6 Essential Patterns for Winter Fly Fishing

Winter fly fishing

This a concept that is foreign to most people.  The mountains are full of snow, freshly groomed runs greet the eager ski and snowboard crowd and the hot chocolate is flowing.  Who has time to fish?  The truth is, winter fly fishing offers some excellent opportunities to catch fish and for those that are willing, the opportunity to have the river all to yourself.

The trout don’t stop eating just because it’s 20 degrees outside, but to get them to eat becomes a bit more challenging.  A trout’s metabolism slows down and they are less likely to move too far to feed, so choosing a nice slow run and the right fly is paramount.  With thousands of flies to choose from, how do you know what to use?

Food Source:

The predominant food source for trout in the winter is the midge. Small in stature, their massive populations more than make up for what they lack in size. Knowing the midge’s life cycle will help you choose the right pattern to be successful. Midge Larva are slim, uniform and segmented. The head is usually much darker and more noticeable than the body. They come in a variety of colors and sizes. Midge Pupae are a bit stockier and still segmented. The thorax is much more pronounced containing the wings, gills, and legs.  Glass beaded flies work well. Finally, the adult stage where the pupae break free of their sheath and the wings unfurl and they fly off.  This is a dry fly fisherman’s ultimate quest.

Another food source that is often overlooked is the stonefly. Winter stoneflies have, over the years, adapted to the freezing temperatures by undergoing changes that allow them to survive.  Changes include eliminating their gut of bodily fluids that can freeze and producing glycerol which acts like an antifreeze for your car.  Slimmer in profile and smaller than the average stonefly, the winter stonefly is a hardy meal.

Here are 6 Proven Patterns for Winter Fly Fishing:


Zebra Midge

One of the largest families of insects, midges are readily available throughout the year and the Zebra Midge is one of the better patterns to mimic this important food source.  The tungsten bead head Zebra Midge helps get the fly down to the trout and can be fished at different depths.  This pattern comes in a variety of colors (Black, Red, Olive, Purple etc) and all work well. Size 18-22.


This versatile emerger pattern developed by Rim Chung, is a must have in every anglers fly box. It imitates a number of different insects and is a favorite of trout. It can be fished behind a dry fly to sit in the film or down deep while nymphing.  Black, Olive and Grey are the most common.  A drag free drift is the key to fishing this fly.  Try the Sparkle Wing version. Size 18-24.

Pheasant Tail Slim 

There are many versions of the Pheasant Tail but I prefer the slim version of the PT in the winter time.  Its slimmer profile imitates a variety of insects that are available in the winter and creates less drag which is crucial when presentation could be the difference between success and failure. Sizes 18-24.


San Juan Worm Flash

Like it or not, the San Juan Worm Fly is here to stay, and this pattern works particularly well in the waters around here. This fly can be fished alone or as an attractor pattern that can get even the most finicky trout to eat. Many worm variations are available but this is my go to.  I like this pattern in the color pink. Size 18.

Copper John

One of the best-selling patterns of all time, the Copper John is an effective fly for many reasons.  It imitates an array of insects – in this case stoneflies. It can be used to add additional weight to your winter fly rig and as an attractor to get the fish to eat your RS2 or Zebra Midge. Stoneflies are present in winter and are an important food source for trout.  Copper John’s come in a variety of colors but I like black and red this time of year.  Sizes 14-22.

Brooks’ Sprout Midge Emerger 

This pattern should be in every fly box year round but especially in the winter time. During the warmest part of the day, it is possible to see trout rising and sipping emergers. This fly is one of the best and it offers the opportunity to fish dries.  Fish it in the slow flat sections just below the moving water. Size 18-22.

Don’t overlook the untapped resource that is winter fly fishing.  With the right gear and fly selection, you can have an enjoyable and productive day on the water and in most cases, you will have the river all to yourself.   At Vail Valley Anglers we are committed to carrying the best fly selections available.  Stop by the shop and see for yourself.