Unicoi Outfitters is north Georgia's premier guide service and fly fishing outfitter, located on the Chattahoochee River near alpine Helen. Look for fishing reports, gear and book reviews, and general musings here from our staff and guides.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Winter Dries and Droppers

While winter trouting on our southern Appalachian freestone streams is typically a deep dredging game, there are some opportunities for trout on top or at least near the surface. Those opps typically happen on warm, sunny afternoons in between  icy days. Here are a few tips from UO to prepare you for these coveted windows of winter surface action.

The key in winter is to hunt before you fish.  Look above the water and on streamside rocks and branches for buzzing bugs.   Watch for rises in shallow, soft, sunlit water, often right up against the bank. Other good, “soft” spots are behind boulders and pool tails before they pick up speed as they transition to riffles.

My experience suggests that brookies are most active in frigid waters, followed by bows, while browns seem to hibernate at temps below 40.

Use those USGS stream gauges, your pocket thermometer, and your knowledge of resident species to enhance your chances of afternoon topwater fun.

The top three bugs in our area that show themselves in the cold are little black stones, blue wing olives (BWO’s), and midges. Here are our patterns and techniques for fishing each.

First, the black stones are usually about a size 17, so we tie some dries in size 16 and 18 long shank hooks. Watch for adults crawling on bankside boulders or snow and fluttering clumsily on the stream surface as they lay eggs. You’ll think they’re gray caddisflies that didn’t learn how to fly.

The dry pattern is simply a long thin abdomen of black dubbing, a long, narrow downwing of gray elk hair, and 3-4 palmered wraps of gray or black hackle at the head. It looks like a thin, flat black stimulator without abdominal hackle. You can try a small black stimmy or can even improvise with a small, gray elk hair caddis. Just mash down the elk hair and trim both sides to narrow its wing.

We’ll tie a simple wet on those same size hooks. It’s just that same black body and 1-2 wraps of soft black hackle (ex: starling) at the head.

Try the dries first on 5 or 6X tippet. If the action is slow, then add the wet dropper on 6X about 2-3 feet behind the dry. First try the typical upstream dead drift.  Once the flies pass you, hold tight and try the wet fly swing below you. Add a twitch or two, too.

Next up are BWO’s. You’ll see these dainty little mayflies softly gliding on warm afternoon breezes. Watch closely, though, and you should see some bugs emerging and drifting along current seams. The first fish to pick up the hatch are usually little wild rainbows. Their rises can be subtle or violent. Your key is to hunt before you fish. Take time to study the water for bugs and rises. Then pick out your target, stalk, and take an accurate shot. 

If the water is flat, we can often use one of these tiny (#20-24) dries alone on 6X tippet. However, a lot of us have had plenty of birthdays and can no longer spot those specks on the surface. Our solution is to drop the BWO 18-24 inches behind a size 16 or 18 parachute Adams. The parachute post can be spotted. When we see a rise near that fly, we set the hook and hope the fish ate our tiny BWO. The Adams is also a great BWO imitator. That bigger fly offers more calories and can entice bigger fish to rise, too.

If you see few fish or bugs on the surface, but don’t wanna dredge, try a #18-20 pheasant tail or Frenchie dropper 2-3 feet below your Adams. You can even upsize the Adams to #14-16 for a more buoyant strike indicator. To sink the ptail better, consider adding a tiny (#8 or 6) tin split shot about 4-6 inches above your nymph.

Last are midges. I hate midges because they’re so darn tiny. How many of you have also been frustrated when fish are on microscopic (maybe size 30?) cream midges and refuse your size 22 bugs that look like a truck beside the real bug?

Regardless, midges are common fodder in the winter. Carry some tiny griffiths gnats, cream midges, and black midges in your winter dry fly box. Again, drop them a foot or two behind a dry you can see - that Adams or BWO.

If no midges are buzzing, their larva are certainly drifting in the flow. Put a small (#18-22) black or red zebra midge or black or olive WD-40 under your Adams dry. Use the same technique you did with the pheasant tail dropper.

Winter fishing is special. First, the fair-weather crowds are gone and you have lotsa water to yourself.  Second, a day outside cures our cabin fever.  Third, when we’re dressed right, we’re actually very comfortable. Fourth, we sleep darn well after a winter day astream.  And last, noses poking through the stream surface really warm our buns!  Hopefully these tips will help you prepare for and enjoy some true bonus fish: trout on top in the winter.

Good luck. Stop by one of our UO shops if we can help you prepare for some fun in the winter sun.

Unicoi Outfitters: Friendly. Local. Experts.


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