Winter means cool water and high oxygen levels – perfect conditions for rainbow trout. But with shorter days how can we best prepare for and tackle these cold sessions?
THE trout fisherman’s calendar is filled with many exciting occasions. The first day of the new season is always a special affair and as the air temperature rises and trout begin to feed, we look forward to those all important hatches of buzzer, hawthorn and sedge.
Later in the year there is fry bashing, before the nights begin to draw in and the onset of winter prompts many anglers to pack away their equipment. Personally, I relish the winter.
In fact when it comes to stillwater trout fishing I look forward to it far more than summer. After all, rainbows are a cold-water species and can become stressed and unresponsive during prolonged high temperatures.
Of course there are drawbacks in the cooler months, such as reduced daylight hours and the fact that sometimes the lake resembles an ice skating rink, rather than a fishing venue! But these are minor considerations, as I found during a winter session at the well-established Blakewell Fishery in North Devon.
Arriving at around 9am I was greeted by Richard and John Nickell who have built up what is arguably the best small Stillwater in the region. It is well worth knowing the fishery management because they can provide valuable information regarding the depth fish are holding at, along with the preferred fly patterns, retrieves and hotspots to try out.
Time is of the essence, so this information can prove invaluable, as the fish will often feed for short periods during the warmest periods of the day. For this reason I often turn up early to bag a good spot on a venue, based mainly around where the sun is first likely to penetrate and begin warming the water.
During most of the season we are hoping for dull, sultry conditions to spur the fish into feeding, but during the winter I yearn for those cold, crisp, clear days that often result in spells of frantic sport.
MY session on Blakewell was to prove just so. Making my way along the well-marked path to the water’s edge the scene before me could best be described as breathtaking.
A sustained period of cold weather intermingled with dappled sunlight had created what seemed like another world, even though we were just minutes from the centre of Barnstaple town.
Crunching through frost spread over the grass like icing sugar I was filled with anticipation. Blakewell is well stocked with extremely hard fighting fish that the Nickell brothers lovingly tend throughout the year, each one sporting bristling fins and strong colours that the winter light conditions show off perfectly.
Coming out of my euphoric daze and realising that I should be thinking about tackling up I looked up to find an old fishing pal of mine, Wayne Thomas, hard into a fish. He had snuck off early from the car park and was now holed up in one of the most consistent areas of Blakewell, a spit that extends out into the lake and allows casting to many angles and depths, an important consideration when winter fishing.
I settled on another popular area of Blakewell, a large arm that extends well out into the lake and once again allows casting to many different areas of the venue.
Despite the fact that the margins of the lake were still frozen, the mist lifting from the surface of the water provided the tell tale signs that things were beginning to warm up and sure enough we were soon bathed in a stunning light as the sun broke above the valley that surrounds Blakewell. Mirrored reflections of beech and willow bounced off the water before me providing a relaxing sensory delight and so far I hadn’t even cast a line!
Get ready in the warm
SETTING up would only take a few minutes as I had turned up well prepared prior to this winter sortie.
Making the most of the warmth can often be the key to success and this means that leaders should be pre tied and a selection of flies picked out in readiness to make swift changes when required.
I had arrived with all my gear as normal, including everything but the kitchen sink, yet in just a few short minutes I was free from all this clutter and able to cruise around the lake flicking a fly here and there.
Waistcoats obviously swallow a huge amount of accessories but often I find that my pockets are bulging with far too many fly boxes that waste time as I ponder over the many patterns available for selection. Nowadays I find it really helpful to carry a very small fly box and furnish it with a few must-have patterns from the larger stock boxes.
Mixed bag of flies
FLY choice for winter can be very personal, as the Trout Fisherman feature “Dressing for Winter” (December 2005) proves, but my advice would be to go for a good cross section of flies.
A few Buzzer Pupa in assorted colours, some Bloodworm imitations, a Hare’s Ear or two and of course a couple of lures. Damsels are also worth a swim and I would never be without a Black Tadpole or variant somewhere close to hand.
