A lot has been written about how and where to catch trout during the winter since the sport gained popularity during the coldest season a couple decades ago. One often overlooked factor that is probably more crucial than any other consideration is when to actually hit the water during the cold months. The where to go, how to fish and what to use challenges of catching wintertime trout can actually be pretty simply addressed if the when is placed as a top priority.
There are basically two “whens” to consider this time of year for anglers looking to land some trout while the snow is flying. The first is the time of day to plan on being on the river. The second is following the forecast closely and choosing an actual day to layer up and strap on the waders. Both are based on what will create a slight increase in a trout’s desire to feed. For our wintertime guiding on freestone rivers like the Eagle and Roaring Fork where air temperatures greatly affect water temps, it is imperative to follow these timing protocols to ensure good fishing. While dam controlled tailwaters like the Frying Pan or Yampa are less affected by cold snaps, these factors still play a vital role in putting trout in the net.
Time of Day
The first “when” is one that can be appreciated by most anglers that dislike the early morning wake-up calls necessary during the heat of summer. Winter trout are late risers and fly fishermen should follow suit. Generally speaking, winter fly fishing is all about water temperature and to some degree ambient light. After fifteen years of guiding in freezing weather, I have found in winter this simple formula rules the river in the Colorado Rockies: A rising water temperature means feeding fish and a dropping water temperature means trout will be tough to coerce into eating flies.
Frigid early morning fly fishing sessions are an exercise in frustration and frostbite. Wait until at least mid-morning if not later to hit the water. Think eleven am to three or four pm for prime trout activity-just the opposite of the summer months. Water temperatures will rise slightly, spurring a feeding session in cold, lethargic trout with slow moving metabolisms. Warmer water also increases aquatic insect activity with midge and BWO hatches, and drifting stoneflies. These factors combine into the perfect feeding situation for trout and sometimes, when the stars align for a couple hours, the fly fishing is fast and furious with aggressive hits every other drift through a hole with deep nymphing rigs. Then, the switch will flip, the water begins to chill in late afternoon and the trend is reversed.
Watch the Weather Forecast
Now it is time to check out the forecast for the next week to ten days and watch for the next incoming storm. Many anglers who simply look for a sunny day will be disappointed in the fishing on those days-especially if that sunny day directly follows a day or two of dark and stormy weather. If there is one day I would choose NOT to fish during winter it would be a sunny day after a snow storm. The air temps are almost always frostier than previous days despite the sun, rivers are slushy, the wind blows and the fish do not eat well, if at all.
Instead, watch for incoming storms and fish the day before and the day of a snow storm. This is when trout like to eat during winter in Vail Valley. It can be even better if the weather socks in for a couple of days. Cloudy nights result in a ceiling which prevents big temperature swings and super frigid night-time temperatures that kill the trout bite and ice and slush up the rivers. When it is snowing here, air temperatures are generally warmer. This and the flat light, increased bug movement and warmer water mean the fishing is probably going to very good for a few hours during mid-day. The perfect conditions are a windless, relatively warm day when the snow falls in big, wet flakes straight to the ground. These are the days when winter fly fishing can out-produce the best days of summer.
With the right gear and clothing and a little timing consideration, fly fishing in winter is a productive, peaceful time to chase trout. Leave the sunny days for skiing and when it snows, sleep in and skip the powder day lift lines to hit water. You’ll have the river to yourself and feeding trout will greet you. For the latest winter fly fishing reports check out http://www.vailvalleyanglers.com/fishing-reports or stop in to chat with the local experts at the Vail Valley Anglers fly shop in Edwards, Colorado.
Brody Henderson, Senior Guide and Web Content Writer