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Best Nymphs For Winter Fly Fishing Colorado

When it comes to winter fly fishing, the fly selection often becomes much more simplified. There are a crazy amount of hatches in the summertime, but in the winter – not so much.

On most of our Colorado rivers, the food sources present in the winter are midges and stoneflies. Stoneflies are more prominent on our freestone rivers (which have no dam). For tailwaters below a dam, midges are pretty much the only main food source during the winter months.

Just because midges are the main food source for trout during winter, it doesn’t mean that is all you should be fishing. We often have a large attractor fly as our first nymph. This allows your flies to get down quickly, but it also gives the trout a larger offering if they want it. For this first large fly, you can use a pats rubberlegs, a copper john, or a big pheasant tail. You can also use a heavier jig style fly with a tungsten bead. Fishing large flies in the winter may seem surprising, but you’ll be impressed at how often the trout will go for your larger fly.

Behind your first fly, a series of two midges is often the best way to go. We are often running lighter tippet to these midges as well. Since you can fish up to 3 flies in Colorado, why not give yourself the best chances of fooling a trout?

Zebra Midges, Brassies, Copper Johns, Eggs, and Rainbow Warriors are some of the best winter nymphs for Colorado.

This article will cover the best nymphs for winter fly fishing Colorado streams and rivers. Although they are biased towards this area, they will work in any of the western trout states. Trout are pretty simple creatures, and their winter food sources are even more simple. The flies in this article will help you catch trout on any western river during the winter time.

#1 Zebra Midge Nymph

This fly is one of the most well known patterns. It catches trout just about anywhere in the world, and it also super easy to tie. Although midge patterns have recently gotten very fancy, the zebra midge is a good old standby.

The most popular colors are black, red and brown – but many other colors can also produce fish. Common sizes of the zebra midge are a #16 down to a #22. During the winter months, #20’s and #22’s will get you the most bites. You can even go down to a size #24 if the water is really technical. Sometimes tailwater trout will really prefer #24’s all winter long, but it depends on your water. Winter midges tend to be quite small, so matching your flies accordingly makes sense.

In the photo above I have tied my zebras on a #20 jig hook. They catch the bottom way less often, but they remain small and sparse so they can fool trout. If you haven’t messed around with jig fly variations, give it a try. Since the hook rides upright, you don’t snag nearly as often. This will keep more flies in your box and more money in your pocket. Flies are pricey!

#2 Brassie Nymph

The original brassie is an underrated fly in my opinion. Without a bead head, it can fool even the pickiest of trout. I love the original copper color, but red and blue can also work great. Experimenting with different wire colors can really pay off. Sometimes trout will shy away from bead heads in the winter, so having midges without these beads can be really beneficial. The flashiness of a bead head is usually not a problem for trout – but low flows can make these fish reject your fly.

Certain tailwaters like the Fryingpan just fish better without bead heads. Ask any local what they are fishing in the winter on the Fryingpan – I bet you most will have midges without beads.

The brassie is also super simple to tie. It is one of the flies that you can really save money on if you tie it yourself. Ultrawire and peacock herl are the only materials you’ll need.

#3 Small Copper Johns

While larger copper johns are a great summer bug, the smaller sizes can really fool trout during the winter months. Size #20’s and #22’s can entice a fish on those really tough days. Black is often an overlooked color on the copper john – when I tie a #22 black copper john on, it usually works out well. These small CJ’s can be an absolute pain to tie, so usually i’ll just buy them. It is already quite an involved pattern, so tying them in a #22 can be quite frustrating.

One of the great things is that even a small copper john can help get your flies down. In some instances, you can use them instead of a splitshot.

#4 Eggs

While fly fishers generally fish eggs in the spring and the fall, winter can be a great time to fish them as well. Just because trout aren’t spawning doesn’t mean they won’t eat an egg.

While the trout beads have gotten really popular over the years, I really don’t like them. First of all, it’s not a fly. It’s a piece of plastic. I have used them in the past but now I opt for a yarn egg or a “glo bug”. Trout beads are extremely effective, but if i’m fly fishing, I would rather fish only flies.

While large egg patterns can be effective, I really like using the smaller ones during the winter. Size #18 eggs or even #20 eggs can fool trout non stop. It is a more believable size and it doesn’t intimidate them like a huge egg can. I love orange and chartreuse for my egg colors.

If you are tying them, I highly recommend Mcfly Foam. It really springs out to form the perfect egg. The egg yarn just doesn’t work as well in my opinion. Although Mcfly Foam is pricier, I think it is definitely worth it.

#5 Thread Midges

Thread midges are an extremely simple fly. The body is made entirely of thread, and then epoxy or UV resin is added to give it a more midge-ey look. Certain fly tyers have made their own versions of these, and you can really use any color you want. By only using thread, you can keep the body thin and more realistic looking. Midges are not thick bugs in real life, they are quite sparse. Sometimes you can add a wire ribbing to give the fly some life. In that case, it is basically a zebra midge with no bead.

