Fly Fishing for steelhead during the winter months can be an amazing experience with fall colors ablaze, reasonably pleasant air temps, and fresh fish running throughout the river Sounds like paradise, it would be for just one thing, every angler feels the same way and the fishing pressure can be well, kind of like a war zone. Massive amounts of anglers wanting to experience this Mecca of fly fishing all competing for your spot and your fish. And, well others who have no river etiquette at all, Tramping through productive fishing lies, crawling up your back while you fish and land your trophy steelhead.
Want to get away from the crowds and the chaos? Try winter steelhead fishing! This is where we separate the men from the boys. You will definitely get away from the crowds, but be prepared for some frigid fly fishing on the streams of the Great Lakes. There will be times when you think why did I do this? But be patient and prepared and you soon will heat up when you hook your first winter steelhead
Before You Go!
I guess the most important aspect of winter steelhead fishing is being prepared. Several things you can do is first be prepared for the cold. There are so many new innovative products to help you stay warm, check out your local fly or outdoor shop and they will definitely get you ready to tackle the elements.
On the Great Lakes in particular, water levels are critical, so be sure to check the conditions before even thinking about heading out. Rising water can be a wonderful thing as this will usually trigger a fresh run of steelhead or even just get steelhead on the move. This CAN be a great thing but NOT always the case. Yes the fresh run is a positive influence on the stream, but moving fish are not always the most productive fish. Be patient and look for good holding water, such as pools or obstructions own the river such as logs, undercut banks, bridge abutments, etc. This is where your chances will be best. Understanding and knowing your specific river and its conditions is essential to consistent success
As always is really a personal thing. The most important thing to consider is be sure to have your gear in top notch order before you go. The beast thing you want is to have an equipment malfunction when the weather is so cold you cant feel your fingers. Be prepared with the proper flies you will need for your trip, plus your leaders and tippet material. I do suggest using Flour carbon leader and tippet material during this time of year this will definitely help with all the abrasive substances in the river such as fishing tackle, ice, and of course our least favorite the zebra mussel. This little invasive species, not only destroys the Great Lakes environment but can also do a number on your leader and tippet. One thing that always amazes me beside the fact that anglers never practice their casting is the fact that so many are oblivious to the importance of a sharp hook. Take the time and invest in a great hook sharpener and sharpen your hooks!
Rods & Reels for Steelhead
I am almost afraid to address this subject because everyone has their own opinion about their gear and its almost like you just insulted them when you suggest anything other. So I will just give you my thoughts on the subject and you can go with whatever works for you.
My personal and most reliable outfit is my Winston 9 1/2 foot 7 weight with a matching Billy Pate fly reel. I love the 9 1/2 foot rod, this extra footage helps first make a very accurate and consistent roll cast to locations in the stream that I want to target. The extra length also keeps my fly traveling in the target zone for a much longer period of time. The more you have your fly in the water, the better the chance of success!
As for leaders again I like to use fluorocarbon because of the non-abrasive nature of the material. Some anglers also believe it is invisible in the water but I am mostly impressed with the sturdiness of the material. This is the same for the tippet material also. As for regulations pertaining to leader and tippet length please consult your local state fishing regulations.
Where are They?
Again water conditions will play a big part as to where steelhead will be patiently waiting to take your fly. In the case of high, moving water, search for those slower seams, river obstruction, undercut banks, anywhere the river slows is a great location to entice a steelhead to strike. Keep on the move and don’t overfish one location as the high water will keep the fish moving. Lower water conditions is the time to really search for those conditions above and spend some time working those areas as the fish are holding and are not on the move as frequently.
Avoiding the crowds is essential to finding steelhead and hopefully your choice to venture out in the winter will take care of this factor. The crack of dawn is not the critical aspect as it might be during the early season as it would be during the earlier season. Steelhead need to basically warm up before they even start to thing about feeding. So guess what my fellow anglers the “Crack of Noon” is probably your best bet!
Take the time and read the water it will definitely increase your chance of hooking your winter steelhead
Before we start talking about how to catch them, what is a a steelhead? A steelhead is a domestic rainbow that was born and inhabits streams that are feeders to large bodies of water. These stream bred rainbows make an annual trip to these bodies of water such as lakes or the ocean and spend time there getting very large. They then return to the streams to eat and/or spawn. In the case of the Great Lakes, this fishery is entirely dependent on the stocking of steelhead into the system. Now, yes there are some fish that take to the system and do naturally reproduce but the stocking helps supplement the system.
Ok, lets catch some!
Remember, steelhead will be on the move up river looking to spawn and once they rest the will be conserving energy for their final step, spawning. This resting takes place in the locations we discussed earlier, slow moving water, pools, river obstructions basically look for areas where they river takes a beak and most likely there will be a steelhead waiting there.
Whether you are bottom bouncing or swinging flies, remember to slow things down and keep your fly in the water and the target zone for as long as you can and your success rate will increase. Cover the water in a very constant pattern and at different angles. The slightest change in movement or angle can invoke a strike.
While nymphing or bottom bouncing get the fly where you want it and slow it down and get the fly deep. You can do this by mending the line upstream. Always start with an in-air upstream mend so you start the drift of correctly. If you try to do a full line mend on the water you will pull the fly out of the strike zone. Slow the fly down, actually I try to get the flow moving slower then the current. This can be done by putting several on water mends without moving the fly.
Change flies often and don’t assume that the fly that caught them yesterday, will work today. Experiment with nymphs, egg patterns, streamers (whether articulated or not).
Each year there are reports of anglers losing their lives on the great lake tributaries. Be safe and don’t take any unnecessary risks. You do not have to cast to the other side of the river, just be observant and you will find the same conditions close to your location.
Using a wading staff and cleats on the your wading boots are essential, but probably the most important thing is don’t take a step until you are definitely sure you are secure on the bottom. Try to always fish with a friend for safety plus you have someone to share flies with and to brag about your trophy steelhead!
Taking a tumble and getting soaked is a very dangerous situation, hypothermia and in some cases a heart attack will increase your chances of drowning and death. Let's get out there, have a good time and come home safely.
Winter steelhead fishing can be a lot of fun and very productive! Just take some time to be prepared, study your local river conditions and be safe. Get out there and get some hot steelhead action!