Sight Fishing for Winter Trout

If you like to fish for trout all year long regardless of weather, you certainly know by now that winter fishing, while it can be painfully cold, can produce some really productive days. Typically, the best winter fishing is found in deep, slow pools where trout tend to stack up to feed on an aquatic conveyor belt of midges without expending too much precious energy. However, one of my favorite ways to catch big wintertime trout is to walk along the often-overlooked shallow tailouts and riffles of popular tailwaters. When the sun is low in the sky, be it dawn or dusk, visibility is often good enough that with a good pair of polarized glasses and a trained eye, anglers can spot fish in water that they otherwise might walk right past. 

An example of the abundant bug life that can be found on rivers during the winter months.

The first step to sight fishing for trout is to actually see the trout in the first place. The key to spotting trout in a river, whether winter fishing or summer dry fly fishing, is to understand what you are looking for. As stunning as trout coloration can be when you lift them out of the water for your grip-and-grin hero shot, trout are extremely well camouflaged when they’re lurking on the bottom of your favorite river. 

An example of a brown trout seemingly disappearing in plain sight after being released

When you’re walking a riverbank looking for trout, what you really want to be looking for is anything that looks slightly out of place or contrasted against the bottom of the river. Walk slowly, keep scanning with your eyes, and any time you see a dark smudge or log-shaped shadow on the rocks, stop for a second and watch to see if it moves at all. When trout are holding tight in shallow water, they will often slide subtly back and forth to intercept insects as they tumble downstream. While suckerfish and whitefish are apt to sit entirely motionless on the bottom, trout will generally be moving in a feeding cycle, even if only very slightly. That subtle movement can be very useful in finding fish, similar to seeing the flick of a Mule deer’s tail through your binoculars as it feeds on a hillside. If you spot a trout and notice that it is darting rapidly across the current away from you, chances are it spotted you too. Sit tight, keep an eye on it, and wait to see if it slides back into its feeding cycle. If the fish does come back to where you originally spotted it, you’re back in the game. 

Once you’ve spotted a trout in shallow water, and it hasn’t spooked off in the other direction, the good news is that that particular trout is very catchable. Shallow water leaves trout more vulnerable to predation, so the fish that you’ve spotted probably isn’t just hanging out there just to pass the time; it is there to feed. As long as you can present your fly to the trout without spooking it, with a bit of persistence you should be able to get that fish to eat. As we all know, however, this is easier said than done. 

There are several ways to present your flies to the fish in this situation, but the most important factor in each is avoiding creating a big, loud splash when your line and flies eventually hit the water. Because the fish is in shallow water, you won’t need a bunch of weight to get down deep, so avoid using split-shot if possible (if you do need to get a bit deeper, a small fly with a tungsten bead is a much better option than split-shot). I also like to avoid using indicators when I am sight fishing in clear water, and instead I typically fish a fly that I can see well in the water (anything from a small leech or worm to a rainbow warrior or princess nymph), trailed by a smaller, more natural midge pattern. This is totally personal preference, so if you do want to use an indicator, I’d recommend yarn or wool rather than a typical bobber. 

Being willing to make small adjustments to your rig is critical while sight-fishing. Changes in weight, fly size, and tippet length can be the difference between a productive day and going home empty handed.

Let’s start by breaking down how you might present your flies to the fish if you happen to be downstream of the fish when you spot it. As you line up your cast, remember that you don’t want to land your flies right on top of the trout, as this will most likely spook it. Instead, make your first cast ahead of the fish and to the inside. What I mean by this is: you want to land your flies upstream of the fish, so that they have a chance to sink a bit, and also so that they have a chance to start tumbling down the current ahead of the fish, making them seem like they didn’t just fall out of the sky on top of him. When I say make your cast to the “inside”, I mean that you want to land your flies about 6-12″ to the near-side of the fish. This decreases the chance that you land your fly line right on top of the fish’s head, which is a really great way to blow your shot. Ideally, the fish will notice the attractor pattern as it floats past, and slide over to pick up one of your flies. If the fish doesn’t slide over and your flies cruise right past, start making your casts incrementally closer to the fish, until your drift is in line with the fish’s nose. Watch that indicator fly as it floats downstream, and when you see it disappear or get tugged to the side, set the hook and enjoy the fight.

Meyer’s mini jig leech makes a great lead pattern in the winter. Following it with a small midge in a tandem nymph rig can be a deadly combo.

Now let’s talk about how to present your flies if you are upstream of the fish when you spot it. Some anglers might find this position awkward, but it might be my all-time favorite way to catch fish. Your rig is going to stay the same, a fly that you can see well (Meyer’s mini jig leeches and princess nymphs are my go-to for this situation) trailed by a smaller, natural midge pattern. As you line up your cast, you are still going to land your flies upstream of the fish, but this time you are going to want to land them to the outside of the fish. In other words, you want your flies to land about a foot farther away from the bank than the fish is. Take out a bit more fly line than you need to make the cast, and as your flies travel downstream, wiggle your rod tip gently back and forth to feed the extra line out. This allows your flies to drift away from you naturally, without drag. Once your flies get almost as far downstream as the fish is, grab your line and pull out the slack, allowing the flies to “swing” into the face of the trout. If your flies are still going to drift wide of the fish, use your rod tip to guide them into the zone. In this case, the hookset can be a bit tricky, because there is no good way to get a solid downstream hookset when you’re standing upstream of the fish. In this situation I like to watch for the white of the inside of the trout’s mouth to appear and then disappear on my fly before setting the hook, allowing the fish to totally close its mouth on the fly and giving you a better chance at hooking up. A quick, vertical hookset, followed by a low, horizontal rod angle should give you the best chance to hook (and hold) the fish. 

A rainbow trout sight-fished with a Meyer’s mini jig leech

One of the most important aspects of this style of fishing is to be patient and deliberate with your actions and movements. If you play your cards right, you can have plenty of chances to drift your flies by the trout without spooking it. If the fish doesn’t take your flies, let your drift continue well past the trout before starting your next cast. Ripping your flies out of the water right next to the fish’s head is a good way to spook it. Try to limit your false casts as well, you’d be surprised how well trout can see your rod tip and fly line flailing overtop of their head. If you do spook the fish, stay still and stay patient, and see if it will come back and resume feeding. If the fish darts off very rapidly, kicking up mud and rocks on its way out, your chance might be over. But if you land your flies too close to its face and it slowly slides out of view, just give it a couple of minutes and it will likely come back. Wait until you can see that it has started its feeding cycle again, and then start making your casts. With a little practice and a lot of patience, you might just be able to catch some of your biggest trout of the year sight fishing in the winter. 

About the Author

Ben Upton @benupton11

Ben Upton is originally from Vermont, learning to fly fish in the pristine mountain brook trout streams that have instilled in him a passion for fly fishing and the conservation of natural landscapes. Though the East Coast will always be home, Ben has since moved to Denver to work here at AvidMax and spends his time hunting and fishing in some of the most beautiful mountain settings this country has to offer. Ben has a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from the University of Vermont, and looks forward to a long career of protecting and preserving all of the natural resources that we as outdoorsmen and women love so much. 

2 thoughts on “Sight Fishing for Winter Trout

  1. This is a very accurate and helpful post. I enjoy sight-fishing for trout in the winter as well and have had similar experiences. However, I must add that fishing with dry flies is also a highly recommended option when fish are spotted rising to the surface or even just sipping. I find my small midges and BWO dry flies being taken, when fished upstream, on a regular basis. This also eliminates the “strike indicator or no strike indicator” question when fishing in fairly shallow water.

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