Complete Guide to Winter Steelhead
written by therockyriver.com staff
“The fall run has the most active trout.”
“The spring spawn is the easiest to land fish.”
Everybody has an opinion on the best season for landing steelhead in the rivers. Fall runs of actively-chasing fish, migrating from the lake, or the coveted 7-14 day window in spring where anglers literally have to watch every step so not to tread through a paired couple hovering on a bed. No doubt, these are a few of the best times of the year to get out and land some trout. Unfortunately, everybody knows this, and we mean everybody. The promising plans of landing steelhead can be quickly squashed, as most find it’s actually much easier to find trout than it is to find a spot to fish for them. Forget about that “secret spot,” there’s usually at least 1 or 2 people already in it, especially in the urban streams of the Great Lakes region.
So how does one find solitude on a popular river during times that hold huge amounts of trout? Simple, bundle up. Think about it – the fish swim up into the river in the fall, where they will hold until it is time to leave the warming waters in spring. Where do they go in between the two changing seasons? Well, nowhere – and we’ll get more specific on their location later in the article. The fish stay (and stay active) in the river all winter long. Most anglers however, will not. Many think the fish will not feed in extreme cold. Most do not want to brave the frigid temperatures, snow and bone-freezing winds that can alleviate feet of any sensation and render fingers nearly useless. With the right clothing though, the discomfort of the cold and snow that wrecks concentration and cuts trips short can become an after thought, replaced with the sudden realization that you are all alone on what might as well be a private river – and that’s a special feeling in itself.
Winter adds a couple new elements to fishing that won’t come into play in warm seasons or regions, but are more important as the knowledge of a fish’s location and how to present a fly or lure to it. Those two elements are clothing and mental discipline. If the body is cold because the clothing is insufficient, the mind is concentrated on the temperature, not on location, presentation or tactic. When this happens, patience is out the window, and the time spent shivering in the water might as well be spent home on the couch.
We’ll cover the essentials of winter river fishing, starting from what to wear before you even leave the bedroom, to precisely how to locate and present to a trout sitting in 33°F water.
STEP 1: THE TRIP STARTS IN THE CLOSET
Let’s start from the inside out. Without preparing properly for the worst that winter has to offer, all the fishing technique and skill in the world isn’t worth a dime. Start with polypropylene long-john’s, with at least one longsleeve t-shirt on top. Put on a heavy fleece, hooded sweatshirt or sweater before strapping up your vest. Wear heavy knit hiking socks and a pair of thick fleece pants. Fleece and cotton will keep you nice and toasty, but won’t block wind and water. For that, cover yourself with a water-repellant jacket to keep the underneath layers dry – think of it like vinyl siding over insulation on a home. A good water-resistant jacket can be found at any outdoors, hunting or even running store. Make sure you have heavy boot-foot neoprene chest waders. The boots on the waders should have no-slip, rubber soles, which are critical for walking on ice and tight-roping snowy ledges.
Now to what most winter anglers struggle with – keeping fingers warm. Make sure to have two sets of gloves at all times – the first a good pair of fingertip-less gloves for when you are fishing, something light-weight and flexible so that you can tie hooks and handle line, but doesn’t compromise warmth for the rest of your hand. The crucial second set should be a regular pair of heavy-fleece gloves for when you are walking, moving spots or resting. Fishing will become impossible if the fingers get numb and frozen, so it’s important to not be lazy on packing and wearing the second set of gloves as much as possible.
Protect your head and ears! Wear a heavy knit cap. When you begin to overheat, take it off and keep it warm and dry in an inside pocket. Most heat loss is through the head, so control your body temperature by warming up with the hat on and removing it to cool off.
Finally, as you pack your rods and gear up, be sure to have a thermometer to sample the temperature of the water. In the next section we’ll explain why this tool will be just as important as your rod and reel.
STEP 2: UNDERSTANDING WINTER TROUT BEHAVIOR
Now that we’re dressed, the first task for a successful day is understanding the behavior of steelhead in winter, so their location can be precisely targeted. Believe it or not, steelhead will protect themselves from the coldest winter weeks by moving into deep pools of slowly moving water. However they are still more active in these near-freezing pools than practically any other fish in the lakes and rivers. In order to find them in these blistering months, it’s important to understand how they behave when the water temps drop.
We are learning that in most river systems, Great Lakes steelhead that make their run in the fall will begin to spawn much earlier than previously thought; between the second week of February and the first week of March (provided there are no major or abnormal weather events). This is important because only about 20 percent of steelhead found in the rivers in winter, actually make their run in the winter months during significant thaws. The winter-run fish will spawn at the same time as the spring-run fish – sometime between late March and mid April. If there is no thaw during the winter months, assume that every trout in the river during the winter is a fall run fish. Understanding this and tracking the winter weather can put anglers far ahead of the game, as they can target unusually active fish well before the majority of anglers begin to hit the waters for the spring spawn.
