Smoky Mountain Stream Journal:

January (1/09/08):

More on Fishing Cold Water:
I will try to answer three different questions in email I received from the cold
water article of January 6, 2008.
1. The
first question was pertaining to when to use dry flies and when to use
nymphs. Making this decision solely based on water temperature could be a big
mistake. There are times when you may want to fish a nymph when the water
temperature is 55 degrees F. and higher. There is no magic range for either
one. I think what this person really meant to ask is "when does the water get to
cold to catch trout on the dry fly". With some exceptions I want go into, the
general answer is around 45 degrees. I have caught them in the park on dry
adult caddis pattern at slightly lower temperatures, 42 to 44 degrees. This was
after the Little Black Caddisflies began hatching following a day or two of 50
degree water. If there is a lot of food on the surface the trout will usually eat it.
The trout will usually eat the emerging pupae much more readily but in the
particular case I am referring to, they continued to hit the drys.
Generally speaking, the trout will respond on the surface very well when the
water reaches 50 degrees for a day or two. Dry fly fishing can even be excellent
at this temperature provided hatches are occurring. We generally would start out
fishing a nymph if the water temperature was below 50 degrees. Trout will eat
the nymphs readily when it is between 45 and 50 degrees. You can catch them,
very well in this temperature range provided other things are favorable.  If you
find the fish concentrated, when it is between 40 and 45 degrees, you can catch
a lot of them.
We have caught fish for the last three days including today. Day before
yesterday, we caught three rainbows fishing only a couple of hours in water that
was only 44 degrees F. That was all I could take with broke ribs. Yesterday, the
water temperature was in the high forties most places we stopped and we still
caught some fish. All were taken on the nymph. Today, we fished the Walker's
Camp Prong and caught a couple of brook trout and one rainbow on a nymph
fishing less than two hours. The water was beautiful. I did not take the
temperature because I left my vest with my thermometer in it at home after
changing fly boxes last night.
next email was pertaining to where to find the fish. More specifically on the
bottom, mid range or surface. There is no answer to this question. The trout may
be in either of those water levels depending on many factors. The water
temperature is not one of them. When trout are inactive they tend to stay on or
near the bottom. This also gives them some protection from overhead predators.
You may also find them in very shallow water and of course suspended in
between the bottom and surface. The water temperature is not the factor.
Remember, the fish are perfectly comfortable anywhere in the stream as far as
the temperature is concerned.
The main thing to look for is slow to still water. They want hold for long in fast
water because they will expend more energy than they can take in. Now the
problem with this is that you may be looking at a fast run, for example, with the
surface water moving very fast, when down near the bottom, between and
behind rocks, the water may be moving very slow. In some cases it may move
very little. So you cannot go by what you see on the surface. Near the banks, for
another example, the water may be swift. However, there is usually some
pockets along the bank where it move slow, eddies and can even be practically
Just keep in mind, moving water can be deceptive. Trout do not need depth from
a temperature standpoint. It would be a rare situation in the Smokies for the
water to get warmer deeper. The streams are generally not that deep. Even if
they were, keep in mind, trout do not move to warmer water for comfort. They will
feed more in warmer water but they want move strictly for temperature purposes.
last question is easy to answer. It was "do you need to fish the sunny
areas of the water in the winter"? The answer to that (unless you can find some
still water in the Smokies and there is little of that) is no. The sun has the effect
of helping to warm the entire stream, even if it shines in only a few places. Since
the water is moving, it makes no difference in the water temperature, even in the
area the sun is shinning on. It may help you keep warm and it may even help
you think you will do better but that is about it. It doesn't mean the water is
warmer there than it is downstream.
As ridiculous as it is, sometimes I believe that just the fact that anglers
sometimes feel cold when they are fishing during very cold weather, allows their
mind to play games on them. Solutions like "Fishing the sunny spots"; "thinking
that the trout are cold, and looking for warm water (in the same sense we warm
blooded creatures get cold)"; "fishing deep and on the bottom is the answer";
"you can't catch trout in cold water" and other mistaken beliefs compare well to
some of the best ever "Old Wives Tales".    

Copyright 2008 James Marsh