Winter is nearly tied with spring as my favorite fly fishing season. Yeah, it’s freezing outside, but I love the smaller crowds and the midge hatches of winter.
Aside from the extra layers, gloves, and beanies that you need to stave off frostbite while winter fishing, there are a few other must-have items. At the top of the list, for me, is the right collection of flies.
Trout slow down in the winter, and getting them to move for any food isn’t as simple as it is during warmer parts of the year. In winter, your presentation matters arguably more than at any other point, because you have to get the flies right in front of the trout.
But you also need to put the right flies in front of trout.
And what are the right flies?
While it largely depends on the water you’re fishing, I’ve found that these ten flies are a pretty sure bet for catching winter trout. As long as the presentation is adequate, trout should make the effort to eat these patterns.
These patterns aren’t listed in any particular order.
Any Egg Pattern
These come in a variety of sizes, but usually a size 14-18 egg pattern is a great bet for winter trout. I fish a few different styles of egg patterns depending on the depth of the water I’m in. For the most part, though, you can get away with using a weighted Glo-Bug. Anything in pink or orange is a deadly color.
This fly works so well because there tends to be quite a few eggs in the water during winter. Brown trout spawn in the fall, and other fish in the river will be keyed in on eating stray eggs knocked loose from redds by the natural flow of the river. Once the browns are done, whitefish spawn, and a lot of rivers have increasingly large populations of winter-spawning rainbow trout, too.
Egan’s Thread Frenchie
This is a fly I’ve started to fall in love with as a guide. The normal Frenchie is a go-to fly for me, but it’s not all that durable.
The Thread Frenchie, developed by Lance Egan as well, is a more durable version of the famous fly. It has the added benefit of being just as effective as the original, too.
Flashback Hare’s Ear
The Hare’s Ear will be a fly that stays with us forever, I think. It’s so effective, so simple to tie, and you can find it in virtually any fly shop in the world. Dressing it up a bit, though, with modern materials always helps the fly stand out a bit. A flashback Hare’s Ear is a go-to for me in the winter, because I think the flashy material really does get the attention of otherwise lethargic, slow-moving fish.
The Fly Formerly Known as Prince
This fly is almost as great as Prince’s music. But not quite.
The Fly Formerly Known as Prince takes the classic prince nymph and throws a modern spin on it. With a bit of extra flair – and usually tied with purple thread – it’s no wonder this pattern turns trouts’ heads when it drifts on by.
The first time I saw this fly was at a shop in Colorado, on a late-winter trip to the Frying Pan River. The fly got some use on that trip – and it delivered.
I know, this isn’t a flashy pick – but the zebra midge just flat-out works. It’s highly effective on any trout water, and you can tie it in any color imaginable. It works in sizes from 14 – 22, and I’ve yet to find a river where a good ol’ zebra midge doesn’t get the job done.
You also want to remember that midges are an omnipresent food source for trout, especially in the winter. The bigger bugs that we love to fish – caddis, mayflies, stoneflies, and the like – aren’t doing much of anything in the winter, but midges are. They’re one of the few active aquatic insects around when the snow flies.
This is another great pattern by a Team USA Fly Fishing member. Devin Olsen, of Tactical Fly Fisher, came up with this Euro nymph a while back, but it’s proven wildly effective for anyone who tries it. Charlie Craven even featured it in an article for Fly Fisherman Magazine, which is saying something. When Charlie talks about good patterns, I usually listen.
The Blowtorch has the advantage of being easy to tie, sinking like a rock, and small. It’s a great quick snack for trout, and it’ll usually put plenty of fish in the net.
The first time I caught a fish on a Walt’s Worm, I was in Wyoming in January. It was absolutely frigid, but the trout were fairly active, and if I recall correctly, I stuck a good rainbow on a Walt’s Worm that day. It might have been a brown trout, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this fly works, and I highly recommend throwing some in your winter fly box.
Rock Crawler Caddis
Caddis are just about as omnipresent as midges – perhaps even more so – and their telltale rock shucks are like crack for trout. They just can’t get enough of them.
Any Rock Crawler caddis nymph will work wonders in the winter. While caddis may not be terribly active at this time of year, they are enough of a big-ticket food item that trout can’t really justify turning them down.
Utah Killer Bug
I’m not sure why this pattern got the name “Utah Killer Bug,” but it’s apropos in a way. It’s killer here on streams in my neck of the woods, but its efficacy isn’t limited to the Beehive State. Tied to imitate a cranefly nymph, the Killer Bug is heavy, big, and a calorie-rich meal for any trout with its eyes open and a willingness to move a few inches to swallow it. I’ve been consistently surprised at how many fish the Killer Bug snags each winter.
Lastly, I can’t leave out the venerable parachute midge. This pattern, while difficult to tie, and harder still to find for sale, is a must-have if you plan on fishing any sort of dry fly hatch in the dead of winter. I’ve caught more fish than I can count on a size 24 parachute midge, and I always have a few dozen in my box.
Winter fishing is a blast, and it’s something I think every angler needs to try at least once. These ten flies will fill your box – and your net. They’ve worked for me for years now, and so long as you fish them correctly, you’ll find success with them as well.
Words by Spencer Durrant
Spencer Durrant is a writer, bamboo rod builder, and fishing guide from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and the owner/lead guide at the Utah Fly Fishing Company. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.