As fall foliage begins to peak here in central PA, I find this time of year has the opposite effect on insect life on many of my favorite trout streams. Peak insect hatches are all but over except a constant supply of midge activity, which can keep the hardcore winter angler busy throughout the colder months. Although I do miss the vast amounts of insects to imitate while nymphing, I do enjoy the minimalistic transformation my fly box takes as fall turns into winter. This is when I carry only one nymph box and even that box may only have several dozen patterns in total.
My reasoning is simple: while there may be a variety of insects living near stream bottom, only a handful of them become readily available to the trout. For example, I would say midges, cressbugs, and shrimp are the three major food sources that are readily available throughout the winter months on my home waters. There will be the occasional blue winged olive hatch during the late fall or late winter, but my experience is that midges, cressbugs, and scuds are the few aquatic insects frequently available during the colder seasons. Hence, I don’t feel the need to carry a wide-ranging nymph selection. Instead, I’ll limit myself to a few patterns. What I’m sharing below is what works for me on my home waters. What works for me may or may not apply to your waters, but I believe all anglers can benefit from downsizing their cold weather nymph selection and focus more on the timing, location, and tactics you employ during these colder seasons.
Orange Eggstacy Egg #14
Although eggs are deadly during the spawn, I no longer fish for trout during this time period as I’m usually on the hunt for musky. With that, I would say a #14 orange eggstacy egg has been by number one late fall/winter nymph for the last 12 years. I get back to trout fishing 2-3 weeks after spawn (often when my musky water is about to freeze over). Although I’ll use the other patterns listed in this article, I would say this egg is on my tippet about 50% of the time. Eggs continue to produce well into the winter months up until early spring. As bug activity begins to increase here in central PA, the egg begins to lose its effectiveness. I’ve seen countless egg colors work throughout the season, but I would pick some shade of orange if given only one option. I know some anglers frown upon using eggs but sometimes the egg is the only pattern working during this time of the year—but always take care to avoid redds and actively spawning fish.
Simple Pheasant Tail with Black Bead head #14-20
When learning to tie , I was taught to tie nymphs with lots of movement built into the pattern. That meant adding wing cases, rubber legs, and sometimes excessive dubbing to create the illusion of movement. While these patterns certainly continue to catch fish, I’ve found such steps are often unnecessary. In other words, the illusion of movement is created more for the angler than for the fish. While the added material may add movement—it also adds excessive bulk, which slows down the sink rate. Lately, I’ve taken my favorite nymph patterns and have tried to reduce any excessive steps or materials. The result is patterns that take a fraction of the time to tie and catch just as many fish. In fact, I find these slimmed down patterns may catch more fish due to their ability to drop faster and deeper in the water column-compared to their bulkier counterparts.
This simple pheasant tail nymph is no exception. Based on Franky Sayer’s original pheasant tail nymph, this simple pattern is sleek and drops fast into the water column. You can add a wingcase and thorax, but I really believe those additions don’t add anything to the fly. For late season, I like to tie this pattern with a black bead. When water levels become low and clear (as they often do in the fall) I like to use either a copper or black tungsten bead-just an approach that has worked for me over the years.
Perdigon style patterns continue to gain popularity for two reasons: 1) they are easy to tie and 2) they catch fish. One of my favorite perdigon patterns was introduced to me by Torrey Collins, a top notch fly fisher who manages UpCountry Fly Shop in Connecticut. Torrey was the first one to show me this pattern, which is popular among some competitive anglers. The body is made from a Hends perdigon flash material, which looks like a gas spill on wet pavement. This pattern has become one of my favorite perdigon-style patterns when I need a little extra bling built into the pattern.
Sexy Walt’s Worm #16-18
The sexy walt’s worm may be one of the most popular North American euro nymphs. By tweaking the size and color scheme, this pattern can imitate so many possible aquatic insects. On my home waters during the winter months, I use this pattern to imitate cressbugs and freshwater shrimp—two important wintertime food items, as most other insects are less active. I tie this pattern with natural Hare’s ear, but I use a blend made by my friend Joe Ackourey. His blend is easy to dub and has just the right number of spikey fibers to create the illusion of legs without adding excessive bulk. I like a small hotspot made of fluorescent orange thread, as shrimp will have tinges of orange when dying or pregnant.
Zebra Midge #18-22
What midges lack in size, they make up for in abundance and year-round hatching. Midges can live in just about any water type-from sewage ditches to clean mountain streams. This is the reason I’ll always have a zebra midge on hand, especially during the winter months when little other insect activity is occurring. In many cases, midge activity may be the only insect activity trout see during the cold seasons, so always plan to have a few zebra midges on hand. My favorite colors are olive, red, and black tied on a size 20 hook with a 2.0 silver tungsten bead. I like to add a coat of clear nail polish to provide durability and add density.
I want to take a moment to mention that, while I’ve read countless articles mentioning how incredible fall fly fishing is in the northeast and other parts of the country—something I’ve also experienced on countless occasions—I have noticed the windows of opportunity growing shorter and occurring less frequently. Fall is a beautiful time to get on the water and the fishing can be good, but often not as good as it is during prime spring and summer conditions—at least on my home waters. Low water, fallen leaves, higher winds, and colder nights will lessen the primetime fishing opportunities during the late season. And, given the popularity of fly fishing these days, crowds can be just as busy in the fall as it is during the spring. With that being said, I feel there’s never a bad time to be on the water. Any opportunity to fish is a bonus.
And, thinning out your nymphing selections won’t just simplify your selection process when on the water, it will add less bulk to your pack or vest, which is helpful when layering up for the colder temps.