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11 Rules for Fantastic Winter Fly Fishing

There's no season like snow season...

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We guide and fly fish year round in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and find that winter time offers a unique solitude, amazing scenery, and big hungry trout and steelhead. But it also the toughest in terms of dealing with frozen fingers and frozen guides. We routinely brave finger-freezing temps to chase steelhead and trout to avoid going crazy indoors.

While it can be challenging, winter fly fishing can very well be the most productive fishing of the year and there are three big reasons to brave the cold and give it try:

  1. There’s less food in the water which means hungrier fish
  2. There’s less fishing pressure which is better for you and the fish
  3. The fish are more docile and chill which means they are easier to fight and land

And...winter is also the best time to go chase that big trout that broke you off or drove you nuts with refusals this past summer, he becomes infinitely more catchable and fightable when things get chilly.

So, grab a coffee (or an adult beverage of your choice) and let's dig deeper into winter fly fishing.....

11 Rules for Fantastic Winter Fly Fishing

1. Pick the warmest day over a 2-week period.
2. Get out during the warmest part of the day.
3. Fish tailwaters to get the warmest, most ice-free water.
4. Focus on slower, deeper pockets, buckets and structure.
5. Don't overthink your fly selection.
6. Make sure your fly is down, way down.
7. Slow your pace but be vigilant for subtle takes.
8. Keep working the same spot.
9. Dress smart to stay warm.
10. Stay hydrated.
11. Don't do anything stupid.

upper peninsula trout stream

1. Pick the warmest day over a 2-week period.

In the winter, it’s super important to target the warmest days, not just for personal comfort but for the best fishing. We've found it easier and more productive to focus on weather temps rather than water temps. With some diligence and planning, weather can be the easiest factor to control and improve your odds of catching fish.

The best strategy we've found is targeting the warmest day (or days) over a 2-week period. An unusually warm or above normal day after a period of colder days is usually just the ticket to activate some decent fishing. If you can hit a 35-40 degree day when it’s only been 25-30 degrees for the past week or two, you’ve got a potentially awesome day of fishing ahead of you.

upper peninsula 10-day weather forecast for winter fly fishing

Above is a 10-day forecast from Weather Underground. Look at the ugly chart at the bottom. The blue line is average temp the red line is the forecasted temp. Monday 12/21 would probably be our pick as it offers the warmest daytime temp, another plus is that Sunday night's temp doesn't drop too much which means things will warm up pretty quickly Monday. And the warmer days on Fri-Sun are going give the fish a chance to thaw out a bit. If two "warm spike" days come along, one sunny, one cloudy, all things being equal we'll typically pick the sunnier day for the extra radiant warmth.

upper peninsula steelhead river

2. Get out during the warmest part of the day.

Out of all the tactics we're recommending this is the easiest because it just involves sleeping in or having another cup of coffee. During the winter you want to fish the warmest part of the day, usually between 11am to 4pm. This limits your productive fishing time, but if you're wading in 34-degree water this is usually plenty before you turn into a popsicle.

3. Fish tailwaters to get the warmest, most ice-free water.

Finding ice-free productive trout water is the first trick. And that may not be easy. Where I live in the Upper Peninsula, my winter fishing options are limited, but there are places. Usually this means targeting tailwaters (waters located immediately downstream from a hydraulic structure, such as a dam or spillway) because they are a bit warmer and will have the most open water.

upper peninsula trout stream

4. Focus on slower, deeper pockets, buckets and structure.

As a rule of thumb, target slower, deeper pockets, buckets and structure. There are many great articles on winter fly fishing and they will all tell you that these winter fish are cold, almost hibernating, and they are looking to conserve energy and shift into these slower holding areas. If you’re new to fly fishing check out this article to learn more about breaking down sections of prime water, there’s also some great videos by Tom Rosenbaum. The prime winter water tends to be the deeper pools, runs, buckets and seams. Look for the darker water, drop offs, heavier seams, areas behind boulders/logs, as well as bubble and foam lines over deeper water.

Keep an eye out for warming zones

Also keep an eye out for warming zones. We have springs and aquifer seeps that feed into our rivers in certain spots. These natural water sources are beneficial to the fish, they help keep the fish cool in the summer and a little warmer in the winter. It's not uncommon to find fish taking advantage of these areas.

upper peninsula trout stream

On really warm days be ready for anything

If the day becomes unusually warm, the trout might move into some of their shallower, summer feeding areas to feed and warm up – like shallower gravel on an inside bend, a saddle areas next to or between deeper runs. This is just a reminder to not stay hard and fast to any rules but remember to adapt and test. Start with the prime winter holding water but don’t hesitate to test some of the secondary lies if the weather really warms up.

