Cold weather, steaming-hot trout

Fish nymphs slowly through deep poles and hang on for some great mountain trout bites.

Craig Holt

February 01, 2015 at 7:00 am   | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Cold weather doesn’t slow down trout in North Carolina’s mountains.
Walker Parrott
Cold weather doesn’t slow down trout in North Carolina’s mountains.

There’s an explanation why mountain trout fishing is a year-round activity: although some fishermen like it hot, trout like it cold.

While winter’s biting winds and falling — sometimes frozen — precipitation chase saltwater fish out of North Carolina’s sounds and into the Atlantic Ocean and only a few die-hard striped bass and catfish anglers pursue those two freshwater species, mountain trout remain eager to slurp down nymphs flies in streams 6 inches deep and tailraces below high-country dams.

Mountain trout actually prefer temperatures only a few degrees above freezing.

“I’ve caught trout when the (water temperature) was 34 degrees,” said Marty Shaffner of Tri-State Angler Service, who regularly fishes Ashe County and Alleghany County waters and other streams in northwestern North Carolina. “Now you’re not gonna knock ’em dead, but as long as the temperature is in the 40s, trout will bite pretty well. It won’t be as active as April, but it’ll be better than most people think.”

Shaffner said cold weather has more of an effect on fishermen than it does on the trout.

“You have to wear multiple layers of clothing and use something to keep your hands warm,” he said. “You might even have to take a break to warm up. But if you understand what’s going on in the creeks and have patience, winter can be a really good time to fish for trout.”

Walker Parrott, a guide and manager at Davidson River Outfitters near Pisgah Forest, agrees with Shaffner.

“Anglers have no need to stop fishing when winter comes to the rivers and streams of western North Carolina,” he said. “February fishing can be great here in Pisgah Forest and surrounding mountain communities and towns. As a guide and manager of an outfitter, I always have said if I could take our August anglers and fish them in February, we would all be happier.

“The days might not be as pretty as spring and summer, but winter fishing can be great and uncrowded. Aquatic life in rivers rejuvenates in the winter, making the bugs and flies smaller than warmer months. Fishing flies in No. 16 to even No. 26 will help create a successful day on the water.”

Fly rods will vary from 7-feet-5 to 9-feet, depending upon the size of streams. Small creeks require short fly rods to keep backcasts from entangling with shoreline vegetation. On bigger waters, longer rods are needed for longer casts. Parrott likes to use weight-forward fly lines in WF4F and WF6F weights to help with casting distance.

Parrott likes dry flies in Nos. 16 to 24 — Elk Hair Caddis Black. Blue Winged Olives, Para-Midges and Winter Stones — and weighted nymphs — Tungsten Peasant Tails, Hares Ears, Swing Caddis, Squirmy Worms in pink, red or white and egg patterns that resemble trout eggs.

“You’ll probably need to dress warmly, although we can have some mild days, especially at the end of February,” said Parrott, whose gear bag always includes a change of clothes, extra socks and extra base layers, polarized glasses and a warm hat.

The Davidson River, stocked with trout from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Pisgah Forest Hatchery northwest of Ecusta off NC 276, is Parrott’s favorite playground. It draws anglers from across the state and southeast, in part because  hatchery-raised browns and rainbows weighing 5 pounds or better aren’t unusual. 

“The river can provide anglers with miles of road access and a few spots to walk in away from the road,” he said. “But if the Davidson is too big for some anglers, they may want to walk up the small tributaries of Looking Glass Creek and Avery Creek.”

 Parrott said winter days are comparatively mild for the region.

“Having sunny 40-degree days, anglers have the opportunity of fishing dry flies on these small, wild streams,” he said.

Wild trout waters include many public streams on game lands, but the section of the Davidson near the hatchery remains a favorite because it holds large trout.

“If you’re the angler who wants to look for a few big ones and don’t mind fishing midges with a few other anglers, pull into the Pisgah Fish Hatchery and access the many pools and long slicks,” Parrott said. “These fish have seen a lot of flies, cars, dogs and other anglers. Fishing here and around the hatchery section will require long leaders up to 12 feet with 5x to 7x fluorocarbon tippets the mainstay.” 

While Parrott primarily fishes the Davidson River — the lower section from the Pisgah Hatchery is catch-and-release only — along with the Glady Fork, Little and forks of the French Broad rivers, Shaffner prefers delayed-harvest waters because they provide an uncrowded fishing experience in winter. Trout in those streams can’t be kept between October and early June.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocks numerous streams in the northwestern counties where Shaffner lives, fishes and guides during summer for smallmouth bass.