Fish these flies on tapered leaders starting at 12lb and finishing with a tippet of 8lb to 6lb test, depending on water clarity. Often the water can be like gin during the winter months and so I also carry ultra low diameter fluorocarbon such as Fluoroflex Plus by Rio.
Don’t discount top of the water action because although the hatches are often sporadic and small, the trout are all the more aware of them and not afraid to search the surface layers for a meal. For dry flies I switch from fluorocarbon because it sinks quite quickly and use a copolymer leader material instead - Rio Powerflex has always served me very well.
Count down is critical
FINDING the depth during winter is going to be as important as ever and so a wide variety of line densities can be beneficial.
However it can become uncomfortable to have your waistcoat jammed to the gills with spare spools and this detracts from the liberation of travelling light.
Whether or not you can stick to the floating line depends a little on the depth of your chosen venue but I must admit that I find most small stillwaters are rarely much more then 12 feet deep so a floating line will usually suffice.
As previously mentioned, fluorocarbon sinks quite quickly and I have even experimented with leaders incorporating 10lb or 12lb test to assist the sink rate of my flies. By fishing a heavy point fly and counting down for a while it is surprising just how deep it is possible to fish.
Confidence is the key to success and so I tell myself that this heavy breaking strain will not be seen so easily at depth where there is less light penetration.
The fish often have the final say of course, but I have landed a great deal of fish while experimenting which proves to me that in fact often the flies and terminal tackle are secondary to finding the correct depth.
Flying start with the bung
IF you are not into this kind of experimentation then there is one very deadly method that when it works can reveal the trout’s depth beyond doubt. All that is required is some kind of indicator, widely referred to as a bung.
Blood knot a 12-inch section of 10lb copolymer on to the end of the fly line and then attach the bung. Measure out a two to four foot section of fluorocarbon and in a New Zealand dropper style tie a blood knot on to the hook bend.
This process is then repeated with water knots at two to four foot intervals, providing a couple of droppers within the leader.
Dependant on fishery rules and your confidence in casting multiple flies it is now possible to fish varying patterns, such as Buzzers or Diawl Bachs, at a range of depths. Casting them out and leaving them static can work but it is also worth giving them a long slow draw every 10 seconds to lift the flies up in the water, before allowing to sink once again in an enticing natural manner.
It is even possible to set this all up at home and use a large piece of foam or similar to wrap the whole lot around. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly a deadly method and one that has helped me to many limit bags during a winter session.
A bung and Buzzer can be fished at different depths.
Rio Powerflex is excellent leader for dry fly fishing.
Winter fly dressings
It was to be the bung that provided me with my first fish of the day as a take came just after a short 12-inch draw on the line. As the flies sank the fish had intercepted a Red Quill Buzzer on the point, proof that the fish were fairly deep.
The bung slid away nicely and all that was needed was a firm strike and my six weight Greys Missionary was soon adopting a satisfying curve, framed by a scene worthy of any Christmas card. The trout proved to be a fairly regular Blakewell stockie of around 2lb, in the peak of condition and willing to give my platinum XD line a good stretch before finally giving up in an angry flurry of spray.
My first winter fish of the season and with the sun now lifting high in the sky I knew it would not be long before a few hatches began to stir the fish into action. A second fish a while later came to the middle dropper, but by this time I was ready for something else.
Watching a bung catches fish and I am all for this, but at times it can be a little boring, plus during the winter it is good to be on the move to keep the circulation going and body temperature up.
Layer up for comfort
I ALWAYS opt for layers to keep warm and rarely venture out after October without a set of decent thermal underwear (Simms Waderwick is particularly good), before applying plenty of layers such as fleeces and sweatshirts.
This process helps to trap layers of air that become warm and provides comfort even in the most bitter, cold conditions.
Gloves are also very helpful and I have settled on the fleece variety with open fingers as the best for maintaining warm hands while possessing enough manoeuvrability to tie knots and retrieve.
