Winter Fly Fishing Tips – Ultimate Guide to Catching Winter Trout


Fly fishing in winter? It isn’t for everyone.

But, provided you are willing to brave a little mild discomfort, it is actually really rewarding.

I’ll be upfront, it is a little harder, but that’s just what makes it so worthwhile.

I want to share some of my best tips for winter fly fishing with you and answer some common questions so that you can get the most out of your trip.

All wrapped up? Good, let’s get fishing!

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Winter Fly Fishing Tips (The Ultimate Guide)

So, you made it!

I’m glad you could join me. You’ve decided to brave the elements and get out fly fishing. I’m impressed!

There are a few subtle differences when fly fishing in the winter months, so I’ve thought up a list of tips to keep you comfortable and catching.

Let’s dive right in with some general tips for fishing when it is cold:

catch of a rainbow trout with a fly

Winter Fly Fishing – General Advice

Manage Your Expectations

If you are new to fly fishing or have only ever fly fished in the summer, you might find winter fly fishing slightly different.

Here’s a big clue…

If it is any time around or after December… It’s going to be cold. As a result, there is less going on when it comes to fly fishing.

Trout are cold-blooded creatures and as the water cools down, so does their metabolism. As a result, the fish feed less and are much less active.

I don’t want to spoil the fun, but…

You probably aren’t going to catch a ‘bag full’ like you would in the summer. That said, there will be benefits to fishing in the cold.

There’s a good chance that the spots packed with anglers in the summer won’t be quite as busy in the winter. By being willing to brave the elements, you might snag yourself a prime position in a fish hot spot!

The Best Time to Fly Fish in Winter

Ok, so we’ve said that the fish slow down. However, they’ve got to eat sometimes.

Right?

By knowing the best time to fish, you’ll give yourself the highest possible chance of success. You stand the best chance of catching fish when the water will be at its warmest. As a good general rule, this is just after midday when the sun has just passed its peak.

If you’ve picked a mild winter day, you’ll probably notice some signs of fly hatches taking place too. This would be a prime time to try your luck with a dry fly or perhaps a nymph.

Do Some Reconnaissance

With a small window of opportunity, you’ll want to make the most of every minute when fishing in winter. Doing a little ‘homework’ will give you the best possible chance of bagging a trout.

What do I mean by this?

Working out what the trout are likely eating is a top fly fishing tip all year round and is even more important in winter. When I arrive at the swim, I like to take a minute or two to have a good look around.

I try and see if there are any flies on the water. I have even been known to turn over a few rocks and see if I can get an idea of what is going on beneath the surface, then I can match my choice of fly to the hatch that is taking place.

fly fisherman fishing in river in winter

Tactics and Technique

When the weather (and water) is cold, you will have to slightly alter your attack plan to catch a wary trout.

Here are some top tactics for winter fly fishing:

Move Around

So, there are two reasons I say this…

The first is that by moving around, you are more likely to keep warm.

Makes sense?

The second reason is more trout-related. As I’ve said, trout don’t like to move much when it is cold. You can rely on trout going ‘on patrol’ and moving to different areas in the summer. In winter, they will tend to stay put.

And as my old man used to say to me, “If the fish aren’t coming to you, you’ve got to go to the fish”.

By moving constantly and trying different areas, you stand a far better chance of encountering an area holding fish.

Slow Down

Due to the water temperature, the trout are in a kind of stasis. They are lethargic and slow. The last thing they want to do is waste energy by chasing a lure ripping through the water.

What does this mean for your technique?

Your best bet is to slow everything down. Sure, you can still use a lure, but in the past, where you might have stripped feet of line at a time, now you want to be more subtle. Use a figure of eight retrieves that are just fast enough to impart just a little bit of life into your fly.

Here’s why it works well…

When fly fishing, you are trying to imitate nature. Just as the trout slow down when it is cold, so do the critters that they eat. By making you retrieve nice and slow, you are matching what the natural food sources are doing.

Depending on your choice of fly, you could even consider fishing it stationary. This works extremely well with patterns designed to imitate creatures that always move slowly, such as nymphs and worms.

fly fisherman in river catching brown trout

Go smaller

Your fly selection is important.

But let me tell you something…

Bigger isn’t always better. While a big meal might seem appealing, you’ll generally find that smaller patterns will out-fish bigger patterns.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that things tend to grow a lot smaller in cold conditions. By choosing a smaller fly when winter fly fishing, you’ll be more accurately representing what a trout would expect to find naturally.

And there’s more.

Good fly fishing is all about a great presentation. Smaller flies are much easier to cast and position easily. If you are only going to get one shot at a trout, you had better make your cast a good one. Smaller flies make this much more probable.

Go Deeper

This rule is applicable through all stages of the year but is particularly relevant in winter. When the water gets colder, trout tend to hunker down. They expend less energy by moving to deeper water.

In streams and rivers, the deeper the water, the slower it moves. Trout will hold in these deeper areas using minimal energy while they wait for the food to be washed to them.

If you can get a juicy looking fly down to these depths easily, then you might present them with an opportunity that is too good to pass up.

Generate Interest with Your Winter Fly Choice

Ok, so going slower and smaller hasn’t worked. You may need to present something that really gets the trout going.

Your choice of fly is one of the first things that I would address.

When it comes to cold weather fly fishing, I have a golden rule…

Keep changing it up until you find what works. I try a maximum of five casts with a fly, then I’ll change it. I normally start off natural and then add elements of movement in my flies. I’m talking about things that sparkle a little or ‘swim’ in the water, like maribou tails and hackles.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, check out my article here on the best flies for winter trout fishing.

fly fisherman wearing fingerless gloves and fishing in river in autumn

Watch the Temperature!