5. Don't over think your fly selection.

Don't underestimate how well "basic" patterns (pheasant tails, prince nymphs, hares ears, and zebra midges) will work if you dial in the right size and work them low and slow. These are patterns that will fish well just about anywhere. However, when in doubt head to the local fly shop with a six-pack, pick their brains and buy some flies.

In the Upper Peninsula, our trout streams/rivers are have a smorgasbord of stoneflies, mayflies, damsels and caddis in the summer, as well as crayfish and sculpins. But, unlike many tailwaters, we don’t have scuds, Mysis or sow bugs, nor do we get many midges or blue winged olives (in many tailwaters these represent significant food sources). We'd love to be able to fish a nice winter hatch (midges and bwos) but there's just not enough to get the trout excited. And our trout for some reason could care less about San Juan worms but on your water you may want to keep them in mind.

upper peninsula trout flies for winter fly fishing

Our typical U.P. winter patterns

  • brown/black pat’s rubber legs, aka the turd (#8-10)
  • brown/black double bead stoneflies (#8-10)
  • bead head pheasant tails (#12-14)
  • bead head prince nymphs (#12-14)
  • bead head hare’s ears (#12-14)
  • bead head copper john (#12-14)
  • black/red zebra midges or black beauties (#16-18)

Secondary patterns

  • egg patterns (#10-12) or trout beads (5-8mm)
  • bead head woolly buggers (#8 black or green)
  • sculpin streamer pattern (#6-8)

Size matters

If fishing smaller streams or more pressured water, you’d probably do well to go a couple sizes smaller (instead of #12-14 you'd go down to #16-18).

6. Make sure your fly is down, way down.

Our go for winter fly fishing is an indicator/nymphing setup. This approach is very productive because it favors the slower, deeper holding patterns of the fish. I’ll run an indicator setup with one of the bigger bugs up top (usually a weighted brown stonefly #8 or a #8 woolly bugger) and one of the smaller bugs or eggs below (usually a bead head pheasant tail #12).

Get your depth right

We are usually fishing stained/tannin water that is 4-6 ft deep. Running a tandem with a larger attractor bug works great with this deeper water. We'll run a 9ft 3x leader to the top fly and drop the second fly about 12-16 inches below with 3x or 4x. Guestimate the water depth of the deepest part of the bucket your fishing and adjust the indicator above the first fly using that guestimate plus a foot or two. If you’re fishing shallower, clearer water (3-4 ft deep) you might want to skip the tandem rig and just focus on one fly with a smaller indicator and lighter tippet (4-5x).

Big or small?

For some reason we've noticed the winter fish will typically have a clear preference for either the big fly or the small fly, we'll rarely have a winter day where they hit both sizes consistently. They tend to either want the big hunk of protein or they are being more selective and finicky and going after the smaller fly. There are many day’s once they’ve made their big fly preference known we'll remove the smaller fly to avoid snags and focus on getting the big fly down deeper.

A snag is a good thing

A split shot or two can make the difference between a crap day and an epic day. We will mess with weight and fly depth half a dozen times before changing flies. In deeper water, start with a BB-sized split shot (pretty large) to make sure your getting down. And use weighted and bead head nymphs. You want to be ticking or snagging occasionally.

7. Slow your pace but be vigilant for subtle takes.

You’ll be fishing slower water which will exercise your patience but don’t get complacent when it comes to detecting strikes and setting the hook - be extra vigilant in winter conditions. We find the strikes are much more subtle because the fish are more lethargic from the cold. This means winter nymphing can be frustrating when you’re not on your hook setting game. Be sure you are reacting quickly and effectively to any and all hesitations or taps.

upper peninsula brown trout

8. Keep working the same spot.

Try to work prime winter holes as if there is the potential for many fish because there usually are. When you get a hit or catch a fish, keep working that spot, if you find one fish you’ve probably found a couple. During the winter there are usually multiple fish, even pods, holding in the same hole or structure. This is where the math of winter fishing is much more in your favor than summer time, there’s a limited number of prime winter spots for the fish and they are having to pack in and share spots. Use this to your advantage.

9. Dress smart to stay warm.

There are dozens of articles on dressing for the cold but no one-size fits all approach. Here’s what we’ve found that works well and keeps reasonably comfortable for hours of winter fishing. The golden rule of dressing warm in the winter is to stay away from cotton, even if it means leaving your favorite lucky fishing t-shirt at home.

dressing warm for winter fly fishing

Start with a blended polyester base-layer

A snug fitting synthetic polyester or wool blend base-layer (like this top and these bottoms) is probably the most underrated piece of clothing you can wear to stay warm. Usually made of some form of merino wool and/or polyester these fabrics are designed for optimal breathability and moisture wicking making them perhaps the most important piece of your arsenal when it comes to pure temperature regulation. Stay away from cotton at all costs unless you enjoy that cold, wet feeling.

