Fly Fishing in Winter

How To Fly Fish in the Winter (Flies, Setup and More)

Is Fly Fishing Good in the Winter?

If finding solitude with a fly rod is how you relax, winter is the time.  Here in Michigan tossing a fly in the winter can be pretty cold, but with some preparation and planning success and solitude can result.

To go further into the question, is fly fishing good in the winter?

Absolutely, Winter time can concentrate fish making it easier to read where the fish will be.  A trout’s metabolism will slow, but all fish need to eat.  These factors combined with less fishing pressure can make for a fantastic fly fishing outing.

Learn How to Read Winter Holding Water

With the short days in the winter, you’ve got to concentrate on the best water.  This means learning some water reading techniques.  This gets repeated so often; food, structure and protection.

Winter Fly Fishing
Winter Fly Fishing

Prime water is a bubble line running into a woody structure.  The bubble line will be carrying food into the fallen logs that provide a low energy place for the fish to hold. 

The trick for a fly fisher is to learn how to “SEE” the fishy water. 

The current splitting in front of a boulder.  Perfect to swing a streamer in front of a trout.

The calm water behind the boulder.  This has got to be one of the best places to find trout, but nearly impossible to present a fly.  If the boulder is exposed, drifting a swinging streamer isn’t practical so dropping a nymph is your best option.   

The head of a bend pool with fallen logs on the inside bank.  A favorite spot in winter, the difficulty is often recognizing the fishy water BEFORE you’ve waded into it and spooked your quarry.

Often the hardest part of tossing a fly to these fish is positioning to make an effective presentation.  The primary fly fishing techniques in winter are deep running streamers and nymphs.   Winter often means gin clear water with sluggish fish so your cast needs to drift correctly and close to a trout’s nose.

Guide Tip: Cold air temperatures will freeze water in rod guides and tip tops.  I use a little bit of lip balm on them to reduce the freeze ups.  

Where in the Water Column?

In a word – DEEP.  A distinct memory comes to mind, winter steelhead fishing with guide Kevin Morlock with Indigo Guide Service.  I asked him where the fish would be in the river, he said stuck to the bottom.  Then with his hands on his chest and elbows out-stretched he pretended to be a steelhead STUCK to the bottom.  This still makes me smile. 😉

If nymphing, this means you as the fisher need to add weight, enough weight that you’re getting hung up and snagged.   If you’re using an indicator, learn to adjust your setup with the current speed and depth.  Watch this video to understand more.

If you’re swinging streamers, do the “dangle dance” Okay, I made up that term, but once your fly has made the sweep through the current let the fly dangle at the end of the drift for 10 seconds.  Those slow-moving winter fish often follow bait until it settles and then grab it.

Streamers have got to be running deep as well.  I’ve written a bunch about using sinking tips on floating lines, but winter is the time to pull out a full sinking fly line.  I really like the Scientific Anglers WET CEL. It’s competitively priced and has a nice coating that has proven to cast well.

Guide Tip: When casting a full sinking fly line, you MUST strip in most of the line.  A fly rod is designed to cast a specified weight.  Too much weight (lots of line out) and the fly rod will fail to cast correctly.  This might mean only 10 feet of line is extended beyond the rod tip.

When During the Day

In winter, late afternoon is best.  I plan to be at my first spot by 10 am.  Here in Michigan at 10, the sun is starting to clear the trees and touch the water.  Typically, the trout start getting active after 2pm though.

By 2 the water temperature has started to climb enough to turn on some feeding activity.  The prime time usually keeps going until after 4pm.

The time of day isn’t as important as a rise in water temperature.  I’ve seen the water temperature climb 10 degrees from 10am to the late afternoon.  The trout are going to be lethargic in the morning.  Take this time to get into position if you’re in a boat or hike to some remote water.

Guide Tip: If the air and water temperature are particularly cold.  Try to find a spring, the water temperature can be a bit warmer downstream from a spring and this temperature change may be just enough to keep the fish active.  A spring can be found on a cold morning when you see steam rising.

4 Ways to Setup a Fly Rod for Winter

Winter Dry Fly Setup

I’ll start with dry fly fishing.  Small and fine come to mind.  Tiny midge flies will hatch all winter.  Yes – those black dots on the snow might be moving.

