Winter Ways With Trout by Jim Casada
To perhaps a greater degree than any other time of the year, feeding patterns for winter trout are predictable. Sure, you are pretty safe in saying that trout will go on the prod immediately after a spring shower or when shadows darken toward dusk on a sultry summer day, but deep in December (and January and February) the sage angler can earn his stripes as a seer.
Invariably, when a period of unseasonable warmth arrives and continues for two or three days in the midst of winter, trout will be active from around noon until mid-afternoon. The explanation of why this is the case is simple, that’s when it is the warmest. Similarly several successive days of brightness which see water temperatures rise a couple of degrees will likely produce hatches of midges, blue-wing olives and the like. Match the hatch with some precision (something which usually isn’t a factor in the South except on tailwaters, but this is a notable exception) and good things will happen.
Also, winter in the Southern high country sees an occasional misty rain with temperatures in the 50s, and that’s a great time to be astream. Browns always feel more comfortable in low light conditions, and a streamer worked slowly and seductively through prime holding spots at such times can draw the sort of interest every angler welcomes; namely, interest from big fish. Usually the strikes are subtle, in sharp contrast to the way a brown can attack a streamer when ravenous in the summer. Indeed, they tend to be more of an unexpected stop or tiny bump than a smash and surge. The key things to remember are to watch your line closely and set the hook when in doubt.
Finally, don’t overlook the possibilities offered by high, dingy water. Big, bright streamers fished in shallow waters where the minnows will have retreated in the face of freshets can prove quite productive at times. Moreover, you can count on trout being in the protected shallows, they have far better sense than to try to fight raging torrents.
You can catch trout in the winter about any time you can keep your rod’s guides free of ice, but over the years I’ve developed a particular passion for winter’s predictable times. Try them and I predict you will do the same.
Trout are creatures of habit, which means they have favorite sites, variously called holding spots, ambush holds, hides, and the like, where they spend most of their time. Thanks to the absence of vegetation, with streamside evergreens such as laurel, rhododendron and spruces being obvious exceptions, the angler can often get a good look at holes which are hidden by overhanging limbs and the like at other times of the year.
Also, there’s something about the pale light of winter, with little glare or brightness to trouble human eyes, which makes spotting fish a bit easier. All you need is good polarized glasses, first-rate predatory instincts and clear water. The best time of all to locate fish is after a week or more of settled weather, when the levels of freestone streams should be at winter norms and their water crystal clear. Incidentally, this is also a fine time for some scouting, something which should serve you well come spring.
Mention elbow room and trout fishermen normally think of streams uncluttered with other anglers and welcome solitude. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how much we prize the absence of other humans when it comes to fishing? You’ll likely have the water to yourself in the winter, but the elbow room to which I’m referring is of a quite different sort.
When I was a boy, my Dad frequently kidded me about fishing for squirrels. This was because I spent plenty of time retrieving my flies from trees. Given the fact that they cost a quarter, a big sum for a poor mountain boy in the 1950s, I was loathe indeed to leave any fly to the not-so-tender embraces of trees or bushes. Had I fished more in winter, I wouldn’t have had quite so much trouble.
That’s because a significant portion of the troublesome terrors of wayward backcasts, the limbs of deciduous trees, are barren. To be sure, unforgiving rhododendrons remain as threatening as ever, always willing to gobble up a poor cast, but otherwise things are more open. That’s a nice situation, but what is really significant is the fact that the angler now has access to pools and pockets which not even the most inventive or capable of casters can reach when trees are in full leaf.
Finally, winter is a grand time for off-trail angling exploration. You can make your way through woods which might be nearly impenetrable in the summer, and while so doing have no concerns about snakes or stumbling into a yellow jacket’s nest. Such searches often help you discover forgotten, long-abandoned manways, old roads, logging railways and the like. They can be useful means of access to off-trail angling. Additionally, it is possible in winter to see sections of stream from afar.
Some hiking, perhaps with a compass or global positioning system as a companion, can reveal little-known and useful secrets. Indeed, for anyone wanting to get to know the hundreds of miles of water in the high country which lie back of beyond, winter is the time, to borrow from the stirring words of Sherlock Holmes, when the games afoot.
What the foregoing suggests, quite simply, is that there’s far more to winter than sleepy-eyed armchair adventure. While fireside dreaming and scheming have their places, the soundest strategy sessions always take place astream. Make a point of spending some time there this and every winter.
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