Winter Fishing in the East

By Adam Franceschini

Does winter have you dreaming of when your first spring fishing adventures will happen? When most of the east coast is getting clobbered with snow, ice and extremely low temperatures, finding open water can be tough. Sure, you can pick up that new rod and give it the good old shop wiggle or dance around the living room in your new pair of waders. Or you can layer up, get out and enjoy some really great fishing opportunities. And likely in complete solitude.

You are probably thinking that most of your favorite water is better suited for an upcoming Olympic sport such as curling or figure skating. However, if you are lucky enough to live nearby, or are willing to travel, limestone spring creeks and tail water rivers are your friends. These waterways are your best options for shaking cabin fever and kicking off the new fishing season.

“Why is a spring creek or tail water where it’s at?” you might ask. Well, unlike freestone streams that are typically covered with shelf ice or even worse, anchor ice, where it’s so cold that ice actually forms from the top to bottom of the water surface, spring creeks and tail waters will likely be fishable because of their source. Although these two types of streams have their differences, the most important similarity is a consistent source of water with a stable temperature range.

The water that comes from an underground spring or a bottom-release dam will have steady water temperature all year long due to the natural insulating ability of the ground and water, respectively. Spring creeks originate from underground springs that find their way to the ground’s surface. Because these springs flow well below the frost line, the ground provides the insulation needed to keep the water at temperatures that are generally in the low to mid 50’s.

The water from a bottom-release dam uses the water itself as insulation. Much like the ground, water too has an ability to insulate, when it is deep enough, and therefore keeps the water temperatures at the bottom of a lake consistent. Since a bottom release dam releases the water from the bottom of a lake, temperatures will remain consistent. Conversely, the insulating factor of the ground and water keeps the water cold in the summer. This is why spring creeks and tail waters are usually fishable during the dog days when most other streams are too warm for safe trout fishing.

Now a little science for you. Spring creeks are mostly found where limestone or dolomite is prevalent. These rock types are very porous and allow water to flow through them, at the same time, infusing the water with either limestone or dolomite, both known for their ability to neutralize acids. This creates a pH balance that is conducive to insect life. Spring creeks can be real bug factories with very predictable and prolific hatches.

So now that you know why these waters are your best options, how should you actually fish them? Whether it is one of the famed spring creeks of Pennsylvania or a trophy tail water in northeast Tennessee, it is still wintertime here on the east coast and there will be challenges. To give yourself the best opportunity for success, have a plan before you even get to the stream.

When the water is cold, trout tend to pod up and do not move far for food. To most of our dismay, fish are not always eating dry flies, especially this time of year. You might get lucky and find some midge or small BWO sippers, but for the most part, this time of year you must run your fly right in front of the trout’s face to entice them to eat.

When I first start my day, I usually tie on a scud or sow bug. Both of these aquatic insects are found in very high numbers on these types of streams and are usually a big part of a trout’s diet. A well-presented scud or sow bug will likely get that trout to eat. When it doesn’t, I’ll fish junk! There I said it. I’m not above using a sucker spawn or San Juan worm as my point fly. Let’s be honest: they flat out catch fish.

Off the point fly, I will drop some kind of midge lava or pupa. On cold days, I like to start with my two flies closer together than I would in the spring or summer, say 12-15 inches apart. The Sweet Thing, Zebra Midge, Thread Midge and Stripper Midge are all good patterns. It’s probably obvious, but on cold days, fish feed on or near the bottom. The water is warmer here and this is where the bugs will be. Bugs equals fish, so get those flies down on the bottom.

As the day progresses, hopefully the sun causes water temps to rise and the fish get little more active. A change in water temperature of just a half a degree can turn on the trout and get them to feed. When this happens, I will change to a smaller attractor pattern as the point fly with a more natural dropper. I like flies that look like a natural bug but have a little flash to act as a trigger. The Skinny Nelson and Rainbow Warrior are both flies that fit the bill. Again, I like midge pupas and larvae as droppers. The Bubble Midge, Johnny Flash, Flash Bang Midge or RS2 are solid choices.

As the water warms up, I’ll typically lengthen the distance between my flies to 18-24 inches. This allows your flies to cover more of the water column. Your point fly, typically the heavier fly, will be in a deeper zone and your lighter dropper fly can freely float through the higher water column. An unweighted dropper fly imitates a natural bug that is either rising to the surface or has been dislodged from the bottom and is free floating. Don’t be afraid to experiment with weight, either by using split shot or built into the fly itself.

For me, winter fishing is a mind game and comfort is my number one priority. If you are like me, then when I am not comfortable, I can’t stay focused. This will cause me to miss the subtle strikes that are common this time of year. Before you even get to the water, make sure you eat a proper meal to avoid being hungry. When your mind is distracted with thoughts of burgers and wings, it’s hard to concentrate on fishing. Layer up on the clothing. Having the right combo of layers can provide you the warmth needed to keep you on the stream longer.

When I fish a section of water, I find myself making a mental grid of the quiet runs, slower deeper pools and softer current seams and running my flies through each section. Use the least amount of line out of the rod tip as you can to help achieve a drag-free drift. High-Sticking in winter will limit frozen guides. Stack-mending and feeding line, then stripping it back through the guides causes them to ice up very quickly and usually leads to frustration.

Because the water temperature is warmer than the air temperature, fish will be warm to the touch. In order to handle the fish properly, use a net and your favorite hook removal tool while keeping the fish in the water as much as possible. Limit their air exposure, as gills can freeze and fuse together. Even though fish swim away, it does not guarantee that they will survive. Snow banks and gravel bars are not a trout’s friend.

Don’t let cabin fever set in. Get out on a limestone spring creek or tail water in your area. There is no better way to get your 2018 trout fishing season started. Sure winter fishing has its challenges, but it beats watching figure skating, right?


Adam Franceschini is a Sage Elite Pro and year-round fly fishing guide as well as a commercial fly designer and Ambassador for The American Museum Of Fly Fishing. He spends his springs guiding for Westbranch Anglers in Hancock, New York, his fall and winters guiding on the South Holston in Bristol, Tennessee, and his summers guiding for Tikchik Narrows Lodge in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Follow him at @FranceschiniFlyfishing
Photographs by Adam Page and David Surowiecki.