Tackling Winter Fishing in the Ozarks

On The Fly Freshwater

By Trent Fleming

Peatured photo by Jimmy Jacobs

November 2020

Many fishermen, even those who regularly write about their adventures, are often reluctant to disclose their favorite spot, for fear of creating a stampede of competitors and fishing out the hole.  For me, my home waters are the entire White River tailwater system in Arkansas and Missouri.  There are plenty of places that, on a given day, might be my favorite spot.  The tip I hesitate to give away is not location, but timing.  I like the winter.  Any time after the spawn is finished is fair game to me.  So, in a spirit of furthering our sport, I offer my thoughts on winter fishing.

In the Ozarks, winter is seldom persistent, so that even the deep winter of late December and early January may be punctuated by warmer, manageable days. Often, a few days in February are almost spring-like.  Picturesque, snow-covered banks, and problems with ice in the guides are not common here, but certainly beautiful on select occasions.  Brisk mornings requiring a jacket are more the rule.  


It goes without saying that fishing pressure is down during the winter months, but that’s not the only advantage.  Moderate days result in lower electricity demand, and along with less rain, can mean greatly diminished generation schedules, providing not just lower flows, but long periods of lower water that actually allow the trout to adapt to a “new” river.  In my experience, a three- to four-day period of low flow can produce new fishing conditions, as compared to day-to-day fluctuations in flow.  As always, take some time to listen and watch and learn how the river – and the trout – are adapting to these conditions.


As with any outdoor activity, if you are uncomfortable, you will not have as much fun.  So, it is important to dress properly. Especially when wade fishing, warm and dry need to be at the top of your list.  Good boot socks – I like Browning – are a great starting point, followed by a layer of insulation beneath your waders of appropriate temperature range.  In winter months, I’ve never been too warm under my waders, but you know your own preferences and can dress accordingly.  Up top, layering is key, I usually start with a fishing shirt, add a sweatshirt, and finish off with a wading jacket of some sort.  Like many of you, I’m trying to break free from decades of a fishing vest, and that usually means a lanyard in warmer weather.  In winter, a wading jacket, featuring lots of pockets, provides an alternative to the traditional vest.

While I believe in a hat – I favor a Tilley – on colder days I generally trade it in for a skull cap.  My favorite is a Columbia model that has “space blanket” material on the inside to reflect heat back onto my head.  Cold head and ears are a bad combination, so make sure you find a good solution to stay warm.  Lots of heat can exit your body through your head, especially if your hair has already left, as is my case.

The Columbia Adventure Hiking Beanie is a favorite of the author. Photo courtesy of Columbia Sportswear.

Glasses are important, and you may want a selection of lenses to help with both bright and cloudy days.  In the unlikely event there is snow on the ground, you may even need mirrored glasses to cope with the glare.  I also strongly prefer sunglasses with “reader inserts” that allow me to see well when working with flies and knots.  Recently I’ve been wearing the shooting glasses from SSP with interchangeable lenses.

Finally, consider gloves.  I prefer fingerless gloves – wool or neoprene have both worked well – to keep the bulk of your hands warm and reasonably dry, while allowing fingertips to help with detail work of handling flies and tying knots.  My favorite trick is to bring along a small towel – golf towels are great because they are generally made to be clipped on – with which to wipe my hands every time they get wet.  

Fly Selection

At least in the White River system, I find that a handful of flies work consistently well, and I don’t have much reason to experiment.  For winter fishing, I rely on Sow Bugs, Prince Nymphs, and Hare’s Ear Nymphs, drifted.  I will also use Woolly Buggers, especially larger black ones for night fishing.  During the day, medium size Olive Drab works great, I simply drift them and strip back. 

The author’s winter selection of flies for the White River system. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

As you move into February, the likelihood that a warm afternoon will produce a hatch increases, so make sure you have a selection of smaller dry flies in the event the opportunity arises.  Blue-Winged Olives (18-22), Parachute Adams (16-20) and Elk Hair Caddis (16-18) are all good choices, but don’t hesitate to try something else.


Wading lower water levels still requires care.  The unstable rock, occasional deep hole, or extra slippery bottom all call for vigilance.  I’ve begun to consistently use a collapsible wading staff and just in general paying more attention to my footing.  While the water temperatures don’t vary much, air temperature will and hypothermia is a real issue if you get soaked.  Make sure you have a change of clothes, and a way of getting warm, whether in camp or in your vehicle. 

If you fish from a boat, don’t neglect good flotation devices – by that I mean actually wear them – as the threat from swift current is ever present, and the cold adds another element of concern.  Common sense and a little extra care will go a long way to ensuring that your experiences are memorable only in a fishing sense, not a medical attention sense!

Actually wearing your PFD on rivers in the winter is a solid Idea. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

So, at the risk of increasing the population on the river, I will encourage you to plan a winter outing this year.  I’m confident you will enjoy learning about your favorite spot at a different time of year.  You might even catch a fish. 

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