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A Beginners Guide to Winter River Fly Fishing

For those lucky enough to be able to access a river that's open year round and not iced-over all winter, you have a unique opportunity not having to wait all winter to go fly fishing. The Bow River in Calgary, is one of those rivers that can be fished year round. We're not suggesting going out on days that are well below freezing or when you need to wait for ice to clear off the river. For those living in Calgary, with the help of chinook winds (warm wind coming off the Rockies), you can certainly enjoy a few winter days on the river.

Calgary's Bow river in winter

The key to winter fly fishing in a cold climate is to set expectations. Generally speaking you are not going to get high number days and standing in a cold icy river is certainly not as pleasant as wet wading on a warm August day. We don't fish a ton in winter and often feel that it's good to give the fish a rest after high pressure summers, but on "warm" winter days it can offer a much needed break from the fly tying bench or other winter activities.

Safety on the River

The number one rule of winter fly fishing is safety. Slippery ice and freezing water is a bad combination. Best practices for fly fishing in the winter are:

- Always look up river. Keep an eye out for floating icebergs which can take you off your feet.

- Do not stand on ice that could break off and leave you in the water.

- If you are walking into the river, ensure you have an easy way to get out and make sure you try and stay in shallow water. Winter is not the time for waist deep wades.

- Avoid the slippery ice. Standing on the rocks in the river or on a dry shore is usually your best bet.

- Dress accordingly, bring the proper layers and gloves to keep you warm, dry and insulated.

- If your hands and toes start to get too cold, it's time to take a break and have a warm drink from a thermos.

- It is not unheard of to wear a PFD / lifejacket in the winter for extra safety if you need to go out on the ice.

Staying warm is key for winter fishing. This means fleece pants, heavy socks and lots of layers. Gloves without fingers can be great but I find the most effective option is having a small towel with you (keep it in the front pocket of your waders or hang on your wading belt) to dry your hands when they get wet. Dry hands are warm hands.

Ice on the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, Canada while winter fly fishing

Where to find Fish

For certain rivers that ice over, trout are going to move to their wintering holes. Their metabolism slows significantly and naturally, they will want to expend less energy. This means you should be looking for slower, deeper parts of the river. These areas wont freeze right to bottom and are outside of the strong current. This rules out some of the favorite summer spots such as runs and shallow riffles. Most importantly, find a spot where you can safely access fish.


Slow and low is the key in winter. The fish are not going to chase your fly so you need to get your presentation right in front of them in order to entice them to eat. There are certain bugs that are present in the water year round -- stoneflies are one bug that love to hatch in the winter - the primary one being midges. Then you have your go to nymphs that seem to work in winter also - copper johns, hare ears, princes and of course your worm patterns etc. Streamer patterns can also work but you need to slow down your retrieve and focus on getting it down deep with the help of a sink tip or heavily weighted patterns for those deeper pools.

The main way of fishing in winter is nymphing - either under an indicator or tight-line and euro techniques. The focus will be getting your fly deep, so a combination of flies tied with tungsten beads and/or adding a split shot to your leader. If regulations in your areas allow for fishing two flies, attaching a dropper can be effective - one heavier fly to get your presentation deep, along with a smaller midge pattern works great.

While I wouldn't count on dry fly fishing in winter, at times you can certainly find trout sipping on midge hatches, so it's a good idea to keep a few dry midge patterns in your winter fly box.

Another fun way to winter fish is with a trout spey rod. Using small streamers and soft hackle flies swung with a heavy sink tip can be an exciting way to get yourself on the water in those winter months.

Nymphs: Copper Johns, Guides Choice Hares Ear, Prince Nymph, Zebra midge, Top Secret midge, Kaufman Stone, Pheasant tail nymphs, girdle bugs, wire worms or squirmy worms.

Dries: Grittith Gnat, Smoke Jumpers and Chan's Lady McConnell.

Streamers: Woolly Buggers, Sculpin patterns, Kreelex minnows, Myer's mini-leech

Brown Trout in new caught fly fishing in winter

Winter might not be the most effective time to fly fish, but it is a great time to try new techniques and fish with smaller fly patterns. Get out there, stay warm, stay safe and just enjoy being able to be on the water. Spring is right around the corner. FISH ON!


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