The trout couldn’t run far because my fly line was frozen on the spool. Realizing what had happened, I dipped my reel in the river, melting the ice and allowing the fish to make a run without snapping my tippet. Eventually I gained control and worked a 15-inch rainbow beside me, where I grabbed the barbless nymph with my hemostats and twisted it out of the trout’s mouth.
A buddy and I were waist deep in Georgia’s Chattahoochee River, in the heart of Atlanta’s suburbs—a strange place to stand on a harsh January day, it would seem. The ‘Hooch, however, serves up hot trout fishing on very cold days, and we were having a fine time doing battle with cooperative rainbows.
Trout don't mind the cold water, but even they will slow down in winter. Subtle presentations are the rule.
In truth, trout streams throughout the South and tailwaters through much of the country produce far better fishing than most anglers realize right through the middle of winter. Cold-water fish, trout actually fare better in mid-winter than they do in mid-summer in many southern streams.
Winter is unlike other times of the year, however, and you do have to alter your approaches to get in on the best action. Cold natured as they are, trout still are cold blooded. They slow down when their bodies get really cold, and they don’t need to eat as often. In addition, trout stay lower in the water column this time of year simply because that’s where most decent trout food is found. Most aquatic insets remain in nymph stages, right on the bottom, all winter, so that’s where the trout tend to hang out.
Fishing success, therefore, hinges on slow, deep and thorough approaches. For fly-fishing that means dead drifting nymphs and slowly stripping weighted streamers. Bring a few dry flies, just in case. I’ve seen trout hitting the top like popcorn popping on a sub-freezing morning. Stick with the deep stuff, though, unless you spot something that convinces you to do otherwise.
Start your fishing days a little later than normal this time of year. You’ll be far more comfortable standing in the river once the sun is over the trees, and the trout typically will feed more actively as the day progresses. Also, don’t plan to cover much water in a day.
Work each pool thoroughly, and then work it again!
Fish every pool (and the pockets between the pools) from every possible angle, working slowly and meticulously to cover the entire bottom. Then, when you’ve fished a pool from top to bottom and side to side, switch flies and do the same thing again. You’ll be amazed how often you’ll get a hit on the first or second drift with a new fly after having fished the same area for 10 or 15 minutes.
Begin With Bugs
Specific patterns that work best naturally vary from stream to stream, but be certain to have a variety of sizes and styles handy. Begin with something generally “buggy,” like a Hare’s Ear, and then turn to nymphs designed to imitate something more specific, like caddis or stonefly nymphs. Stick with weighted flies this time of year, and add split shot, if needed, to keep your flies down.
Winter nymph strikes tend to be extremely subtle, and it never takes a trout long to recognize that something doesn’t feel right and to spit a fly. Watch your fly line every moment and set the hook at any unusual twitch. You may react to a lot of things that aren’t actually takes, but that’s far better than sleeping through soft strikes.
Weighted flies, like this Conehead Wooly Bugger, can penetrate the deep pools where winter trout lurk.
Strike indicators also aid notably in the strike-detection process, and they allow you to control depths. Flies rarely float directly below indicators, however, so set them deeper than it seems like you need to. In fairly swift water, figure about twice the average bottom depth.
If nymphs don’t do the job, try a weighted Woolly Bugger. Try dead-drifting it, just like a nymph, but also try stripping it very slowly. If the trout are keyed in on sculpins or crawfish, a little bigger fly that moves just a little may do the job when a nymph fails.
For spin-fishing, load your box with small jigs, spinners or spoons that are heavy enough to fish near the bottom, as well as sinking minnow-shaped plugs. Likewise, so-called “trout worms” hooked through the middle and dead drifted on a split-shot rig can be very effective this time of the year.
Whatever your offering, spin-fishing strategies are similar to fly-fishing approaches. Fish your baits slowly, close to the bottom, and work every inch of each pool. On very cold days, you almost have to hit trout on the head to make them bite.
Once they do bite and you set the hook, however, be ready for an abrupt change of pace. Trout come to life in a hurry once hooked, and you might be surprised at how vigorously some fish will fight this time of year. If you’re not prepared, you might end up with a broken line and a case of the winter blues.
Sidebar: Winter Stream Safety
Trout love deep holes in winter, but anglers need to avoid them when wading.
One pitfall of winter trout fishing is that slipping or stepping too deep presents potential danger instead of just discomfort or embarrassment. Additionally, big fronts can make streams extra pushy in late winter and early spring, causing wading to become more difficult.
Carefully consider every step this time of year, and be willing to bypass intriguing-looking spots if there isn’t a certain safe way to get within casting range. Also carry a wading staff, which serves as a third leg, if you expect to be doing any challenging wading.
Wear clothes that wick moisture away from you, in case you do get wet, and if you’ll be near your car, bring dry clothes. Wear a warm wool or fleece hat and gloves that allow you to fish. And always wear a snug wading belt near the top of your waders to avoid any risk of filling your waders if do you step too deep.
Finally, if you plan to wade around much deep water, wear a life vest. Inflatable types aren’t cumbersome, and if you ever find the need to pull the chord, you’ll sure be glad to have that chord to pull.
Title image courtesy of Browning; other photos by Jeff Samsel