Dries When the Snow Flies

Dries When the Snow Flies

Surface tactics for trout in the dead of winter.

  • By: Chad Mason

When the land is bursting with life in the middle of summer, it feels about right to catch a rising trout. But if you catch a rising trout in the dead of winter, when leafless trees poke starkly from banks covered with snow, it feels almost like you’ve gotten away with something. I like that feeling.

For most anglers, winter is fly-tying season—we hunker down in our basement man caves or drag our vises along to weekend club meetings to crank out Chernobyl Ants for warmer times. Or, if some have the means, they book flights to someplace where the water is skinny and the bonefish are fat.

However, in recent years I’ve shifted my seasons around. It may seem a little anti-social, but I tie my flies during the rainy murkiness of spring, and make every effort to be on the water during the prime time of winter. On spring creeks and tailwaters throughout the country, some of the year’s best and loneliest dry-fly action happens from December through late winter.

Lightly Chilled Bugs
If you’re heading to a trout stream in January, be prepared to fish over, possibly, hatches of small blue-winged olive mayflies (Baetis) and, more important, relatively large midges (Diptera). On those waters, summer often brings tiny blue-winged olives (Plauditus, and the like) ranging from size 22 to 26, and light-colored midges ranging from 24 to 28 or even smaller. But in winter, we’re talking about mayflies in sizes 16 to 20, and midges from 18 to 22.

Often called “snow midges” by ardent winter anglers, the midges generally come in gray or black and are easy to see crawling across the streamside snow banks. They are usually present in far greater numbers than mayflies and consistently arouse greater interest from trout. But I recommend that you fish the Baetis whenever trout show the least interest in them, simply because it feels good to get away with catching fish on a “Mayfly” in January.
To match the mayfly hatch, my first try is almost always a Parachute Adams in size 16 or 18. Rarely do I need a second try, but it consists of a sparsely hackled CDC thorax pattern in size 18 or 20.

For the midge hatch, I’ve never found anything better than the Griffith’s Gnat in size 18, even when naturals are running a bit smaller than that. Last year I experimented on a notoriously difficult Midwestern spring creek during a hatch of gray, size 22 snow midges. I tied an almost exact replica with a gray muskrat body, light-dun hackle, and a CDC wing on a size 22 Mustad 94859 hook. I fished it alternately with the size 18 Gnat, and the trout liked the Gnat better. Go figure. Maybe a meatball looks good to fish that eat noodles all day.

There are times when a size 20 or 22 may bring a few more strikes during hatches of smaller midges, but that does not necessarily mean more hookups. The full-body hackle of most adult midge patterns tends to clog the gape on tiny hooks and thus diminish their ability to penetrate a trout’s mouth. Size 18 seems to provide a good compromise between imitation and hooking efficiency.

Seasonal Timing
It’s hard to resist fishing on bright, sunny winter days, but overcast days are better for dry-fly fishing. Tippets are less visible to fish under clouds, the trout seem more courageous about feeding in the open, and you are less likely to get busted by your shadow. Optimum conditions are calm and overcast with temperatures above freezing. I have cast to rising fish on 20-degree (Fahrenheit) days, but ice in the rod guides becomes irritating.

Moreover, the fishing is best when optimum conditions occur after a long spell of bitterly cold weather. Last winter we experienced a particularly hard December in the Midwest. After weeks of blizzards and crystal-clear, bone-chilling cold, we got two cloudy days with temperatures above freezing in early January. I fished both days and have seldom seen more willing trout.

The toughest challenge you’ll face on such optimum days is spotting fish. Even with quality polarized glasses, it can be almost impossible to spot fish on cloudy days with snow cover. Your eyes adjust to the snow and the water looks inky dark no matter how hard you squint. Consequently, it is paramount that you approach the water cautiously, stay low, and wait to see rise-forms before casting. A single spooked fish may set off a chain reaction that spooks an entire pool.

Gearing Up
Three- to 5-weight rods are ideal for winter dry-fly fishing. After trying rods ranging between 6-foot 6-inches to 9 feet, these days I won’t fish with any rod shorter than eight feet. Perhaps 8-6 is ideal, and 9 feet is not too long. A long rod keeps backcasts above deep snowdrifts, which can raise the effective bank height several feet above summer levels. Winter’s low water levels make the difference more severe.

I like rods with moderately fast actions, flexing in the upper 30 to 40 percent of the blank. Such rods are soft enough to protect small tippets, but generate good line speed for keeping dry flies dry. This action also has the necessary power to deal with wind. Remember, there are no leaves on the trees at this time of year, so there is virtually nothing to block the breeze.

Winter demands more readiness and flexibility than summer. In summer, fish are likely to rise on your days off. In winter, you may have to take days off whenever the fish are likely to rise. I keep gear ready to go, and try especially hard to stay ahead of my winter workload. And when a brief and cloudy thaw comes along, I’m gone.

Griffith’s Gnat (Photo by Ted Fauceglia)
HOOK: Mustad 94840, size 18
THREAD: 8/0 UNI, black
BODY: Peacock herl (3 or 4 strands, twisted with thread and wrapped forward)
HACKLE: Grizzly dry-fly hackle, palmered over body

Baetis Thorax Dun (Photo by Ted Fauceglia)
HOOK: Mustad 94840,  size 16 to 20
THREAD: 8/0 UNI, olive
TAIL: Dun Micro-fibbets
WING: Dun CDC, upright
BODY: Olive Superfine dry-fly dubbing, full length of shank
HACKLE: Sparse dun dry-fly hackle; two wraps behind wing, two wraps in front.


Chad Mason is a freelance writer who lives in Iowa. He writes often for this magazine, Shooting Sportsman, Field & Stream and other publications.