Fly Fishing in Winter

is About Simplicity and a Little Planning

Article by James Holland  ● Photography Courtesy of Shannon’s Fly & Tackle


“And if ye angler take fysshe; surely thenne is there noo man merrier than he is in his spyryte.” - Dame Juliana Berners The Boke of St. Albans, 1496

The leaves sloughed under my feet as I hurriedly made my way down the woodland path. It was late November and the afternoon light was fleeting, already sunset was passing. Squirrels busied themselves single-mindedly searching and burying hickory, acorns and walnuts. I wondered how many might they forget to dig up. So many trees owe their start to the absentmindedness of squirrels.  I was dressed for the cold and for fly fishing so the absurdity of my appearance only gave them momentary pause. There was no real plan, just get to the next likely pool and hopefully connect with a trout. Along the way, I looked up and in the same view, I observed both a Great Blue Heron and a King Fisher, the former startled from her late afternoon buffet and the latter neatly perched in a tree. I was beginning to feel connected…. “Is it the fish that we catch or does the fish catch us?”  A short while later, as a beautiful nine inch wild Brown wriggled on the end of my line the answer arrived: “Yes, I was the one who was caught in this scene; privileged to be another actor on Nature’s stage.”

To some it may be a surprise that women have played such an important role in the development of fly fishing. Dame Juliana Berners was an English noblewoman and prioress of Sopwell Nunnery near St. Albans. Her classic work, A Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth An Angle was published in 1496, a full 150 years before Isaak Walton’s famous The Compleat Angler in 1653. Dame Juliana shared tactics and fly recipes and advocated for conservation long before it came into fashion. Many women’s angling clubs, including at least one in our area, are named for her. I hope to explore this topic further in future columns to celebrate the past and continuing presence and contributions of women in our great sport.

On November 11th, Shannon’s and the Raritan Inn, in conjunction with the New Jersey State Council of Trout Unlimited held our annual New Jersey Fly Fisherman of the Year One Fly Contest and Banquet on Shannon’s Private Waters . The banquet and auction were held in the restored barn at the Inn. The contest was tight with the top three anglers separated by mere inches of total fish caught but in the end, Anita Salter Coulten was the champion angler representing Casting For Recovery an organization that supports cancer survivors by introducing them to fly fishing. In addition to being married, the mother of three and a physical therapist, Anita is a guide on the West Branch of the Delaware. Congratulations to Anita and all participants. Danny Rodriguez received the TU Lifetime Achievement Award for his six or more decades of work in coldwater conservation.

At the banquet, Brian Cowden of Troutscapes, was our featured presenter. Brian has been active in our area’s conservation landscape for years - first as a member of Trout Unlimited, then as TU’s only paid staffer working primarily on the Musconetcong River removing dams and restoring the river to a more natural state. Now he has his own design firm, working with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and private landowners on local waters such as Capoolong Creek, Spruce Run Creek, The Musky and soon the South Branch and Lamington Rivers as well.

As we move into the holiday season some things are certain.  Pottersville will be renamed Bedford Falls, the scene of It’s a Wonderful Life. Houses and trees will come alive with the symbols of the season and Bubba will return to the South Branch. It has become a holiday tradition for us at Shannon’s to hold a winter fishing contest. Unlike Thanksgiving for turkeys, this one usually has a happier ending for the trout.  Two large tagged trout along with several hundred others will be stocked by mid-December in and around Califon on the South Branch of the Raritan. Catch and remove the tag from the fish’s jaw and release the fish to win a new fly rod or other equivalent prize at the shop. We need photos for sure and we want to know the fish was released. Tim Flagler,, produces an entertaining short video that will chronicle the stocking. Anglers eagerly await the video to study it for possible clues regarding Bubba’s location! 

