Winter Dry Fly Fishing Tips

Is It Worth It To Bring The Dry Fly Box?

Winter Dry Fly Fishing

It’s 35 degrees outside, you have a major hankerin’ for some dry fly fishing or just catching fish for that matter. It’s been a terrifying 8 days since you’ve been out on the water and you know if you don’t get out soon, you may just lose your mind.

The question is, do you bring your dry fly rod, what even hatches in this frozen tomb of gloom we call winter? Let me share that dry fly fishing is alive and kicking even during the winter, you just have to know where to find it and understand that your chances of finding rising fish is a crap shoot at best.

We’re going to go over the following:

  • The Winter Hatches including insects, sizes, colors and fly suggestions
  • When you can fish dry flies in winter
  • How you should fish dry flies during the winter months
  • Where you can find rising trout during winter

There is some dry fly fishing, but often fishing dries blind, meaning not to actively feeding fish is not worth the effort.  Most times you’ll see rising trout and then it’s worth throwing dries, otherwise your most productive methods will be nymphing and streamer fishing.  If you’re going to blind cast dries in winter, griffiths gnats, renegades and other attractor like midge/bwo patterns are you’re best bet.  Throwing a small, single adult midge when nothing is feeding on top  will be hard to induce a strike.  Not saying it can’t be done, but I wouldn’t throw small midge patterns of single midges or BWO’s unless I saw fish fishing during the winter months (Nov – Feb)

Unless you live in very warm states (NC doesn’t count) then during the winter months, the only dry fly action you will see if any is Midges and BWO Mayflies.  The midges are typically white and black and the BWO are olive or dark olive.    They all will range from size #18 – #28 though most of us stop around #24 to keep ourselves from going insane. My top midge patterns are Smokejumpers, Sprouts Midges/Thin Pin Midges, Renegades, and Griffiths Gnats.  For BWO a parachute BWO with a white or red post does well depending on the lighting on the water (red in flat light to see the fly better) or a thorax shaped BWO fly does pretty well too.  Somkejumpers in olive also double as a BWO and a midge.  Typically you can’t go too small on winter dry fly patterns as long as you can see them.  Fishing a Renegade size 16 in the front and trailing a small smokejumper is a good idea so you can always track an see your flies.  Also using small strike indicators that are yarn work well. 

The day time temps are really not as important in predicting a hatch.  What will cause a hatch is water temps and barometric pressure change (cold fronts and warm fronts and the change inbetween them)   The best way to get an idea on water temps is looking at the average between the day time highs and the night time lows.  Often a 40 day and a 10 degree night gives you an avg temp of 20.  This is less than the freezing temp of water and means the water will likely be cooling and not going up.  If you are getting days in the 50’s consistently and overnight lows of 30’s, you’re avg is higher and temps could be going up.  You can usually find the water temp using USGS water data, they have the water temps on there if the river has a gauging station.   BWO need water temps above 38 degree (40-44 are best) for the hatch to really take off, but midges will hatch anytime and it’s really just a matter of their lifecycles which are sporadic.  Often 10 – 3 are the times to see a hatch as it’s the warmest parts of the day.  Focus your efforts around this time for best success.  

Sticking to nymphs is your best bet.  Getting down deep in the warmest slowest water will produce the most trout time and time again on rivers during winter.  Small imitative and small attractor nymphs put together will bring fish to net.  I like fishing a rainbow warrior as the first fly and then a small imitative midge like a zebra midge on point below the rainbow warrior.  This gets a lot of strikes for me in the winter.  

To sum up into something you can remember easily on the river:   Only fish dries if you see them rise, otherwise stick to nymphs.

Winter Dry Flies & Hatches

The Good News About Winter Dry Fly Fishing

The colder the temps, the less the action there is in the water.  Warmer days produce better insect activity and often better fishing regardless of the technique.  Not all sunny days are good however, but warmer temps are usually always better for fish activity, cloud cover and snow storms are good too.

There are really only a couple hatches and insects you have to worry about for dry fly fishing during the cold months of the year.  Unless you live in very warm states, then during the winter months, the only dry fly action you will see if any is Midges and BWO Mayflies.  If you are fortunate to live in warmer states with water temps above 45 during the winter, you may see an occasional and small caddis or LBS (little black stone) hatch.  Learning your insects for fly fishing is a key piece of knowledge I’d recommend for any angler.  For winter it is a bit less important only because there are less options to choose from.   Otherwise you’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone, Midges and BWO Mayflies.  Lets go over these real quick below and address size, colors and patterns we recommend.