“You can catch delayed-harvest trout in winter up here,” he said. “It’s usually pretty good.”

One of his favorite trout streams this month is Helton Creek in Ashe County. 

“I think it’s better fishing in February than in March,” he said.

Shaffner said the Commission conducts its last stocking of Helton in November, and those fish aren’t pressured by lots of anglers until spring.

“Sometimes the Helton can be really good, especially after Christmas,” he said, “and you don’t get hardly any pressure. I think that’s because people think trout won’t bite in winter, but when I was guiding full time, winter was when we caught the most fish.”

However, the caveat is anglers must bring their “A” games and be ready to be on the water.

“Winter trout fishing ain’t for the faint of heart,” Shaffner said. “You have to layer up (clothing), and bringing hand-warmers is a good idea. You hands will get cold putting them in the water and handling fish.”

Parrott said anglers should respect winter fishing conditions in the mountains.

“Weather patterns and temperatures can change within a few hours,” he said. “Packing a thermos full of hot fluids can keep the shivers away. Bringing extra clothes and leaving them in the truck can give the angler a warm and dry way to travel home after an unfortunate swim.”

But winter fishing doesn’t always occur during frigid conditions. Near the end of February, a few warm days often occur, and enterprising anglers can see rising trout. However, surface feeding is the exception rather than the rule. The surety of cold months is trout almost always will be found near stream bottoms.

That means, of course, that fly-fishermen mainly cast lures that resemble the larval stage of flies, classified as nymphs. The term is actually a misnomer, because classical nymphs were mythological water beings, imagined as tiny, beautiful maidens who emerged from streams. So “dry” flies really should be called nymphs, not larval worms living at stream beds. 

Regardless of the terminology, Shaffner said nymphs are not only the real deal but the only deal in winter.

“You gotta be on the bottom with a split shot, fishing nymphs, with a 4- or 5-weight rod,” said Shaffner, who likes double-dropper rigs, using two nymphs in front of a strike-indicator. He often chooses a stonefly or prince nymph with a small Pheasant’s tail dropper tied behind them.

“I look for deep holes,” he said. “Trout are deep, on the bottom, usually right behind a rock or boulder.”

Fishermen also must be patient and put lures in small strike zones. 

“Winter trout almost are in a semi-hibernated state,” Shaffner said. “They’ll feed but they won’t move 3 feet to grab something.”

That lethargy means anglers must learn to read water to discover where trout face a world of current and eddies.

“You need to see the right current lines and make multiple casts,” he said.” You got to work that water slow and methodical.”

Current lines are evident by relatively slack water at the edges of main currents. Trout don’t like to expend energy holding in heavy current, but they’ll be near it, so they can watch for food to be swept past them.

“You might (cast) and miss the (break) line by only 6 inches or a foot, and that’ll make all the difference,” Shaffner said.

The one time, he said, winter trout come up to play on the surface is, oddly enough, when snow starts falling.

“If it starts spitting snow, the blue-winged olives will start to hatch,” said Shaffner, whose favorite winter streams include Helton and Big Horse creeks in Ashe County, the Little River near Sparta and the Mitchell River in Surry County.


HOW TO GET THERE — To reach the Davidson River, follow I-40 south from Asheville, exiting at NC 280 to US 276 and heading west. The Davidson River is adjacent to US 276. To reach most trout streams in northwestern North Carolina, follow US 421 northwest from Winston-Salem to Wilkesboro then turn north on NC 16 and follow to reach Jefferson and West Jefferson. Or take US 421 to US 21 north to Sparta and Alleghany County.

WHEN TO GO — January-February.

BEST TECHNIQUES —Fly rods in 5- or 6-weight sizes with forward-weighted fly line. Best flies will include black or dark-colored nymphs and Pheasant’s Tail droppers used in tandem. Spinning or spin-casting tackle includes 5-foot ultra-light rod fitted with 4-pound line with a variety of small lures — Mepps Aglia, BlueFox, Roostertails or 1/8- to 1/16-ounce Panther Martins, Rebel Wee-Craws, Gulp! trout worms, Mister Twister Micro Crawfish or Twister Mites and Linda Fuzz-E-Grubs.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Marty Shaffner, Tri-State Angler Services, 336-902-0044; Walker Parrott, Davidson River Outfitters, Pisgah Forest, 888-861-0111. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — info Hampton Inn, Pisgah Forest, 877-799-6891; Inn Brevard, Brevard, 866-599-6674; Holiday Inn Express, West Jefferson, 855-799-6861.

MAPS — DeLorme’s North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105,; N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission,

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