Top Tips for Winter Stillwater Trout Fishing

The Brown Trout Season may be finished, however, don't put away your fly fishing gear just yet! A few tweaks here and there, and armed with a solid selection of Winter fly patterns, it's definitely worth wrapping up and taking a stroll around your local trout fishery.

Focus On Key Times
One of the first things to consider when stillwater trout fishing in winter is to focus on key times. The action of continuous casting, watching the water, and tending your line makes fly fishing very demanding, as you’re always on the go. However, rather than slog away regardless, a far better approach is to focus on anticipated key times.

Usually, in winter, there can be a burst of activity not long after dawn, followed by a lull. The best window is more likely to be late morning through to early afternoon. Often fish will come on the feed again when the light fades.

Obviously, if you’re getting any interest, or catching trout, then remain fishing. However, if 40 or so minutes pass without incident, take a coffee break to warm up and refresh yourself.

Keep On The Move
Unless fish can actually be seen, or you’re getting knocks to your fly, parking your backside in one spot for long periods is never a good idea. Far better is to busy yourself by moving frequently. It is advisable to give it no more than 30 minutes in one area before upping sticks to try elsewhere.

When To Fish The Exposed Bank
Any wind blowing in from the south or the west is likely to be warmer. These breezes often increase the temperature of surface water that is carried on the undertow to mix with potentially colder water at depth. Depending on the air/water temperature relationship this often means warmer, more comfortable, water will be found on the exposed bank where fish will hopefully be more active. Bear in mind too, this is where any surface insects will accumulate.
Exposed Bank
When To Fish The Sheltered Shore
Winds from the north or east are generally much colder, especially in winter when they often carry an Arctic blast. Such a breeze not only chills the surface, but it drags frigid water down by the undertow on the windward (exposed) shore.
Sheltered Shore
As water circulates back towards the leeward (sheltered) bank, it mixes with deeper water that is usually warm, theoretically making water close to the sheltered shore a few degrees higher than elsewhere. Naturally, you should make a point of starting here first.

When To Use Lures
When little stirs at the surface and no fly activity seems evident, then starting with some sort of lure might not be a bad idea. Generally speaking, the advantage here is water can be covered quickly, making it more likely you’ll run into fish sooner rather than later. Nips and jarring takes that aren’t converted doesn’t necessarily mean that trout won’t take a lure, and a change of size, and or colour usually does the trick.

Starting off with a lure is also great as a searching tactic if it is not evident where the fish are moving, what depth they are holding, and how active they are.

Try Nymphs
Beginners understandably shy away from nymphing tactics in winter as they feel they’re getting nowhere fast, especially when inching a team of flies back.

However, it’s worth remembering freshwater shrimps, Corixa and hoglice are available to trout right through the colder months. Chances are a few chironomids (buzzers) will be hatching off too, particularly between the hours of 12 pm and 3 pm. Even on the coldest of days, this perceived window is when fish are likely to respond to the more imitative approach.  Just make sure you adjust your retrieve rate appropriately for the imitative pattern you are using.  For example, when fishing buzzers, allow the current to drift them naturally and give a short, occasional pull to let the flies rise and fall.

Dry Fly Tactics
More than once in November through to January/February, small, dark brown beetles have been observed on the wing, that have tumbled to the water and have triggered trout's interest. These tend to be active on the milder, sunnier days when a little bit of warmth can be expected. While not obvious, chances are any dimpling trout will be taking these, or small emerging midges.

Evidence of both can usually be found in the foam on the windward (exposed) bank where insect casualties will be washed up. It goes without saying that rising fish should be tackled with the dry flies outlined above.

Useful Set-Ups
Fish the sinking line with a single lure to reach trout quickly at depth, or ‘digging in’ when
casting into the breeze from the exposed shore.

Fish the floating line with a nymph when trout are holding high in the water column, for exploring shallower bays.

Try the floating line with two nymphs for nymphing from the bank where a breeze might be more of an issue.

