Winter fly fishing tips for stillwater trout

While some people talk of a season for stillwater fly fishing for trout, most fisheries are open all year round and the fly fishing is generally best during the winter months. Here are our tips for winter fly fishing for stillwater trout.

Winter fly fishing tips for stillwater trout
© Fly and Lure
Winter fly fishing tips for stillwater trout
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
Winter fly fishing tips for stillwater trout
Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 10 - 16 minutes

Go somewhere ice-free...

I'll start with the really obvious one because it's one that has caused me to have a wasted journey before! If there's been a heavy overnight frost and the air has been still then there's a strong likelihood that the lake you're intending to fish may be concealed beneath a lid of ice...

Some fisheries have now invested in aerators to increase water turbulence and help mix warmer water from the bottom of the lake to minimise the extent of ice formation. Some smaller stillwaters don't have this, nor do many big lakes and reservoirs, so if it's been really cold, you may want to call first to find out if the lakes are fishable. If you're looking for a fishery to visit, check out our directory which lists nearly a thousand places to fly fish in UK.

In very cold weather you may find little fishable water.

Wait for the right weather

If you're not the type of fly fisher who goes every weekend, whatever the weather, it would pay to carefully time your session so that you've got the right weather for a productive day on the bank.

Sudden drops in temperature can put trout off the food, but longer settled periods of cold weather are often good, as is a warmer day following a prolonged cold spell. The "warmer" weather can also trigger insect life into hatching, so you'll often find the fish more hungry.

If you can cope with the cold, you'll often find winter fly fishing far more productive than a day spent trying to tempt trout during the warmer months. 

A warm day during a prolonged cold spell puts fish on the feed.

Pick the right spot

Although stillwaters often look still and featureless, the water beneath the surface is often moving, especially when there's a breeze. It's also cooler in certain places within the lake. As trout tend to prefer water of a certain temperature, they'll often follow the flowing water to find an area where the temperature is to their liking.

In the warmer months, we fly anglers are encouraged to fish into the wind, because this is where the food gets pushed. Often the trout can be facing the wind on this bank and you can cast over them to catch them. However, in cold weather, the opposite may apply.

When it's chilly, the cold water gets pushed to the bank facing the wind and the undertow pushes the warm water to the opposite end. In these conditions it's often worth starting at the end with the wind on your back, as the fish may have moved into the slightly warmer water here. You also get the added bonus of easier casting and more pleasant conditions for fishing.

Try fishing with the wind on your back when its cold.

Layer up to keep warm

If you want your session to last, you'll need to make sure you're well wrapped up. Wear lots of thin layers to trap warm air. Invest in a base layer, a fleece and a lightweight compressible insulated jacket (I wear a Patagonia Nano Puff, which is extremely cosy, but any one will do), and top it off with a rain jacket, or hardshell as they're often called these days.

If you get too warm, you can unzip your jacket or remove a layer until you get more comfortable. Keeping your neck warm with a Buff and wearing a hat will also make a massive difference to how comfortable you'll feel.

Wear plenty of layers - plus a hat and a Buff to stay toasty.

Take two rods

Trout like cold weather so could literally be feeding anywhere in the water column, from near the bottom to right at the surface. Sometimes, even off the top.

On small stillwaters a floating line could see you right all day, but it pays to take two rods one with a floating line and one with an intermediate. Not only will it save you re-rigging the rod with a different line, but you'll also be able to cover more depths and use a greater variety of retrieve speeds.

Take two rods - one with a floating line and one with a sinker or intermediate.

Try black and green

For whatever reason, black flies with green heads or bodies tend to be very popular on stillwater trout fisheries over the winter months. Whether they really work better at this time of the year, or whether they just feature more in the catch returns books because more people use them is debatable. However, they definitely catch fish. For more advice check out our guide on fishing lures for trout.

Black and green flies are a favourite in winter months and will take both browns and rainbows.

Don't overlook nymphs

Nearly everyone on stillwaters tends to migrate towards fishing lures when it gets cold, but it's actually also a really good time of the year to fish nymphs. Whether you go for buzzers, pheasant tails, hare's ears or diawl bachs, you'll probably catch. They also seem to attract more resident fish, like browns, than lures do too.

Nymphs can often work well in winter.

Fish slow or static

In very cold weather, the fish can get a bit lethargic but still feed. At these times, a static fly beneath an indicator - blob, squirmy wormy, chewing gum worm or egg fly would be my first choice - can be an excellent tactic.

Attach your indicator a few feet above the fly, cast out and leave for 20 or 30 seconds. If there are no takers, give the line a little tug and see if anything gets drawn in. If static doesn't work, try a dead slow figure of eight retrieve instead. It works well for cold and lazy trout.

Static flies can work well in winter.

Keep moving until you find fish

In cold weather, fish can often shoal up and may not be present across the lake. I've fished a few stillwaters where this has been really apparent - often because you can see the shoal of fish actively feeding, or because one angler is pulling out fish after fish.

There will generally always be fish cruising patrolling lanes around the lake, so if you observe the fish and present your flies in a high traffic fish area you'll eventually get lucky. But, while you're trying to find them, stay active and move every 10 or 15 minutes if your fan casting doesn't turn up any fish.

If you don't catch after 10 or 15 minutes, move until you find the fish.

Stalk the margins

On stillwaters, if you creep around the margins very quietly to avoid spooking the trout, you'll often find fish lurking there. George's preferred tactics for fooling these fish is not to let them see him.

He'll stand 15 or 20 feet back from the edge and cast from there. The angle of the trout's field of vision means he'll go unseen and he stands a better chance of hooking up than the angler who's chosen to go and stand by the water's edge.

Stay back from the edge to target fish in the margins.

Arrive early, stay late

In the winter months, the fish will often feed throughout the day, but the best fishing is usually to be had first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon.

We try to arrive on the bank first thing, often tackling up while the sun's coming up, so we can catch the trout cruising the margins before other anglers arrive. If you're not an early bird, stay on later and fish until the light starts to fade. You'll often get similar results.

Fish will feed most first thing and often again just before it gets dark.

Keep your fingers warm

On really cold days, when the weather is so cold that your fly line freezes, and the water freezes solid in the rod rings, even the most hardy of fly fishers will want something to keep their fingers warm.

As a southerner living in the north, I'm rubbish at tolerating the cold, so I tend to wear gloves so I can fish for longer. I've tried lots of different types of fly fishing gloves, including ones from Sealskinz, Patagonia and Simms and I've never found a great pair.

All of them will impact your ability to cast (as you can't feel the line) and prevent you from using certain retrieves, especially the figure of eight. Some people swear by nitrile gloves favoured by car mechanics, others say you can't beat a hand warmer, like the lighter fuel powered ones made by Zippo. Whatever you choose, make sure you keep your fingers warm, otherwise you'll significantly limit your fishing time.

Gloves make fly fishing harder, but you'll be able to fish for longer.

Get a good hat

A warm hat, and a neck warmer such as a Buff, can make all the difference to how you feel. I wear a fleece lined woolly hat with a peak on it, which helps provide better protection from glare and wayward flies, as well as keeping me warm. George likes a nice thick fleece-lined woolly hat with ear flaps to stay ultra cosy.

A warm hat will keep you cosy on the bank. It doesn't need to look as silly as George's.

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