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  • Writer's pictureBrian Lansing

Winter Fly Fishing Expectations

With a mild couple of weeks here in Central New York, it’s easy to let the mind be consumed by thoughts of spring fly fishing. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t guilty of letting my mind wander. Whether you’re an avid trout fly flinger, a coastal striper nut, or just a well-rounded fly fishing junkie in the northeast, looking forward to April, May, and June during this time of year is as natural as a deer hunter anticipating the rut. But… We still have a long way to go.

There is 14”+ of ice on Oneida Lake and still perch and walleye to be caught on the hardwater. However, days that I pull the waders on and head to the creeks are increasing. It's easy for the mind to be fooled by days getting longer, southerly winds bringing 50+ degree temperatures, birds chirping in the sun, creek side critters bounding through the snow, and even a few bugs flying around, but it’s still winter and winter fishing conditions will hold their grip firm another 4-6 weeks. When conditions are nice, it’s easy to trick the mind into thinking or expecting there to be active fish and abundant bites. Making a cast into a nice pool and lining up your drift perfectly should give us a solid hook-up, so we think… If you’re a college football aficionado, Lee Corso saying, “Not so fast, my friend!” on Saturdays is a good take on what it’s like to have high expectations of catching trout in the winter. It’s still winter weather for the trout and they are still moody.

Perhaps this post would have been better suited for late fall or early winter as our mindset and psyche need to adapt to the changing season, but it’s just as relevant now as it would have been then. As local streams and creeks fall to winter levels and cool to winter temperatures, trout hunker down. For the most part, where to find them is predictable and we know where they are hiding. In many fly anglers’ minds (my own included), however, they should always be willing to eat, especially when we make a perfect drift and presentation. We make drift after drift in a run or pool we know trout are living in. We change flies a few times, but the result is the same. The trout will not participate. We curse the fish, and call them stupid. We try to reason with them and try to make excuses and come up with reasons as to why they won’t eat. The reason is simply that it’s winter and it’s cold.

As fly anglers, we have tendency to always expect trout to eat, or at least hope they eat, just as they would in the spring or early fall. During the cold months, we need to change our expectations. Better yet, we need to get rid of expectations of catching fish. The only expectation we should have is getting out, taking advantage and enjoying a nice winter day on the stream. Any trout willing to participate are a bonus. Do I still expect to catch fish? You bet I do, but my mindset, expectation, or hope of catching 6 trout, or 10 trout, or 27 trout is not there.

Instead, my focus is catching just one trout. I’ll work much slower in the winter, working a pool through with one fly and then cycling back to the tail of the pool and trying a different fly if/when I don’t find success with the first. I might do this for several flies before moving on, but my focus is the same. Work on getting one bite and one fish to the net. Make good drifts because it’s always about the quality of the drift, not the quantity. I talk to other anglers all the time and we talk about making 100 drifts or casts and we can’t buy a bite. 100 drifts are great and I commend the persistence, but how many of them were GOOD drifts? Winter drifts should be snail’s pace and on the bottom. Then, focus and focus some more.

A Central NY brown trout caught fly fishing.
Nice brown trout like this are hard earned fly fishing through the winter months.

Winter eats are often subtle, so subtle that sometimes I’m not even sure it’s an eat at all. I see something out of place with my sighter or something different in my sighter and set the hook anyhow. If I waited for “solid” bites, I might be skunked every winter session. If you’re reading this and you’ve been on the stream with me before, you know my belief on hooksets. They are free and take as many as you see fit, within reason. Fish don’t regularly hook themselves and you miss approximately 100% of fish you don’t set the hook on. Over time, you’ll learn to differentiate between what might be a bite and what isn’t and be able to let the ticks that aren’t bites continue to slide. After all, it’s difficult to put together a good drift if you’re setting the hook constantly. What I’m getting at is that if you’re not focused on your drift, you’re likely going to miss some subtle takes.

Regardless of how laser focused we are on our drifts and the task at hand, it still shouldn’t change our mindset on the water. We can be as dialed in as we want, but our expectation or focus should be one trout at a time, and be happy with each willing participant that makes its way to the bottom of our net. Winter fly fishing is a challenge. There is no question about that. However, it is rewarding to see a wild brown trout laying in the bottom of your net knowing you had to be on top of your game in order for that to happen. You let it go. Then, you try again.

I’m not writing this to scare anyone off from winter fly fishing. I love winter fly fishing. In fact, I think it makes me a better angler. For one, I keep the rust from building too heavily on my technique, but mainly, winter fly fishing keeps me dialed in and focused on working to make better drifts and absolutely helps with strike detection. If I can pick up takes well in the winter, I’m in good shape come spring time. Yes, winter fly fishing is a challenge. Certainly, experience helps significantly. Experience always helps, but an angler can’t become a good and experienced angler without actually fishing.

A beautiful winter day fly fishing in Central New York
A beautiful winter day fly fishing in Central New York!

Sure, winter fly fishing in Central New York can be cold, but modern advancements in gear and clothing are pretty remarkable. Dressed correctly, a sunny 35-degree day can feel downright balmy. I can sleep in during the winter months. There’s hardly any point to being on the stream at first light. Instead, I get out during the warmest parts of the day when the water might warm up a degree. Truth be told, I’m kind of a wimp and won’t be on the streams at all unless it’s above 32 degrees. I know that hate is a strong word, but I really hate fishing in gloves and I hate ice forming on my line and guides even more.

Saying to think about one bite and one fish doesn’t mean there can’t be more. I’ve had some high fish count days in the winter that rival a day in May, but they aren’t common. By no means am I suggesting trout jump into your net the second you step foot into a river in May either, but fish counts certainly average much better in the spring. It’s important to keep expectations in check, regardless of the season. During winter, I’ve come to expect a section of stream to myself, hot coffee, cold toes, peace, tranquility, and only a few trout. Trout participation is a bonus always, but more so in the winter.

As always, thanks for reading. Please feel free to like, share, or shoot me an email with comments or questions. Until next time, stay warm, be safe, and good luck on the water.

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