Winter Streamer and Nymph Tactics

By Rick Hafele and Dave Hughes

During winter, you will experience blue-winged olive , small black stonefly , and midge hatches, all of which can offer the opportunity to cast a dry fly. But when there are no duns or adults on the water--and even sometimes when they are present--streamers and nymphs will be your most productive flies.

Streamers Slow and Deep

My most recent winter streamer adventure was to the lower Owyhee River, below the dam, with Rick Hafele and Scott Richmond. Ice rimmed the slow pools, which were the only place we expected to find the river's big brown trout, so in truth we didn't have much expectation of taking any fish. Still, we'd driven all that way, and desired to fish, so we fished the open water between the ice edges, and were surprised to catch a few.

I used a weighted olive Woolly Bugger, fixed to a five-foot leader, on a wet-tip line. On every cast I waited until I knew that the fly would touch weed tops or drag bottom. Then I drew it in with very short and extremely slow strips with the line hand.

The few times trout took, it was difficult to tell them from the same sorts of tugs I got when the fly hit weeds. The trout felt the hook and took off, which the weeds did not, so that's how I told them apart.

We all caught fish, using about the same method though with different patterns. The fly is not nearly as important as the retrieve. Those Owyhee brown trout, by the way, were heavy when held in the hands.

Nymphs Small and Simple

My usual winter destination is the Crooked River, out of Prineville, Oregon. It can be grim work if the wind is up, but on calm days midges hatch, at times even when the water is below 40 degrees. Though trout occasionally take dry flies on top, I've had my best luck with a simple nymph dressing I call the Herl Midge . It is fished on the bottom in water two to three feet deep. Rather than rigging with split shot, I use 5 or 6 feet of 6X tippet, and tie a tiny yellow yarn indicator at the junction between leader and tippet.

In the gentle currents where the method works best, the fly will slowly sink to the bottom on a cast about 30-35 feet upstream. Let it drift along the bottom. When the indicator pauses, set the hook.

I use a different fly and tactic when trout are working up toward the surface, taking drifting midge pupae. Under those conditions, nothing works better than Syls Midge --it's a soft-hackle fly, as you might expect from its creator, Sylvester Nemes. I like to fish it on the slow swing. Cast it out in slow water, let it swing down-and-across stream. It must move very slowly; those naturals are feeble, and trout know they're not going anywhere.

You'll feel the takes, but hesitate a second or so before setting the hook so you won't take the fly out of the trout's mouth.

--Dave Hughes

Trout Behavior in Cold Water

To many anglers, winter fly fishing seems more like a test of survival skills than a relaxing trip with rod and reel. I remember that it took several cups of hot soup to warm Dave up after he'd been fishing the Owyhee that cold November morning.

But on a sunny winter's day, streams or lakes present a quiet solitude rarely felt during the summer. And fish can be caught in the winter with the right tactics and patterns.

Fish activity changes during the winter, but fish do not hibernate as some might think. On the other hand, the cold water makes them sluggish. Also, the lack of insect hatches forces fish to feed on sub-aquatic food.

This has several effects on fish behavior and fishing tactics. First, fish will not move very far to take a morsel of food. Thus, your fly must be presented close to a fish to be effective.

Second, fish hold in slower water, increasing the importance of fishing pools or slow, broken runs.

Third, because a fish's metabolism is reduced in the winter they feed less and are more likely to take a few big bites than a lot of small ones.

Streamer Tactics in Pools and Slow Runs

Since fish in the winter often look for a few big bites, streamers can be very effective in both streams or lakes. Some good patterns for winter use are:

  1. Muddler
  2. Whitlock Sculpin
  3. Woolly Bugger

Winter streamer tactics can be broken into two types. The first calls for fishing near the bottom in pools, slow runs, or along drop offs in lakes. A sink-tip line with a short leader (3-5 feet) is most effective for this technique. Cast up and slightly across the current, allowing the line and fly to sink quickly to the bottom. Pick out a specific spot you think may hold fish and position yourself so your fly will effectively cover that area.

Retrieves in the winter should be slower than those used at other times of year. An erratic hand-twist is often effective. Or try a strip-retrieve of two to four inches with a definite pause between strips. Strikes in the winter will more often be a slight pause rather than a hard strike, so be alert for any unusual movements.

Streamer Tactics for Shallower Water

The second streamer tactic is suited for shallower water, especially along undercut banks. Undercut banks are always likely spots for good fish, and in the winter they continue to provide excellent shelter and cover.

A floating line with a seven to nine foot leader will work best here. If possible cast up-and-across towards the bank so the current pulls the fly into the bank. Mend your line to keep a belly from forming and dragging the fly through the water. You can also cast down-and-across; let the fly swing over next to the bank, then slowly retrieve it back upstream. Again, strikes are likely to be subtle, so concentrate on the movement of the fly throughout the retrieve.

Nymph Tactics

Nymphs are present in good numbers throughout the winter and provide a major food source for fish. Since concentrated hatches are infrequent in the winter, trout feed less selectively and will take most general nymph patterns if presented properly. Three patterns that I find consistently take fish in the winter are:

  1. Brooks Stone (light and dark), sizes 10 and 8
  2. Zug Bug , sizes 14-10
  3. Gold-Ribbed Hares Ear , sizes 14-10

Nymphing tactics in the winter closely follow nymphing methods used other times, but a few points bear mentioning. Since fish will not move as far for a fly in the winter, reading the water is even more important; you must present the fly within a few inches of the fish.

Fish the slower areas of riffles or runs. Areas with boulders, logs, or other good holding lies are particularly important to fish in the winter.

Getting the fly near the bottom can be critical. A weighted fly or split shot is often necessary. I prefer a floating line with an eight to ten foot leader. Up, or up-and-across casts are most effective at getting the fly quickly to the bottom. Strikes can be very subtle, making a strike indicator essential for consistent success.

The most simple and effective indicator I have found is a small (1/4 inch diameter) red steelhead corky. It can be easily moved up and down your leader and held in place with a piece of tooth-pick.

Winter can be a perfect time to perfect your nymphing tactics; when you can consistently detect the strikes of winter fish you will really be effective during spring and summer fishing.

--Rick Hafele

Rick Hafele is a professional entomologist and fly fishing writer living in Gresham, Oregon. His most recent book is Nymph Fishing Rivers and Streams. Rick's good friend Dave Hughes is fly fishing's most prolific author, with over 30 books to his credit including Trout Flies. Together they are the authors of Western Mayfly Hatches.