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Winter Fly Fishing Tips: What Flies To Use

Fly fishing in Winter provides some unique issues that anglers face and some Winter fly fishing tips are always good to have.  Aside from the typical cold and wet weather, fish tend to decrease their activity during these cold winter months.  That’s not to say that they stop eating though.  Fish, speaking of trout here, love a water temperature that hovers in the 50-55 degree mark.   Winter water temps tend to drop below that a lot of the time.  What that does is simply slow down a fish and they try to not exhaust too much energy in the search of food.  So we anglers need to adjust our tactics and flies to compensate.

Frosty River by Tony Warelius - Winter Fly Fishing

Image by Tony Warelius

General Winter Fly Fishing Tips

The general consensus for Winter fly fishing is to slow down.  Trout will move slower and our presentation of the fly will need to match this or we might just end up cold and skunked for the day.  Trout in the warmer seasons of Spring, Summer and Fall will typically travel a fair distance to catch food.  The water temps allow them to expend more energy searching for food and so they do so.

With the fish moving slower, they will typically gather and group up in deeper, slow moving pools.  The river current here is far less and allows the fish to not expend too much energy.  The key to that is being able to present your flies deep to these fish.  That means heavier flies and more weight.

Another key factor is the insects that are present.  The warmer seasons provide plentiful hatches of all sorts of bugs.  That combined with the more optimal water temps all a plethora of food sources for a feeding fish.  During the cold Winter months, insect activity decreases with only a few key bugs being present that those fish key in on.  That leads us to match our flies being used to target these bugs that the fish are looking out for and then present them in a way that fish will key in to.  What flies work best though?

Winter Fly Fishing – The Flies That Work For Me

There are a few key flies that consistently produce fish in the cold Winter months.  These are generally my go-to flies.  You may notice a trend as well.  These are primarily nymphs.  While there are a few dry fly patterns that will produce fish in the cold Winter months, they are usually not as productive and the times in which you will use them are a lot less than those you will fish sub-surface.

1. Zebra Midge

Black Zebra Midge - Winter Fly FishingThe Zebra Midge is one of my favorite fly patterns for Winter Fly Fishing.  It’s easy to tie, easy to fish, and will produce fish throughout the year.  During the Winter months, I’ll typically fish this pattern in a size 16.  The most productive colors tend to be red, black and then brown.  Typically the red and black varieties tend to produce the most fish and all of these colors I’ll tie up with a silver tungsten bead.  That gives it sufficient weight to get down in those deep holes where the fish pile up in Winter and also adds just enough flash.

2. Frenchie

Egan's Frenchie - Winter Fly Fishing - Fly Fishing BasicsThe Frenchie was created by one of the best anglers I know, Lance Egan.  The similarities to a Pheasant Tail nymph are definitely there, but this particular fly will outproduce just about any other fly from my experience.  It is not so much an exact imitation of an insect but more so a general representation of a large amount of insects.  I feel that is a huge key to the productiveness of this fly pattern.  It primarily consists of a pheasant tail body with a rainbow sow dubbing and brass colored tungsten bead.  Add to that by tying this with a red thread to create a red hot spot near the bead and you have a killer fly pattern that will work year round.  One setup that I favor for Winter fly fishing is to rig up a two-fly rig with a Frenchie and red Zebra Midge.  I’ll typically fish a size 16 in this as well, but depending on how the fish like it I may switch to a size 18 for the more finicky ones.  Play around with the positioning of the two flies and many times fishing those deeper runs you’ll end up pulling a double out of them.

3. Tungsten Surveyor

Egan's Tungsten Surveyor - Winter Fly Fishing - Fly Fishing BasicsThe Surveyor is another fly created by Lance Egan.  Ever since learning of it it has been one of my go-to flies year round.  There’s something about this fly that just makes fish want to eat it.  It is a simple fly as well.  All it consists of is red thread, rainbow sow-scud dubbing, a little flash back and a silver tungsten bead.  I’ll weight this fly accordingly and I’ve typically fished this in a larger size 14, but a size 16 works extremely well also.  The heavy weight of the fly helps to get down in those deep pools, but be careful while fishing shallower sections as it can get hung up on the bottom rather easily.  Like the Frenchie, try fishing this one in a tandem rig with either a Frenchie or a Zebra Midge.  It works extremely well.

4. Rainbow Warrior

Egan's Tungsten Rainbow Warrior - Winter Fly Fishing - Fly Fishing BasicsYou may be noticing a trend here.  The Rainbow Warrior is yet another fly created by Lance Egan.  The guy just knows his fish and creates some amazingly fishy flies.  This one works great fished in smaller sizes of 18 or so and it can be tied with the extra weight of a tungsten bead or with a standard brass bead depending on the depth you’re wanting to fish it at.  Again it is a simple fly consisting of just some flash material for the body, some rainbow sow scud dubbing and a silver bead.  Don’t let the simple nature deter you though.  It is a phenomenal fly pattern and it especially works well for the rainbow trout.  If you’re interested in learning to tie this particular fly, be sure to check out this great tutorial by a great angler, Loren Williams.  Link to Tying Instructions

5. Griffiths Gnat

Griffiths Gnat - Winter Fly FishingI can’t end this list without including at least one dry fly.  Even in the Winter months the midges will still hatch and bring fish to the surface on the warmer days.  When that happens I’ve always had tremendous luck fishing the Griffiths Gnat.  This is another simple fly pattern consisting of just peacock herl for the body and grizzly hackle.  It is designed to simulate a group of midges together, which tends to grab the attention of those fish sipping single midges from the surface of the water.  While I’ve had luck year round on this fly in a size 16, the winter months will typically require you to downsize your pattern.  Try going with an 18 at the large end and usually a 20 or 22 more commonly.

Winter fly fishing provides ample opportunities for the adventurous angler; you just need to brave the cold sometimes.  Next time try using some of these fly patterns and see how your Winter fly fishing trips turn out.  I’ve always had great luck with them.

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 20+ years and aspiring Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

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