Although you can use dull colored thread midges, I find that bright colors do really well. Red, orange and pink are all favorites in my fly box. They entice a reaction from a trout due to their crazy colors. Even on technical tailwaters, the bright colors do really well. You can also switch thread colors halfway through the fly. Multiple colors can work really well. Especially if the head is a different color than the body.

#6 Rainbow Warrior Nymph

This Lance Egan pattern needs no introduction. It works great and its very famous. However, the smaller sizes are often overlooked and they can be great for winter nymphing. I have been fishing #22 rainbow warriors a lot, and they really put fish in the net during the winter. This “tiny ‘n shiny” thing goes back to the thread midges as well. If its very small and flashy, trout will eat it during the winter. The key to the small rainbow warrior is to tie them very sparse. Less material = a better fly. If you can keep the whole profile thin, it can make a big difference. Often times, fly manufacturers tie these patterns too thick, and they don’t work as well.

The black rainbow warriors have also gotten quite popular. If the fish want a more subdued pattern, the black version really works wonders.

I also like warriors with a glass bead instead of a tungsten bead. These mercury beads look like an air bubble, which is what happens when midges are rising in the water column. Therefore, I have incorporated glass beads into most of my winter patterns. Killer Caddis (Wapsi) makes the best glass beads in my opinion, but there are many options. The small size is often too large, so opt for the “midge” size.

#7 Bling Midge

Although the bling midge is very simple, it will fool a trout just about anywhere. The dark body with the small bit of flash is just perfect for winter time nymphing.

They come in black, brown and charcoal – which are very realistic colors for the midge hatches we get in the west. If you’re on a piece of water where the trout are difficult, the bling midge should get the job done. Even the most educated trout will be fooled by this fly.

I really like to trail the bling midge off something a bit larger, like a stonefly. Trout will often eat the bling midge at the end of your drift, when the fly is “swinging”.

#8 Pats Rubberleg Nymph

This fly is definitely my favorite attractor when it comes to winter time fishing. Freestone fish love it, since there are so many stoneflies in the river. They are just used to eating them. However, tailwater fish can also be fooled by the pats.

I like to fish them smaller in the winter time. Usually ranging from a size #12 to a #16. The darker colors do well here in Colorado, with the black/brown being my personal favorite. You can really play around with colors on the pats rubberlegs. There are so many types of chenille and legs that any combination is possible. Some days the trout will key in more on a specific color.

This fly really shines on larger freestones in the west. For us here on the western slope, the colorado river is the spot. Trout there will eat the pats all winter long.

If you’re fishing a tailwater and still want to try the pats, I would recommend sizing it down. A #16 can be great to fool those tough trout.

Since the pats rubberlegs is wrapped with lead wire , it will work great instead of having to add splitshot.

#9 Large Pheasant Tail Nymphs

These come in handy when choosing a large attractor for your first fly. I prefer the CDC collared pheasant tails with a large tungsten bead. Jigged styles work even better, as they will not snag the bottom as much.

Although I use large pheasant tails mainly to get my fly down, it is often shocking how many trout will eat it instead of the midges. Sometimes, winter trout just love a big food source. If they are in the right mood, they just might take your largest fly.

There are so many variation of the pheasant tail, but any one with a tungsten bead makes a great dropper fly to get your rig down.

#10 The 20 Incher Nymph

This is another great stonefly imitation that can serve as a lead attractor fly. We like to fish the tungsten bead version to get it down faster in the water column. The 20 incher has been a staple fly for years in many fishermans fly boxes. It works great in the summer months, but a lot of people don’t think to fish it during the winter time.

The fact is, large stoneflies are still present in the river during the winter. They aren’t as abundant as they are during summer, but they are still there. Trout are used to seeing them and eating them all the time. If you put a large 20 incher in front of a trouts face, he just might eat it.

If you are fishing shallower water and don’t need much weight, you can fish the unweighted version of the 20 incher. This has no bead and won’t sink much at all. This is great for shallow holding water where you need to be stealthier.

If you are on a technical tailwater, feel free to size down your 20 incher fly. Fishing it in a size #16 or #18 can work wonders for picky trout. These micro stone sizes are very realistic during the winter. There are lots of miniature stoneflies in the river substrate, and trout key in on them.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article gave you a better idea of which nymphs to use during the winter. Every fly fisherman has their favorites, and someone else’s list is likely completely different from mine.

As you catch more trout on a certain fly, you begin to have confidence in that fly. Confidence is key with any type of fishing, and it allows you to put more fish in the net.

Having a selection of “confidence flies” can make your next fishing trip much more enjoyable. you can dial in your nymph rig better and start catching more fish. A fly that I don’t like might be your next confidence fly – everyone has their personal favorites when it comes to fly patterns.

If you are headed to a new western trout area and you aren’t sure which bugs to use – stop into the local fly shop. Fly shops are what keep our culture alive and it is very important that we support them when we can. They also know the surrounding waters very well, and can set you up with a perfect little fly selection.