If you’re regularly fly fishing the famous Taupo rivers from June to September, you will be familiar with the fun and frustration of winter fly fishing. Sometimes it’s all on and you can hardly make a cast without catching a fish and other days it’s tough not to blank. If you are an angler that likes nymphing you’ll also be familiar with the woes of casting a 12-15 foot leader with a chunk of tungsten or lead plus a budgie-sized yarn indicator. You’ll have put a tungsten “bomb” fly through an earlobe or into the back of your head at some point in your winter fly fishing career and now you probably duck on every forward cast, especially when there is a little bit of wind.
Fear not, I have 10 tips that may help you avoid some of the common winter nymphing problems, to some degree at least.
1 - Find the fish
There is a saying among fishermen, “Don’t leave fish to find fish” and that is very true in winter. These trout move through the river in schools and if you have just caught one, that means there are probably more there. So don’t leave, keep fishing until you stop catching them for a good while.
The opposite is also true. There is no point flogging a pool for an hour if you have not even hooked a fish. They can swim and they do move. While catching them there yesterday means there is a good chance there may be some in the same spot tomorrow, it is no guarantee. This is especially true in the early season when the rivers don’t have that many trout in them yet and the runs move upstream relatively fast. Explore until you find some trout, then slow down and catch them all. That can often be the difference between a great day’s fishing and a good day’s casting practice.
2 - Fish to their depth
In winter the trout in the rivers around Lake Taupo don’t behave like they do in summer. They won’t be coming up and eating your dry fly off the top, at least I have never seen such a thing. Instead, they hunker down on the bottom and won’t move far to intercept a fly. So it is very important to get your fly to their depth. This is something that can be difficult to achieve in the often swift and deep rivers of the central plateau. So make sure you are using enough weight to get down to their level without trawling the bottom or killing your casting.
3 - Mending is the key
Good mending that gets you a natural drift will also help those flies get down. Drag won’t only make your flies look unnatural but it will lift them up off the bottom and away from the trout you want to hook. Learn to read the currents. If your flies are in slow water and you have a faster current between you and your flies you need to mend upstream and the opposite is true when the current is slower between you and your flies. Reach casts, where you mend in the air, can be a really big advantage to get into a good starting position for a long drift.
4 - Move closer
Mending is a great help but often you are casting way further than you need to. If it’s safe, just wade in closer after fishing the water in front of you. Casting across multiple currents when all you need to do is take a few steps to get a great drift is unnecessary. Getting closer also makes casting easier and you may only need to pick up and flip it out. Less false casting with heavy rigs and long leaders is always better.
5 - Water load
That brings me to the next point. If you have ever had one of those tungsten bombs crash into the back of your head or dealt with the tangled mess a level 12-foot 3x leader can create then you need to listen.
The water is your friend. Water loading is great when you deal with these rigs. It’s winter, you don’t need to be worried about spooking fish. I’ve cast into a school of trout and watched them scatter like scared rabbits only to reform into a tight school and eat my fly within seconds. Winter is just different. It’s a numbers game.
6 - Roll cast
Probably the best way to avoid those tungsten beads or lead shot whacking you in the head is to roll cast. Using the heavy flies as an anchor for a big D loop you’ll get pretty much the same casting distance you can overhead, without all the fuss. Add in some Spey casting techniques and learn the Tongariro roll cast then you might never need to overhead cast again. I have always used a regular weight forward fly line for my roll casting but next week I am picking up a specialist TRC line from Airflo that is designed specifically for Tongariro roll casting. I really look forward to giving it a go. Hopefully, it will live up to expectations.
7 - Consider split shot and unweighted flies
I have mentioned how important it is to fish at the right depth and that means the right weight. Too heavy and you are just dragging the bottom and snagging. The trout aren’t going to dig your flies out between the rocks. Too light and it goes over their heads.
Unfortunately, we are all lazy anglers and once you have tied on the standard hare and copper and globug team you aren’t likely to change much. That’s why I have come to love split-shot instead of the dreaded heavy “bomb” fly that doesn’t catch anything half the time. Consider using two unweighted flies instead e.g. a size 14 pheasant tail and a globug or egg pattern of your choice and put them on a dropper rig. Now just add a split shot above the dropper knot and you can chop and change and test flies as you want. If you use any clip-on style split shot you can change the weight at the drop of a hat by adding and removing the shot. So now there are no excuses to be lazy anymore.
8 - Make sure your indicator floats
There is nothing more annoying than your indicator sinking 10 seconds into your perfect drift because it is waterlogged. There is a variety of reasons for this. Firstly it might just be too small for the weight you have on if you combined that with a leader that’s too short, it will go under very quickly with no fish near it. Another common problem is using cheap yarn that sucks up water. For me, wool works the best but others I know use special synthetics that apparently work really well. Make sure you fluff them up so they look like a little parachute. A tiny comb is handy for this and you can use it to comb floatant into the fibres. The New Zealand strike indicator system that I use comes with a little comb like that.
Adding a bit of floatant also really helps but be careful if you are using gel floatant, if you make it tacky and all the fibres stick together then you have done more damage than good. Pre-treating your indicator yarn with liquid floatant before your trip and letting it dry out is a popular option.
Once your indicator starts to sink frequently it’s worth replacing it. I often do this several times a day. Your indicator is very important for successfully detecting trout taking your flies, so make sure it is doing its job.
9 - Fish the “little” spots
It’s tempting to think all the trout are piled into the big pools and a lot of anglers spend their days hopping from pool to pool but I often find it’s those hidden “little” spots that can save the day or produce some incredible fishing. If it looks likely, it probably is and sometimes even knee-deep spots behind a boulder or log or at the head of a pool can hold a heap of trout. Plus these spots are often much easier to fish. If you see a likely spot take those few extra steps and put a few casts in there. You’ll soon find out if you have struck “silver” if the indicator dips and the line shoots off.
10 - Give euro nymphing a try
I love casting a fly line too but to be honest it can be more of a pain in winter. Those heavy rigs and rods aren’t all that much fun and euro nymphing presents a very effective alternative, especially in the smaller Taupo rivers. It’s a pleasant way to fish and light on the body too so give it a try one day, you might just end up converted.
Now all these tips should be helpful but if you are a new fly fisher or visiting from somewhere you normally only fish dry flies and light nymphs in the summer, this style of fishing can be a shock to the system. There is a lot to put together to be consistently successful. So I have a few suggestions to help you out. The first is to join a fly fishing club if you have one in your area. It’s how I learned most of what I know. Clubs have plenty of like-minded and experienced anglers that are willing to help.
The next option is hiring a guide. A good guide that is willing to teach you can save you years of struggle while getting you into fish you’d never have caught on your own. It is an expensive option that many can’t afford, so if you can make use of it.
The third option for DIYers like me is my Guide to Fly Fishing Taupo Rivers in Winter. Shameless self-promotion, I know, but I did put over 20 years of experience into the course with over 3 hours of detailed video instruction plus regular updates throughout the season. So check out the preview video below and see if it is for you.
Lastly, have a look at my YouTube channel. I have lots and lots of fly fishing videos including many from Taupo rivers during winter where I often share plenty of tips. Below is one of my most recent ones. I hope you found this post useful, tight lines till next time.