A warm hat is perhaps the most important of all the cold weather wear to pack before a trip and I often forget about my ever-growing collection of caps and go for a warm beanie/bobble hat to ensure that my giant ears don’t perish!
Fleece jacket, fingerless gloves and a hat - essential for winter sessions.
Sharp-eyed have the edge
IN fact I was as warm as toast and about to get a whole lot warmer! My last fish taken higher in the water prompted me to have a change of tactics and slow figure-of-eight nymph style could not buy a take. I had no doubt that their flies were below the taking depth and this shows how important it is to be observant of your fellow angler.
There is a certain amount of pride and satisfaction in working it out for yourself but I always say that I would rather learn from what other people are doing than be blinkered in my approach and drive home suffering from the dreaded blank!
Maintain energy levels
BLAKEWELL offer a five fish limit and I now had four in the bag, so I decided to head for a chat with Wayne and get a bite to eat. Keeping energy levels up with a few sandwiches and a warm drink is allimportant at this time of year.
Sat down enjoying the amazing Devon countryside I pitied all the go for a 12-foot leader with just one dropper. To this I tied on a mini Cat’s Whiskers followed on the point by a golden olive Damsel with a good long tail. Movement is a proven fish catcher and a varied retrieve really brings a highly mobile tail to life, which in turn often provokes the required reaction from hungry rainbows on the look out for a winter meal.
This was certainly to be the case as a couple of quick fish came to the net. In fact the warmth had provided action for several anglers as I could see Wayne playing a fish across the lake while a gent to my left was also engrossed in battle.
The interesting fact I had noticed was that those of us who were not allowing the flies to sink for long, retrieving with steady draws and twitches of the line were taking fish, while anglers fishing ultra poor souls stuck in stuffy centrally heated offices. What better way to enjoy a winter’s day than to get out in the fresh air and have a cast or two?
Lunch over, Wayne got back to casting, carefully presenting the line to ensure minimal disturbance in the flat calm conditions. It was not long before a fish took a liking to his Black Tadpole (one of my own favourite winter patterns), completing his limit. Just in time too as he had to head off for an afternoon shift at work!
I now had Wayne’s bay all to myself but the sun was already starting to dip and the air temperature had fallen dramatically.
Working the surface layers down to a depth of six foot using my Damsel set up, a take was not forthcoming for well over an hour. This is often the way of winter, all or nothing.
Adrenalin pumping rainbow
NOW that I knew the fish were looking for the warmer layers of water deep down, there was nothing for it but to follow them. I like to imagine the trout cruising around, just taking it easy. On a cold winter’s day we often like to put our feet up in front of the fire with a few snacks and a glass of beer, so why should the trout be much different?
Resorting to the bung and 12 foot of fluorocarbon tied to the bend, I launched out a long cast, straightened the line up and sat back to see what would happen.
Several minutes had passed so my heavy Buzzer would have been at a reasonable depth when a trout picked out the strong black silhouette and decided this was an afternoon tea too good to miss!
The Greys Missionary blank comes as a seven piece and this fish was going to test every section, as it felt much stronger than anything else I had hooked.
There are always a few double figure fish present in Blakewell and with this in mind I often choose to fish a disc drag reel and get the line back on to the spool to ensure that in the excitement I don’t stand on the line and ruin the chance of landing a sizable specimen.
After a few decent runs and negotiating the sharp ice that extended several feet out into the lake, the trout finally rolled and we could see that it was actually closer to 5lb rather than the double we had expected. Even so, this is a good fish on a 6-weight rod and though I could see each breath that I expelled, the adrenalin pumping around my body was certainly ensuring that I remained warm!
It was the perfect way to finish, but the session had been about much more than just catching. It had been an amazing experience, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was winter.
If your rods are feeling neglected in the loft, awaiting another open day bonanza, why not treat them and yourself to a refreshing winter session? Who knows, before long you may be willing the summer to come to an end!