Glory Hole Middle Prong Little River

Winter Trout Fishing by Gary McCown

Winter trout fishing to me is from Thanksgiving until Easter in east Tennessee.  There is some transition fishing on both ends of this; meaning you can occasionally fish dry flies during the winter months but basically I am talking about nymph fishing.  Slow and heavy.

No false casting is involved.  I use the “duck and chuck it “ method.  I fish two heavy nymphs, usually a black stone fly (Jethrobug), size 6 on the point, and a Blackburn Tellico, size 8, on the dropper.  If the trout are taking predominately one over the other, I may switch to two of the same pattern, keeping the sizes the same.

There are times when I may go to a small (12-14) hare’s ear on the dropper but most of the time the larger stone flies work for me.  (I am talking about freestone streams in the Park or Tellico WMA, not on a tailwater.)

These flies have to be fished on the bottom or you just are not going to catch any fish.  That means sometimes adding enough split shot between the flies (depending on water speed and depth) to keep them down.  If you are not hanging up and loosing flies on the bottom occasionally, you are just not doing it right.

Jethrobug FlyJethrobug

Three BB size split shot should be about standard and there are some deep pools and runs where six split shot may be needed to get the nymphs down.  A hard hat is recommended but I usually just wear my ragged old Stetson.  That wide brim has deflected a lot of direct hits off the back of my head.

Here is the balance trick for all this weight.  When you hold the leader above both flies, the dropper (about 8 inches long) fly should hang just above the highest split shot.  That should make the distance between the dropper knot and the bottom fly about 24 inches and the distance between flies about 16 inches.  I like for all this mass to be compact for two reasons:  (1)  The flies fish down and close together and (2)  It reduces the chances of a “bolo” mess from a bad cast or from hitting some obstacle on a missed hook set.  When you do get a “bolo, and you will, just cut the mess off and retie.  Believe me it is easier that way. 
Also, always use barbless or crimped down barb flies.  It makes it much easier to release yourself when you screw up.

One mention about rods if you need an excuse to buy another fly rod.  I like a 9 foot six weight fairly slow action rod, not the little wimpy things that make dry fly fishing so much fun in the spring.  They won’t work well, so either don’t try it or just make yourself an appointment in the emergency room before you go out on the stream.

This is close fishing.  Nine feet of rod and about 12-15 feet of line out.  That’s it.  You really don’t need a reel but you would feel funny without one, so go ahead and buy one of those new Lamson Konic reels.  This makes an excellent bass fishing outfit for the lakes around here in the summer if you need to justify year round use.
Blackburn Tellico Nymph
Blackburn Tellico Nymph

Now, about the lob cast.  Basically you just let the current carry the flies straight downstream below you and with one smooth move throw the flies forward and (hopefully) over your head pointing your casting hand thumb exactly where you want the flies to go on your follow through.  This is about as good a written description of the forward cast as I can make.

Then just fish the cast out by raising your rod and taking in slack with your hand as the flies drift back downstream to you.  You can fish the flies out below yourself as often fish will hit just as the flies begin to swing up at the bottom of the drift.  From this position you are ready to lob cast again.  Just take one step forward, raise your line off the water, slide the line forward with your rod to break the surface tension and lob again.  There is no backcast.  If you decide to try one, refer to the earlier instructions on retying and emergency room.

You can use a strike indicator if you think it is helpful.  I use one on the Clinch with much smaller flies but not on freestone streams.  I learned to do this by watching the end of my fly line and the leader where it enters the water.  If it stops, twitches or does anything unnatural, set the hook but not so hard that it winds up in the trees behind you.

Do all this watching of the line while also watching the water where your flies are.  Trout roll sideways to take nymphs off the bottom and when they do this the white of their bellies makes a flash under water almost like a small flashbulb going off.  If you see this, set the hook.  This may sound either difficult or so much BS but it really does work.  All this concentration is really the difficult part of nymph fishing but it will pay off.

There are a few other common sense things worth mentioning about winter fly fishing.  Lower your expectations.  You probably are not going to catch a lot of fish doing this.  I would consider 2-3 fish per hour of fishing a good day.  Dress sensibly with layers of wool over polypropylene.  And unless you wade lots better than I do keep a change of dry clothes in your vehicle.

Water temperature is always a major factor in winter fishing so carry a thermometer and check the water temperature.   Once the water temperature is much below 50 degrees, the fish will become more lethargic.  They will not move far for your fly so you will have to hit trout in the nose with them.  But, I have caught trout in 32 degree water!  Once I even drifted a nymph under and ice shelf and caught a fish.  Expect the best fishing to be just past midday when the water temperature is the warmest.

Remember that this is stealth fishing.  Most winters here (except lately) the water is fairly low, wading is easy and you can get fairly close without spooking fish if you move carefully, keep low and use natural cover.  With practice this can become sight fishing to specific fish and not just blind casting.

I hope this has given you some inspiration to get out and try some winter fly fishing.  You could sit home and tie some flies but maybe I will see you on the river.
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