The day late-winter brown trout fishing first made sense to me, I was fishing a tough beat of technical water on Michigan’s Manistee River with little expectation of success. With snow piled high on the banks and the river shallow and low, I aimed for one of the few available sanctuaries—an undercut bank. I overcast my target and landed my fly in the snow, and when I pulled it into the water, there came a splashy rise that I took for an optical illusion. No way a wild freestone brown in 32.8-degree water would whack a streamer on touch down. On the next cast I dropped my streamer on slack line right at the head of the cutbank, gave it a single twitch, and wham—the year’s first good hit. Since then I’ve become a devotee of winter brown trout fishing.
THE RIGHT BITE
Late-winter water conditions put the angler at a great advantage. Pre-runoff rivers are typically clear and low, which can make locating trout as predictable as during that other clear-and-low time of year, late summer. And with less river, your fly on any given cast covers that much more of it: advantage angler. None of this would matter, of course, if fish weren’t on the feed. But March brown trout certainly are: The lengthening days and bump in temperatures that usually come in March send a message of metabolic urgency to the fish after months of relative dormancy.
That all said, when it comes to fishing March brown trout, there are two fundamentally different approaches: running-and-gunning from a moving drift boat or fishing slowly and thoughtfully on foot. Both have their advantages and pleasures. But the skill set—and mindset—each approach requires is different.
Covering a ton of water with a big fly from a drift boat can be either an über-efficient way to fish or a big, cold waste of time. Pounding water from a moving boat is all about playing percentages, and those percentages depend on making consistent and quality presentations throughout the day. Make each cast count by vetting your cast locations. Got a deep, slow, outside bend where you can’t see the bottom? Don’t waste casts there. Instead, direct your efforts to where you can see bottom, if only barely. This ensures that any fish that does see your fly doesn’t have to move too terribly far to whack it.
Late-winter streamers generally come in two flavors: flies that jig (Circus Peanuts, Sex Dungeons) and flies that swerve (Double Ds, Flash Monkeys). Having one of each in an understated natural color as well as a flashy attractor pattern is really all you need to show fish a few different looks throughout the day. And the less you have to think about your flies, the more you can think about your cast. All other things being equal, choose the fly that you feel good about, the idea being that a confidence fly helps you keep your edge, and edge is what allows you to hunt effectively over the course of 10 to 12 miles of river.
In contrast to the swing-for-the-fences approach of the boat game, the wading angler’s approach is just to make contact. Subtle, precise presentations become paramount, so a 6-weight rod that allows you to deliver softly and strategically wins out over a broomstick. Lines are different, too. Most fishermen prefer presentation lines for the wading streamer game—that is, lines with a rear taper that allow for easier aerial and on-the-water mending. A 9-foot tapered leader with a stout butt section connects you to your fly. When you wade, you’re not jarring a few mean-feeling fish into reacting so much as you are enticing every single trout into eating. Fly-wise, this means it’s time to downsize and de-flash. Opt for more imitative patterns like leeches and sculpins made with natural materials for plenty of passive action.
Because fishing on foot really gives you the ability to soak a spot, make it a point to be on the best water during the chow-down hours of the day, which in late winter means 1 to 3 pm. Work the top spots with a variety of presentations—swinging, dredging, and stripping. And don’t give up before that midday window. Be there and you’ll see firsthand just how great the end of the winter season can be.