Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cold Weather Tips

Fishing in cold weather can be tough. During the winter, even the best fisherman can come away wondering where all the fish were after a day of fishing in the Smoky Mountains. However, with a little careful observation and a change in tactics, the average fisherman should be able to catch at least a few fish on most days of the year. The tips I'm about to share are suggestions that have worked well for me. They are by no means a guarantee that you will catch fish and they aren't even all original. Some are common knowledge to many fly fisherman while others probably contradict generally accepted norms for cold weather fishing. Regardless, I hope that you will find at least one of these tips useful during your next cold weather fishing trip.

Tip number one is a classic. When it is cold out and the fish are sluggish, slow everything down. This may seem obvious and you have probably read it throughout fly fishing literature. Still, I can't stress this point enough and in fact, I still need to be reminded of this wisdom myself on occasion.

A good example of the value of this common sense suggestion came during my last trip to the Smokies. For the first hour or so of fishing, I worked my way up Little River somewhere above Metcalf Bottoms. I was carefully covering the water that I expected the fish to be in during cold weather but moving fairly quickly at the same time. My rig was a pair of reliable Smoky Mountain nymph patterns that almost always dredge up a fish or two. After moving only one fish for sure, I decided it might be time for a change of pace. Moving over to Middle Prong, I decided that if the fish weren't hungry, I would at least enjoy my time on the water by fishing a dry fly. In catching 8 fish over the next hour, several lessons were learned, the first of which is the one I already mentioned. Each fish I caught came in slow water were the fly had time to dance and swirl around tantalizingly while the fish below became more and more excited. Eventually one of the residents would just have to come up and sample the apparently juicy morsel I was offering. Some of my drifts were a solid 30 seconds in the same small eddy, the fly floating slowly around and around in a never ending circle.

The previous story illustrates several other important points. My next tip is counter to generally accepted norms for fishing in the mountains during cold weather. Quite simply, don't be afraid to fish a dry fly. However, if you are going to fish a dry, it is probably more important to match the hatch in cold water. This is where a little observation can go a long way. Midges, BWOs, small caddis, little brown or black stoneflies, all these are likely to be on the water even in cold weather. Once the water temperature rises into the 40's, it is almost guaranteed. Even on the coldest days of the year you can usually find at least a few midges hatching somewhere. If you decide to fish a dry, you can do two things: Either wait for rising fish while walking the stream or fish likely cold weather holding water. Simply fishing likely water brings us to our next tip.
Tip number three is another one you've likely heard before as well. In cold water, fish the slower water. This may or may not mean what it seems at first glance. We often associate fishing in the winter with fishing the pools but fish will be in the pocket water as well. My recent Smokies trip was a great example of this as well. I caught very few fish in true pools. Instead most of the fish came out of pocket water that I normally wouldn't even bother to fish. The fish were in the slowest calmest water in the stream but never far from fast water that would still deliver a supply of food. Once it warms up, I often look for fish right under the current tongues but in cold weather I look in the dead water behind rocks, between current tongues, and yes, in those pools and deeper runs. The fish are almost always sitting out of the main current but ready to make a quick foray out into the faster water if a choice snack floats by.

My next tip is one that may or may not always work but seems to for me. In cold weather, fish the smaller streams. In this type of water, there are not nearly as many places for the fish to go that are hard to fish. On larger water, the fish could just go sit on the bottom in the deepest holes where catching them is going to be tough at best. In small streams they will still be in the pocket water and shallower runs out of necessity. Also, it is a lot easier to cover all likely holding water and figure out which type the fish are in on a smaller stream.

Tip number five is a bonus because it is geared towards tailwaters. In sub-freezing weather, look for large midge hatches with lots of cripples on your favorite tailwater. The steady temperatures on a tailwater mean that midges will hatch every day but when it gets really cold, they often have a hard time flying off from the stream. Some of my most memorable days on tailwaters involve very cold air temperatures and trout rising to midges that can't take off. The stranded bugs make an easy target for the fish and the trout will key on the tiny insects.

My last tip for fishing in cold weather is simply to just start doing it. Many people are too lazy to get out in the cold weather and assume that the fishing won't be good enough to justify the effort. If you don't go find out, you will never know what you might be missing...


  1. Over here,we have problem of 'after big flood'!

  2. Anonymous1:13 AM

    Great post. So true get out there and fish in the winter. There is also less fishing pressure during the winter, and less fishermen means more fish for you. Great tips David!

  3. Great tips David. I'll remember them when I go fishing.
    Greetings. Fernando.

  4. Anonymous3:41 PM

    Great aadvice on winter fly fishing.

  5. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Living in Colorado, this is great information for anyone wanting to fish and be successful in the winter.

  6. Anonymous9:34 AM

    Some great pictures in this article. I really wish I had the chance to do some fishing during the winter months. Unfortunately, Winter likes to rear its ugly head here in a very harsh way.
    great article though.
    Happy castings

  7. Glad you all found these tips useful. Its great living in the southeast because we can truly fish year round without waiting for the rare warm day. Warm enough to fish in the winter but stays cool enough to support trout through the summer...not bad!

  8. Nice shots - very cool

  9. Anonymous6:04 PM

    Very good tips...I would expand on the dries in cold weather angle. Last Thanksgiving (the last time I was up in the mountains), I did fairly well with the brookies on dries, even though the water was pretty cold. I think brook trout, given their preference for colder water than browns or rainbows, will therefore tend to be looking up at a lower temperature than the other two species. Anyway, it worked for me - I picked up far more fish on dries, although the big fish of the trip was on a bh prince.

  10. I agree with all this advice-- I recently outfished some guys that really know their stuff because I was basically just a little more willing to fish slower water and move my indicator all the way to my fly line to get down deep.

    I look a little silly trying to cast a heavy bottom dragging rig like that but... it catches the fish.

    thanks for the great tips!!

    --Brian J.