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Fly Fishing in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey

Top 10 Flies for Winter Fly Fishing in Pennsylvania

Ralph holding a trout caught while winter fishing
Winter fly fishing in Pennsylvania is all about simplicity. There’s no need to carry a wide range of flies to match a hatch – although we do have a couple of winter hatches, which I’ll discuss below. But this time of year, catching trout is more about using a handful of flies effectively than having a fly box full of options. And these 10 flies are pretty much all I carry this time of year.

1. Zebra Midge. In fact, I wouldn’t go anywhere, at any time, without Zebra Midges in sizes 16-20. Although black is the primary color, I also like having this with me in red and olive – red, especially, can be a really hot color.

A red Zebra Midge
Zebra Midges in black, red, and olive in sizes 16-20 are "must haves" for winter fly fishing in Pennsylvania.

2. Brassie. This simple little fly is a must for your winter fly box. It has just the right amount of flash with the wire body, and the contrast of the peacock herl collar triggers strikes. Copper is the traditional color for this pattern, but in recent years, I’ve had a lot of success with a green/olive wire body, too. Sizes 14-18.

A Brassie fly nymph.
Brassies have a slim, subtle, and deadly profile that winter trout love to eat. Try tying these with different colors of wire body for more variety.

3. Copper John. Small, flashy flies do well in winter, and the Copper John is a perfect example. The combination of higher water levels, cold temperatures, and lethargic trout means you need a fly to get down quickly and catch their attention, and that’s what the Copper John does. It has a larger profile than the Brassie and can imitate a variety of nymphs and stoneflies. Sizes 10-18.

A Copper John Nymph
Copper Johns are a deadly pattern that imitates a variety of nymphs and stoneflies.

4. Sexy Walt. Although I tie this one on a jig-style hook that is traditionally used for Euronymphing, you don’t need a Euro rod setup to fish the Sexy Walt. Just fish it as you would any other nymph in your box and you’ll quickly see what a killer it is all year long. The basic body imitates a number of insects, and the orange hot spot triggers the strike. Sizes 12-16.

Sexy Walt Euro Nymph
The Sexy Walt is a go-to fly any time of year.

5. Woolly Buggers. Sometimes winter trout prefer a big, hearty meal. Although customary cold weather patterns are small, drifting a size 8 or 10 Woolly Bugger can turn a slow day into a memorable outing. Woolly Buggers are extremely versatile in how they’re fished. You can strip them, swing them, dead-drift them, or any combination. Also, they’re big and gaudy enough that trout will strike out of a territorial response just as often as they will because they’re hungry. Personally, I don’t care what makes them hit my fly…as long as they hit it! Sizes 6-12.

Woolly buggers in a variety of colors are a must for fall fly fishing
A good selection of Woolly Buggers in multiple sizes and colors can turn a slow day into a great day in the winter

6. Mop Fly. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Mop Flies catch trout, and I’ve had the most success with them during the winter months. In fact, once November rolls around, I start relying on Mops more and more as my go-to pattern when nothing else seems to work. My favorite winter color is chartreuse. This color has saved my bacon more than I care to admit. If you’re in the mood for a tongue-in-cheek ode to Mop Flies, check out this previous post: “Mop Fly, I Hate You.” Size 10.

A Mop Fly
The Mop Fly. 'Nuff said.

7. Squirmy Wormy. Of course, this one had to be here. This silicone-version of the San Juan Worm works any time of year, but I like the brighter colors for winter trout. You can read about “Fishing and Tying the Squirmy Wormy” here. Size 12.

A bright green squirmy wormy
Bright-colored Squirmy Wormy flies work exceptionally well in winter.

8. Egg Patterns. Everyone seems to have their favorite egg pattern, whether it’s a Glo Bug tied with or without a blood dot, a Sucker Spawn, a Squirminator, or any number of variations. My favorite egg pattern for winter fly fishing – and for fly fishing any other time – just happens to be the Y2K. I carry this in a variety of colors, but the combinations that seem to work best are shrimp pink/white, orange/chartreuse, and shrimp pink/chartreuse. For a changeup, I will tie on a purple/champagne Y2K, which can be amazingly effective at times. Sizes 12-14.

Y2K egg pattern
Y2K's are my favorite egg patterns. Carry them in a variety of colors. You never know which one is going to be the hot color.

9. Kaufmann Stonefly Nymph. Nothing like a big ol’ nymph to get the attention of winter trout, and the Kaufmann Stonefly Nymph is probably the best of the bunch. It works any time of year, too, and I generally carry it in sizes 10-14.

The Kaufmann Stonefly Nymph
The Kaufmann Stonefly Nymph is sizes 10-14 are must haves for winter fly fishing in Pennsylvania

10. Blue Wing Olive. This is the only dry fly pattern that’s a must to carry this time of year. Many streams have hatches of winter olives, usually in sizes 18-22 – and many times smaller – that cause the trout to feed on the surface. Blue Wing Olives are the most prevalent mayfly in Pennsylvania and are found on a large variety of streams and rivers across the state year round.

A Parachute BWO in size 18
A Parachute BWO in size 18 and smaller is a good winter dry fly pattern.

Bonus Track. A good Little Black Stonefly dry fly pattern, size 16, is always good to have with you, too. The only reason this one isn’t a “must have” is because trout don’t always key on these even when there are a bunch of them on the water. Many times, I’ve hit tremendous hatches of this fly on Buffalo Creek, Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, and East Hickory Creek and saw barely more than the occasional trout sporadically feeding on them. However, I did hit this hatch on Yellow Creek once in February and had the time of my life. If you want to be a minimalist and prefer flies that fit multiple needs, carry a size 16 black Elk Hair Caddis instead. In a pinch, this can pick up those Little Black Stonefly sippers.

3 Winter Fly Fishing Tips

  1. Fish slow. Cold water and higher water levels often mean the trout will be a little more lethargic this time of year. Just because a fish doesn’t hit the first time you drift your nymph past it doesn’t mean no trout are present.

  2. Fish deep. Trout are most likely hugging the bottom when it gets cold. Make sure your nymphs are on the bottom, too.

  3. Fish the sunshine. Feeding windows can be short during the winter months. There’s no need to hit the water at sunrise and battle ice in your rod guides. Sleep in and plan to fish the nicest, and warmest, part of the day. This is usually when the insects get most active, which then get the trout most active.

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