Winter Midge Dry Flies

midge adults
midge adults

The midges are typically white and black and range in sizes #18 – #28. Most of us stop around #24 to keep ourselves from going insane, but usually the smaller you go with dry fly midges the better during winter.  My top midge patterns are Smokejumpers, Sprouts Midges/Thin Pin Midges, Renegades, and Griffiths Gnats.  

Midges will hatch sporadically between 10 – 3 which are the warmest parts of the day.  See our fly patterns below or check out our winter fly assortment aka tailwater assortment for some good ideas as well.

Fly Tying Suggestions

The best advice for tying midges is to tie small. Small sizes, small portions, etc. Less is more with midges of all stages. Check out a few of our assortments to buy or use as inspiration for tying.  Since midges are arguably the best fly to throw during winter when nymphing, having all stages of midges is usually a great idea for your winter fly box.  Check out our midge lifecycle fly assortment for more ideas.  You can also check out our tailwater assortment here which doubles as an excellent winter assortment.

You can also check out our fly explorer.  We’ll have a lot of midge patterns on here that are worth tying and exploring.

fly-explorer

Winter Mayfly Hatches – BWO – Blue Wing Olives

bwo-male-mayfly-dryBlue wing olives, BWO, Baetis, olive mayflies, all are referring to the same insect which is a small, durable little mayfly that keeps active during the winter. This hatch is sporadic and only occurs during the warmest weeks and days during winter usually. The BWO is one of the most important late fall and early spring insect because it thrives in those tempratures of water. When winter gets beat down just enough to make you feel like its late fall or early spring, that’s often a good time to go try to find a BWO hatch on the river.

They need temps above 38 F and 40-44 is optimal. USGS water data gives out water temps and can help you understand when they might be hatching. Water temp is important but not the only factor. I’ve found cloud cover and windy days are great BWO hatching weather. Look for days like this and you can find some good BWO action.

Winter blue wing olives are medium to dark olive in color and range in sizes #16 – #24. #20-#22 is a great size to carry as that is most common. You can use black, olive, dark olive and purple for your dry flies to imitate these insects. My favorite patterns are shown below, but any parachute pattern in these colors is good or even a smokejumper in olive is good too. Small, thin profiles fool the fish well as long as there is a wing shadow on the thorax/head area of the fly you should be good. See below for some ideas/suggestions.

Fly Tying Suggestions

The key to tying a good BWO is as mentioned above, a slim profiled body and a good wing profile. Fish need to see the thin body imitate these small bugs, but also look for the wings shadow which is created by the parachute or thorax hackle or the CDC puffs. Olive smokejumpers are good too but sometimes can bee lacking the right wing profile. In a pinch they will do, but having a pattern similar to above will do best for you.

The Fly Explorer membership we have is a fly tying membership that changes the way you tie flies.  Check it out here.

When to Fish Winter Dry Flies

Weather, Times of Day and More

In short, find warmer days and any changes in weather.  Cold fronts, warm fronts, snow coming in, windy days etc.  While some of this weather isn’t the most enjoyable to fish in, the dry fly fishing can compensate. I also recommend a strong brew or flask filled with your favorite whiskey as it is an acceptable substitute to not finding a hatch.

For the best times of day, focus on the warmest parts of the day, usually 10 am – 3 pm.  Early morning can produce well with nymphs, but as weather warms, dry flies will begin to show up.

They won’t hatch all the time, and I’ve found that blind casting to trout during winter with dry flies to be as successful as winning an argument on politics of opposing opinions.  It’s just not worth your time.  If you see fish rising however, the game changes and get your dry flies on!

Tailwaters have consistent water temps and often warmer water temps in the winter than freestones which is why they stay open.  During the winter, water is warmer at the bottom of a lake than on the top (which prevents the lake freezing completely) and so the warmer water coming through a bottom-release dam can make a great spot for dry fly fishing.  Here’s a list of 21 tailwaters in Colorado on our river explorer to check out and explore.  Freestones can still have hatches as well if they are open, but finding the warmest water to fish in rivers is best for winter dry flies.

Fly fishing in winter can be tough but rewarding.  Finding a hatch is sporadic at best, but with a little knowledge you can stack the odds in your favor. 

