Fishing streamers in winter

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

When my wife and I first started dating, I knew her father fished. Each Christmas Day the two would venture to the Bighorn River. And as if being vetted, my first Christmas with her family involved loading up in the big truck and heading to the river.

Cut to the scene: ankle deep snow crunched under our boots while we rigged up. My cold fingers are futzing around an indicator, two size twenty flies, some split shot, and several spools of tippet. Her father ties on one fly, a black Woolly Bugger, and has made five casts before my pack is even strapped to my waist.

“Oh! There was one,” he shouts. “Had a good strike.” A minute or so later, “Another hit. They’re on it today.”

“Nice work dad,” the woman I hope to marry exclaims.

I finally get my line in the water, and on my first drift see the indicator stop mid-drift. I set the hook. A buttery Bighorn brown comes to hand. I say nothing and no one acknowledges anything.

“Oh yeah! Another hit!” my potential father-in-law yells.

When fishing in winter, nymphing below an indicator will get it done, but fishing streamers is a lot of fun. Here’s some help with wintertime streamer fishing.

Less is more. This cliché, like a Prince Nymph, is used way too often. But for streamers in winter, it rings true. Tie and use patterns that are sparser than you’d use in spring or fall. Keep color variations simple – mostly black, brown or olive. Lots of colors, articulated hooks, and gaudy heads look sexy in the fly bins, but save those patterns for later in the season.

Weight the fly, not the hook. If you tie your flies, add weight to the fly itself. If you buy your flies, ask the shop clerk if the fly has weight built in. A fly that’s already weighted will sink faster and act more natural in the current. Adding weight to your leader creates a slight pull on the tippet, which creates an unnatural action. If you must add weight, add it as close to the fly as possible, being careful not to crimp the knot that connects fly to tippet.

Dead-drift and swing more than strip. For many this is a big adjustment. Trout, and the baitfish they eat, are lethargic in winter. Rarely will a trout swim far to eat, even for a baitfish. Refine your dead-drifting tactics by keeping your line hand engaged at all times in case of a strike, and always allow your fly to swing up and out of the drift before casting again. While dead-drifting watch your fly line as your indicator: if it moves unnaturally or stops, give a small trip, if feels tight, set the hook.

Short strikes are common. Trout will often strike violently at prey, but not always commit to eating it immediately. Once a baitfish is stunned then it’s consumed. If you miss a strike, resist stripping faster. Stop stripping all together or slowly strip. Feel for resistance or a soft hit. Many streamer anglers catch wintertime fish on the second take, not the first.

Refine your tackle selection. Shorter and stouter leaders are essential. A shorter leader will give you more control to drop the fly closer to bank-side structure or under an overhanging branch. Consider a sinking leader or a sink-tip fly line. On the Gallatin a sinking leader will get the job done, but for a larger river like the Yellowstone or Lower Madison, a sink-tip is helpful.

Choose your location wisely. Being mobile on freestones and smaller rivers is important. Predatory trout on a freestone river are more impulsive than on a spring creek or tailwater. Once you’ve worked a run or a hole, move on to the next one. This will also help you keep warm. On a spring creek or tailwater, consider patience over real estate. The way my now father-in-law fishes the Bighorn is a great example: he will fish the same run multiple times and catch plenty of fish using the same pattern – a weighted black Woolly Bugger.

Simplicity in the wintertime streamer game goes a long way. It may feel a little old school to fish a single fly on a short leader, but it’s good to keep your fishing simple. Sometimes understanding the opposite sex is complicated enough.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing. Along with his wife, owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and operates the Montana Fishing Guide School and the Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School.