cold weather fly fishing

How to Fish when it’s Cold and there are no Bugs…

We shuffled through the early December snow towards the river bank. A cold front settled into the Colorado high country dropping the air temperature below freezing. Steam rose from the surface of the river and melted into the sky. Undeterred by the cold, the small group of Vail Valley Anglers guides approached the river with confidence knowing how to decipher the early winter conditions. How do you fish when there are no bugs? As the cold weather sets in for the winter and begins to chill the river water – a predictable and productive approach to your trout fishing develops if you are prepared for the conditions.

What water to target?

The bugs haven’t disappeared, but the lack of adult bug activity gives some anglers this impression. A healthy river system is never completely devoid of insects. Bugs are held for an extended amount of time developing in the cold water. The number of insects in the river water that are in the earlier stages of development, the larva and pupae stages, can be tremendous evidence of this fact is reinforced by the cloud of adult midges hovering over open water on bright, sunny, winter days. The slight increase in water temperature triggers the midge emergence producing some impressive dry fly fishing surrounded by snow. Not an opportunity you are presented with every winter day but frequently enough to keep a few size 18-20 Parachute Adams in your flybox.

However the confident cold-water angler has his rod rigged with nypmhs. The amount of underdeveloped insects suspended in the river water gives the knowledgeable nymphing angler the added edge for a successful day on the water despite the cold air temperature. Targeting slow eddies, smooth deep runs and lazy pools the wintertime fly angler concentrates only on the best holding water.

Cold weather flies

Flies for the cold weather that produce consistently are midge larva imitations. Carrying a variety of colors can be the key to frequent bites as opposed to a now and then tug. Olive, Black, Red, White and a color guarded by some guides, purple, tied in beadhead zebra midge patterns and fished on light 6X tippet along the depths of the river bottom guarantees results. Setting your rod at the slightest pause from your strike indicator keeps the angler in tune with subtle winter bites and prevents missing soft hits. Airlock strike indicators come in a variety of sizes from 1/2 inch to 1 ½ inches in diameter and multiple colors including clear, are easily adjustable and provide the best indication of a bite.

Other offerings that routinely adorn winter fly angler rods would be patterns imitating unorthodox food sources such as San Juan worms, egg patterns and attracter flies tied in gaudy flashy materials. Bounced enticingly along the river bottom the soft, chewy Otter’s egg fly fools hungry rainbows into gobbling up the high protein and immobile morsel with commitment. I have even seen some dirty secret stonefly nymphs, tied in shades of pink, chartreuse, and flashy yellows come up out of the water hanging in the corner of mouths.

Gear up

Make no mistake winter time fly fishing is for those committed to the conditions, understand the limitations of their gear and who dress appropriately for the adventure. Layering your clothing for a day on the ski mountain is a good way to begin. Waders cover up a lot of baggage in the clothing department but all of that increases your comfort factor when wrapped up tightly under a pair of our Simms waders. Rubber soled boots produce the safest results for walking upon the ice or through freshly fallen snow. Felt soles will quickly accumulate a heavy platform of ice and snow. Patagonia Foot Tractors and Simms G3 wading boots both supply a top of the line boot that can work perfectly during the colder months with the addition of thick wool socks or a pair of disposable toe warmers.

When it comes down to which fly rod to take to the winter water I wouldn’t pull out your Leonard bamboo, these are harsh conditions you are exposing your fly rod to. Ice forms in the guides and the flex you normally feel in your fly rod disappears in the stiff cold air. While the need to lay down a soft dry fly is not always necessary there is a need to turn over your heavy nymph rig in the slushy, ice filled water. Choosing one of your reliable but not quite top shelf fly rods would be a good decision. The Echo Carbon XL and the Loop Q fly rods are both perfect candidates for wintertime angling. While neither of these rods will break your bank both provide a responsive and trustworthy fly rod for the cold.


Cold weather fly fishing isn’t a half-hearted event for the prepared angler. Loaded up with the appropriate flies, dressed intelligently for warmth on the water and swinging a competent fly rod the wintertime angler stacks the cold weather odds in their favor. Focusing on midges the dominate food source found in the river, sets up the intelligent angler for success. Of course the easiest way to winter time fly fishing is by booking a guided trip through Vail Valley Anglers. We will see you on the water.