How to Fish Winter Dry Flies

Tips for finding trout on top during winter

Let’s address a few ways to throw dry flies during winter.  The key to a good winter presentation is using light tippet (6x or 7x), and long, unbalanced taper on the leader.  6x will thread flies down to a 24, but it gets tough after that and 7x is needed.  

Use Light Tippet

I usually only fish 6x cause there’s something about 7x that feels more like human hair than tippet and it just isn’t worth it to me.  This not only helps you thread flies, but winter rivers are often low and clear and slow moving, so tippet that is too heavy just won’t present the fly well enough without lining the fish or spooking them as the fly lands.  

Use Unbalanced Leader

The purpose of leader beyond the obvious tying on of flies, is also to transfer the energy and power of your cast down to your fly.  While most times you want as close to 100% energy transfer as possible, I’ve found with winter dry flies, that an unbalanced leader stops the power 1-3 ft short and allows the fly to land as soft as a natural insect.  This goes a long way in creating a good presentation.  The key here is to take something like a 9ft 6x leader, and then tie 12-36 inches of additional 6x to the end.  This shortloads the leader and makes it hard to transfer energy to the fly.  The end result will be that your leader almost unloads and lays out, but the last 12-24 inches just stops and flutters to the water.  This lands the fly just how you want it and is a great presentation.  In order for the line not to get all messed up around the fly, you need to have a good cast and cast at an angle to the trout.

Presenting the Fly to the Trout

You dont want to position yourself directly behind the trout when dry fly fishing.  This is true for any time of the year but is key during winter.  Being directly behind the trout will cause you to land your fly above the fish and your line will land on the fish.  The cast alone can spook the trout, the line drifting over the fly can spook them and it can be hard for the fish to eat the fly as well.  

Instead, position yourself at a 45-90 angle from the fish.  you can be parallel to the fish sometimes or just a step or two downstream of him without spooking them if you walk carefully and stay low.  When you have an angle like this, your fly can land without the line going over the fish or floating through the drift.  This way the trout only sees the fly and not the line.  This is key to a good presentation.  

Lastly, there are two ways you can present the fly and I’d start with the first and end with the last.  The first way is to cast 3-5 ft above the fish and let the fly drift into where the strike zone.  Make sure to watch the fish as they often feed in rhythm on midges and BWO and timing the eat is a good way to increase the number of takes you get.  

If that does not work, another approach is to land it on the fish.  throw right for the nose.  I’ve seen this happen  more than once that I’ll do this after not getting an eat casting in front of the fish and the fish will grab that fly so fast you barely have time to react.  It’s more of a reaction I think and they don’t want to miss out so they just grab it.  When the water is slow and they refuse the fly from an upstream presentation, this is a great last ditch effort to get the take.  A couple of these will either work or spook the fish, in either case it’s time to move on after.

 

Where to Find the Winter Risers

Tips for finding rising trout

We know what they are going to be rising to, we know flies to use, when to go and how to fish them.  Now where are they going to be on the river?  Location is important if you’re going to find those feeding fish.

In a large scale perspective, tailwaters will be the primary place to find rising trout.  As mentioned earlier the water is warmer and more consistent creating better hatches and insect activity.  Focusing on tailwaters in winter is usually the only option, but anywhere you can find warmer water than anywhere else is the key to success. I’ve found a lot of waste water plants provide warmer water when they release the water back into the river. A lot of towns have these and freestones that flow through towns are a good place to look below waste water plants for dry fly action.  The water is often steaming and I’ve seen some great hatches right below them as well.  

As far as where to look once you’ve found a suitable river, your best bet is in slow moving waters directly below a nice riffle.  These deep holes create good winter holding water for trout and the insects will often hatch in the back eddies or slow side water towards the sides or ends of the hole.  Fish will rise to them as they emerge and hatch. The slower the water usually the better chance of a hatch but there has to be faster water nearby or at least some cover where trout may be laying in wait.  

In general, holes will be the place to fish during winter, riffles are too cold and too much energy to get trout moving and runs can hold fish during a hatch as well, but usually less often unless it’s deep enough to provide a break for the fish.  

Conclusion

Now you know all that I know on how to effectively fish dry flies in winter.  Don’t overlook the hatches as they can be some of the most exciting and productive hatches when they happen.  I recommend having two rods, one for nymphing and the other for dry flies when they show up.  Just bringing a dry fly rod is likely going to be a slow day, but nymphing while you wait should keep you busy.  Keep your eyes out for rising winter trout and you should find some success when you apply these tips.

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