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10 Things to Remember About Winter Fly Fishing

Winter offers unique challenges for anglers, and it can therefore be an especially rewarding season for those who really want to hone their skills. Here are a few important facts about fly fishing during the winter months.

Most rivers don’t freeze

Unless you’re at very high elevation or very far from the equator, your favorite moving waters don’t freeze in the winter. This is especially the case for tailwaters, any river or stream coming from a dam or other impoundment. Most dams are built such that outflows come from positions lower down the water column, making for generally consistent water temperatures across the year. Of course the further you are from the dam, the greater the range of temperatures are possible on a tailwater. But very rarely do tailwaters freeze, especially in the first few miles below a dam.


Midges can make up to as much as 50 percent of a fish’s diet, which is especially true in the winter. Unlike most of the bugs fish eat, midges can complete an entire life cycle in winter conditions. This means your best and most consistent chance for catching dry-fly action in January and February will be with midges. Fish key in on certain phases of the midge hatch just like any other hatch—midge pupa with trailing shucks make an easy meal and a killer emerger pattern on most waters.


Sleep in

On most waters, fish aren’t active ’til later in the day. 9 a.m. is plenty early to get on the river and set yourself up; in fact, in most situations fish aren’t active until as late as 11 a.m., so why not hit the snooze button a couple times, or better yet, stay out later at the pub the night before for another pint or two?

Busy waters aren’t so busy

I live about 45 minutes from the best stretches of the Provo River, which on weekends from May through September are elbow to elbow with people swinging tackle much classier than anything I have. But between the first and last big snowfalls of the year, around late November to early April, Sunday mornings on the Provo see maybe half as many fly fishers, usually just a skeleton crew of like-minded folks who tend to give each other plenty of breathing room.


Slow down

As a function of cold water temps, fish slow down, and so should you. Fish are trying to save calories, and so are much less likely to chase your rig in winter than in summer. Also, low, clear winter flows make most waters spookier than other times of years. Make sure to strip streamers slowly, let nymph rigs go all the way to the end of their drift, and keep your movements slow, deliberate, and low profile.

Less is more


Because river flows in winter months tend to be low and clear, fish can see your rig that much better. Try going down a tippet size from what you usually fish, say from 4X down to 5X.

Strike Indicators

Same goes for strike indicators; low and clear flows mean what is indicating a strike to you might be indicating a spooky situation to fish. In fact, why not ditch the indicator all together? Try Czech-style high-sticking in deep narrow runs, or just watch the leader for movement where it intersects the water, keeping an eye out for sub-surface flashes of light.


With most waders, the more socks you wear, the less blood circulates to your feet. Beyond a pair of mid to heavyweight Smartwool socks, the less blood will move, and the colder your toes will feel. Fly fishing is not like A Christmas Story—it’s OK if your toes can move around a bit. The booties on your waders are neoprene, designed to insulate in cold conditions, so let them do their job.

Go big on the split shot

The colder the temperatures, the more lethargic the fish. This means that pods tucked into the bottom of a six-foot-deep run are significantly less likely to get up and move for your nymph rig set up for two-foot-deep riffles and drifting four feet over their heads. Add another split shot or two to get flies where fish are. Then add another, just to make sure.

Blue wing olives and stoneflies are real

During warming trends and lower-pressure systems, blue wing olive mayflies and even stoneflies can hatch all the way into January. Make sure to have BWO and stonefly dries in your box in case they do. And when you do catch one of these hatches in winter, savor it. I can think of almost nothing in the world quite so fine as standing numb to the waist in a deep run with clouds of blue wings pouring off the river, riseforms boiling all around, and a fish taking the dry fly I just cast into a heavy snowfall churning above the water.



Fly Fishing Equipment


Here's what the community has to say.

John S.

John S.

Buy yourself a pair of 3mm or 5mm neoprene waders, throw the simms 1piece fleece suit on underneath, layer up like you're going skiing and you will be ok. Have a daypack with some coffee, extra gloves (they will get wet, its inevitable), an extra layer, a lighter and some dry tinder if ur far away from the car (Vaseline soaked cotton balls have frozen on me, try newspaper or a candle). Keep in mind that, yes its cold outside, but youre also standing in water thats just above freezing so the entire day you will feel like you are in one of those physical therapy icebaths. A streamside fire might be just the trick so u dont miss the afternoon run. Also it can dry out some wet gear

If it's sub-30 (see: steelhead fishing on the Salmon River in February), do NOT take ur top-of-the-line rod/reel as the water will freeze the guides and reel, and u will be forced to either sit on the bank and freeze (might as well be fishing if ur gonna be outside), try busting thru the ice and probably break either the drag or a guide (it will happen, don't pretend you're can outsmart than mother nature), or you will be spending a lot of time thawing out said guides and reel, making it a really not fun day. Do not take ur brand new Sage One and Abel-buy a lower end model for fishing below freezing. Trust me on this- breaking a $100 rod feels a lot better than breaking a $900 rod- even with all the warranties out there

Extremely important- u may want to get out of ur freezing boots/waders immediately and throw on ur down puffy, which is fine, but do NOT leave ur gear - anything that got wet - in a car/outside overnight. It will be frozen the next morning and you will be miserable. Bring everything inside and hang it up

The point 'go big on the split shot' ...yep, get ready to chuck some lead...