I’m one of those odd guys who looks forward to winter more than summer. For one thing, the elk hunt has to happen before winter sets in. If there’s one thing I love more than fly fishing, it’s elk hunting.
And I love the solace of winter. The summer and fall tourist crowds are gone. The CEOs and lucky SOBs who sold their Silicon Valley startup for millions have left, and fly shops are running on skeleton crews.
I think winter fly fishing takes on a more lonesome attitude, and that the trout take notice of the lack of anglers. After all, why else would they rise to tiny midges in crystal-clear water, when staying on the bottom of the river uses less energy?
As Lee Wulff famously said once, “Why does a salmon rise? Why does a small boy cross the street just to kick a tin can?”
That’s not a precise answer, but few things in fly fishing are. I don’t know why trout rise to winter midge hatches. I just know that they do, and fishing these hatches may very well be my favorite dry fly fishing I get all year.
When I head out to fish dries in the winter, I never leave home without these five dry fly patterns in my box.
#18 Griffiths Gnat
One of the best “attractor” patterns in fly fishing, the Griffiths gnat is a staple of my fly box year-round. During the winter, though, I add a few extra rows of #18s. They float well, aren’t too big to not look like a cluster of midges riding the surface, but just big enough to coax mot rising trout to nip at them.
#24 Parachute Midge
Yeah, I know. #24s are tiny.
But so are midges. So you can either try to match the hatch or throw flies that are larger than what’s hatching.
I love these bad boys, and they’re really simple to tie. I use some Antron for the post, 50-denier Semper Fli Nano Silk thread, and an appropriately sized piece of grizzly hackle to tie these flies. A good coat of UV resin on the underside of the fly helps it float and last longer, too.
When you see a rise that clearly indicates a trout is feeding on bugs in the surface film (dorsal and tail fin come up, head never breaks the surface) tying on one of these tiny flies is as close a thing to a sure bet as I’ve found.
Another fly that you can’t afford to be without during winter is a Klinkhammer. I’m actually surprised by how few anglers fish this pattern, at least out West on my local waters. It’s a deadly fly that does a great job of imitating either an emerging insect, or one trapped in the surface film. Throw it on the end of some 6 or 7x tippet and you’ll be in business.
#20 Parachute Adams
The Adams has caught more fish than any other fly other than the woolly bugger. It’s indispensable. And a #20 parachute version is a must during winter. I’ve fished midge hatches before where the fish wouldn’t take a parachute midge. The moment I switched to an Adams, it was game on.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the tail? Or the slightly bulkier head of the Adams? Either way, I just know they work and I’ll never fish without a dozen in my box.
This fly works best when trailed behind something a bit larger, like an 18 Griffiths gnat or Adams. However, if you fish two flies like this, you’ll want to keep these tips from Hatch Magazine in mind.
The RS2 is a fly that’s always given me mixed results, but I know enough anglers who swear by its efficacy that I keep them around. They’re arguably one of the most effective emerger patterns ever developed, and skating them across the end of a long slick or pool often has a similar effect to fishing soft hackles.
I’ll always enjoy fishing winter midge hatches – even when I spend more time breaking ice out of my guides than I do casting. The complexity of the hatches, low water, and need for a precise drift, all combine to help distract my mind from whatever it is I went to the river to forget.
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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, TROUT Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and other nationally recognized publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.