Typically when I picture small stream fishing, I envision a beautiful early summer morning casting dry flies to picture perfect brook trout. T-shirt weather where a lush baby green background contrasts the deep blue sky. If I listen, I can still hear the sound of water being interrupted only by the song of birds.
Winter is typically the complete opposite of this.
However, if you find the insatiable itch to get out on a new or a favorite small stream in the cold months of winter, you are not alone. I have gone out many, many times wandering the wilderness with numb hands, nose, and toes, and have picked up a few tricks that may help you find more success on the water.
1 - Fish Deep Pools
Trout are not going to be where they typically are in warmer months. They are going to be in the deepest (warmest) place they can find. Many times I have walked up to a deep pool in a stream and peered in to find numerous trout nearly invisible holding on the bottom of the river. Fish the pools.
2 - Fish Sub-Surface
Winter is not the time to experiment with new dry fly patterns (unless it's a tiny midge). There are virtually no significant hatches during the winter months that would prod a trout to look on the surface, and fish metabolism slows way down during winter months so that they can survive the extreme elements.
*Disclaimer* There will be days fish start looking up some. In Virginia, we have a small black stonefly in winter months that I have fished the past two years with pretty good success. Of course, I know I would have caught more if I switched to nymphing (but that's near always the case).
3 - Don't Expect Numbers
Typically, winter months do not provide incredible numbers as summer or spring months do. There are several reasons why: 1) As mentioned before, the fish's metabolism slows down, which means they don't have the feed bag on like they typically do when there is warm weather and loads of insects. 2) It's cold. Fish are cold-blooded. When the water temperature is 38 degrees, the fish's body temperature is 38 degrees. If my blood was near frozen I wouldn't be moving that much either. 3) For some trout streams, like my Virginia streams, the fish have just finished spawning in the fall. They are quite exhausted, and ready to rest and try and survive through another winter. It seems their brains are more on survival than on eating all day.
Overall, when it comes to fishing in this kind of environment, be happy if you land one fish. Not that you won't catch more!
4 - Fly Patterns.
I typically use small nymphs or small streamers. Pattern does not seem to be as important as where you place your fly, though. Fish are not going to move very far for a fly as they would in summer months. Your fly will need to drift as close to the bottom as possible, and nearly bounce off their nose for them to take. Of course, there are exceptions.
Some of the patterns I use are:
- Midges. Typically in sizes 18, though I will go smaller if I feel like it.
- Micro Streamers. We are talking like an inch long. There may not be a lot of insect activity, but there will still be minnows and other larger animals floating around in winter months. These patterns often function as my anchor fly. In other words, these patterns are heavy. This is helpful to ensure that the flies are getting as close to the bottom as possible, where the fish are.
- JUNK. "Junk" consists of eggs, worms, and the like. These patterns work well in winter months, and are crazy enough to attract the fish's attention and curiosity.
Other flies will work decently, so don't let your hopes crash if you don't have any of those patterns...Or just buy those patterns from me today!
THINGS TO REMEMBER
- Cold for you, and cold for the fish. If you do catch a fish, don't hold it up out of the water for 20 minutes and snap photos. If the air temperature is freezing, the fish will freeze. Fish are not designed to be in air (duh), and the eyes are a very sensitive organ on a fish that are prone to freezing if unnatural occurrences happen (i.e. being chucked on to a snow bank so an angler can snap a few pictures for his friends, being held out of the water for an extended period of time when it is below freezing, etc.)
- Pack warm gear. Again, it's cold. If you can read this you should be smart enough to pack warm gear, so I will go no farther here.
- Watch for ice. Ice can accumulate on the roads you take to get into these places, and also on the rocks you may step on in the stream system. A dip in the water at this time of year would be quite uncomfortable, and possible dangerous to your health!
Eggs and Spawning Grounds
Fall is typically when most trout in my small streams spawn. Most anglers choose not to fish small streams in the fall to eliminate any extra stress on the fish, and to ensure they don't step on reds (fish nests).
Be aware, eggs and fry (baby fish) don't become invincible in the winter.
To ensure the health of these fish, avoid stepping in the tail of pools where trout typically spawn. Try to fish off of banks, rocks, or on other structure. If you step on a red you are essentially stepping on fish. Even after the fish hatch they still tend to congregate in shallow areas we typically wade across. Be observant, and be wise with your wading!
There is a lot of debate on this topic, some say one angler fishing a stream doesn't hold a substantial impact on the fish population. I have never read or heard of a scientific study I could point any one to. However, if it's likely I could kill a load of fish by stepping on them, I will avoid that possibility at all costs. And if you are parading up an entire stream system stepping in every tail of a pool you will likely step on a vast majority of the future fish population for that stream. For the fish's sake, and my own, I don't want to do that.
I fish in Virginia.
Keep in mind, the streams I am on don't completely freeze over as often as they do in other places, and we have an open season year round. Always consult your local regulations and anglers to see if it's even worth it to trek out on to a small stream in the winter.
Fishing small streams this time of year can be challenging, but it's incredibly rewarding. As well, you often have the whole river system to yourself; everyone else is wrapped up in a cozy blanket somewhere sipping on hot chocolate and coffee.