Wear a mid-layer that packs a punch

For upper body, go with a mid-weight down puffer, insulated jacket or a heavy fleece jacket. The puffer will give you great warmth. If you need more warmth, pair with a snug poly blend hoody or sweater underneath. Fleece is great especially if your take a dunk it can be wrung out and still provide some warmth.

For legs, go with a pair of thick fleece leggings. Redington has some good fleece bottoms that aren’t too expensive. Worn over a poly base layer, they’ll keep you warm and protected against just about anything.

Add an outer shell to protect against the elements

Pick an outer shell based on the elements your facing – wind, rain or snow. It's not a bad idea to have a couple different shells to choose from depending on the type of weather you're facing. Don't spend a fortune, you can find something around $60 or less. Spend the money you save on a good base and mid layer. With cheaper nylon shells like this one (eg. non-goretex materials) you're giving up breathability, but if you're just standing in a river you don't need it. It's the bottom two layers that keep you warm and it's the outer shell that protects.

Wear mittens or use hand warmers

As for hands, everyone has their personal preferences. There are anglers that refuse to wear gloves or anything over their hands. We tend to avoid gloves as much as possible to not loose dexterity and feel. If you're going bare handed, throwing a few hand warmer packets in your pockets can be a huge help and can usually stave off the cold for many hours. There are times when it’s really extreme out and you have to cover up the digits. We tend towards wool or polyester blend mittens, the thinnest possible. Going the fingerless route can help give you some dexterity. Wool and/or poly is key because it’s a really warm material next to the skin and also because if it gets wet you can wring ‘em out and they’ll still have some warming properties. And remember to remove your nice dry mittens before grabbing a cold, wet fish.

Protect your noggin

Ok, so apparently, it’s NOT true that we lose 80% of our body heat through our head, but keeping our noggin warm does make a big difference in comfort level. I rarely go winter fishing without warm knit beanie and a neck gaiter. The neck gaiter keeps out the wind and drafties.

Take care of your feet

Your feet will be the toughest thing to keep warm. Make sure your boots and waders are a size or two large and you have plenty of wiggle room and wear a nice thick pair of wool or thermal socks.

If it's really cold, consider wearing a thinner pair of polyester blend socksunder a thicker pair of thermal socks. Same principle as upper body, base layer plus mid layer. On a really cold day you might be tempted to throw on two thick thermal socks. Don’t. Your feet will get crammed in your boot cutting off circulation which will cause your feet to get cold and uncomfortable even faster. Tight boots equal cold feet.

If it’s really, really cold, your feet will be lucky to last a couple hours in the water. When you start feeling the pain or loose feeling in your feet, head to the shore and tromp around. Usually this is enough to get some circulation and feeling back so that you can go back in the water and do it all over again.

Some feet sweat A LOT. Once a sock gets damp, the feet get cold. Carry an extra pair of thermal socks stuffed in your backpack or car and change them if you feel your feet getting cold.

10. Stay hydrated.

Even though we tend to sweat less in cold weather our bodies still lose a ton of moisture in cold weather through breathing. To compound matters, most people get less thirsty in cold weather, which makes it easier to get dehydrated and cause you to feel like crap. Winter dehydration is a thing. Make a point to rehydrate when you're outside in the winter.

11. Don't do anything stupid.

Stay away from sketchy ice, keep off the ice shelfs, and avoid wading deep or strong currents. Dial your hero gauge way back when it comes to winter wading. Your legs are going to be cold and lethargic, that means you’re not going to have the same power and agility as in the summer. So be twice as careful and don’t do any risky wading in winter water.

You can wear the shell outside your waders, in case you take a dunk it will keep more of the water out. It's also not a bad idea to pack an extra change of clothes in the winter, leaving a spare set in the car has saved more than a few trips.

On warmer days, if you see floating ice that’s a signal to stay alert, always keep an eye upstream for bigger chunks of ice coming downstream above you. Getting run over by a 200 pound piece of ice will ruin your day and maybe even your week.

Thanks for giving us a read. Hope this helps you have some productive winter fly fishing days. Please feel free to drop us a comment or question below. And if you're interested in trying out some amazing Upper Peninsula fly fishing give us a shout. ​We chase steelhead, smallmouth and trout year round in our home waters near Escanaba, Michigan.

Cheers,

Caddis Shack

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