If casting dry flies is your plan, pull out a 3 to 4 weight fly rod.  A long (9 to 12 foot) tapered leader in size 6X and 7X is needed with a tiny midge in size 18 to 22.  More about dry flies below. 

Get a FREE Dry Fly Fishing Download – HERE

This setup is hard to cast and the fly is hard to see.  If you’re new to this winter fly fishing game, dry fly fishing is a test of skill.  I’m not saying don’t do it, just that this takes some experience.

The reward for your efforts will be amazing memories; getting the right day, the right temperature and finding an active hatch will add up to cherish memories not counted in inches.

Nymphing in the Cold

Most of the time I’ll nymph fish with indicators in the winter.  The waters I favor have a significant amount of woody structure which steals flies by the dozens.  Plus, the easiest way to save my fingers from getting cold is to use an indicator.  I might not be able to tap the bottom as much as I’d like, but I like fishing more than tying on flies.

My setup in recent years has been using a floating fly line with a 10 foot, 7 weight fly rod.   I never realized the importance of a fly line that works well in cold water until I broke down and bought SA Amplitude Infinity.  The infinity line has a braided core versus a mono core and the urethane cover stays compliant in cold conditions.

Love this stuff and worth every penny – SA Amplitude Infinity <- Link to Amazon

Guide Recommendation: I absolutely love Scientific Anglers Amplitude Infinity Fly Line <- Link to Amazon to check prices and what others say.  The weight forward taper and cold weather performance is phenomenal.

This line seems to “complete” my fly rod.  The rod is an older Winston BXII that matches my slower casting speeds and the added length allows my 150-pound frame to still push the line out to some decent distances.

Where this setup shines though is in the flexibility.  Finally, I can take a single rod and feel like I can drift nymphs and swing streamers without struggling.

Guide Tip: Chemical warmers like “Hot Hands” (link to Amazon) have been a game changer for me.  Get the variety pack for hands, feet (inside wading boots) and body.  Don’t apply directly to the skin and keep them dry.

Nymph Setup

From the fly line I attach a 6-foot section 10-to-20-pound section of fluorocarbon line with a loop-to-loop connection.  This section will also have the indicator that I can adjust the position.

I’ll tie on a tippet ring or micro-swivel next.  Onto this I’ll tie a 9-foot fluorocarbon leader; either a 3X or 4X.  Most of the time I trim a couple feet off the butt end.  This trimming is specific to the waters I’m fishing.  Clipping off 4 feet results in a setup that works well with moderate current that averages 4 feet deep. 

Nymphing with Indicators Setting Up a Fly Rod
Nymphing with Indicators Setting Up a Fly Rod

This setup allows me to easily vary the nymph’s depth from 3 to 8 feet deep.  Remember water current speed plays a big role in getting a fly down deep.  To go even deeper I’ll add a section of tippet above the point fly and pinch on split shot.

Another tactic is to hang a dropper off the point fly, often a smaller opposite colored nymph or an egg.

Swinging Streamers

Actively swinging streamers methodically through a run while visualizing the dance caused by each twitch, strip and mend is sexy.  You get mesmerized by the rhythmic action of casting, twitching and stripping – THEN BAM – Game On!

The frequency of strikes won’t be as high as when drifting nymphs, but when the hit comes you know you’ve hooked into pure energy.

My Simple Streamer Setup

Onto the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Infinity Fly Line (I love that stuff), I attach a homemade sinking tip tuned to the water I’m fishing.  Rio sells a product called InTouch Level T14 (link to Amazon).  Designed for Skagit style casting I use it for making sink tips. 

Again, the idea is to “tuned” this setup to your water, I’ll provide a starting point setup, but your water may need a longer or shorter section of sink Level T.  The package comes with 30 feet of line which provides plenty of experimentation.

  1. Cut 4 feet off the T14 line and tie a loop to both ends.
  2. Attach this directly to the loop on your fly line.
  3. Tie a 6-foot length of 6-to-8-pound straight fluorocarbon line to the sink tip.  I favor Berkley Vanish (link) the 110-yard spools are usually less than $10.
  4. Add your favorite streamer using a loop for added action.

