Winter Trout Fishing: Top Tips for the Colder Months

Winter Trout Fishing Feature Image

Trout fishing is great from spring through the fall, but many anglers put their rods away too early and miss the great fishing that’s on offer in winter.

Those prepared to endure the chilly conditions will finding winter fly fishing for trout both productive and enjoyable with the correct approach.

 In this article, we will give you some tips to enjoy fly fishing success with trout even in the depths of winter.

1. Pay attention to Trout Lifecycles in Winter

Spawning brown trout in winter
Brown trout head up in headwater streams to spawn in early winter

 As winter approaches and the water temperatures begin to drop, brown trout start to gather at the mouth of spawning streams in preparation to find a redd and reproduce. 

At some point, usually coinciding with a rise in water level from rain, these brown trout head upstream to either lay or fertilize eggs and facilitate another generation.

Rainbow trout spawn later towards the end of spring.

Many waterways, particularly rivers, have regulations preventing fishing over winter to protect spawning areas or the larger brood stock trout that are heading up to spawn.

Many anglers also choose not to fish for these trout while they are focused on reproduction.

But even if you choose to follow that ethos, that doesn’t mean there’s no fishing to be had.

Once they’ve spawned, fish will head back down to their usual lies either in the lake or river and they are extra hungry from all the energy expended.

This makes them suckers for a well presented fly, typically a streamer or nymph

2.Know your rules

Many trout rivers and some lakes are closed over winter to allow trout to reproduce or for other reasons fisheries management authorities deem reasonable.

Be sure to check your local fishing regulations to make sure the fishing spot you have chosen allows for winter fishing and familiarise yourself with any bag or possession limits that apply for trout.

3.Forget about hatches (mostly), subsurface is key

Winter Trout Fishing 1
Carefully nymphing can yield great success in winter months

Winter trout fishing is almost all subsurface fishing. There are no real hatches to speak of in the winter months in most streams and lakes with the midge hatch perhaps the only exception.

So winter fly fishing is about streamers and nymphs fished in various ways: across and down, dead drift, under an indicator. They all have their merits in different situations.

For lure anglers, minnows and soft baits are good options. Inline spinners may work too, but winter trout are usually conserving energy and might not lash out at a spinner in the way they would in warmer months

4.Dress for Success For Winter Fishing

Winter Trout Fishing 2
Make sure you have the right gear, especially if you are wading in freezing water

With the cold that winter brings, it is imperative to make sure you stay warm and comfortable when during winter trout fishing trips. That means great waders, a Gore-Tex wading jacket and potentially gloves. Dress in layers as the apparent temperature – how warm you feel – will differ a lot during winter days depending on whether the sun is out (radiant heat helps keep you warm) and the speed of the wind.

5.Fish with Purpose in Shorter Days

Winter Trout Fishing
Fish hard while the sun shines in winter

The daylight hours are obviously shorter in winter leaving you less time to achieve success. For this reason, think about fishing waters closer to home, pre rigging rods the night before and being very efficient with your fishing so you maximise the number of opportunities you get in a shorter window of time that’s typical for winter trout fishing. Usually fishing in winter means starting in late morning when the sun is up and the visibility is better and finishing before sundown.

6.Try Fly Fishing Lakes

Winter Trout Fishing 3
Lakes can offer more opportunity than rivers and streams in winter

While rivers aren’t a total write-off for winter fly fishing, lakes offer more opportunities in the colder months.

With lakes you can use a variety of techniques. For example, the lakes I fish in winter I have a process where I will first of all try sight fishing. This means using polarized fishing sunglasses to try to spot fish in the water (having a slightly elevated bank helps) or spot rises or splashes if fish are chasing smelt.

I will then try to match the hatch and target the fish with flies that resemble their prey. This could be a midge if they are gently sipping off the surface (midges can offer some great but really challenging dry fly fishing in winter with Griffith’s Gnats or similar patterns), or a baitfish pattern if they are smelting.

If all else fails, I will resort to blind fishing stripped wet flies around likely structure: weed beds, rocks an drop offs for example. This can be a team of flies such as a double nymph rig, or a streamer in combination with a nymph or a loch style wet fly.

I find this less exciting than targeting midge feeders or smelting fish, but it is a good way to rescue an otherwise unproductive day of winter trout fishing.

7.Fish Tailwaters For Winter Fly Fishing

Winter Trout Fishing Tailrace Fishing
The steady flow of a tailrace means you won’t have to battle flooded rivers

While lakes are generally the best bets, fly fishing in larger tailwaters (where the rules allow it) can be very productive in winter. Tailraces are usually insulated against rising river levels when it rains and can be relied on for steady flows during winter.

Generally fishing tailraces in winter this is about drifting or swinging streamers. It is quite a technical way to fish.

The trout won’t move a huge distance in winter to intercept your fly as they are conserving energy in this colder period.

But if you can work out the right combination of fly line weight and leader length (taking into account the weight of the fly) you can achieve a nice natural drift at the right depth. Fishing deep pools (or any kind of deeper water) means you will require faster sinking line to get to the trout populations.

Get this right and you’ll soon be hooking some great winter trout.

8.Have the right gear

Winter Trout Fishing Line Choice
Winter Trout Fishing Line Choice is critical to your success

While summer for trout often means heading out just with your favorite weight forward floating line, winter fishing needs an array of sinking lines.

This can be sink tip models through to intermediate and even full sinking lines to get your flies deep. These are usually classified by the sink rate in inches per second.

It is handy for winter fishing to either have a reel with several spare spools with different types of line, or multiple reels so you can change line quickly and easily to get down to the depths where the fish are hiding.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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