A Winter Fishing Lesson

By Jim Auckley | November 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 1998

The winter catch-and-release fishing season in Missouri's four trout parks is a good time for beginning fly fishers to learn how to catch trout on a fly. The parks in general are wonderful places to learn how to fish and, in winter, there is plenty of room for neophyte fly casters to stretch their lines without worrying about bumping into someone.

The spring branches in the park are just as alluring in winter as in summer. There are fair numbers of eager fish, and you usually have your choices of spots to exercise your new-found skills. There is also the possibility of seeing wintering bald eagles in the parks, a sight the summer crowds don't get to enjoy.

The fish fight just as hard in winter as summer. Hone your skills here and, by spring, you may find your interest in the sport has grown to the extent that you find yourself seeking trophy trout and wild trout in other locations.


 In winter there will be balmy days when you can fish in little more than a warm shirt, but there will also be days when you will watch ice pellets strike the water in 20-degree air and wonder what you are doing there. Bootfoot neoprene waders can help keep out the cold. Wearing insulated underwear under lighter waders will also do the job. Wool, neoprene or fleece fingerless gloves can keep your fingers working when the air is really cold. A combination of an insulated underwear top and fleece jacket is ideal, and don't forget a fleece or wool cap that will cover your ears.


Just about any 7 1/2-foot to 8 1/2-foot fly rod for a 5- or 6-weight line is ideal for a new fly angler. An inexpensive single action reel will work great. A floating line to match the rod rounds out the outfit.


I am going to suggest two ways of angling that involve almost no casting. You will be fishing with your leader and little fly line. More about fly casting later.

Buy a 9-foot tapered leader at a tackle store, one that has a 3-pound test tip. Also buy two small spools of leader material, one 2-pound test, the other 3-pound test. If the water in the stream is exceptionally low and clear, use the 2-pound test; otherwise use the 3-pound. Buy two small packages of removable split shot, one size "bb," the other size "b."

As you change flies, you slowly will be clipping your leader tip back. After using up inches of leader, it's time to add leader from one of the small spools. The easiest way to do this is with loops. Tie a loop in the end of your 9-foot leader, and tie a loop in an 18-inch piece of leader. Join them using the loops. The easiest way to tie the loops is to double over about 3 inches of the end of the leader. Simply tie an overhand knot, but go through the loop twice before cinching down the leader. This loop will be strong; the leader will break before the loop will give way.

Short Line Nymphing

One effective method of catching trout in swift water that is less than waist deep is called short line nymphing. Missourians often call it tight lining, because there is no slack in the leader, making it easier to set the hook when a fish takes the fly. This is an especially good way to catch fish in the parks because the trout are not likely to spook at your close approach. They didn't use this technique in A River Runs Through It because it's not elegant-but it does catch trout.

Select a spot with a strong current (white water or rapids, even) but with relatively shallow water. Knee-deep water is ideal. Tie on a wet fly (your choice) and pinch a split shot about 6 inches above it on the leader. Use a size "b" shot if the water is moderately swift; if it is a torrent, use a "bb" and keep open the possibility of adding a second shot of either size to keep your fly on the bottom in that rushing water.

Short line nymphing involves bumping your split shot along the bottom of the stream in swift water with your fly following just inches behind. You want to put just enough leader in the water to allow this to happen. If the water is 2-feet deep, you want 2 1/2 feet of leader in the water, with the rest stretched between your rod tip and the spot where the leader enters the water. You may have only 2 inches of fly line actually outside the tip top of the rod.

No casting is involved. Rather, you flip your line upstream, follow it downstream with your rod tip and then, at the end of the drift, flip it back upstream and start over. Flipping the fly and split shot straight upstream works best, but also flip to areas quartering in front of you, and work the water thoroughly before taking two steps downstream and starting over. During each drift, watch the slack part of your leader; if it slows, stretches out or seems to stand up, set the hook-you should have a trout.

Fishing with a Float

Short line nymphing is for shallow, rushing water. Most trout park anglers use a float in deeper, slower water, a system that works well in winter as well as summer. Instead of following your fly with the rod tip and watching your leader, as you do when short line nymphing, you are going to be watching the float for indications of a strike. Again, not as dramatic as the guy in the movie who stood on a rock in the middle of the river and cast a beautiful, long line-but it catches fish, and you don't have to be an accomplished fly caster to do it.

Trout park fish readily strike flies and the 80th- or 100th-ounce jigs many park anglers use, but these strikes are often so light and brief that they are difficult to detect. The float helps immensely with that. It also suspends your fly where the fish are. I'm going to tell you how to fish with a float, but I suggest you approach it a bit differently.

When buying your leader and split shot, purchase several floats. Don't buy the smallest ones, but get floats that look large enough to support a piece of split shot without sinking. The higher they float, the quicker you can see a fish strike your fly. Again, you will be placing a small split shot about 6 to 8 inches above your fly. Any wet fly in sizes 10 to 16 will work. A pheasant tail nymph or hare's ear nymph is a good place to start. Flies with a small bead at their head are also good.

You usually are going to be placing the float anywhere from 2 to 6 feet or more up the leader from your fly. In shallow water, you obviously will place it relatively close to the fly so you do not have a lot of slack leader laying on the water. In deep water, where you are wading over your waist, you want the leader below the float to be 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer