Warm, sunny winter days can produce small but productive hatches of midges and Blue-Winged Olives, which can be found on mountain streams almost any time of the year. Patterns should be small, nothing larger than a No. 20 or 18.
Streams flows were low during a mostly dry summer and fall, but winter usually brings more precipitation, resulting in high, rushing water. Streamers work especially well in high, dingy water because trout don't have to see the fly, they hear it. The size and bulk of a streamer cause it to vibrate when it's stripped through the water, making it easier for a trout to locate the lure. The bigger the fly, the more disturbance it creates.
Streamers attract bigger trout, especially lunker browns. As brown trout increase in size, they depend less on insects and more on forage fish for sustenance. Most streamers are designed to simulate typical forage fish found in mountain streams such as dace, darters, chubs, sculpins, shiners and even small trout.
When using streamers, try to imitate the live version of the pattern you are using. A shiner imitation, for example, should simulate the darting patterns of a real shiner. To get this effect, strip the line in about 6-inch increments, pulling it across the current.
For a sculpin pattern, strip the line in shorter pulls of about four inches, and let the lure drop to the bottom and sit for a few seconds before stripping it again.
Generally, cast a streamer upstream, let it sink and begin your retrieve using short jerks alternated with long, steady pulls. Try to get the streamer close to overhung or grassy banks, places where big trout tend to lie. Also, you can let swift water work for you by keeping the streamer in the current and letting it sweep and swirl naturally.
Deep pools can be fished by either letting the streamer sink or twitching the lure across the surface, pausing occasionally to simulate a struggling insect or minnow. If you are fishing near logs, rocks or other obstructions let the streamer wave in the current for a few seconds before moving to another spot.
Streamers can be fished with floating or sinking lines, and weight can be added to get a streamer down into deep pools. A weighted streamer will dip between jerks, giving the lure an erratic motion that suggests an injured minnow, something a big brown will find irresistible.
Presentation is not as critical in streamer fishing as it is in dry-fly fishing. It's much easier to detect a hit with a streamer than with a nymph. Also, when a large trout hits a streamer, a big hook (usually 1/0 to No. 10) will hold it. Heavier tippets are needed in case you do snag a big brown.
Recommended patterns are Muddler Minnow, Mickey Finn, Black-Nosed Dace, Hornberg, Spruce Fly, trout imitations, and the old standard, Woolly Booger.
When hatches are scarce or non-existent, switch to nymphs. Nymph fishing is not as exciting as dry-fly fishing and certainly not as visual, but trout feed more underwater than they do on the surface. Nymph fishing requires finesse because strikes are not as easily to detect, and you can't see the fly. To better "see" a strike, veteran nymph fishers often use dry flies as strike indicators. A piece of commercial floatant or a piece of yarn also works just as well.
If using a dry fly as an indicator, tie a section of tippet (about a foot depending on the depth of the water) to the shank of the dry fly and attach a bead-head nymph as a dropper. The nymph should be small enough so that it doesn't drag the dry fly down. For a No.16 to 14 nymph, for example, use a No. 12 or larger dry fly. Yarn or commercial floatant can be tied on or pinched on the leader a foot or two above the nymph.
A common and effective method is to dead-drift a weighted nymph. Cast the nymph upstream, let it drop slowly to the bottom of a pool or run, and strip it in short spurts.
Dead-drift a nymph through a deep hole or run or suspend it three to six inches above the bottom of a stream bed and let it drift through runs and riffles. Pay close attention to the drag and the effects it has on your drift. The less drag, the better the results.
For winter fishing, use large nymphs: No. 10s, 8s, even 6s. Cast across the current. When the line straightens out, lower the rod tip, and work the nymph through the water in short strips. It's important to keep the rod tip down so that the nymph will stay deep. Keep your presentation slow to give the trout more time to study the fly.
Some trout fishers prefer a weighted nymph rather than a bead-head. One technique is to add lead weight about six inches above the fly to give the nymph bounce. Others crimp the weight on top of the fly to get it down to the bottom of a pool.
Recommended nymph patterns for winter are Hare's Ear, Girdlebug, Prince, Secret Weapon, Pheasant Tail and Dark Stone. Egg patterns also are deadly when trout are spawning. A No. 10 duplicates the actual size of a trout egg. Brown trout and brook trout spawn in the fall; rainbow trout spawn in the spring.
Weather and the time of day have a profound effect on fishing more so than the patterns used. In winter, once the sun drops below the tree tops, water temperature drops quickly, and trout hunker in to wait out the cold.
Then it's time to pack up and go home.