A Winter Fishing Lesson

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

about 1.5 times the depth of the water.

Most of the fly anglers you see in the parks-winter or summer-will be casting to the far bank. There are fish on that far bank, but there are also a great many fish right in front of you, especially in deeper water, where you can't readily see them. This means you can once again fish mostly with your leader and, in this case, only a couple of feet of fly line.

You don't have to struggle to cast a split shot and float 40 feet, as you will see many other anglers doing. Let your fly rise and swing out in the current below you, then give it a flip cast just like you did when short line nymphing. Flip it upstream or quartering in front of you, then watch the float as your rig drifts downstream. If it hesitates or moves, set the hook.

Work the water thoroughly, then take a couple of steps downstream and begin anew. At the beginning of your drift, mend your line. A mend is simply flipping your fly line to the upstream side of the float. This will give your fly more time to sink and drift naturally before the current grabs it and drags it off downstream.

Don't become totally dependent on fishing with floats. If eventually you take to the small streams haunted by wild trout, you will find floats scare the fish. It's like throwing a big stone in front of a deer before trying to shoot it. You are handicapping yourself.

Matching the Hatch

The gist of fly fishing is fooling trout with imitations of the aquatic insects that form their natural diet, and you can do this, too, at Montauk or Bennett Spring in the winter months. This involves fishing with flies that you present on the surface of the water. No split shot or float is used, and this is where you can strengthen your casting skills.

Small black caddis flies and a pale yellow mayfly are present on Missouri waters in the winter, and the fish feed on them. A caddis is an aquatic insect that folds its wings over its back resembling a pup tent. A mayfly, also an aquatic insect, holds its wings upright. The black caddis are about size 18 and fairly common. A good imitation is simply a fly with a body of black, spun fur with a small, starling feather for a hackle. Cast your fly across stream and let it drift, or skip it with your rod tip.

The pale yellow mayfly is called a pale evening dun. It is also about a size 18, though trout often will accept a size 16. Look for pale evening duns, sometimes called "sulfurs," as early as 1 p.m. in the winter. They look like little yellow sailboats drifting on the water.

You can fish either an imitation emerger (wet fly) or a dry fly during a pale evening dun hatch. Look upstream and downstream for surface rises, then head for the part of the stream with the most action. With a dry fly, cast 4 or 5 feet upstream of a ring left on the water by a visibly feeding trout and allow the fly to float down to the fish. You can skip the wet version in the surface film, as you did the black caddis. You can buy black caddis and pale evening duns or sulfurs at fly shops or through catalog outlets. With luck, you have a friend who ties flies, or you can take up the hobby yourself.

You can imitate the tiny midges present in the winter with a fly called a Griffith's gnat. Sizes 18 to 22 work well.


Fly casting is a matter of timing, but like consistently swinging a golf club the right way, it's not something you can easily learn from the printed word. You need someone standing at your shoulder when you start off. Ask your local parks and recreation department if they offer fly-casting lessons; if not, suggest they begin doing so. Find a Trout Unlimited club or Federation of Fly Fishers club or a local fly shop, and ask if they give directions. After grasping the basics, practice, practice, practice . . .

Winter fishing is a great deal of fun. If you want to learn to fly fish, its a good time to start. By spring you may be ready for more fly fishing challenges.

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