Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Techniques Trout & Char

Low & Slow: A Winter Fishing Primer

Article by Chris Stewart

The general consensus among fly fishermen seems to be that if you want to catch trout in winter you’d better fish midges. The theory is based on the fact that midges hatch throughout the year. However, the second thing tenkara anglers learn is that you don’t need to match the hatch to catch fish. (I surely don’t have to tell you the first thing they learn you don’t need.)

I’ve never been a midge fisherman, though. My preferred method for winter fishing is “Low and Slow.” Find deeper pools and runs and fish them slowly. Of course, to do that you need a plunge pool to take your fly down or you need to add weight. Depending on where you fish, plunge pools may be rarer than tiger trout. Adding weight allows you to fish deep – even if the nearest plunge pool is three counties over. The stream shown below is one of the few New York streams open all year. The fish are there. The plunge pools aren’t.

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow - Winter Stream Fishing

The Fly

Fly choice for Low and Slow fishing isn’t about matching the hatch but it is about matching the water depth and current. 

Depending on the depth and current, you don’t always have to add a lot of weight. Sometimes just a wire body like this Sakasa Copperbari is sufficient. The slim profile and sparse soft hackle create little resistance, allowing the fly to sink pretty rapidly.

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow Winter Fishing - Sakasa Copperbari

If there’s a bit more current and you have to get the fly down a bit more quickly, an underlayer of lead or lead free wire will take a fly down even if it does have a fatter body. Of course, if you have an underlayer of wire, it will have a fatter body!

A standard Killer Bug or Utah Killer Bug has a copper wire underbody. If you substitute a layer of lead or lead free wire (offset with fewer layers of yarn to keep the fly in proportion) it will get deeper and still draw strikes.

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow Winter Fishing - Killer Bug

If you really have to get down, though, nothing beats a tungsten bead head AND a bit of lead or lead free wire. Your fly will be fatter, but not all caddis larvae are Twiggy. Like midges, they’re available to the trout all year and there’s a lot more protein and calories than in a dozen midges.

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow Winter Fishing - Tungsten Bead Head

Of course, you could always just use split shot to get your fly down. The great Joe Humphreys uses a pair of split shot, attached to the tippet a few inches apart so they are more likely to roll along the bottom than to drop down between rocks and get snagged. Keiryu anglers in Japan generally use only one shot, but with the much longer rod, their line is more nearly vertical so the shot is kept above the bottom to minimize snags. When fishing with a tenkara rod (longer than Joe Humphries’ rod but shorter than a keiryu rod) using two smaller shot may work better than one larger shot.

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow Winter Fishing - BB Shot Diagram

The Line

In the flat light of winter, even hi-vis lines can be hard to see. There is a fluorescent chartreuse line in the first photo, but you can’t see it. Even in real life it is hard to see. Nylon takes dye better than fluorocarbon and the brighter colors that are possible make the lines much easier to see on an overcast winter day. I find the Fujino Soft Tenkara line to be about the easiest to see in the winter. The only downside is that when it is cold it is harder to stretch out the residual memory. On the other hand, if you are fishing with a weighted fly, a bit of coil in the line is not going to affect your cast very much. Plus, that slight coil in the line is the most sensitive strike indicator there is. When the coils straighten – fish on!

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow Winter Fishing - Fujino Soft Line

The Rod

The average tenkara rod is not particularly well suited to fishing weighted flies (the midsection is too soft). For that reason, many tenkara anglers in the US have gone to keiryu rods like the Daiwa Kiyose 33SF for fishing heavy nymphs. The Kiyose is a relatively stiff rod that allows you to keep in contact with your flies and pretty effectively transmits the subtle takes that are often all you get in the winter. The biggest downside to fishing with a keiryu rod in the winter is that the graphite grip gets cold.

(Editor’s Note: The Daiwa Kiyose series has been updated with the Daiwa Keiryu-X series)

For Low and Slow fishing this winter, I’ll use the TenkaraBum 36, which is a newly developed tenkara rod designed in conjunction with the Japanese rod company Suntech.  It is an all around rod that is designed to fish weighted flies much better than the average tenkara rod. It isn’t nearly as stiff as the Daiwa Kiyose, though, and the hard EVA foam grip doesn’t get cold. Best of all, it can cast a much lighter line than the Kiyose  (or most 7:3 tenkara rods for that matter) for the rest of the year, when the grass is green, the birds are chirping and the fish are looking up.

Chris Stewart W1516 - Tenkara Angler Low and Slow Winter Fishing - TenkaraBum 36 Rod

Whatever flies, line and rod you use, get out this winter. The fish still have to eat (and after the holidays you could probably use the exercise). Besides, the best cure for the wintertime blues is a little fish slime, applied directly to the palm.

Chris Stewart, (aka) the TenkaraBum, grew up in Colorado and is currently based in NYC. He is the owner, CEO, & shipping clerk of TenkaraBum LLC. He usually can’t be found because he’s wearing camo.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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