Cold-Weather Trout

Cold-Weather Trout

Looking for soft spots on Oregon’s Deschutes

  • By: Dave Hughes
  • Photography by: Dave Hughes
Oregon's Deschutes

The standard advice for trout fishing in nippy winter weather is TO rig with a sinking line and a big streamer (to coax idle fish into action), or with a pair of weighted nymphs (to roll along the bottom and right into open mouths). Both formulas have their appropriate places, when temperatures fall and also when water levels rise. But rigging takes second seat, in winter, to something far more important: Reading water to find the trout. If you cast those sunk streamers and tumbling nymphs in water that holds few fish, or just as often no fish at all, you’ll have system failure, even if you do everything else precisely right.

Reading water is the most important aspect of success in winter trout fishing. The main reasons are relatively simple. First, the trout’s energy is reduced, and their ambition for fighting current disappears. They move from their normal lies into slower, more gentle water. Second, their territorial instinct is diminished as they move from fast water to slow. As a consequence, they vacate places you would normally find them, and they’re often ganged up in pods rather than distributed evenly over broad expanses of water. If you fish your normal riffles and runs in winter, your chances of missing them are much greater than your chances of finding them.

Last winter, a friend, Curt Marr, found them on a float down Oregon’s Deschutes River, during a time and in a set of conditions when most folks were smart enough not to be on the water. It was on the border between late winter and early spring. The Web pegged the Deschutes’ flows at 8,500 cubic feet a second, almost double the normal 4,500 flow, when Marr called and asked if I’d like to make our traditional weekend float for that time of year. Foolishly, I said yes. If nothing else, we’d get a fast ride, and would get a view of rolling foothills above the river rather than rolling freeway traffic beneath city buildings.

The sky over the river canyon was cloudless when we launched. Everything looked perfect, except for that little matter of the river being blown out, not only high but the color of coffee when you’ve mistakenly added too much cream. We blew through White Horse Rapids, munched a late lunch in the raft and were far downstream, far ahead of schedule for making camp, when Marr said, “If we’re not going to catch any fish on this trip, I’d at least like a lesson in nymph fishing.”

Marr doesn’t get a chance to fish trout as much as I do. He’s an expert at some kinds of fly-fishing that I don’t even do. But nymphing the Deschutes? Let’s just say I’ve had some practice. So, I was on the hook. I sat up in the bow seat and started rubber-necking around, looking for a place for such a lesson. A couple of quick miles later the pushy river delivered us toward a grassy island, with a backchannel behind it that in normal flows wouldn’t have had enough water to much more than cover a trout.

“Pull in at the head of the island,” I directed. “We’ll fiddle around in that backwater.” The current rammed the boat about 10 feet into the grass. I got out, sat on the raft tube and rigged with a heavy salmonfly nymph and a size 14 Pink Squirrel (the latter has secretly become my go-to nymph on the river), added a couple of substantial split-shot between them, and left a long length of leader up to a big bubble indicator. It was hefty gear, right out of the formula in the first paragraph of this piece: a pair of nymphs you can roll right into a trout’s mouth. Unfortunately, I had no hopes of that in such deep and dirty water.

On the first cast, I showed Marr how to lob the whole complicated contraption on a wide-open loop, to keep all those trinkets from quarreling in the air. I made the cast well up into the deflected flows, where the heavy current pushed around the head of the island and left some slower water purling down the inside edge. Then I showed Marr how to draw in line and lift the rod as current delivered the indicator and nymphs downstream toward me. When the indicator passed me, I turned and demonstrated how to lower the rod and begin to feed slack to extend the drift.

“When the water is high like this,” I said, “the downstream portion of your drift is at least as important as the upstream part, because it takes a long time for your nymphs to get to the bottom, and you want to keep them there as long as possible.” As a sort of punctuation to my sentence, my indicator took a slight dip, and I said, “See, it’s just now beginning to bounce bottom.”

You know the rest of the story.

