Fly Fishing for Virginia Winter Trout

by Harry Murray

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If you enjoy solitude on the trout streams and matching your wits against large trout you should seriously consider fly fishing for them in the winter. From November through January you can find very gratifying action throughout the Old Dominion.

Fly fishermen enjoying a winter trip for troutIn order for you to take advantage of this exciting fishing let's begin in November and fish our way through January examining the various tactics, fly patterns, and the type of streams that will give you good action.

The large stocked streams such as Big Stoney Creek west of Edinburg and the Bullpasture River in the gorge hold many nice rainbow trout that feed heavily on small minnows in the deep pools immediately below the riffles as the water cools during the winter. A very productive way to fish these areas is to enter the stream right below the riffles and cast streamers such as a Pearl Marauder size 12 or Murray's Olive Strymph size 10 straight across the stream. After it sinks deeply swim it back across the stream by stripping it six inches every five seconds. By fishing all the way downstream through the deep pools in this way you can catch many nice rainbow trout in the large streams.

The "delayed harvest" streams such as Passage Creek and Back Creek are excellent in November. Watch the flat sections of the pools in the evenings and you'll often spot trout rising to sip natural midges from the surface of the stream. A very exciting way to fish for these trout is to use a Mr. Rapidan Midge size 20 or RS 2 Pupa size 20 on a 9 foot 7X leader and go one on one with each rising trout. Be sure to use a cautious approach and a delicate presentation because these trout are often very wary.

The "delayed harvest" streams can give you great action throughout the day by fishing right below the riffles with nymphs such as the Casual Dress size 10 and the Murray's Cranefly Larva size 12 and 14. Fish these upstream dead drift along the stream bottom using two strike indicators spread at three and six feet above the nymph on a 9 foot 5X knotted tapered leader in order to detect the strikes.

The mountain brook trout streams can be excellent in late November. Since these trout often have not finished spawning until the middle of November most anglers believe it is not wise to stress them by fishing for them until after this.

You can usually catch these trout on dry flies from the middle of November into the first or second week of December. Dependable flies at this time are the Murray's Flying Beetle sizes 14 and 16 and the McMurray Cinnamon Ants sizes 16 and 18. From the middle of December through January you can catch some trout in the mountain streams on nymphs such as the Red Squirrel size 12 and the Bead Head Zug Bug size 14 by fishing these along the stream bottom in the deep pool. However, the action will be very slow because of the cold water.

During December and January the baetis mayfly hatches become very heavy on some tailwater streams and large freestone streams which have large springs flowing into them. These hatches are at their best on heavily overcast days because the low light levels prompt the nymphs to emerge from the stream bottom. Since large trout prefer to feed on overcast days this is a perfect situation for you to get great fishing.

Explore different sections of the stream when the baetis hatch is on because some areas can have clouds of emerging duns and many rising trout while another stretch of the stream a hundred yards away may produce only a few flies with no feeding fish. I've encountered this often and have never been able to explain it because both sections of the streams appear to have the same bottom composition and flow rates.

During the beginning of the baetis hatch each day when the adults are sparse you can catch many nice trout on a Blue Wing Olive Nymph size 18. Position yourself about a hundred feet downstream of where the springs enter the stream and fish upstream using a 9 foot 6X leader. After the nymph sinks deeply use as slow lifting and dropping rod tip motion as the current pushes it downstream. Your goal is to make your nymph look like a real baetis nymph swimming up from the stream bottom. To aid in detecting the trout's strike retrieve it slightly faster than the current is pushing it. Also use two strike indicators on your leader to help see the trout's subtle take.

Once the hatch is in full swing and you can see many rising trout, switch over to a Baetis Parachute Dry size 18 or a Blue Wing Olive dry size 18 and go one on one with each feeding trout.

Many of the delayed harvest streams, tail waters, and put and take trout streams throughout the state have sections where the trout feed heavily on natural cress bugs and shrimp throughout the winter. These are usually stretches of the streams downstream from where rich springs flow into them.

In some cases, such as on Big Stoney Creek at Lantz Mill, these springs flow into the streams from the streamside banks and they are easy to spot by the lush green vegetation along the bank. My favorite way to fish these areas is to wade into the stream about a hundred feet downstream of the spring and wade upstream ten feet from the bank looking for feeding trout as I go. This feeding is manifested in one of two ways. You may spot a slightly splashing commotion on the surface of the stream created by the trout's tail as he turns to take the shrimp and cress bugs from the aquatic vegetation or you may spot a short stream of discolored water streaming downstream as the trout roots the bugs from the stream bottom where the grass is attached.

In either case I use the same tactic. I cautiously move in close enough to actually spot the trout. From here I watch him feed for several minutes to assure that I haven't scarred him with my approach and to make sure I have accurately identified his location. As he continues to feed I cast my Shenk's Cress Bug size 16 two feet upstream of his location and watch him closely as my fly drifts downstream to him. When I see him turn to take my fly or "white it" as he opens his mouth to take it, I set the hook quickly. This is very exciting fishing so don't feel embarrassed if you get a little rattled when you begin using this ploy. Seeing a twenty inch brown trout feeding on natural cress bugs thirty feet away in water two feet deep can cause the most experienced angler to become nervous.

In some of our large trout streams these springs enter in the stream bottom and you will often detect them unexpectedly as you wade the stream. The stream immediately below them will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than the rest of the stream. When you find these underwater springs mark them carefully by some physical feature such as large steamside trees or unusual boulders in the stream. This way you'll know exactly where to fish them the next time you are on the stream because by the time you wade close enough to feel the spring the first time you have scared the trout.

These stream bottom springs are easy to fish. Wade into the stream to position yourself forty feet upstream of them and twenty degrees to the side. There are usually more natural shrimps here than cress bugs so use a Shrimp pattern size 14 on a 9 foot 5X leader. Cast down and across at a twenty degree angle so your fly falls at the near side on the upstream section of the spring. After your Shrimp sinks deeply use a very slow retrieve to crawl it across the stream bottom. Gradually lengthen your casts and wade downstream using this same angle and fly action on successive casts until you have covered the whole area thoroughly downstream thirty feet of the spring. At the slightest hint of a take set the hook quickly but gently because often some large trout feed here.

Winter trout fishing can be some of the most challenging and gratifying angling of the whole year. Try it and I believe you will agree.


Harry Murray is owner of Murray's Fly Shop in Virginia.

Photo by Mike Cline.

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