Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Unfortunately we can’t hibernate for the winter or fly south like birds. However, we are usually able to enjoy several days during the winter in the Shenandoah Valley that reach 50-60 degrees. Perfectly good weather for fishing and soaking up the little bit of Virginia sunshine that brings the warm temperatures. The difficulty with fishing during these warmer winter days is that even though we might be able to roll up our sleeves in the afternoon, the water temperature stays roughly the same. This means that it is still chilly for those trout that we are trying to catch.
You might say that trout are a cold water fish, and of course they are. However, under 40 degrees is not pleasant, even for a trout. Their metabolism actually slows and the caloric intake that they need decreases during the winter. In addition, the lack of sunlight and colder water temperatures means that there is a lesser amount of food active in the streams. These trout are still eating, but they definitely have their sweatpants on and are chilling on the couch. These fish are most likely wanting to eat a few big things during the day so they don’t have to waste energy, or eating the most plentiful thing in the prime warmer time of the day. Otherwise, these fish are nailed to the bottom of the stream bed just waiting for these few opportunities.
Knowing these things can allow us to maximize our time on the water and try to stay warm by being busy catching fish. There is very little likelihood that we are going to get any dry fly fishing action in these cold months so I traditionally use big nymphs dragged along the bottom where the fish are. Strike indicators, weighted flies, and even split shot or moldable weight are my usual go to when I’m out in the winter months. If you are not familiar with strike indicators and rigging there is a video below explaining some of the variations and benefits and drawbacks of each and how to use them.
My go to is a New Zealand strike indicator with putty lead and usually two flies. This allows me to make a very quiet cast, and make sure my flies are close to the bottom, if not dragging. The trick is to make sure you have enough weight that you are close or on the bottom occasionally, without constantly getting stuck on rocks or debris. The putty lead will allow you to adjust exactly what the weight needs to be to make that happen. I also use a larger, somewhat flashier fly tied directly to the leader, and a more natural, smaller nymph tied about a foot off the shank so that it is able to move a little more naturally in the water column. By doing this you are able to see if fish are keying into one fly or the other. However, you have the potential of losing both flies at once in a snag.
As you fish during the day, preferably early afternoon, fish the holes you know hold the most fish. This time of year they are not spread far and wide in each little pocket. They tend to find the biggest, deepest water and feed off the bottom. Fish these spots methodically. You are going to have more success spending more time cycling through a few flies and floating them correctly then covering miles and miles of water. If you are in the right spots, and the flies are on the bottom then the fish are seeing them. It’s just a matter of identifying the correct flies. Be patient and try to appreciate that it is December or January, not May and it’s just nice to be out. Don’t get too distracted, though. That strike indicator just moved a bit…