Another winter activity at the shop is fly tying. Saturdays from December to March we offer Beginner Fly Tying with Stan Marciniak. Stan is a longtime member of Jersey Shore Trout Unlimited and is a skilled and patient teacher, whose enthusiasm for the sport seems to increase year by year. On the second, third and fourth Sundays of the month, we feature other fly tyers such as Matt Grobert, Tim Flagler, John Collins and others who excel in innovative as well as traditional tying. Shannon’s own Len Ruggia recently kicked off the tying season with a presentation on some of his favorite winter patterns. All classes are free and seating is first come, first served at 9:30 am. On February 25, 2018 fly tyers, both local and from around the region will gather at the Califon Firehouse for our annual Sparse Grey Matter Fly Tying Show. The event is free and open to the public and runs from 10am until 3pm. Lunch and beverages are available for sale courtesy of the Califon Volunteer Fire Department.  Details and video of the event can be seen on our website at: 

For many, winter fly fishing is their favorite season. Yes, it is often cold; warm socks, layered clothing and thermal underwear are a must. There is often snow and ice to contend with but the rewards are solitude and often some of the largest trout of the year. We are happy to introduce anglers to this overlooked time and the shop can be contacted for a guided fishing outing.

Fly fishing in winter is about simplicity and a little planning. Remember that most life in the stream is growing for the next season. Downsize favorite patterns such as the Pheasant Tail, Hare’s Ear or Prince nymphs and yes, use beadhead versions of these flies. In fact with one or two exceptions, flies should be small this time of year, several sizes smaller than spring versions to match the immature mayfly nymphs and caddis larva commonly found during the winter season. A size 16 is a great place to start and expect to fish size 18-22. Another great winter pattern is the Copper John. Try a traditional copper version but don’t forget to carry some in black wire as we move into January and February. It is a deadly stonefly imitation and the Early Black Stoneflies will begin to appear in earnest at that time. The larva of the Early Black Caddis Chimarra aterrima will become active in February usually by President’s Day. These amber colored larva drift freely in the current and are eagerly sought after by a hungry late winter trout.

Fish are always looking for high calorie foods and the fall spawning season may have left trout eggs for the taking. Always carry small size 18 egg and sucker spawn patterns in Orange, Cream and Pink. I prefer to fish them in a tandem with a slightly slack line to give the appearance of an egg mass tumbling along the bottom. Midges often hatch on warmer winter days and midge fishing has a devoted following. Try fishing one of John Collins’ Kaleidoscope Midges, Matt Grobert’s Pumpkin head or Lenny’s Hot Bead Midges in sizes 18-22. The traditional Black or Red Zebra Midge or Rainbow Warrior #18-22 behind one of the Hare’s Ear, Prince, Pheasant Tail or Copper John  nymphs. A grey RS2 #18-22 is also a deadly trailing fly. Scuds are an aquatic shrimp that are active all year round. They can be an important source of food for trout in winter. I prefer using Grey or Tan patterns in sizes 14-18. The Walt’s Worm imitates the numerous Crane fly Larva found in our area’s rivers and streams. They look like an aquatic caterpillar. Finally, don’t forget streamers. Fish will look for a big meal in winter; a Wooly Bugger or Sculpin fished slowly along the bottom is something that trout have a hard time letting go by.


Fly of the Season: The Frenchie


This fly comes courtesy of Tim Flagler. A great video of this and many more patterns can be found at The story goes that a young angler from France was angling quite successfully in a fly fishing competition tournament. His fellow fly fishers asked him what he was using. Wisely, he refused to divulge his secret pattern until after he won the contest! The secret to the fly are the realistic fibers used in the body and tail, in this case Pheasant Tail and Coq De Leon respectively along with the attractive “hot spot” collar of pink thread just behind the bead. The pattern can be tied on a traditional nymph hook or one of the newer and highly effective jig style hooks. If you use the jig hook, make sure to use faceted tungsten beads to fit the hook.


Hook:  Dai Rikki 060, 3906B Mustad or Lightning Strike

Competition Jig Fly Hook size 14-18


Thread: UTC Fluorescent Pink 70 Denier


Bead: Gold Cyclops or Tungsten Slotted Bead


Tail: Coq De Leon


Abdomen: Pheasant tail, Natural


Thorax: Hareline UV Pink Ice Dubbing 


Hot Spot: Fluorescent Pink UTC 70 Denier whip finished


Rib: Gold Wire


Weight: .015 Lead Free Wire

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