Read this article on my floating line and swinging streamers – HERE

The process for fishing this setup is to METHODICALLY cast, swing, dangle and strip in – then take a step or two and start over.

The key to making this work is to fish the holding water and move to the next spot.  Only fish the same spot over if you made a bad drift or get a hit. 

I’ll start casting at a point that I know is 10 or more feet in front of the holding water.  As a make I make two or three casts and get a rhythm.  This gives me a chance to get a feel for the water flow, and add mends, twitches and strips.

Chuck and Duck – Deep and Dirty

While not the perfect definition of fly fishing, chuck and duck is extremely effective in fast, deep gravel bottom rivers.  This technique borders on spin casting, instead of the fly line acting as the weight to carry the fly out, the lead “pulls” the line and fly out.  That same heavy weight and thin line allows the fly to sink FAST.

Chuck and duck is usually fished with two flies, the first being a heavy nymph and the dropper an egg or a light nymph.

The setup is a bit complex so I’ll explain with a video.

Step by Step Chuck and Duck Setup

  1. The fly line is either a level running line or a product called Amnesia  This provides some comfort for stripping and casting.  You want a thin line to sink fast, but because fly reels don’t have a bail to open for casting the line stripped in will gather at your feet.
  2. Onto the fly line attach a 10-foot length of 20 pound mono. 
  3. Slide a swivel onto the mono so you can attach a weight. Which will slide and transfer any strikes to your rod and hand.
  4. The heavy mono terminates with a swivel.
  5. To the swivel tie a 3-foot section of 8 pound straight fluorocarbon (Berkley Vanish). Add your first fly.
  6. Add 2 feet of 6-pound fluorocarbon and tie on the final fly.  I go with small egg or nymph patterns.
rig a chuck and duck setup
rig a chuck and duck setup

Favorite Flies

Winter time calls for smaller flies.  This is particularly true when it comes to dry flies.  I carry two patterns of dry flies on all my winter trips.  Because the 7-weight rod/line I’m using is a tiny bit heavy (Sarcasm) casting a tiny dry fly is like throwing cobble stones into the water hoping I don’t make a splash.

If the weather conditions look favorable for a hatch, grab that favorite 3-4 weight fly rod for the rod quiver.

Winter Dry Flies

Parachute Adams in Size 16 to 20.  If trout are actively taking bugs from the surface and I’m able to SEE a bug.  I use an Adams. Check out my article on Fly Fishing with the Adams

Griffith’s Gnat in sizes 18 and 20.  When I CAN’T SEE the bug floating, but trout are rising. I tie on a Griffiths gnat. I’ve got a how to tie a Griffith’s Gnat video on YouTube ->

Foundational Nymph Flies for Winter

Hex Nymphs in size 6 through 12. I will use this as a point fly, so it’s usually weighted.

Green Caddis sizes 12 through 16.  Get beadhead versions and without.

Zebra Midge in size 16.  A great dropper nymph. Tie on 16 inches of fluorocarbon tippet and terminate with this. Deadly!

Eggs and Beads, size 10 through 14.  When fishing beads my favorite size is an 8mm bead 2 inches above a size 10 circle hook. Read more about fly fishing with eggs in this article ->

Pats Rubber Legs
Pats Rubber Legs

Pat’s Rubber Legs in size 8.  I fish this with a dead drift  weighted.


Bunny Muddler, sizes 6 through 12 in tan, black and Olive.  My waters have plenty of sculpin and these streams have turned out to be a great match.  I like them lightly weighted.

Wooly Bugger, size 6 through 12.  Lots of colors fill my box, white, black, olive and crazy messes with white/red/blue and flashaboo.

Dunk and Disorderly for Winter Streamer Fly Fishing
Dunk and Disorderly for Winter Streamer Fly Fishing

Drunk and Disorderly, size 4 through 10.  This streamer is one of the most effective flies I’ve ever fished in the winter. Something about the action and colors entices strikes. In winter trout are looking for a meal and this big ugly does the trick.

