Wondering About Winter Fly Fishing? Here’s an Overview

By Ken Schultz

Dec 22, 2021

Steelhead, trout, bass, redfish, and more...winter fly fishing opportunities are greater than you may think, as this info and tips illustrate

Just as it is true that recreational angling doesn’t end when winter arrives, so is it true that winter fly fishing is still possible. Right, you’re thinking, if I go somewhere very warm.

Yes, you can certainly pursue winter fly fishing - for freshwater and saltwater species - if you live in, or are visiting, our most southerly states. If your vision of winter fly fishing is casting large surface-floating flies on a shallow northern creek or river, well, not so much. Clearly the answer is, it depends. Saltwater or freshwater? North, south, or in-between?

What are the best opportunities for winter fly fishing? Steelhead in Great Lakes tributaries comes foremost to mind because there are winter runs of steelhead in many of the creeks and rivers. Likewise, there are steelhead runs in some of the Pacific Northwest rivers.

Along the other northerly coastal areas, though, opportunities are more limited, as colder water moves most fish out of reach. Gulf Coast and Florida anglers have winter fly fishing opportunities for the likes of redfish and spotted seatrout, as well as some other species. In freshwater, it’s obvious that in southern states where the water is moderately warm, there’s a chance to pursue largemouth bass and bream and even some other species with a fly rod. And, for the hardy wader, trout fishing in mountain rivers and stream is not out of the question.

Winter fishing in general is typified by cold water, fish that are usually not aggressive (even lethargic), and with a few exceptions deep and slow angling efforts. You must adjust accordingly.

Floating fly lines and surface flies are generally not as useful in winter, so the focus shifts to using sinking or sink-tip lines to get flies deep, depending on where and what you’re fishing for. The circumstances clearly are different for steelhead in rivers than for bass in ponds or lakes.

Here are some basic tips for fly fishing in the winter:

  • Fish with a companion for the sake of safety
  • Don’t fish when the temperature is below 32 degrees
  • If wading, wear neoprene waders for warmth and use a wading staff
  • Be mindful of the possibility of hypothermia if you get wet, or frostbite on fingers and toes
  • Fish slowly, making slow retrieves of streamer flies in still water
  • For trout, use mostly nymphs and midges, and a light tippet
  • Trout seldom chase a fly in cold water, so fish slow and deep in streams and keep your fly line off the water
  • For steelhead you must swing a fly in current, so mend your line at the beginning of the drift to get the weighted fly deep and drifting at the right speed
  • You don’t usually need to get an early start in winter, as mid-day and afternoon fishing works fine
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz was a longtime staff writer for Field & Stream magazine and is the former Fishing Editor of ESPNoutdoors.com. He’s written and photographed nineteen books on sportfishing topics, plus an annual fishing tips calendar, and his writing has appeared on various websites for more than two decades. His author website is kenschultz.com