Winter Fly Fishing Tips – Making the Most Out Of Winter Fly Fishing

Michael “Sal” Salomone

Approaching the river in winter can be an intimidating fly-fishing experience when the water is as clear as glass and slowing from freezing. However, it can be extremely productive if an angler is aware of the conditions and presents flies with focused intention. Vail Valley Anglers’ professional fly fishing guides have a deep understanding of the river and the bugs that inhabit the local watershed. Working with their client to decipher the day-to-day conditions as the sun warms the river leads to stellar winter fly-fishing.

Gore Creek, Vail Colorado
Gore Creek, Vail Colorado

River Conditions

Wintertime slows growth down to a sluggish pace. Narrowed by bank ice and covered with shelf ice, river levels are at the lowest of the year. Bugs are held for an extended period of time at immature stages of development. Midge larvae become primary food items for hungry trout.

Anchor ice accumulates on the river bottom smothering the rocks and detritus. A foundation in anchor ice prevents bugs from becoming dislodged in watery currents. Extended periods of anchor ice can stifle fishing in an area for days. Our Guides work year-round and know open areas of the local rivers where anchor ice is not a factor, increasing your chances for wintertime fly fishing success.

Trout congregate in deep pools below oxygen infusing riffles. Spending a few extra minutes observing the behaviors trout are exhibiting leads to more productive winter outings. Trout that are suspended in the mid-column of the river during the winter months are feeding trout. Activity will be centered on a small feeding lane making accurate, controlled drifts a necessity for success. Vail Valley Anglers Guides are true professionals, able to instruct and enhance your casting and overall fishing presentation.

Winter conditions are more technical when dealing with your presentation. Dialing in your rig to present tiny flies within a specific zone often calls on some trial and error. VVA Guides take the time to teach our clients how to properly construct a functional wintertime nymph rig, a skill that translates over into summer nymph fishing easily.

Micro-shot assists in adding or subtracting weight to present flies correctly. Tossing on a heavy, single weight results in poor, unnatural drifts that hinge and fold around a rock. Instead employ a series of smaller weights spread out over a short distance equaling the same amount. A string of weights has a tendency to mold around the rock and roll over. Think about Mardi Gras beads and how they roll over curves, get the picture?

Rainbow Trout Caught on The Eagle River


Concentrate on locating fish bank-side before entering the river or beginning to cast. Blind-casting announces your presence and will inadvertently spook fish from a feeding lane. Wait and watch, read the trout’s reactions and how it is feeding to optimize your first few casts. Vail Valley Anglers’ Guides will teach you where to look to locate feeding trout in cold weather conditions. We will also instruct our clients how to begin fishing a specific area with out spooking the entire spot, working methodically through the river to increase your chances for success.

Winter is all about the nymph. Dry fly opportunities can occur, although they are few and far between. Sun on open water can create the correct set of magical circumstances for a dry fly bite; otherwise head subsurface. Our Guides are well stocked should that magical dry fly bite appear and the amount of flies we have for nymphing in the winter can be absurd.

Midges rule the stage. As a year round protein source, midges become the only food source available in the winter months. Popular colors include red, green (chartreuse), white, brown and black. Productive patterns for winter nymphing would be the zebra midge, juju midge, black beauties, miracle nymphs and top secrets. Ultraviolet fibers breathe life into such minuscule offerings. Any small fly tied with UV materials looks like bubbles or gives the illusion of movement. Most Vail Valley Anglers Guides are very adept at the fly vise, creating special guide inspired patterns that appear to swim in the winter, river water.

Subsurface presentations require a lot of mending and attention to line management, set on anything. Bites are subtle in the winter and cause little disturbance. Light tippets and dialed in weights equal a good presentation where flies are suspended exactly in the feeding lane at the same height and speed as the feeding trout. As experts when it comes to winter nymph fishing Vail Valley Anglers’ Guides will help you detect subtle winter bites.

You have to earn it in the winter. Bites are fewer in the cold weather. Be prepared for the bite and turn every one into a catch rather than a missed opportunity. Trying a larger lead fly such as a size 12 Prince Nymph followed by a smaller offering like a size 22 midge larva can be a productive presentation. Surprisingly, often the large tempting morsel is eaten.

When fishing streamers try to retrieve with a low and slow pace, fished deep in the water column. Short hopping retrieves imitate a dying minnow, baitfish or trout. White is a great choice for the winter months. Keeping the streamer close to the bottom is critical to success in wintertime. It is not a chase scenario we are trying to create but rather a slow moving, “dead drift.”

Fishing a streamer in tandem with a midge larva imitation can be the ticket to success when winter bites become hard to come by. Often referred to as a Happy Meal, a streamer and nymph rig covers all the bases for tempting hungry trout. A small dark-colored stonefly also works effectively in tandem with a streamer. Here again, it is the dead drift we are trying to achieve for proper presentation of a Happy Meal.