An hour later, after I’d released that first nice redside rainbow and Marr had released two or three that were larger, we reeled up, surveyed that soft set of back currents behind the island, and got ready to depart.

Marr said, “That was a surprise!”

I said, “That changed our trip.”

It did. We found soft spots at infrequent intervals as we floated for the next couple of days. Most of them—and this is a point to jot down—were on the insides of sweeping bends rather than the outsides, for the single reason that the strongest currents are forced outward, while the gentlest currents remain inward. It’s either centrifugal force, or some law of hydraulics that I don’t understand.

I’ll describe the most common of these lies precisely. You know the kind of pebbly ripples over gravel bars, on inside edges, that almost look like riffles and always look fishable, but always end up being just a foot or so deep, and too slow, and never have any fish in them, when you fish them in summer? So you trot on and forget about them. Return to them in winter when the water is higher. You’ll find their water two to three feet deep, their currents still subdued. As often as not, a bunch of trout will have migrated from their normal scattered lies in faster water, and gathered into a pod, right there in that insignificant soft spot.

Other soft spots are formed by obstructions to the current. On that same float, Marr noticed a stump of a big cottonwood tree, snapped off in some previous winter flood. The remainders of it jutted into the main current, shouldered the brutal flows outward and left a long and peaceful seam on the inside edge. He parked the raft downstream, waded up into the lower end of that seam and discovered that trout from all around had gathered there for a conclave.

It was a small spot, just room for one. I watched while Marr nibbled his way up the length of that seam. By the time he finished, he’d hooked a dozen trout.

Calculating the probable trajectories of trout movement, in winter, is the key to reading water, whether it’s high or low, or even at the same levels you’d find in summer. Trout always move, in response to the lack of present food and their general lack of friskiness. They look for softer water, where they don’t have to waste bundled energy fighting strong currents, for which they won’t be recompensed.

You can use knowledge of this movement in your search for the most likely lies. If you have fished a stream or river for some seasons, and know where its trout hold in normal conditions, then find those same places in winter and scout out the soft water nearest to them. Most often, trout will have simply drifted from where you’d normally find them into the nearest place where they’re able to relax. Read that easier water carefully, and rig to fish it appropriately, which means deliver something slowly along the bottom. Then, surprisingly, cover the water fairly quickly.

Trout are less scattered, more gathered, in slower water. You’re looking for those concentrations of fish. If you get rooted to one spot that looks perfect to you, and you don’t get an early grab, it’s possible you’ve miscalculated. Once you’ve read the water for a set of potential winter lies, then move through one, press on to the other, and keep casting on to the next and the next, without a lot of dawdling. Be sure to adjust your rigging, to keep whatever you’re using fishing in the right zone. Moving without changing to suit the new conditions is the equivalent to standing in one spot.

Once you’ve found trout—which means you’ve hooked one and either landed or lost it—then slow down, fish that water thoroughly. You’ve probably found a pod of winter trout, and you want to extract maximum pleasure from that fact.

Dave Hughes’ latest book is Pocketguide to Western Hatches, available at your favorite fly shop.

Dsc_0015.Tying the pink squirrel

I got onto the Pink Squirrel by accident, through my friend Jim Rohmberg, famous guide on the beautiful limestone spring creeks around Fenimore, Wisconsin. He called it his go-to fly, and asked its originator, John Bethke, professional tier in Westby, Wisconsin, to send me a dozen. John did. I stuck them in my nymph box and, rather than neglecting them, that pink caught my eye, and I tied one to my tippet on my next trip to the Deschutes. You know how a fly works wonders for you the first time you tie it on, and you tie it on more often after that, and it slowly becomes one of your own go-to flies? That’s what happened to me with the Pink Squirrel. Apparently that same color catches the eyes of lots of trout.


Hook: Curved scud or Mustad 3906B, size 12 to 16

Thread: Black 6/0 or 8/0

Bead: Gold

Tail: Rainbow Krystal Flash

Abdomen: Blend of Olive Ice Dub, burnt-orange Antron and chopped fox squirrel fur.

Thorax: Coral pink chenille