'Shaking a stick' in chilly water

Updated: Jan 20

Winter fishing for trout in Northern Virginia

fishing in a winter wonderland

Fly fishing for trout while standing in freezing water, bundled up against old man winter, versus wet wading in the warm sunshine – no question which I would prefer.  I will see your cold winter windburn and raise you a summer suntan any day!  But as dedicated fishermen, we brave the winter elements for the pleasure of off-season fishing solitude.  Thankfully, in the metro DC area, there are days that are accommodating enough during the winter season while we wet our lines to see some trout action (and plenty that are not).


On the cusp of winter in Northern Virginia, weather is like a Forrest Gump box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get!  During the winter of 2019/20 I fished my favorite water (Cedar Creek) in very comfortable temps of high 40s and upwards of high 50s on Black Friday and New Year’s Eve.  But also had to break up ice the week of Christmas to get my line in the water.  In mid-February of 2018, I was sweating in my waders (with 70 degree temps) and the fish were happily taking anything I put in the water. This current season I had a balmy day spanning 50 to 60 degrees in mid-December, followed by a day fishing in a snowy, white-out just three days later.


three days earlier it reached 60 degrees, but fishing was still good in the snow

During an outing to Cedar Creek in late January of 2020, the day began with temps in the low 30s and surface ice. My stream thermometer did not register, which meant the water temperature was colder. On this day, my companion was a fellow fishing blogger, Kevin R. Kosar, whose blog I discovered searching for DC area trout fishing sites. After reading his blog post looking for prime trout water in the area, I sent some ideas and invited him to join me at Cedar Creek. 


skirting the ice to find the fish

This water generally endures the worst of times during the winter season – a combination of low water and painfully slow flow makes conditions challenging, not at all ideal for someone taking a first crack at fishing the stream. As I have had to do that several times with other fishing companions during the course of December and January, I worked on technique and got creative. Just by changing up flies and my approach as well as moving around a lot, I have thankfully avoided leaving the water with a dry net during the winter season.


The low, cold water tends to push fish into a few pockets where many have just stayed put as deep as possible - I guess conserving energy and lazily waiting out feeding prospects to bump them in the nose. So the approach is to “go low where there was flow”, sometimes adding two split shots to a single fly, always under an indicator, and high sticking with a short leader. The cast is always a few feet upstream of where I think the fish may be to get a deep drift, let the fly swing, then retrieve and repeat to another part of the water column. If after ten minutes or so there is no action, I change out the fly and try again - using one fly speeded up the change over. After 30 minutes or so, if still nothing using 2-3 patterns that usually work, I move on.


no wet wading in December

More often than not, an egg pattern attracts interest (hook sizes 10 and 12). Some call the particular pattern I use a ‘nuke egg’, some call it a 'skein pattern'. Whatever you call it, this pattern has proved the most reliable on this water in icy conditions. Less often, but still viable, is a San Juan worm. I am not a fan of the squiggly or squirmy worms because the fish tend to tug at the elastic and not get hooked up. So, I usually throw a shorter felt or chenille pattern with a tungsten bead head in the belly (hook size 12 or 14). Another option that got attention was a tungsten jig bugger (hook size 12), also dead drifted under an indicator like the worm and the egg.


On that day in January 2020, Kevin and I caught a reasonable number of fish, but we had to work for it. Besides learning the new water, Kevin had another lesson earned - he didn't bring thermal waders, which were sorely needed. When I fished with him recently at Gunpowder Falls (also in the snow and with a lot less success), he was decked out in new thermal waders!


working the pools with a streamer pattern in thermal waders

While I relish being out on the water in Northern Virginia under most circumstances (I will defer in conditions of freezing rain, or when water temperatures are too high), I admit that I am looking forward to sunny spring days and friskier fish.


Tight lines!


Please visit Kevin’s fishing blog for his insights on urban fishing opportunities and tactics.

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