Fly Fishing Tailwaters in Winter

Reid Baker displays a wintertime brown trout.

An angler displays a wintertime brown trout.

As Coloradans, we are lucky to have the opportunity to fly fish 12 months a year. Unlike anglers of the East Coast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest, which experience seasonal closures on many of their cherished trout streams, we can fish most of our state’s fisheries year-round – provided we have a valid Colorado fishing license and are willing to bundle up in the cold weather.

Fly fishing in winter differs from fishing during other seasons in several key areas, namely: water selection, fly choices and presentation techniques. But with a few modifications to your approach, you can extend your angling calendar and catch fish 365 days a year.

Water Selection in Winter:
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Trout are cold blooded and become sluggish in cold temperatures. Because many of our freestone (free-flowing) rivers and creeks hold extremely cold water or are completely iced-over in winter, your best option for trout fishing is in our state’s various dam-controlled rivers, called “tailwaters.” 

Notable tailwaters include: sections of the South Platte River (below Spinney Mountain, Elevenmile and Cheesman reservoirs), the Arkansas River (below Lake Pueblo), The Blue River (below Lake Dillon), The Big Thompson (below Lake Estes), The Taylor River (below Taylor Park Reservoir), The Yampa River (below Stagecoach Reservoir) and the Frying Pan River (below Ruedi Reservoir).  Because the water released from dams comes from the bottom of lakes or reservoirs, the water temperature remains relatively constant and is resistant to freezing, even in the coldest of weather conditions.

The consistent water temperatures, combined with a steady supply of rich nutrients and food common to most tailwaters, creates an ideal location for catching eager and, generally, large or trophy-sized trout. And because almost all tailwaters are restricted to catch and release angling, fish populations are usually abundant.

Go Slowly:
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When fishing in the winter, it’s important to slow down your approach. Even in the 40-degree-plus water temperatures common to most tailwaters, trout will migrate out of the fast riffles and move into the calmer, deeper pools to conserve energy. In summer, insects are plentiful and fish feed aggressively.  However, during winter, only a small handful of insects are available, and fish will move and eat just enough to sustain themselves in these harshest of months.

Moving slowly also applies to wading safety. Now is not the time to be pushing your luck by wading out in waist-deep water to get to that “perfect spot.”  Remember to dress warmly, wear plenty of layers, avoid wearing cotton and carry an extra change of clothes in your vehicle in the event you get wet. Hypothermia can strike quickly. In winter, it’s better to be over prepared than under prepared.

Fly Choices:
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We’ve already established that there are fewer food sources present in the winter months. The bountiful summer days of caddis hatches, multiple species of mayflies and stoneflies, craneflies, and scuds are gone. In winter, there are only a small handful of insects, namely midges and the blue-winged olive mayfly (baetis).

The good news is that only a handful of patterns are necessary to get the job done this time of year. You can have great days on the water with just a few flies. The downside is that these patterns are small – size #16-24, so get your glasses out and be sure to use a light-weight tippet. Although there will be the occasional sparse hatch, which offers anglers a chance to fish with dry flies, the vast majority of your days should be spent nymphing or utilizing emerger patterns fished below a strike indicator.

As far as specific patterns go, we encourage you to find a trusted local fly shop or check online fishing reports, provided they are timely and up-to-date. Having reliable resources specific to your favorite fisheries is key in learning a specific river and can help you maximize your time on the water.  Again, don’t overthink your winter fly selection.  We encourage you to check out Freestone Outfitters’ Must Have Flies: Winter Edition, which compiles a list of our Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Guides’ favorite wintertime patterns.

Dave Lovell, head guide at Freestone Outfitters, says it’s best to keep it simple when it comes to fly patterns.  “Give me a few different flavors of a few, key, seasonal, food sources such as the midge and baetis, and I’m ready to hit the water with confidence,” says Lovell. “Even more important than fly selection is maintaining that ever-present drag free drift. There are a number of flies a fish will be willing to eat, but even the most effective fly is useless if the drift is unnatural or drifting with drag.”

Presentation Techniques:
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Whenever you are fly fishing in moving water with dry flies or nymphs, it is crucial that flies drift downstream completely naturally and without any outside influence from your rod, fly line, retrieval or body movements. When a fly does not drift downstream completely unaltered, we refer to this as “drag.” In winter, it becomes even more crucial that drifts are drag-free because fish aren’t feeding with that “reckless abandon” mentality that they were in summer when they are active and food sources are plentiful. In summer, a less-than-perfect drift can still get the job done.  However, only the most natural, drag-free drift will coax sluggish trout to take your fly in winter.

When targeting the slower, deeper water, make sure you use plenty of weight (split shot) to get nymphs near the bottom. As already mentioned, trout are seeking out the slower-moving water and are holding in the bottom third of the water column, so your flies have to sink to reach feeding fish. As our guides always say, “The difference between a ‘good’ angler and a ‘great’ angler can be a single split shot added to the line.” Fish aren’t going to expend energy to pursue your fly, so make sure you are putting flies directly in their path.

Once a nymph rig is adequately weighted, you want to slow down the drift by using stack-mends to manipulate and remove slack line. Another effective technique when fishing close to feeding fish is called “high-sticking.”  High-sticking is achieved by lifting the rod to completely remove slack line from the water’s surface, thus eliminating drag.  Although your drifts will inevitably be shorter and cover less water, high-sticking offers significantly more control and quicker hook-sets.

Ultimately, remember that winter fishing comes down to safety, a few key modifications to your approach to finding and presenting flies to fish — and patience.  True, fishing in these chilly months will require more effort; however, you will become a better angler for putting in your time when most other anglers have exchanged their fly rods for skis or snowshoes. You will experience a stretch of river through the entire calendar year and learn how it changes throughout the seasons. The skills you develop to catch fish in the winter will translate to improved success in the warmer months as well. Best of all, nothing beats the beauty of a snow-laced Colorado stream when few other anglers are around. So bundle up and enjoy our state’s beautiful and fantastic fisheries this winter!

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This article was written and submitted by Reid Baker.  Baker is the guide manager for Freestone Outfitters in Denver. Freestone guides on the South Platte and Colorado River drainages. The article and photos are copyrighted by Freestone Outfitters.

One comment

  • Great post! Very sound tactics for winter fly fishing wherever you are (we are in CT). Hope you don’t mind but we enjoyed the article so much that we linked to this story on our blog, Feather and Fin to share with our readers as well.

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