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Fly Fishing in Virginia - Winter

Fly Fishing in Virginia - Winter

This is the time of year when only the gonzo anglers come out to play. When everyone else is bundled up in a deer stand or curled up by the woodstove there’s a select few who enjoy standing in water when the air temperature could be below freezing.


If you’re looking to be one of those anglers then look no further, because this is the guide to winter fly fishing at not just the South River, but also Virginia.


The South River


The South River Runs through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Waynesboro, Virginia. This spring fed river stays the perfect temperature year-round to hold trout. Never getting too warm during the hot and humid summers and never freezing even in the middle of winter.


You’ll be fishing at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains where you might see snow-capped peaks. When the sun pokes through the clouds they’ll shine bright in the background as you mend you’re fly line and break ice from your guides.


If breaking ice from your guides doesn’t sound like a good time, then don’t worry. Virginia’s winters are mild compared to the rest of the country with high temperatures normally in the 40’s. Lows can get below freezing though so avoiding fishing before mid-morning is best for avoiding the cold.


 You should be wary of the weather though. Daytime highs below freezing are possible and can make the difference if you’re not dressed properly.


Neoprene waders can be used in extremely cold temperatures, but normally all you need to do is layer sweat suits and compression tops and bottoms to keep warm under your waders. The good news is that the water will be nowhere near as cold as the air.


In winter, the river flows around 2.5-3 cfs. Making it ideal for wading.


Just because the water doesn’t freeze doesn’t mean you can fish it like you would in Spring, Summer, or Fall though. Insect hatches are minimal, and you’re fly box will be whittled down to only a handful of flies.


Fishing the South


My first winter fishing the South was easily the coldest winter of the last ten years. There were several weeks in a row of highs in the single digits or teens and while the main portion of the river was flowing great, there was a foot of ice on the banks that I haven’t seen before or since.


The first trip out there was early in the morning. The high that day was supposed to be 17F and was currently sitting at 6F. Waiting until the high wouldn’t have changed much so I decided to go early and be back at the house around noon to get some chili going, watch some football and warm up.


I live on the other side of the Blue Ridge, and as I drove up and over the mountain, I looked down at the valley below and saw they’d gotten snow overnight. This is typical as the valley can have completely different weather than where I live despite me only being twenty minutes away.


The snow didn’t affect the fishing but did add some nice aesthetic.


I had bundled up at the house. Driving to the river in my waders, and boots. I also had assembled my fly rod and tied on my flies. Finger dexterity is at a minimum when the weather gets cold so having everything tied beforehand can save time and can improve knots.


The easiest part about fly fishing in the winter is that you only need one fly. The midge. When starting out it’s best to have a few different colors that you can experiment with to see what they like best. Size 20 is what I normally use, and once you get your nymphing dialed in then you can experiment with different colors and size combos.


That day I tied on a size 14 black wooly bugger and dropped a size 20 black midge off the shank of the hook. It was cloudy that morning and the snow must have previously been rain because the water wasn’t as clear as usual.


When the water is dingy, and the conditions are cloudy I stick with dark colors. The larger wooly bugger acts as a target that the trout can see. They might not be interested, but it will get them looking in the area where your midge will soon float by. 


South River Inhabitants


The occasional native brook trout will find its way into the river, however that’s rare. Most of the time you’ll be catching stocked rainbow and brown trout. Thanks to some stricter conservation laws the state is now seeing some wild trout start to gain foothold in the river. There’s not many but hopefully they continue to flourish.


In the morning I spent on the river I caught only rainbows; all of them stockers. The four I caught weren’t huge but hovered in the foot long range and each one took the midge.


Of course, it’s impossible to tell if they only took it because they saw the bugger first, but I can attest I have better days nymphing when I drop a smaller fly off a bigger fly.


After releasing the last fish, I decided to leave. My hands were red and had begun to feel numb to the point where pinching the fly line took a concentrated effort.


It was the first of many days I spent fishing the South during winter, but it was easily the coldest.

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