This is where most anglers have trouble, especially if it's their first time on the river in mid-winter.
In my corner of the Rocky Mountains, winter has an oddly distinct behavior. It arrives suddenly but doesn’t fully settle in until sometime around Christmas. That’s when the cold comes. The kind of break-your-fly-rod-on-a-tree cold. During the first week of this year I fished in -7, -4, and -2-degree weather. One of these years I’ll lose a finger to frostbite, I’m sure.
Right around February, there’s usually a small warm spell. This comes smack in the middle of winter, and both the trout and the bugs react almost instantly. These mid-winter days of 30-ish degree highs, with clear skies and little wind, create perfect conditions for midge hatches. Of all the winter fly fishing I do, mid-winter midge fishing is my favorite. Watching trout eat a size 20 Griffiths Gnat while the river flows between piles of waist-deep snow is both a testament to a trout’s determined resiliency to make it through winter, and how damn enjoyable dry fly fishing is.
Like dry fly fishing in the spring, though, mid-winter isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s imperative to match the hatch on these mid-winter midge days, and with such low, clear water – especially on tailwaters – fine tippet is an absolute necessity. I’m partial to a soft 5wt or a faster 4wt for these situations (my Winston 9’5wt B3X and Orvis H3F 8’6” 4wt are respective examples), and reels with a fully-sealed drag system. The last thing you want is a particularly nasty cold outing to ice up your reel and break some critical component.
Fluorocarbon tippet and good dry fly floatant round out the requisite gear, which brings us to picking the right flies for the job. This is where most anglers have trouble, especially if it’s their first time on the river in mid-winter. The list that follows is full of flies I use in just these situations. Take some time to compare these patterns to whatever small bugs you have hatching in your neck of the woods, and you’ll find something to entice a rise.
This fly is old, classic, and lethal under the right circumstances. While I don’t see as many folks fishing soft hackle flies these days, having some in your box can be the difference between getting skunked or catching fish if you stumble into a winter midge hatch.
And for any of the Euro nymphing enthusiasts out there, this is a great fly to tie on closest to your sighter. The swinging motions created when you pick up line to throw a new cast mimic the frenetic movements of emerging insects.
This isn’t the greatest photo, and I apologize for that. However, I think it shows off exactly what I’m going for here with these dries. This is a pattern I came up with myself, and one that I’ve seen work countless times. The Lower Provo River is my go-to fishery in the winter, and most hatches consist of small, black, bugs with no tails – just like this one.
I do tie it in sizes 18-30 (Gamakatsu makes an excellent size 30 midge hook) and yes, I’ve caught fish on a size 30. Hopefully your winter fishery isn’t as particular as mine and you don’t have to use these microscopic flies. If not, at least you’re prepared.
If I had one fly to use for winter midge hatches, it’d be the Griffiths Gnat. Aside from an elk hair caddis or some variation on the Adams, I’ve caught more fish on this dry than anything else. Regardless of what’s hatching, a Griffiths Gnat will usually get the job done.
The second week of February this year, I was out on the Lower Provo River one afternoon. It was stupid cold, but clear skies and sunlight brought out the bugs – and the trout. I’d fished the same stretch a few days before, and the browns couldn’t stay off a size 16 parachute blue-winged olive. Naturally, that’s what I tied on.
Predictably, the trout ignored my fly. I fished it well for a half-hour before tying on a Griffiths Gnat. On my second cast, a fish that had ignored countless drifts of my BWO slurped the gnat.
Every winter I swear I see some baetis amongst the hordes of midges. Granted, midge is a catch-all term for any tiny fly that’s not easily identifiable. But on a particularly warmer winter’s day, I’m positive I’ve seen a blue-winged olive or two float down the river.
Whether or not those flies are actually a baetis, I’m not sure. I’m no entomologist. But I do know that baetis imitations work in the dead of winter. Always have a dozen or so parachute BWOs on hand, in smaller sizes, to throw if the fish seemed keyed in on something specific and don’t want other standard midge patterns.
These four flies are some of my year-round favorites, but they shine particularly well in winter. I love getting out when the snow’s waist deep and rod guides freeze every other cast. It’s an enjoyable sort of pain-in-the-ass experience that makes true the old adage that going fishing is better than not fishing at all.