Winter Fishing for Trout: Best Tips, Baits, & Gear For Success

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While most anglers use the spring, summer, and fall to fish for trout, few take advantage of the high-quality trout fishing that’s found through the cold, winter months. 

Trout still feed through the winter, but it takes a bit more creativity to find them and predict their feeding habits. With a little extra effort and an understanding of my essential tips, you’ll have plenty of success in winter fishing for trout. 

In this article, I will cover: 

  • 7 Tips for Winter Trout Fishing
    • Look for protection
    • Slow Down Your Fishing
    • Pay close attention to the water temperature
    • Look for a bit deeper water 
    • Fully understand hatches 
    • Wait for warm parts of the day
    • Be accurate with your casts
  • Best Winter Trout Baits
  • Rod and Reel Setups for Winter Trout Fishing
  • Frequently Asked Questions

7 Essential Tips for Winter Trout Fishing 

Winter rainbow trout caught in the Kenai Canyon

Trout are far more temperamental throughout the cold winter months. Their diets and picky traits are accentuated, so anglers have to be at their best once things slow. However, you always have less fishing pressure on your side during these colder temperatures! 

Trout Look for Protection

If you study the tendencies of trout throughout spring, summer, and fall, you’ll notice that they’re bold. Their desire to eat is equal to their desire for survival. They know they have to eat and fill up on as much food as they possibly can before the weather turns. In the winter, however, protection becomes a high priority. Fish are worried about floods, ice, and predators!

Winter River Protection For Trout

In a river, protection could look like a pool with a slow-moving current or log jams that stop the flow of water and make it more manageable for the fish to hide and preserve energy. If you can find a combination of the two, you’re in great shape.

Fish will feed on food that passes directly by them, but they won’t go out of their way to chase anything down if it’s not absolutely necessary. Also, the slow-moving water and cover allow them to sun themselves for periods of time before they head back to safety. 

Other areas in rivers where the fish will hide are cut banks! The groundwater is going to be colder than the water in the middle of the river. While they don’t get as much sun in these areas, they provide amazing protection and food funnels into these areas regularly. 

Winter Lakes Protection For Trout

In lakes, log piles or boulder fields are the perfect places for trout to hide. They can search for food, but duck under a rock or log in case a predator visits the area. Since most trout lakes will freeze, they have to rely on feeding on food that’s under the surface the entire season. 

Slow Down Your Fishing

As mentioned earlier, fish are not eager to work hard for their food in the winter. You’re going to have to slow down your presentations and make sure you get your bait, lure, or fly as close to the fish as you can. If you’re able to locate the fish, you can catch them.

Fish often congregate in one or two pools in the winter, so food is more scarce. A good-looking worm, lure, or fly is going to be something that’s highly sought after for the fish. 

When fishing for trout in the winter, always retrieve your bait slowly! If you’re too eager and moving your bait at too fast of a pace, the trout won’t give you a chase. Long, slow reels or strips are going to give you the best chance.

Also, let the bait rise and fall and give the fish a long chance to look at it. If it looks somewhat edible, they’ll eat it! They want food but don’t need it as much since they’re not exerting a massive amount of energy. The more patient you are, the more success you’ll have. 

Pay Close Attention to Water Temperature

If you’re fishing in water that’s under 40 degrees, you’ll find that the fish are barely going to feed. Right at that freezing point is when the fish slow way down and move as little as possible. They’ll take the easiest meals they can find. However, if you find the water temperatures getting above 40 degrees, you can guarantee that the fish are going to be far more eager to feed! 

They’ll start going after dries, nymphs, and even small streamers. It’s smart to carry a barometer with a thermometer around with you to double-check the temperatures you’re fishing. Also, the water temperature can vary throughout the river! Just because it’s 38 degrees at one point doesn’t mean it’s 38 degrees in all parts of the water. 

Check out my in-depth article on How does barometric pressure effect fishing here!

Look For Deeper Water 

It may sound strange, but deeper water is better in the winter. The shallow water is greatly affected by the air temperature, so a bit deeper water is going to be warmer. Generally, water over three feet deep is going to be plenty for winter trout fishing. If you’re fishing a stream or river, water over three feet will likely be a bit slower moving, so fish will congregate in these areas. 

Trout find slower, deeper water in the winter months is warmer and more comfortable. All the food within the water is going to move to the warm water, so the trout will be happier and looking to eat. Keep the same strategy of fishing slow, and you’ll have plenty of success. 

Fully Understand Hatches and Other Foods in the Area You’re Fishing

In the winter, searching patterns aren’t going to be as effective as they are in the warmer months. Trout won’t be as curious or willing to try different things in the cold months. They want what they know is consistently hatching. As a result, it’s important for you to understand the insect life that’s in the rivers or lakes you’re fishing. If you can match the hatches that occur, you’re in better shape.

Whether it’s a fly, minnow, or some other variation of prey, it’s important to be using things that are regularly in the trout’s winter feeding habits! Many anglers think they can get away with using anything and usually fail to catch fish as a result. 

Wait for Warm Parts of the Day

A die-hard trout angler fishing in the snow, wait for the sunnier periods
during the winter for the best chances of success

Unlike the summer months where you have to be up before sunset to get to the water before the first hatch, the winter months allow for anglers to get their sleep. The fish aren’t going to be eager to start feeding until the sun rises and the surface water temperatures warm. Also, trout will be waiting for hatches to start, and those won’t begin until the warmest parts of the day. 

