Winter fly fishing presents a unique set of challenges that anglers don’t have to deal with the rest of the year. These challenges include cold weather safety, when, how and where to find fish and specialized fly fishing gear. For those that are willing to put a little extra effort into preparation and on the water tactics, fly fishing in Colorado during the winter can be an extremely rewarding endeavor that includes uncrowded rivers, beautiful winter scenery and wiling trout.
1.Watch the Weather
Winter fly fishing is all about timing. Get it wrong and it could be a painfully cold day without any fish in the net. Hit it on the right day and winter fly fishing brings trout after trout to hand. Try to fish on the day leading up to and during a storm when clouds prevail. Fly fishing during a snowfall can be one the best times to be on the water. These days are generally warmer. Bright, clear sunny days after a storm tend to be wickedly cold and water temperatures plummet, shutting down feeding activity. Several warmer, sunny days in row can offer outstanding fishing.
2.Time It right
Don’t bother hitting the water too early. You’ll be cold long before things start to happen. The bite doesn’t get going until mid to late morning. Focus your efforts later in the day and pack a lunch so you’re on the water when the fish are eating. Sometimes winter fly fishing success hinges on being there during a relatively short feeding window when midges hatch. Dead water suddenly comes alive with feeding trout.
3.Find Warm Water
During the winter, trout feed only during stable or rising water temperatures. A slow metabolism combined with a cold snap and they simply will not eat. Rising air temps are good up to the point where snow begins melting quickly resulting in a drop in water temperatures. So, in addition to carrying a stream thermometer to check water temps and following the weather forecast, look for places where there may be something that influences water temperatures in favor of feeding trout. Natural examples include hot springs while man-made influences such as tailwater dams and warm water outflows from water treatment plants are a sure bet.
4.Find Deep, Slow Water
Winter fly fishing can be made easier if anglers learn to quickly eliminate unproductive water. Since catching fish at this time of year hinges not only on the right conditions but also finding fish, anglers should be happy to know that is the easy part. During the winter, almost all the trout will be concentrated in certain areas. Forget shallow, fast water until spring rolls around. Slow runs and deep holes are where trout stack up.
Covering a lot of water in the winter is usually a mistake. Your time is better spent methodically fishing one or two large, deep holes. Since you know the fish are there, hole hopping might provide a change of scenery but it’s doubtful the bite will be noticeably better. Cover every inch of the hole and do it again. When the fish do turn on you’ll find there’s no reason to leave. Just by shifting your position a step or two, your drift may change just enough that you’ll catch fish on nearly every drift while the fish are feeding.
6.Lose flies to Catch Fish
There’s no getting around it. In the dead of winter if your flies aren’t deep enough you simply won’t catch many fish. Trout tend to hug the bottom where flows are slower and even fish that are actively feeding are generally not willing to move up into the water column a few feet to eat a tiny midge larvae. Make sure you’re using a long enough leader and enough weight to get those flies bouncing off the bottom. You’ll lose a few flies that snag up on rocks but you’ll catch more fish.
7.Lose the Felt
Rubber-soled wading boots may have become popular because they don’t spread invasive hitchhikers like felt-soled boots do but there’s a more practical reason to use them during winter fly fishing sessions. Snow tends to freeze in large clumps onto wet felt soles making walking safely impossible. Rubber soles don’t have this problem and simply walking to and from the river becomes a manageable task in deep snow.
8.Dress for the Part
Dress in layers just like you would for any other outdoor activity. Avoid cotton clothing of any kind. Synthetics and merino wool are the way to go. Fishing specific gloves are great but they’re useless if they get wet. Take them off before landing or handling a fish. Plan ahead and carry a dry bag or pack stuffed with extra dry clothes in the winter. Cold, wet clothes will end your day of fishing in a hurry and dry, warm ones may save your life.
9.Use Common Sense
Winter fly fishing dictates that you don’t take risks. Crossing the river is simply not worth it if it can’t be done with absolute safety. Ice also presents a problem. Standing on ice shelves over several feet of water is dumb. Don’t do it. Same with deep wading. If you’re in over your knees when it’s below freezing outside you are asking for trouble. Often, during winter it’s possible to fish without even wading because the rivers are very low and deep water is only a short cast away.
10.Don’t Overthink Fly Selection
During the winter fly selection is important but with a handful of general patterns most anglers will catch plenty of trout. You can easily break it down into a few categories and be covered. Carry a robust selection of midge larvae and pupae but keep it simple. Trout eat a lot of midges during the winter and simple patterns like black beauties, disco midges and RS-2s in a few colors sized from #18-22 will account for the majority of your trout. Carry a few large attractors and stoneflies like copper johns, princes, twenty-inchers along with some junk flies like worms and eggs. These flies catch fish even when no midges are hatching. For the occasional riser, Griffith’s Gnats and Parachute Adams will almost always work. I like bulky, meaty streamers like heavily hackled buggers and Double Bunnies in the winter because they have a lot of action without requiring a fast retrieve.
Give winter fly fishing a try and you’ll see why it can be a hard choice when you’re trying to decide whether to ski powder or chase trout. Give the experts at Vail Valley Anglers a call for more information or to book a guided fly fishing trip.
Brody Henderson, Guide and Content Writer