Fly Choice
As fly anglers, we’re guilty of carrying far too many flies. Do bear in mind that there are fewer naturals about in winter, so we can streamline our selection somewhat. This selection should help get you started.

Fulling Mill Hot Head Damsel

Fulling Mill Taddy Hot Viva

Fulling Mill Bead Bug Bloodworm
Fulling Mill Black Buzzer

Fulling Mill Target Pink Beetle

Fulling Mill Hare's Ear

Fulling Mill Cats Whisker Gold

Fulling Mill Griffiths Gnat

Floating Line Set-Up With 3 Nymphs
For deep nymphing from a boat, or when a favourable breeze blows from the bank (behind).

Floating Single Dry
For targeting trout quickly and dealing with a headwind.

Floating Line Two Dries
For boat, or bank fishing with a favourable wind.

Watch The Weather
Another thing to keep an eye on is the weather forecast leading up to your trip. Are the conditions set to change from mild to cold, or vice versa? A sharp drop in temperature will not only knock back any midge hatches, but is bound to affect the trout’s behaviour too when they often become lethargic. If you fish a water fed by several small streams, be mindful of heavy rain as this can result in a sudden injection of fresh, colder water, which again can switch trout off.

Isobar Chart
Conversely, a lift in air temperature can have a positive effect, especially if the thermometer has been hovering near freezing for several days. Granted the water temperature won’t increase overnight, but a sudden warm spell encourages buzzers to hatch and the trout won’t be too far behind. Attention should be paid to wind directions too (see above), particularly if you plan on visiting a larger body of water when getting the wrong location could involve an hour’s drive to put things right.

Wrap Up Warm
It’s surprising how much colder the conditions are when you’re away from built up areas. Due to residual heat, towns and cities are often a good few degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. Those heading outdoors are often lulled into a false sense of security, as they believe the temperature to be higher than what it actually is. Even if it seems mild, be sure to take plenty of thin layers with you, as you’ll function much better when your body is comfortable. This extra clothing can be added or removed depending on the conditions of course.

Fingerless Gloves
Keeping your fingers warm so they remain nimble and sensitive is vital. Useless temperatures are several degrees below freezing, a pair of fingerless gloves should be adequate. While it’s tempting to go for a pair of thick, bulky gloves, that in turn affects dexterity when it comes to retrieving, especially for executing a figure-of-eight. Instead, look to those woven from polypropylene or similar as not only are these suitably thin, they can easily be wrung out when wet.

Make up Two Rods
Throughout the season, it's common to use a single fly rod, as changing methods isn’t much of a chore due to warmer conditions. However, in the depths of winter, swapping from a floating line to a sinker seems much more of an upheaval. Carrying a rod made up with a floating line and another using a sinking line means you’re covered for most eventualities in the blink of an eye. This will encourage you to change tactics more readily to hopefully get on the trout’s terms sooner.

Two Fly Rods Set Up
Preparation Begins When You Leave Home
It’s amazing how much easier leaders and knots are to tie in the comfort of your home as opposed to the windswept shore of an upland reservoir. Given this, make a point of preparing your line and leaders before leaving home. Emphasis should be paid to spare leaders too, so you can easily loop to loop a new one in the event of a tangle. Furthermore, it sounds obvious, but if you use commercially tied flies, check the hook eyes when you’re indoors and remove any varnish that might be blocking them. Attempting this with chilled hands when being buffeted by a strong breeze isn’t much fun and besides, it takes much longer outdoors to do this when it's very cold.

Don't let winter get in the way of enjoying some really good sport.  There are loads of excellent trout fisheries all over the UK, and by supporting them throughout winter, we are providing them with much needed revenue. If we don't support them, they simply will cease to exist and that will be bad for fishing.  Of course there are times when it's not possible to fish if the water has frozen over, but as soon as a thaw comes, the fish will not have seen a fly in a while and usually go crazy.  So get out there, fill your fly box up with a selection of winter patterns, wrap up, and don't let the cold come between you and some potentially fantastic days out.

This article was brought to you in association with Trout Fisherman Magazine.