Updated: Mar 19
*Please use caution when wading in the winter. Brook trout have laid their eggs so avoid the small gravel*
Fly fishing for brook trout in the winter can be difficult, though very rewarding. The cold temperatures of the Shenandoah Valley create clear views of the Appalachian Mountains and provide a beautiful backdrop for fishing. In the Shenandoah National Park, anglers can find some of the best brook trout fishing in the region. With the right knowledge and a little skill, fly fishers can catch these elusive fish using nymphs and strike indicators. However, they are not always easy to catch due to their delicate nature and challenging environment. In this article, we will discuss why it is hard to catch brook trout in the winter and how you can increase your chances of success with basic nymphing techniques.
Because of the cold water and limited sunlight insect hatches are at a minimum during the winter, therefore if you want to catch a brook trout you have to get the fly down to them. This is why nymphing is the best method to produce fish at this point of the year. The goal of nymphing is to get your fly down to the particular water column the fish are holding in. To the trout it is a basic math equation of "Am I spending more calories to consume this then I would get out of eating it?" If the answer is yes then the fish isn't going to move to get it. Yes, size, shape, and color are important too, but this is the biggest part of getting a fish to eat.
In the winter the fish are usually down close to the bottom picking off any little bugs they can or basically doing a bunch of nothing. Our job now is to get the fly all the way down to the fish. Flies with beadheads or weight tied in will help sink that fly quicker, or you can add weight to the line itself to make it sink. I'd recommend tying a Surgeon's knot and putting the weight just above to prevent from slipping down to your fly. The goal is to get enough weight on that its low enough in the water column, still moving naturally with the current, and not getting stuck on the bottom.
Now that the fly is sunk and moving along nicely the next issue is that you cannot see your fly. How are you supposed to know if a fish eats it as you won't feel it? This is where strike indicators come in. Strike indicators go above the fly on the intermediate to butt section of the leader, depending on depth, and will actually dip underwater or move around if a fish eats your fly. Some guys I know can just watch the tip of their fly lines for movement but using strike indicators will greatly increase your opportunities, especially as they are limited in the winter. They come in all shapes and sizes, just be aware that they make noise when they hit the water so try to be quiet with them. Accurate casts and not lining fish are imperative.
For the correct setup it is up to you to gauge the depth and water speed. Again, you want to get the fly deep but not caught on the bottom. The strike indicator will suspend the fly so if the fish are at 4' and your strike indicator is only 2' from the fly it'll never get deep enough. I usually start with a 2/3 ratio and adjust from there. For example if the pool is 4' deep I'll put my strike indicator at 6'. This allows for the fly to sink and adjusts for current. If my fly is getting caught on the bottom then I can move it up to 5' and go from there. I'd rather get stuck on the bottom once then floating flies to far away from fish that aren't going to move.
The last bit of advice is to be ready to set the hook. Takes are usually pretty subtle in the wintertime. You'd think they'd be starving but most takes seem half-hearted. Also understand that there is already a delay between the fly and the strike indicator 6' away so a delay in your set means the fish has already decided that fly isn't food and spit the hook. Enjoy being out in the wintertime absorbing Vitamin D and maybe catching a few brook trout, too.