Bug selection and presentation can be critical when the water is low and clear in the winter months. It can be difficult because the fish go a little dormant in the winter. Trout will often hold in deeper and slower pools while it is colder. Trout also try to conserve energy and often will not go out of their way to eat. In the summer months they will chase an adult Stonefly that is skating across the water and they might travel all the way across the stream to chase down and eat a Sculpin or other baitfish. But during the winter months the trout will hold in these deeper runs and only feed when an insect comes close to their face. In most rivers where we have cold winters the trout have a limited food source compared to summer when the air, water, and brush are covered with insects, crustaceans, and baitfish.
In Colorado we are blessed to have many tailwaters to choose from in the winter months. From Deckers to the Frying Pan, winter anglers can get their fix. With no trout season we have the entire winter to explore and try new “winter” tactics. A tailwater is a fishery below a lake and generally has a release that is located deep in the lake. Because of the location of the release, many of these tailwater fisheries have Mysis Shrimp, a type of freshwater shrimp. This is a very important detail because these freshwater shrimps are a high source of protein for the trout and these lower releases allow the deep-dwelling Mysis to flood out into the tailwater. The Mysis will only be dispersed approximately a mile or less down the river, so focusing efforts close to the dam is a better tactic. When venturing farther from the dam remember to take off the shrimp, especially in the summer months when the river is open further downstream. Size 16 and smaller shrimp work great. Myer's Mysis is a great pattern. Epoxy Shrimp work great as well. This is a great lead fly in the winter and you can often get away with going a size or two bigger because Mysis shrimp are pretty big. If you are not fortunate enough to have a tailwater with Mysis, in the early months of winter, an egg pattern can be effective because some late run Browns can still be spitting eggs. I find that in Colorado a good fly to follow my lead fly is often an RSII or a Juju Baetis in size 20 and smaller. Tiny BWO patterns are also a great choice. I like to experiment with size and color. Olive, black and gray are all great colors to try in the winter. I prefer 5x to my first fly when presentation is critical and 5 or 6x to my second fly. If I'm not getting bites and I have 5x to both flies, often I'll drop down to 6x tippet. Having a general understanding of the bugs in the water in different seasons will greatly help you as a fisherman. Each fishery will have its own variables and variations of bug life. Some other winter patterns to try are: Black Beauty 18-24, Brassie 18-24, Copper John 18-24, WD 40's 18-24.
A 7.5 or 9-foot leader is good for winter nymphing. A 3 or 4x leader will work great as this is the equivalent of 5-7 lb. test. With a 7.5-foot leader, by the time you put two flies on, it's already nine feet anyways. Which means, a 9-foot leader can become 10 or more feet long after putting on two flies. The first thing you want to do is tie your leader on at the end of your fly line. Then you can tie on some 5x tippet to the end of your leader that you just tied onto your fly line. The blood knot or double surgeons knot works well for attaching tippet to leader. You want about 12-16 inches of 5x from the knot you tied at the end of your leader. Now, tie on your lead fly. Then you want to tie a fisherman's knot to the bend of the hook of the first fly you tied on. That's right, tie it to the bend of the hook. You want to leave another 12-16 inches of 5x or 6x for your last fly. Some of the exceptionally tiny flies may need 6x nipped off with some sharp nippers to get that line through the eye of the hook. Now, put a small amount of weight, like two No. 6 Lemer split shot just above the knot you tied to connect the first piece of tippet to your leader. The weight is a high maintenance thing. In shallow water, you won't need much but in deeper runs, you may need more to get down to where the fish are. Lastly, place your strike indicator about 8.5 to 9 feet from you first fly. This may need to be closer to your top fly in shallower water. The aim should be for your indicator to be almost 2 times the depth of the water you’re fishing. This may also need some adjustment as you move from shallower to deeper holes to place the fly in front those lazy winter trout. This set-up is highly recommended for fishing to those picky trout in the winter months of low flows.
By Josh Patterson