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  • Writer's pictureBrian Lansing

low and slow

No, I’m not talking about barbequing, slow cooking, or smoking meats. This is about winter fly fishing and nymphing. However, fly fishing in winter and cooking a roast carry a common theme. The lower and slower, the better the outcome. Better yet, throw some of the fall’s harvest into the slow cooker before heading to the river for a warm and hearty meal upon return.

Fly fishing in winter means cold water temperatures, lethargic fish, deep holds, deep drifts, long drifts, and careful attention to drifts for the subtle take. Trout are not hunting big flies and streamers anymore and they certainly are not eating on top, usually anyhow… There are always exceptions. But, for an overwhelming majority of the time, and by overwhelming majority I mean nearly 100%, wintertime trout are caught nymphing with heavy flies, rolling along the bottom.

Use heavy flies. Flies should be rolling along the bottom, just as a stonefly or caddis larva might be. I don’t find too many trout eating swimmers suspended in the water column during the cold months. Heavy flies don’t have to be big flies. I tie nearly all of my nymphs with barbless jig hooks in sizes 14-18. Tungsten beads get the fly down quickly. Quite often, I tie the same sized flies with different sized beads so I can adapt to different conditions. In a similar fashion, I tie flies with lead wire wraps and some without. Again, it’s about getting to the bottom, but I also don’t want the flies to be so heavy I’m hanging up or laying on the bottom with no movement. On occasion, tying on a big, grizzly, heavy bugger or something similar will help get flies down, but it isn’t always on a trout’s menu. I typically fish two flies and I like them both to be viable options to catch trout.

A little side note and something to consider as well is different tying materials are more buoyant than others. The materials used in tying a fly pattern have an impact on the fly’s density and action in the water.

a brown trout caught by Central New York fly fishing guide, Brian Lansing, using winter nymphing techniques.
This is a 20" wild Central New York brown trout caught nymphing last week.

If you’re still having trouble getting flies to the bottom, consider downsizing your tippet. I find most anglers like to use tippet that is overkill for the situation anyhow. I rarely use tippet material larger than 6x and regularly use 7x with no trouble landing larger trout. Long fly rods act as giant shock absorbers and tippets can take more tension than you think, so long as they are in good shape and good fishing fighting technique is used. Decreasing the tippet size does several things to help catch fish. First, it allows the flies to sink quicker. Second, winter fly fishing frequently means crystal clear water and low water. With such good visibility, it’s good idea to decrease the size of that fluorocarbon tippet to avoid spooking trout.

Next, and arguably the most important reason to downsize tippet, finer tippets decrease the amount of drag the water has on the tippet during the drift. Why is this important? One of the greatest challenges as a fly angler is presenting the fly in the most natural way. Water rushing downstream is always going to try to pull the tippet and leader with it at the same speed. However, the current speed we see on the surface is nowhere close to the current speed along the bottom of the stream where trout are hiding and where our flies need to be. Water flowing near the bottom of streams and rivers is quite slow compared to the surface and mid-water columns because of the friction with the structure at the bottom. More structure creates a higher coefficient of friction, thus slowing the water down, and also contains pockets and cushions of solitude for trout to live and hide. The water current and drag on the tippet and leader tries to pull the flies along quicker than they should be rolling along the bottom. Decreasing the size (diameter) of the tippet helps mitigate issues caused by drag and allows the ability to make a truer, more natural, drift and presentation.

All of that said, it still requires work to control the drift. I should note that I use euro or contact nymphing techniques. I always want to be in direct contact with the flies to be able to see/feel any hesitations or bumps, which could be takes. I use a bi-color sighter for strike detection, but this allows me to see and track my drift better also. Controlling the drift requires sight of the drift. The drift speed should be slower than the surface current speed. Water should be racing downstream at a higher clip than the sighter. If the sighter is moving at the same speed as the current and you’re not feeling the flies rolling along the bottom, slow it down.

I do not recommend the use of split shot. I really dislike using split shot and I have a long list of reasons. In no particular order or level of dislike, they are as follows. I don’t like how it tracks in the drift. The flies and the split shot aren’t in the same drift. Drifts using split shot tend follow the path of the split shot, not the fly. I also don’t know what I’m feeling. Is my fly rolling along the bottom or am I feeling the shot? If I’m feeling the split shot, where are my flies? If the fly is running two feet to the side of the split shot, there is a higher chance of lining or foul hooking fish. The point of contact nymphing is to be in direct contact with my flies, not a piece of split shot, and eliminate variables that interfere with the fastest possible strike detection. Split shot is terrible for tippet. Nicks, scrapes and chaffing from split shot damage tippet material to fractions of what its strength is without the split shot. Split shot tends to lodge and pin under rocks more frequently, resulting in hang-ups and lost rigs. It’s unforgiving to cast and mistakes with split shot lead to broken rod tips, knots, or welts in the back of the head. The only time I consider using split shot is if I’m fishing a hole deep enough to house the titanic and I’ve exhausted all ways of getting to the bottom without it. Even then I may not use it because I rarely carry it in my pack.

Moving on, we need to look at areas where trout hold in winter as well. Part of having a low and slow drift is targeting softer areas. It’s hard to achieve a nice slow drift when you’re fishing the middle of the current and trout aren’t going to be hanging out in the current anyhow. Slow, deep pools and inside edges where the current slows and deposits what it’s carrying are good places to target.

As I mentioned previously, I acknowledge there are exceptions to dredging the bottom low and slow with nymphs for winter trout. Sunlight and warmer temperatures can heat streams up and move fish to shallower areas. Even a single degree difference in water temperature can make a difference in trout activity. Midges are abundant on warm winter days and trout often key on them. If you’re a streamer junkie, warm days and increased water temps can often lead to a few chases and eats from trout looking for a high calorie meal.

Most of my winter fly fishing is done via nymphing. While I jump at the opportunity to sling streamers around on warm sunny days, nymphing is more productive through the winter. On the next trip to the stream, try the tips mentioned previously about slowing the drift down and getting the flies deeper. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the results.

As always, thanks for reading and tight lines!

Brian Lansing


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