This list of flies could be pretty long.  Check out this assortment on Amazon (I own these flies and recommend them) Venture Fly Co assortment – 122 Hand-Tied Flies with Dries, Nymphs and Streamers

A Flexible Winter Fly Rod Setup

I love solo wading and drifting in a canoe.  Which really limits the gear I can take.  To further weigh myself down I’ll usually have camera gear and coffee.  Seriously, I’ve forgotten some of my gear, but have never forgotten coffee.

A good weight forward fly line is key, combined with a variety of sinking tips for different depths and water conditions.  A game changer for me was the Amplitude Infinity Fly Line. 

My 10 foot, 7 weight might seem like overkill, but brown trout over 6 pounds are possible and steelhead haunt my home waters.  Getting a good day to cast a rod in the winter is special and I don’t want to be miles from my vehicle with the wrong gear. 

Guide Tip: It’s nearly impossible to cast big heavy streamers and nymph setups with a light fly rod.  BUT, in a pinch you can rig a +6-weight fly rod to cast small dry flies.

The key is being flexible with a minimum amount of gear, especially in the winter.  The sinking tips are small, light to carry and add tremendous flexibility for swinging streamers deep with a floating line.

Cold Weather Gear

Recommended clothes to stay warm and comfortable.  I’m usually moving a lot on a winter trip.  If I’m in a canoe, I’ll fish a run quickly and then paddle to the next likely spot.

When wading, I usually have to hike 3/4 of a mile to where I want to fish. A secret winter spot 😎

What I’m trying to stress here is comfort and the ability to remove or add a layer given the conditions.

  • Then Redington Fleece Wading Pants (Amazon link). These fleece pants are extra thick and will keep you warm even if your have those small leaks in your waders like I do. I’ve got a video on YouTube about these HERE
  • For a shirt I wear a SIMMS long sleeve button down.  It’s called the SIMMS Big Sky – Link  Why do I get button down shirts? Simple this shirt is perfect all year, sun protection, ventilation, pockets in the right spots and a convenient shirt tail for cleaning my glasses. Most important – I’m stressing comfort and warmth.
  • Over the shirt I wear a zip up fleece hoodieSIMMS Rogue Fleece Hoodie has a camo version that has proven to be comfortable and blends into the surroundings.
  • On the hoodie I have a rain jacket specifically designed for wading.  It has tight sleeve cuffs and is cut shorter with a strong waistband elastic.  Mine is a Columbia brand that isn’t sold anymore.  Frogg Toggs Java Hellbender, looks like a close match.  Orvis has the PRO Wading Jacket which I’m sure is excellent, but expensive.
  • Nice thick wool socks. I love my Smartwool Extra Thick Socks (Amazon link for price check) I only wear one pair of socks. I’ve found that if I can stay dry and my toes have room to wiggle and I stick a Hot Hands Warmer for Feet I’m good.

Waders for Winter – Neoprene vs Breathable

I have a pair of 3mm neoprene waders that I specifically bought for winter fishing. I found that I don’t use them very much. They are warmer, but I always feel clammy dampness with them. This is probably because I’m pretty active fishing and moving from spot to spot.

I’ve settled with wearing breathable waders even in winter. They’re easier to move in as compared to neoprene and as long as they’re not leaking I’m usually warm. I’m hard on waders, if I get two seasons with only a couple patches I’m happy.

Guide Recommended Waders – I’ve tried 6 brands and even spent +$500 on a nice pair of SIMMS. I’ve settled on a Brand on Amazon called Compass 360 Stocking Foot Waders<- That’s a link to AMAZON, great reviews and these things have been great for me. I’ve bought 3 pairs.

Winter Wading Boots

First felt wading boots have no place on a river in the winter. The felt will become a snowball and make it nearly impossible to walk. Second, I’ve had the water in the felt freeze and delaminate the felt from the boot.

Get rubber sole wading boots and put screws in them to improve traction. I’ve got instructions for install screws/studs -> HERE.

If you ask me what wading boots I wear in the winter, the best ones are comfortable, light and provide room in the toe box to wiggle and stick on Hot Hands for Feet. What do I wear? SIMMS FLYWEIGHT

Planning for a Winter Outing

I don’t recommend any fly fisher to “explore” a new watershed in the winter.  Pushing a drift boat over a log is tough enough, throw in freezing temperatures and your trip quickly moves from an “adventure” to “torture”

Pre-Planning for Winter Waters

On one of the rivers, I call mine, I recently decided to explore the headwaters with the idea of fishing it this coming winter with my canoe.  It’s popular with canoers so I know it’s navigable.  What I love about this river is that it isn’t impeded with any dams so lake run brown trout in trophy sizes are possible.

