'Shaking a stick' in chilly water

Updated: Jul 31

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 windburn and raise you a 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!  This past season 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.

weather may be bleak, but fishing is still robust (photo courtesy of Lars Hudnall)

My most recent outing to Cedar Creek 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.  It was not until the dead of winter that he was on board for the 90-minute excursion out to Strasburg, Va.

skirting the ice to find the fish

This water has endured the worst of times this season – a combination of historically low water and painfully slow flow has made 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 this winter season.

The low, cold water has pushed 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 was 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 was always a few feet upstream of where I thought the fish might 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 was no action, I changed out the fly and tried 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 would move on.

no wet wading in December

More often than not, an egg pattern attracted interest (hook sizes 10 and 12). Some call the particular pattern I used a ‘nuke egg’, some call it a 'skein pattern'. Whatever you call it, this pattern proved the most reliable on this water in icy conditions. Less often, but still viable, was 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 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.

So what did Kevin think of my favorite water? He was thrilled, but also surprised by how clear the water was and that there were multiple spots where the flow was not too fast and the holes were deep. "I came assuming I would not catch a fish since this was my first time here, but the fishing exceeded my expectations. I caught a nice trout, two fallfish (one of which was a beast), and had another trout throw the hook. I also had maybe five takes where I failed to set the hook. For me that is pretty good activity for five hours of fishing!" Lesson also learned - he didn't bring thermal waders, which were sorely needed.

chubby chub (aka Shenandoah tarpon)

While I relish being out on this water 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.