Winter fly fishing puts you on the river at a starkly beautiful time of the year, and with today’s miracle fabrics and insulate-even-when-wet materials, there’s no reason a winter fly fishing trip has to be a sufferfest.
Nor do you have to go fishless, though you do have to adapt to fish that may have changed their locations and feeding habits due to the colder water temperatures and shorter days. We talked to several fly fishermen about their favorite winter fly fishing tips, and we’re passing on that wisdom here.
Enjoy your winter fly fishing in California. With several blue-ribbon rivers now open year-round, there’s little reason to miss it.
All too often, fly fishermen will fish a spot in winter simply because they caught trout there during the summer. Sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t. Instead, I take a two-pronged approach to winter fly fishing:
When the water temps are at the low end of the thermometer, trout tend to prefer slow, deep, holding water. These types of runs and pools accumulate more mud/silt and may be weedy – the preferred habitat of midges! Midges are an incredibly abundant food item in winter, and in many places, the trout target them almost exclusively.
You can try your summer spots, but don’t waste too much time throwing summer flies at pocket water. Instead, scout out some of the better winter holding water and throw small bugs at ’em, and see if your catch rate improves.
By Dave Neal, Reel Mammoth Adventures Guide Service
Dave Neal is the owner/operator of Reel Mammoth Adventures guide service, located in the Eastern Sierra Region of Ca. As a full-time, year-round guide in the mountains, Dave is no stranger to the minor discomforts of frozen rod guides, numb fingers and a chronic runny nose.
Gazing into the eyes of a Pacific run winter steelhead is a definitive moment in winter fly fishing. Catching one of these elusive beast requires being at the right place at the right time. Often this is done by luck or intuition, but with the technology of today we can use actual live data to know precisely when the river gets into shape.
I rely on the Fishhead app on my iPhone. It helps me keep an eye on the flows; I can fish a river right as the river rises but before it goes off color — or right as the river drops back into shape, yet hasn’t completely cleared. This is a very narrow window but these are two best chances at encountering a winter steelhead.
Here in California we have so many rivers to fish, and with this great app I can track weather, flows, tides and lunar phases. It’s a guide’s guide. Don’t read fishing reports, be the source.
By John Rickard, Co-Owner Wild Waters Fly Fishing
For over a decade, John Rickard and Wild Waters Fly Fishing have helped fly fishermen catch steelhead, salmon and trout on California’s stunning northern rivers and streams. Masterfully combining instruction with unforgettable on-the-water experiences, Wild Waters Fly Fishing is an Orvis Endorsed Guide Service.
I fish small bugs 20, 22, 24 year-round, but especially in the winter when they comprise a majority of a trout’s diet. My go-to patterns are Zebra midges (black with a clear bead), Johnny Flashes and dark WD40s (which pass for midges and small baetis/BWO). I also carry midge emergers for those lucky moments when you find fish taking midges just beneath the surface.
Fishing small flies is challenging, but then you probably wouldn’t be fishing in the winter unless you enjoyed a challenge. Remember that trout in cold water won’t move very far for any bug, much less a tiny one. If you’re nymphing, try envision what that fly is doing in all three dimensions; you’ll often need to “feed it to them” to draw a strike.
Naturally, there’s a “but” in all this (there’s always a “but” in fly fishing). There are times I’ve tied on a great big black rubber-legged thing and done very well with that in the winter. If one’s simply not working, try the other.
By Jeff Thompson (Executive Director, California Trout
Thompson is a lifelong fly fisherman who has fished extensively in California’s rivers and streams for trout and steelhead.
Winter fly fishing is beautiful in a stark, solitary kind of way, but it’s hard to enjoy it after you’ve lost all sensation in your lower body. Fleece pants and lightweight, hyper-warm jackets (like Patagonia’s Micro and Nano Puffs) keep your core warm, but it’s no fun when your feet go numb — and even less when they come back to life.
The exact wrong thing to do is stuff more socks on your feet; you’ll cut off the circulation. One-size bigger wading boots are a useful solution to winter wading. At the very least, don’t overtighten your boot laces.
A good hat is a no-brainer, as are fleece or neoprene gloves, which retain some of their insulating value even when wet (which is most of the time). And if you’re hiking, don’t overdress only to arrive dripping wet from sweat. Stuff warm clothes in a pack, and change when you arrive.
A little suffering is good for the soul, but with today’s miracle fabrics and warm-when-wet insulators, there’s no reason to drop dead on the bank.
By Tom Chandler, Writer of The Trout Underground Fly Fishing blog
Chandler lives minutes from the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers (and a handful of small streams), and fishes as often as his three year-old daughter will let him.