters can bring fish to the surface. The tried-and-true Griffith’s Gnat is a perfect imitation of a cluster of juicy midges, which generally start to make an appearance as we see some milder days in February and early March. We really like these flies tied with a pink or orange hot spot of poly yarn for easy visibility.

7. Parachute Adams
(sizes 18-22)
When fish are rising to single adult midges, a common sight at Rocky Ford Spring Creek in Eastern Washington, oftentimes there is no better imitation than your standard Parachute Adams—albeit much smaller than something you would throw on your favorite cutthroat stream in July. If you can’t tell whether the fish are eating adults or emergers, try dropping a Brassie or Zebra Midge off the back of your Adams, on a 6- to 8-inch dropper, to cover both stages.

8. Sculpzilla
(Olive; sizes 4-8)
The colder months offer anglers a shot at some of the biggest trout in the river, and there is no better way to target these fish than with a streamer. Most Yakima River guides would probably agree that if they could only fish one streamer for the rest of their lives, it would probably be an olive Sculpzilla. This fly is a dead ringer for a real sculpin in the water, and the cone head helps get it down fast and keep it there. We generally fish these flies on a 10-foot fast-sinking poly leader, utilizing a slow, strip retrieve from the drift boat, or a down and across “steelhead” type swing when fishing on foot.

9. Dolly Llama
(olive/black, olive/white; sizes 2-8)
This is another great streamer pattern, and the contrasting colors, paired with strips of flash on either side, really seem to get the fishes attention. This fly also fishes well on local spring creeks, retrieved with big, fast strips that keep the fly shallow in the water column.

10. Woolly Bugger
(Black, olive, brown, white; sizes 4-10)
Dead-drift it or swing it: it all works with this bug. If the water is high or off color, dead-drifting a Bugger-and-San-Juan combo can move fish when nothing else can. Fishing it on a tight line as a sculpin or baitfish imitation can be effective, as well, especially when fishing a light Spey or switch rod for trout, as it is very light and easy to cast two-handed. Fish black, olive or brown on dark, cloudy days, and save the white, flashy pattern for bright, sunny days.

Stefan Woodruff guides for  Ellensburg Angler, in Ellensburg, Washington, where he fishes many of the regions rivers and lakes. He also put together one of the great wedding-party photos of all time.

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