When it comes down to cold temperatures, the choice of reel becomes more important. Click and Pawl reels have a tendency to freeze up more than disc drag reels. Sealed drag reels could be the ultimate choice for dealing with cold weather and freezing water. Whatever your choice is a reel dunked into the river for any reason will begin to give you problems in the cold. Vail Valley Anglers can outfit you with a functional winter outfit or help you to dial in your present gear to accommodate for the frigid conditions.

Wintery conditions routinely cause rod guides to freeze and coat fly lines with an icy sheath. Both will create frigid fingers when combined with the river water temperature. Hand warming hot chocolate kept in a thermos bank-side works wonders. In the Vail Valley Anglers fly shop we carry a selection of thermos/water bottles that can serve double duty, keeping liquids hot for extended amounts of time and keeping water from freezing when exposed to winter temperatures.

Winter remains the arena for workhorse rods not your finest graphite. When you have ice on the river and frost on your rod there is no need for the best Thomas & Thomas. An Echo or Clearwater rod will do just fine. Should you find your only choice is a top of the line rod a quick stop into the VVA shop can lead you to an inexpensive winter rod you won’t cry about if it gets damaged.

Ask around and you will get numerous homemade remedies for preventing ice from forming in your guides. Stanley’s Ice Off Paste has been the best performer for preventing ice on my rods.

Winter water conditions require anglers to size down in tippet. Smaller diameter tippet, especially fluorocarbon, results in a more stealthy presentation. The slow, clear water demands low visibility to help prevent trout from detecting imitations. Lighter tippet also aids in presenting a natural drift. Vail Valley Anglers fly shop has multiple choices for wintertime tippet, especially fluorocarbon.

Once again, Micro-shot is a key component for dialing in desired results on thin tippets. The lighter pound tippet also aids in tying on the ultra small nymphs in sizes 22 and 24. Sizes 18 and 20 become too large. The cold water holds midge larva for an extended period of time in the premature stage, accounting for the success found with teeny nymphs.

Helpful Hints

Avoid brightly colored clothing like red hats, which stick out in the stark conditions found during winter. Dull earth tones assist anglers in being undetected. And, the Airflo Bandit series of fly lines changes subtly between olive and brown colors–taking the stealthy approach to an extreme.

Along the same path, shy away from brightly colored indicators. Spooking fish, especially timid winter fish happens easily with large, colored indicators. Bright pink is good for you but bad for your nymphing, causing fish to avoid your rig. Small white or clear Airlock indicators are easy to adjust and won’t appear as obtrusive during your drift. VVA has a large selection of Airlock indicators for any type of underwater fly presentation.

The best window for opportunity falls after the 10:30a.m. time period. Stay as late as the sun allows. Careful planning and positioning can have you lined up for late afternoon sunshine. The angle of the sun will increase productivity and your warmth and also extend feeding activity for a longer period of time.

Winter’s sun casts long shadows that penetrate the tumultuous surface currents all the way to the riverbed, spooking fish. Anglers who inadvertently cast their shadow across productive water need to reposition to achieve success. Repositioning also is a key component in preventing the ice shelf from cutting your line while fighting a fish. Long-handled landing nets assist in preventing the same problem and reach over obstacles to land your well deserved winter trout.

You will fall at some point. How gracefully you do it depends on how you approach the frozen river. Falling and cracking an elbow on the ice can result in a broken arm or rod. Studded rubber-soled boots work wonders but any type of felt will accumulate ice dangerously. Many winter anglers are prepared with slip-saving footwear such as inexpensive ice cleats that easily attach to your boots. Your wading staff from the summertime can double as a good support on the ice too.

Brown Trout Being Released on The Eagle River

C-N-R tips

Avoid excessive handling in the cold temperatures especially when wearing any type of glove. Rubber nets are an asset for successful catch and release fly fishing allowing the angler ample time to revive lethargic winter trout after the fight. However, both nets and gloves remove the protective coating trout need for a healthy existence.

Minimize the extended amount of time trout spend out of the water. Soft tissue like gills and eyes begin to freeze relatively quickly when removed from the safety of the river water. Keeping a hooked trout in the water and in your net is the responsible way to remove flies. As stewards of the river, Vail Valley Anglers takes great pride in releasing trout in an ethical manner.

The best approach is to arm your self with the appropriate gear and knowledge which removes a lot of the anxiety fly anglers have surrounding winter fly-fishing. Approaching the river with an understanding of the bug life that is present in the cold and the techniques used to present those flies will lead to repeatable winter fly-fishing success. Remaining aware of the hazards fishing in winter can present is another step in preparing yourself for a cold weather, fly-fishing experience. The Guides at Vail Valley Anglers lead fly fishers to a safe, successful fly experience by removing a lot of the guesswork associated with winter fly fishing.

Michael Salomone