Mid-morning through the early afternoon are the best times of day to fish for trout in the winter. You usually have only a few-hours window each day where the fish are going to feed unless it’s a particularly cold day. A sunny winter day is usually a good recipe for success. As long as you’re able to dress for the occasion you’ll do well. 

Be Accurate With Your Casts

As mentioned earlier, trout aren’t overly active in the winter. You’re going to have to land your bait in the perfect locations to get them to eat.

It doesn’t matter if you’re dead drifting a fly past their faces or casting a lure in a lake, you want to get as close to the location you know the fish are congregated. If the bait is a few inches from their faces, they’ll eat! If it’s not, you’ll find that trout are incredibly lazy and won’t see your bait as something that’s worth the effort. 

You can learn more about the best tips and techniques on how to fly cast here!

Best Winter Trout Baits

Whether you’re spin fishing or fly fishing, there are a few baits that will work on those especially cold days. Take into consideration the type of water and area of the world you’re fishing, but these few baits should help you be successful! 

Winter Trout Flies

Winter fly fishing is a blast! You have to switch up your traditional aggressive methods for more of a finesse style, but it’s always a good challenge. My advice is to scale down your hook sizes and trout lines during the winter, this can make a big difference in catching or not catching those picky trout during the winter months.

Woolly Bugger- Size 8

The Woolly Bugger is the perfect dead drifting fly. You can also have some success swinging them in the winter, but a dead drifted bugger through a deep pool is enough to entice the fish into eating. Both black and olive are the perfect colors for buggers in the winter. I’d also recommend using the bead-head version! 

Zebra Midge- Size 18

Midge hatches occur year-round regardless of the weather. Bounce a Zebra Midge through riffles, a seam, or even a deep pool. It’s best to fish these with an indicator, so you can see whether or not you’re getting a bite! The fish are more sensitive with their strikes on baits during the cold months.

Squirmy Wormy

Never underestimate the power of a worm in the winter. The squirmy wormy has a nice amount of action and flows down the current freely. You’ll find that they’re the most natural-looking flies as they move downstream. You can fish this in a nymph rig or on its own with an indicator.

Check out my in-depth review article on the best trout flies here! Which covers dries, nymphs, and streamers.

Best Natural Winter Baits For Trout

Natural baits are favorites for trout all year long. Make sure you take a look at your local rules and regulations before you use any. 

Wax Worms

If you’re ice fishing, wax worms are the perfect option for trout. Let these down near the bottom and fish them attached to a jig. The jigging motion is enough to release the scent of a wax worm into the water!  

Minnows

If you want larger trout, minnows should be the bait that you’re using. Minnows are easy to fish with! You can use a bobber, or jig or let them free-flow in the water column. 

For more detailed information on using natural baits for trout, check out my article here!

Best Winter Lures For Trout

Lures, similar to flies, will work year-round if they’re fished properly! 

Spoons

Spoons are classic trout bait that continues to work in the cold months. Make your casts to the fishy areas and retrieve them slowly. Do a few turns of the reel, then let the bait rest and repeat the process. It’s an easy process and doesn’t take much work. 

Spinners

Mepps Spinners are the perfect option for winter. Since many streams and rivers get dirty in the winter due to the snow, spinners move water and get the attention of trout that may be hungry. 

You can read more on the best trout lures here!

Brown winter trout caught on a beaded woolly bugger fly

Rod and Reel Setups

Your rod and reel setup for winter trout doesn’t have to be anything large. Again, you’re doing more of a finesse style of fishing, so make sure you have a good feel with your setup. 

Fly Rod and Reel

For your fly rod and reel setup, you need a 4-weight or 5-weight 8’6” rod. These rods aren’t overly large, but they can make longer casts and keep your flies in the proper position. The 8’6” rod is more than capable of laying down your flies softly and making all the mends that you need to keep your fly in place. Make sure you use a matching reel with a 4-weight fly line. 

A 3x or 4x leader with a 5x or 6x tippet is the perfect match for this lighter winter rod and reel choice! 

Spinning Rod and Reel

For your spinning rod setup, you only need a 6’ or 7’ light action rod. This will be enough to get your lure or bait out into the water and detect any of the strikes that you get. A matching reel with a 4-pound monofilament test, with a size 14 or 16 hooks will do the trick. 

Ice Fishing Setup

A 30 to 36-inch length ice fishing rod with medium action should be good for trout. A small capacity spinning reel with a 4 to 6-pound test will help you find the majority of trout you find. If you’re going ice fishing for lake trout, you want a 40 to 48-inch length heavy action rod with a high capacity reel and 8 to 12-pound test. 

Winter Trout – Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Best Bait For Trout In The Winter?

In the winter, you can’t go wrong with minnows, worms, and small midge patterns. Natural baits are the first choice to use during the winter months for trout.

How Cold Is Too Cold For Trout Fishing? 

Air temperatures less than 40 degrees don’t make a huge difference for winter trout fishing! However, If the water temperatures go below 40 degrees, then you can assume that the feeding slows way down! 

What Color Baits Do Trout Like In Winter? 

In the winter, trout don’t need anything flashy to attract them. Stick with browns, olives, and black colors to entice the fish. Natural colors will always work the best. 

Final Thoughts 

Winter fishing for trout is something that every angler should try. It’s a great chance to learn more about them as well as their feeding habits. Plus, you don’t have to deal with the normal pressure that trout get in the warmer months! They’re willing to eat, but it’s going to take some patience and persistence! 

Thanks for reading my article, I hope it gave you some great tips on catching those picky winter trout. Check out my in-depth article on cold-weather alpine trout fishing here!