Cold doesn’t mean stop

Don’t lower your explanations when you decide to spend a day on a trout stream during the colder months. With less pressure, catches like these three rainbows aren’t unusual.

The approach of winter actually signals some good trout fishing

Die‑hard trout fishers don’t pay attention to the calendar or the weather, because trout can be pursued and caught any time of year and in any kind of weather. Plus, dedicated anglers know that the mere act of fishing is just as satisfying as catching fish. 

As Ray Bergman says in Trout, the bible of American trout fishers, “I believe that fishing was simply an excuse to get out in the open, to breathe air that came to me directly over open spaces, to face nature when she bared her soul.”  

Bergman said some of his best fishing experiences were on cold, windy days when other fishers stayed close to the warmth of the hearth and he had a stream to himself.

In cold weather, trout don’t move around as much, nor do they feed as often. But on those winter days when the temperature rises and the sun breaks on a dreary, gray day, hatches come off, and when they do, trout will feed.  

 Bruce Hurang of Asheville, N.C., a founder of Smoky Mountain Fly Fishers, said the best times to fish in the winter are on sunny afternoons, from about noon to 3 or 4 p.m.  

“I watch for midge and small black stone hatches,’’ he said, “and I fish the deep holes. That’s where you’ll find trout. The shallow areas are usually too cold.”

Hurang suggests working the bottom of a pool slowly and fishing it thoroughly, quartering and sectioning off areas. Sometimes, he said, “You have to put a nymph on a trout’s nose to get it to hit.”  

Hurang prefers olive, black and dark-brown emerger patterns, small black stone wet flies, and midges with dark wings.    

Tailrace trout

Another good place to fish during the cold months are the tailwaters below dams. Most dams release water from the bottom of the upstream impoundment, and water temperature is constant, usually between 42 and 48 degrees.   

Roger Lowe of Waynesville, N.C., a master fly-tier and veteran guide, said the mostly mild weather we’ve had the past few winters has prolonged topwater fishing. Attractor patterns such as the Royal Wulff, Thunderhead and male Adams are effective flies when trout are feeding at the surface.

“The time of the day actually is more important than the pattern you use,” said Lowe, who suggests watching for temperature peaks that usually occur around mid‑day and early afternoon.

For nymph fishing, Lowe recommends Secret Weapon, Woolly Booger, Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail and Zug Bug patterns.  The secret to successful nymph fishing, he said, is to get enough split shot on the line to get the nymph down and let it bump along the bottom. For smaller nymphs, he said, a couple of split-shot — sizes B or BB —  will work well. With Woolly Booger and other large nymphs, Lowe uses five or six split-shot, especially if the stream has a heavy current.

Bigger is better

Trout congregate in bigger pools in cold weather, usually toward the middle, where they wait for food to come to them. During cold weather, Lowe suggests fishing larger streams, especially valley streams such as the Oconaluftee, Tuckasegee, Nantahala and Watauga rivers, where water tends to be warmer.  Streams with shaded banks, such as Big Creek, Deep Creek and Little Cataloochee, are less productive because the water doesn’t warm as quickly.

The best overall winter patterns, Lowe said, are the Royal Coachman or Royal Wulff, Irresistible, Parachute, Thunderhead, Woolly Booger and stonefly nymphs.  

Ronnie Setzer of Sylva, a long-time fly fisher and guide, said a big advantage of winter fishing is that fish are not as spooky as they are in summer. 

“You don’t have to throw long lines, and it’s much easier to keep out of a trout’s vision,” he said.

Setzer said winter is a particularly good time to fish wild-trout streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

“I especially like to fish Bradley Fork, Ravens Fork and Noland Creek. The trout are more concentrated, and you don’t have to cover as much water as you do in the summer,” he said. “I catch very few 4- and 5-inch trout in the winter. Most of them are 7 inches and longer.”

Persistence is important for winter fishing, Setzer said. 

“You may have to cast six or eight times in the same spot before you get a strike,” he said. “Sometimes, they won’t move more than a foot out of their regular feeding path.”

Check the temp

An invaluable angling tool to carry in the winter is a thermometer to check changes in water temperature. Trout are more active if the water temperature is 40 degrees or above.

One disadvantage of winter fishing is a shorter period of daylight, especially with daylight saving time in effect. Prime winter fishing hours are between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. If you’re on a stream after 4:30 p.m., you’ll more than likely have to walk to your vehicle in the dark.

Delayed-harvest streams offer exceptional fishing during the winter. Streams were generously stocked in early October and the first week in November.

 Even when the weather is cold and wet, trout fishing is always a fine winter escape.

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Robert Satterwhite
About Robert Satterwhite 181 Articles
Bob Satterwhite has been writing about the outdoors, particularly trout fishing, for more than 25 years. A native of Morganton, N.C., he lives in Cullowhee, N.C., close to the Tuckasegee River, Caney Fork, Moses Creek, and several other prime trout streams.

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