When fishing during winter months, consider how cold-water conditions affect trout feeding behavior. Water temperatures of 38-45 degrees F slow trout metabolism. The cold water reduces their need to aggressively feed, and they become sluggish and less likely to expend the extra calories chasing a fly.
Trout will feed for a short duration when the day is warmest, usually midday. As water temperatures continue to cool, fish will scatter through the lake and hold where the oxygen and water temperatures are to their liking. Under these conditions I expect to find trout feeding at a depth between 3-6 feet.
Cold water necessitates slowing down all aspects of your presentation. For example, when using a cast and retrieve presentation, use a slow hand retrieve or a 6- to 12-inch slow strip for suggestive flies like bugger or leech patterns. Use an even slower 4- to 6-inch retrieve for the smaller flies. Slow, short, jerky retrieves are best for minnow patterns.
When trolling your pontoon boat, stop moving to retrieve. If you retrieve while your boat is moving, the combined speed will move the fly too quickly through the water and it will most likely be ignored. In colder water, trout will conserve energy and avoid chasing a fast-moving fly.
When using pupa patterns, increase the amount of time between pulls. This allows the the fly to drop in the water column. Once you initiate the next pull, the fly will move up. Fish are triggered by this up and down movement and will take the fly during the pause as it is dropping. This is an effective approach with both chironomid and midge pupa patterns.
Expect the take to be soft. You may not know you have a fish on until you feel the resistance on the next pull.
Target the top few feet when the shorelines warm up – usually toward midday. Trout will leave their water sanctuaries to hunt for food when the shoreline water temperature is warmer.
Use a slow intermediate sinking line with a sink rate of 1.5-2 inches per second. I use the Cortland Clear Camo Intermediate Line which presents the fly at 3-6 feet in the water column.
During the winter months, a floating line with an indicator is also an effective form of presentation. This can be especially productive when trout refuse to expend the energy chasing a fly.
Pattern Selection and Sizes
For winter fishing, use midge variations and suggestive bugger and leech patterns. Use a #10 size hook for streamer patterns and a #8 with minnow patterns. For midge and midge pupa patterns, use #12 size hook.
I begin fishing with a suggestive pattern moving my boat parallel to the shoreline. Casting my line toward the shore at a 45-degree angle, I retrieve six feet of line. If not hit, I will continue moving and casting along the shoreline. Casting at a 45-degree angle allows potentially more fish to see the fly and can improve your catch rate.
When the water temperatures are cold or there is wind, stay with suggestive patterns so long as you continue getting hit. When the strikes stop, move to a different location before changing flies. Do not assume when you are not getting hit that fish are rejecting your fly. It may be that you are fishing in an area where there are no fish. Move to a different location before changing your fly pattern.
Big trout sometimes show preference for smaller pupa patterns. For example, my UV Midge, UV Midge Pupa, and UV Crystal Pupa are effective during the winter because cold water limits hatches to mostly midges.
Get your groove on and head out to the water! Don’t let bad weather stop you. I have caught some big trout when fishing in cold, windy, and low-light conditions.
Toward March, warmer water temperature will begin to wake hungry trout from their winter hiatus. Get your gear ready for fishing, pack the thermos, call your fishing buddy, and take advantage of some fun winter fishing!
Call me if you have any questions. Have a great holiday season, and I will see you on the water!