As fall foliage begins to peak here in central PA, I find this time of year has the opposite effect on the insect life in many of my favorite trout streams. Bug spots are all but a steady supply of mule activity, which can keep the hardy winter angler busy during the cold months. Although I miss the large numbers of insects to mimic during nymphing, I love the minimalistic transformation my fly box takes as fall turns to winter. This is when I only carry one box of nymphs and even that box may only have a few dozen patterns in total.
My reasoning is simple: while there may be a variety of insects living near the bottom of the stream, only a small fraction of them become readily available to the trout. For example, I would say that midges, bugs, and shrimp are the three main food sources that are readily available during the winter months in my home waters. There will be occasional blue-winged olive hatchlings during late fall or late winter, but my experience is that midges, bugs and midges are the few aquatic insects often found during the colder seasons. Therefore, I don’t feel the need to keep a wide selection of nymphs. Instead, I will limit myself to a few models. What I’m sharing below is what works for me in my home waters. What works for me may or may not apply to your waters, but I believe all anglers can benefit from narrowing down their selection of cold weather nymphs and focusing more on the timing, location and tactics you use during these colder seasons. cold.
Eggstacy orange egg #14
Even though the eggs are lethal during spawning, I no longer fish for trout during this time period as I am usually on the hunt for moose. With that, I’d say a number 14 orange eggstacy egg has been from the number one nymph in late fall/winter for the past 12 years. I return to trout fishing 2-3 weeks after spawning (often when my mudwater is about to freeze). Although I will use the other patterns listed in this article, I would say this egg is on top about 50% of the time. Eggs continue to produce well through the winter months into early spring. As insect activity begins to increase here in central PA, the egg begins to lose its effectiveness. I’ve seen countless egg colors that work all season long, but I’d choose a shade of orange if only given one option. I know some anglers frown on using eggs, but sometimes the egg is the only pattern that works this time of year – but always be careful to avoid fry and actively spawning fish.
Plain Pheasant Tail with Black Bead Head #14-20
When I learned to tie, I was taught to tie nymphs with lots of movement built into the pattern. This meant adding wing boxes, rubber feet and sometimes overdubbing to create the illusion of movement. While these patterns certainly continue to catch fish, I have found that 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 can add movement – it also adds excess mass, which slows the rate of immersion. Lately, I’ve been taking my favorite nymph patterns and trying to cut down on any extra steps or material. The result is patterns that take a fraction of the time to hook and catch just as many fish. In fact, I find that these thinner patterns can catch more fish due to their ability to drop faster and deeper in the water column – compared to their heavier counterparts.
Photo: George Daniel.
This simple pheasant tail nymph is no exception. Based on Franky Sayer’s original pheasant tail nymph, this simple pattern is sleek and drops quickly in the water column. You can add a wing and thorax, but I really believe these additions add nothing to the fly. For the latest season, I like to pair this pattern with a black bead. When the water levels get low and clear (as they often do in the fall), I like to use 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 perdigone patterns was introduced to me by Torrey Collins, a top fly fisherman who manages the UpCountry Fly Shop in Connecticut. Torrey was the first to show me this pattern, which is popular among some competitive anglers. The body is made from a Hends perdigon flash material that looks like a gas leak on wet pavement. This pattern has become one of my go-to perdigone style patterns when I need some extra bling built into the pattern.
Worm Sex Walt #16-18
Walt’s Sex Worm may be one of the most popular Euro nymphs in North America. By varying the size and color scheme, this model can imitate so many possible aquatic insects. In my home waters during the winter months, I use this pattern to imitate shrimp and freshwater prawns – two important foods during the winter, as most other insects are less active. I tie this pattern to Hare’s natural ear, but use a blend made by my friend Joe Ackourey. Its blend is easy to blend and has just the right amount of spike fibers to create the illusion of legs without adding too much bulk. I like a small dot made of fluorescent orange thread, as the shrimp will have orange hues when they die or are pregnant.
From top: Orange Eggstacy, Common Black-headed Pheasant Tail, Gasolinia Perdigon, Sexy Walt Worm, Zebra Midge (photo: George Daniel).
Zebra Midge #18-22
What mules lack in size, they make up for in abundance and hatch year-round. Mosquitoes can live in almost any type of water – from sewage canals to clear mountain streams. This is why I will always have a zebra fly on hand, especially during the winter months when there is little other insect activity. In many cases, mule activity may be the only insect activity trout see during the cold seasons, so always plan to have a few zebra mules on hand. My favorite colors are olive, red and black strung on a size 20 hook with a 2.0 silver tungsten bead. I like to add a coat of clear nail polish to ensure durability and add density.
The last word
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’ve put new windows of opportunity grow shorter and occur less often. Fall is a beautiful time to get on the water and the fishing can be good, but often not as good as it is in the best spring and summer conditions – at least in my home waters. Low water, fallen leaves, strong winds and cooler nights will reduce prime fishing opportunities during the late season. And given the popularity of fly fishing these days, the crowds can be just as busy in the fall as they are during the spring. With that said, I think there is never a bad time to be on the water. Any opportunity to fish is a bonus.
And, thinning out your nymph selections will not only simplify your selection process when you’re on the water, but it’ll add less bulk to your pack or vest, which is helpful when layering for colder temperatures .