Fly Fishing from Canoe
Fly Fishing from Canoe

When I think about “headwaters” I visualize a tiny stream that can nearly be jumped with small pockets and bend pools.  This isn’t what I found at all.   Deep slow water (over my waders deep), the bottom substrate was a combination of sand and muck.  Not my idea of an enjoyable winter trip, especially when I’ve got reliable productive rivers.

My point here is DON’T explore in the winter.  More often than not something will ruin your trip.

Guide Tip: Explore in the fall as a way to get out of the house.  Being cooped-up all winter can be stressful.  Dreaming of those waters you explored is a great way to motivate you to get out in the winter.

Clothes to Pack for Winter

I’m going to explain what to wear farther down in this article, this is a little bit about what to carry.  This is speaking from experience; waders should be called a swimming suit.  In the winter, getting wet is the quickest way to ruin your day.

Below is a list of the MINIMUM ITEMS TO CARRY:

Pack in a waterproof bag,

  1. Waterproof matches, obvious. 
  2. Wool or fleece socks, when wading the water, squeezes your feet and legs.  This reduces circulation combined with 38-degree water, extra dry socks are mandatory.
  3. Towel, it’s hard to get warm when you’re wet.
  4. Gloves, your hands are going to get wet.
  5. Packable shirt and pants, I prefer fleece but wool will work.

I can pack all of these items in a big Ziploc bag.  When winter wading, I’ll usually bring a small backpack with these items and my fishing gear.

Speaking of fishing gear – I’ve got a great checklist.  It’s absolutely free to download CLICK HERE-> ULTIMATE FLY FISHING CHECKLIST

Plan your Parking

This may seem silly to say, but what drives other fisher-folks away from the water is inconvenience.   In winter many gravel two track roads don’t get plowed.   Know the road conditions and don’t risk getting stuck. This is another way to ruin a day of fishing.  Believe me.

Exit – Fast

Most of the time I’m fishing alone in the winter.  Getting away from everything by wading a section of river in the winter is the easiest way for me to decompress from life’s stresses.  Because I’ve swam enough in the winter, I don’t get more than 30 minutes from the vehicle.

Frostbite, hypothermia and shock are real.  Combine 28-degree air, with wet clothes and a winter wind – this is a receipt for an emergency. 

Guide Tip: One of my most memorable fly fishing trips was in the winter.  11 brown trout from a single 50 yard stretch of water.  Visualize the sun just warming the water, a nice gravel bar to swing streamers from and multiple hook-ups.  Then when I gott cold, I’ll wander over to a little fire to warm up and have hot chili.  PERFECT!

3 Tips to Catch More Winter Trout

  1. When you’ve identified a spot that screams – FISHY! – slow down and assess.  Ask yourself is this streamer water? or best drifting a nymph?  Then fish the holding water thoroughly.  You’ve got to place the fly on a trout’s nose in winter.
  2. One split shot more – if your offering isn’t ticking the bottom.  Add another split shot before changing flies.
  3. Melting snow can LOWER the water temps.  If this happens the fish may move into spots that are getting direct sun.  Boulders are heat collectors and reflectors that break up the current. FISH around obstructions – prime holding water for winter trout.


Can You Fly Fish in the Snow?

Yes, often a snow can signify a warm front.  Snow on the water surface will also help camouflage a fisher.  Don’t let that white stuff keep you inside!

When is it too Cold to Fly Fish?

I’ve found when the air temperature dips below 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) the bite will slow significantly.   This isn’t saying you can’t catch fish, but it’s going to be tough.

Where to Fly Fish in Winter?

If you’re looking for reliable winter fishing, start thinking about going south.  I’ve written extensively about fly fishing in Arizona, Florida and Texas.

If you love a quiet, amazing day – I’d recommend finding a guide.  Here in Michigan, we have plenty of rivers open all winter.  Check out my friends and Indigo Guide Service.

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

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