Fly fishing is a year-round activity. Even during the coldest months of the year you can find fish actively feeding, and you don’t have to run to the water hours before sunrise to get the best action. Even so, too many anglers hang up their waders and store their rods when winter comes. They are getting lost. With less line in the water, winter fishing can mean more opportunities to land big trout, especially from the tailwaters, as long as you use the right flies.
Trout become sluggish as the water temperature drops in the stone streams, but the controlled flows and consistent water temperatures in the tailwaters keep the trout comfortable and feeding throughout the year. To help steer you in the right direction, here are five tailwaters from different corners of the country that are especially productive during the colder months of the year. Layer, get out there and land some trophy trout.
The Arkansas River in Pueblo, Colorado
The Arkansas River is without a doubt one of the best winter tailwater fisheries in Colorado. Drift Fly Shop
Because tailwaters are often fish food factories that can support high concentrations of fish, it’s not uncommon to also see high concentrations of anglers lining the banks. That’s why the less frequented Arkansas tailwater in southern Colorado is unique compared to other marquee tailwaters in the region like the South Platte at Deckers. The Arkansas is one of the best winter fisheries in the west, especially since the river has an extended high water season and is not a particularly productive fishery during the summer months. Come winter, the flows drop and the bite turns on. It’s not uncommon to consistently hook several 16- to 20-inch rainbows.
The Arkansas drains through a relatively warm climate and low elevation in Pueblo, which is unlike most other trout fisheries in Colorado. During the winter, air temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees warmer than other tailwaters in the Colorado Front Range, and 15 to 25 degrees warmer than mountain rivers. Relatively mild temperatures combine with timely releases from the reservoir to favor conditions where trout feed year-round and do not lie dormant in the winter. In November and December, bluewing olives hatch on the surface, giving anglers good dry fly action, and midges hatch for the rest of the season. However, in January and February, the nymph is the best tactic to catch fish consistently when there are no visible gills. “Subtlety is the key,” says Connell O’Grady, a veteran guide at The Drift Fly Shop. “Every time the indicator slows down, he sets the hook just to see if there’s anything.”
The Farmington River, Connecticut
Connecticut’s Farmington River has a large winter caddis hatch that allows anglers to catch trout with dry flies, a rarity in winter. Torrey Collins
When anglers think of good trout streams, most might imagine a winding waterway in a relatively remote wilderness setting; it is not a winding river in the heart of the Northeast Urban Corridor. Alas, that’s the setting for the Farmington River, one of Connecticut’s best trout waters, and at just a two-hour drive from Boston or New York City, it’s likely the most easily accessible fishery on this list .
With a 21-mile-long seasonal catch-and-release stretch bordering a 6-mile-long permanent catch-and-release section, Farmington has no shortage of public access points during the winter. Because of catch-and-release regulations, large numbers of rainbows stocked in the fall, and a significant population of large wild brown trout, there are plenty of targets for cold-weather anglers. Consistent bottom releases from Saville Dam keep the river at a trout-friendly temperature year-round, so fish remain active despite the cold weather.
The Farmington River has a special winter caddis hatch that begins in December and runs through February. The hatch, which brings trout to the surface, usually occurs during the morning hours. At other times of the day, slow and deep nymph tactics work best. Torrey Collins, manager of UpCountry Sportfishing recommends nymphs, streamers and “trash flies” such as eggs, Woolly Buggers, San Juan Worms and mop flies (a wavy, easy-to-tie subsurface pattern that incorporates the same microfiber). dreadlocks used for real mops), all fished as close to the bottom of the river as possible.
The Green River, Utah
Anglers flock to the green in the summer, but in the winter, there’s no need to fight the crowds, just the fish. Old Moe Guide Service
The intrepid John Wesley Powell began his 1869 journey through the Grand Canyon by floating Utah’s Green River. In the process, he named a particularly colorful stretch of the river Flaming Gorge. Most of the Flaming Gorge is now submerged in the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, but the tailwater below the reservoir dam offers vibrant scenery and excellent fishing. That said, the river’s high trout density and crystal clear waters mean today’s Green River is far from the untrammeled waterway it once was. Today, the Green is a fly-fishing mecca and hordes of anglers descend on it in the summer. However, when the fishermen scatter after the drop, you should do the opposite. Take advantage of the drop in pressure and target the river’s trophy trout.
“There are fewer people, better streamer fishing and good midge hatches and blue-winged olives during the winter,” says Doug Roberts, owner of Old Moe Guide Service. He also recommends not going overboard with fancy streamers; Sculpin and Woolly Buggers patterns work well. Unlike the other tailwaters on this list, the nymph is not a productive approach in the Green River this time of year. Attach to streamers and dry.
The White River, Arkansas
A walleye kill in Bull Shoals Lake keeps White River trout fat and happy all winter long. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
While many tailwaters offer only a few miles of good, accessible trout fishing below the dams that feed them, Arkansas’ White River boasts a whopping 50 miles of public trout fishing downstream of the dam from Bull Shoals to the northern Ozarks, and with the exception. from a few small enclosures to protect spawning fish, almost every inch has the potential to hold a lifetime of trout.
The White River continues to produce big fish when temperatures drop. What makes the winter fishing here particularly remarkable is a massive walleye die-off in Bull Shoals Lake that occurs when sudden cold water temperatures destroy a sizable proportion of the walleye inhabiting the reservoirs. The bait travels to the dam’s turbines, sinks and deflects into the tailwater, creating a protein-rich hum that helps the trout grow fat and keeps them actively feeding despite cold water temperatures.
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Again, nymphs, eggs, walleyes and woolly bugs catch the most fish this time of year, although large streamers and mouse patterns fished along the banks are also very effective “I’ve fished everywhere, I’ve guided in Alaska and I have kids in Montana and Wyoming, but this is the best place I’ve ever fished,” says Jim Lipscomb of Two Rivers Fly Shop.
The Bighorn River, Montana
Come winter, one of the best fisheries in Big Sky Country is the tailwater portion of the Bighorn River. Bighorn Angler
The tailwater portion of the famous Bighorn River begins near the town of Fort Smith, Montana, one of the few remaining true trout towns in the country. Here, you can stumble into a shop like the Bighorn Angler with nothing but the t-shirt on your back and quickly acquire everything you need (including a rental drift boat) for a great DIY day on the water. The river itself has an incredibly high population of rainbow and brown trout, and despite Montana’s bitter cold, adventurous anglers can catch countless fish in the winter.
“The early part of winter fishes really well,” says Steve Galletta of Bighorn Angler. Because seasonal turnover in Bighorn Lake is such a long and slow process, water temperatures remain relatively warm for miles downstream of the Yellowtail Dam release compared to the state’s stone streams. December is the best time for anglers to get out on the water, although good fishing extends throughout the rest of the season. Target trout congregated in deep runs with a standard sow and nymph rig. Fish will also move to the edges of the waterway during midge hatches, which occur sporadically during the winter. Finally, there is particularly good streamer fishing for post-spawn browns in February.
Final thoughts on winter fly fishing
Fly fishing may not be as popular in the winter as it is in the summer. Don’t let that stop you from getting out there. If you have a tail with open water and a trout population nearby, you can still fish. But these five fisheries offer some of the best winter trout fishing in the entire country. Prepare for the cold and make sure you have a pair of high quality waders and have fun.