Fly fishing has gone all high-tech.

Remember what I said above about choosing the best time to fly fish during winter? If you want to be sure, what better way than to check the water temperature quickly and easily?

Many winter fishermen will keep an eye on the water temperature by using a portable fishing thermometer. Many of the best fly vests even have a dedicated chord to hang this for easy access.

Fly fishing thermometers are really cheap and can be used to get a slight advantage when deciding when and where to fish in winter.

Staying Warm

Let’s be honest. This is what puts most anglers off fly fishing.

But here’s the secret.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Provided you choose some good quality winter fishing gear, the weather shouldn’t matter to you too much. Here are a few tips about winter fly fishing gear.

Get Some Gloves!

Fly fishing is particularly hard on the hands, especially during winter. You are going to be handling wet line. If there is a cold breeze blowing, you are going to have a bad time.

I like to use gloves that have a fair helping of neoprene. They are grippy when wet, and they still provide a really good level of insulation. The good news is that you can get fishing gloves with removable fingertips, perfect for when you are tying knots. Check out some of my best gloves for fishing right here.

Hand Warmers

Talk about a game-changer!

There are various sorts of hand warmers, from single-use hand warmers for fishing to small metal cases that contain ignitable elements or battery-powered models. You’ve got a great selection out there.

Dehooking Tools

Normally, I am more than happy to land the fish and unhook it in the net when I fish. But in winter, the last thing you want to do is plunge your hands into freezing cold water.

A dehooking tool is an answer. You can safely and efficiently unhook the fish but still be able to keep your hands bone-dry.

Honestly, if you haven’t seen one, you need to check them out. It’s my favorite cold-weather fly fishing gadget.

Layer Up!

If you’ve read my guide to fly fishing essentials, you’ll already know that I am a huge fan of the multi-layer approach.

Here’s how it works.

By wearing lots of thinner layers, you trap air which warms with your body heat, keeping you nice and toasty. The best bit is that you can take layers off when you get too warm (unlikely when fishing).

I finish my ensemble with a great quality fishing jacket. These are lightweight, breathable, and waterproof. Some are so light that you can even stuff them in a vest pouch or fishing pack.

If you want to see some great winter fishing jackets, I’ve got an article just here with loads of suggestions and tips.

Find Some Good Quality Waders

Now there are ‘waders’, and then there are waders.

When it comes to winter gear for fly fishing, my choice of waders is something I place a great deal of thought into. You can’t afford to go poor quality. If you spring a leak in winter, that is literally the end of your day when it comes to fishing.

It’s happened to me once… Never again!

I always advise new starters to spend the most they can afford on a decent pair of waders. Simply put, it is something that you need to work, 100% of the time.

By choosing the right waders, you can ensure that you stay warm, and most importantly, dry. There are ways to supplement the warmth, which I’ll talk about in the FAQ below.

FAQ

Ok, so you’ve got questions.

It’s alright, I get it.

If you are off fly fishing in, say, January or February, there are a few things you probably want to know.

Here are some things that I get asked all the time:

What do you wear under your waders in winter?

Now there’s a personal question.

Alright, I’ll tell you.

As with my guidance regarding the jackets above, I like to layer up ‘down below’ too.

Remember, you will be stood in water that may be just a few degrees above freezing. Trust me, it gets pretty cold, so you want to be well wrapped.

Here’s what I wear under my waders in winter (in order):

  • Boxers
  • Leggings (like the kind runners wear)
  • A pair of sweatpants
  • Thick socks
  • My waders and fishing boots

If you want to know more about layering up, there is a sweet video here:

What flies to use in winter?

There are thousands of patterns out there, and there might not be any ‘best’ fly for winter fishing… However, I like to make an educated guess. You can find my list of the top 11 best flies for winter fishing right here.

How cold is too cold for fly fishing?

It can be too cold for fly fishing. But generally, the water is always warmer than the outside air (especially moving water). The best thing to do is use a thermometer to assess the conditions.

My cut-off for fly fishing in winter is 40°F. Below this water temperature, the trout tend to get really sleepy, and it just isn’t worth the effort.

That said, a rise of a degree can sometimes prompt a brief feeding frenzy, so even if it is slightly too cold, keep your thermometer handy and wait for the water temperature to rise.

Is trout fishing good in cold weather?

Trout fishing can occasionally be exceptional in winter. While the trout do become a little lazier, they still like to eat from time to time. If you have timed it right, you might get lucky and arrive at the water just when bigger fish start to feed.

Provided you stick to my guidance above and adjust your technique accordingly, you should find that you’ll still catch.

Go deeper, smaller, and slower with your technique, and you’ll hopefully see some results.

Where do trout go in winter?

As I said in my tips above, trout will tend to seek slower, deeper water in the depths of winter.

It depends on how deep the area you fish is, but you might find that a sinking line would be a worthy investment to allow you to reach the fish more easily.

Do you like old movies? Check out this 8-minute video. It’s jam-packed with tips on where to locate fish in cold water lakes.

Do trout eat off the bottom?

The answer is, yes, in a fashion. Trout aren’t traditional ‘bottom’ feeders like, say, carp.

But they will happily take a fly suspended a couple of inches off the bottom for sure. Many creatures that form a part of a trout’s natural diet are found dwelling on the bottom, nymphs, and larvae, for instance.

To see how close the trout get to the bottom, check this video out. This guy knows how to fish a nymph!

Conclusion

There are a few key areas to consider when winter fly fishing.

First, keep warm. Second, recognize that you have to adjust your techniques, and third, understand your prey’s behavior.

If you can nail down those three things, you have every chance of success.

What’s your top tip for winter fishing? Let me know in the comments!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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