Go into any fly shop in the Roaring Fork Valley and ask what flies you should use this winter, and chances are you’re going to discover a couple of flies that everyone will recommend and then see some variance with the remainder. While you’re at those shops, take a look at the sheer number of flies they sell. Why do they have that many? Well, why does a grocery store have 15 different types of orange juice? I guess the theory is the more options there are the more products they can sell, although recent studies seem to debunk that theory. When it comes to fly fishing, every angler is going to have their go-to patterns and those won’t always be the same. Some guides swear by certain patterns that others never use. What that means to me is lots of different flies work. And when it comes to winter fishing, there are much fewer sources of food in the river so you really don’t need to have a ton of different patterns in your box to find success during these shorter days. You just need to understand what the fish are feeding on during the winter and match your flies to those food sources.
What food is present in the Roaring Fork River in the winter?
Mostly midges, stoneflies, brown trout eggs and other aquatic animals like smaller trout, baitfish, etc. Stoneflies’ lifecycle under the water is around 2 years, so no matter what time of year it is, you can rest assured there are stoneflies in the water, so fishing a Pat’s rubber leg or hare’s ear as your point fly is always a good idea. Midges are the other common insect found in the Roaring Fork during the winter. I’ve heard that midges represent roughly 50% of a trout’s annual caloric intake, so it’s safe to say that they understand the value of this small insect to their diet. Brown trout spawn in the fall and their eggs can be found in the river throughout much of the winter. And lastly, other fish. Many beginning anglers think of trout as just eating small insects. The reality is that they’ll eat anything. They are truly opportunistic animals, and if they can nab another small trout, or even a mouse or baby bird that has fallen into the river they’ll absolutely take advantage of that massive meal (can you imagine how many midges a trout would have to sip to equal the calories of one small fish?).
Midge pupa (emergent phase)
(photo credit: https://swittersb.wordpress.com/tag/chironomid/)
(photo credit: http://merseybasin.org/projects/kick-sampling/)
Brown trout eggs
What fly patterns are the most productive in the winter?
The name of the game when it comes to winter fly fishing on the Roaring Fork is nymphing. There might be a rising fish or 2 in certain spots every once in a while, but in most cases they’ve moved to deeper water and are holding steady through the winter, expending as little energy as possible and eating when food is present. So if your goal is to have a productive winter day on the water, bring your nymph rig and a few of these flies.
For the most part, I tie my own flies. That allows me to get a little more creative (or less creative) and just tie stuff that I’ve found works. So you may not necessarily find all of these patterns in a local fly shop. But you can at least get a sense for the type of fly that produces when fishing in the winter. At that point, you can explore and figure out what works for you. Fly fishing should never fit into a neat box, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to fly selection. Explore, try new things, and find what works for you!
Stonefly nymph pattern
As I said above, I tend to use a Pat’s Rubber Leg pattern when nymph fishing a stonefly pattern.
Midge larvae patterns
When it comes to midge larvae patterns, the sky is the limit in terms of how these take shape. With or without a bead head, with dubbing versus peacock herl when forming a thorax, and even using wiring versus rubber tubing for the body. In my box, I try to have a few different types and colors. The key her isn’t so much the color as the size and proportions of the flies. If you’re planning on using a 2 or 3 fly nymph rig, make sure your larvae pattern is your bottom fly so that it’s more likely to be bouncing along the river bottom just like a real larvae would do if the current has dislodged it from its home.
The pattern above has a black thread head and red rubber tubing for a body. You might also find this pattern with a green tubing body.
This pattern has a wire body, peacock dubbing and a black chrome bead head.
This is a winter classic known as a zebra midge. It typically comes in either red or black.
Midge emerger patterns
I’ll discuss the life cycle of bugs in a later post, but for this article its’ just important to know that a larvae sheds its casing and begins to float to the surface where it can sit on the surface, dry its wings and then mate. It is this floating or emerging phase that we imitate when we cast emerger patterns to trout. If you see a trout feeding in the middle column of the water (meaning not at the surface and not on the bottom), that typically means it’s eating these emerging bugs. Here are some of my go-to midge emerger patterns for the Roaring Fork River. When it’s bright and sunny, the rule of thumb is use duller and less shiny flies. And when it’s overcast, it’s a good idea to add some bling (head head, flash back/tail, etc,) to your rig so it catches the fishes’ eyes.
As simple as it gets. A little wire on the body and small antron wings.
I like loopwing emerger patterns because they create a small bubble that trigger the fish when floating through the water. The fly above is a spin-off of the classic RS2 pattern, but with a bead head, the looped wings and flash tail instead of micro fibets. It is a stoned-cold killer on a cloudy day in the winter!
I tie this pattern with a forward wing and a few strands of antron on the tail, along with a wire body.
The always deadly RS2 midge emerger pattern.
As you can see from these patterns, they have small wings and in most cases very faint tails of varying materials/sizes. I typically throw black, olive or grey emerger patterns of sizes 16-20. If there is one fly you absolutely must have when you head out to fly fish on the Roaring Fork in the winter, make sure it’s an RS2.
I almost always nymph fish with 3 flies, usually with the bigger flies on top and then smaller flies as I go down my rig. So you may want to start with stonefly, then tie on a midge emerger and then finally a midge larvae as your bottom fly. It may be the case the fish are keying on the emergers, at which point I wouldn’t be afraid to put 3 different emergers on my line. I usually just try to vary up the color and pattern slightly to see what gets them eating, but the truth is if they are feeding and you present the right pattern to them, they will eat it.
If you find yourself headed to the Roaring Fork Valley this winter to ski, don’t be afraid to bring your rod and reel. Our Valley is one of the premier year-round fishing destinations as it typically doesn’t get cold enough for a rivers to freeze over and there’s always plenty of hungry trout on the prowl!