So let’s break down where to find winter trout (break out that thermometer now).
Temperature controls about 99% of a steelhead’s behavior, and the magic number for trout activity and location seems to be 40°F. As the water’s temperature drops under 40°, steelhead start to fall back into slow water (but remain active biters, and some late-movers can still be found in faster runs). As the water drops to 38°F, activity begins to slow dramatically and the same presentation that would trigger a bite from a fish at 40°, now just becomes cast practice. As the temperature drops lower into the mid and low 30’s, steelhead fall back even further onto the river floor in the middle of the slowest, deepest pools. Although it is impossible for water temperatures to drop under 31°F in a river current, steelhead can be forced to go into a highly-stressful, self-preservation mode by air temperatures. If the air steadily hovers around 0°F, it can create what’s called anchor ice – the freezing of the bottom of a river or stream. In this case, we do not recommend going out to land trout, as the 0 degree air can cause frostbite, and a stressed fish landed in these temperatures may not survive the fight.
During the cold winters, the perfect place to target steelhead are the slow, wider than average pools, over flat land on straight sections of the stream, with a depth of no more than 4 feet. Look for stretches of river with 2 or more of these pools in a row. The trout seem to collect in the exact middle of the pools, so target your casts upstream to drift down over the center of the pool. In the coldest periods of winter, these perfect locations also tend to be the easiest and quickest to ice over due to the slow-moving water. The ice slows the current of the pool even more, becoming the perfect home for steelhead. In this situation, bet on fish holding in the center of the pool. The obstacle is, the surface ice can make the pool impossible to cast into, but if you can find a way to work it, sit in that hole as long as it takes for you to feel as though it was covered thoroughly. Sometimes you can make 40 casts to the exact same spot, and on the 41st the strike will occur. The key is infinite patience.
In the warmer winters, steelhead might be found in the same areas as in the fall. However, a cold snap during a warmer winter will push the fish back into areas you’d never think to fish normally. If this happens, move to the slow, deep waters in the first mile of the mouth of the river. These trout will join staging fish, and hundreds upon hundreds of steelhead will stack up here.
Understanding water and air temperatures in winter should allow you to accurately pinpoint a trout’s location. So, what do we catch them on?
STEP 3: PRESENTATION FOR WINTER TROUT
The general rule in winter is steelhead will not chase. Yes, there are always rare exceptions to any rule and we always love to hear them, but the fact remains that steelhead in winter hunker down, only to move a few inches or so to eat. They do feed actively in rivers in water in the 30°s, but actively has a different definition than it did when that trout chased a spinner halfway across the river in the fall. With water at near-freezing levels, “active” is now defined as an opportunistic drift of the tiniest of items into the small zone in front of a trout’s face. Now, this can sound like some kind of trout-strike lottery, but the importance of understanding the trout’s behavior and location that we have covered, changes those odds to be on a par with winning on a couple $1 scratch-off tickets.
A large fly or flashy lure will make a steelhead move out of the way of the drift. While they aren’t going to hit that kind of lure, this movement can be enough activity to make them vulnerable and mobile enough to hit a proper presentation – a tiny fly, spawn or maggot-tipped jig. Many anglers actually look for spinner fisherman in winter pools to stir up the fish, then swoop into the fishing hole after the fisherman leaves to present a tiny fly or spawn sac. These anglers suggest this works so well in fact (some doubling their catch-rates), that they purposely cast a large, obtrusive spinner into a pool for half a dozen or more casts to get the fish moving, then settle in and actually fish the pool properly. So what should we be casting out there to actually get that strike?
Think small! Since steelhead are sitting in slow water in winter, they have plenty of time to inspect something drifting down toward them. As in all fishing, live or natural baits will out-perform artificial. The most effective winter offerings will be tiny live minnows, waxworms, maggots or natural spawn on hooks no larger than your pinky toenail. For fly fishing, the smallest imitations of these same items will work best – spawn patterns (scent helps too), tiny nymphs, worm imitations and short, non-flashy streamers are your best bet. Color can be critical in winter as well, so be sure to experiment with different colors to establish patterns and tendencies for where you are fishing. Steelhead have tremendous vision, so make sure to use fluorocarbon line, or at least a long fluorocarbon leader so the fish cannot detect the line in the pool.
Use a stream float for drifting bait through the pool. It allows for quick and easy adjusting of how deep the bait will run. Steelhead practically sit on the bottom of the riverbed in cold weather, so being able to adjust your bait even a few inches can make the difference between a successful day and coming up empty. Experiment with different depths, starting higher up in the water column. If the pool is four feet deep, drift the bait at a depth of three feet, and after thorough coverage of the area, drop it a couple inches, and then a couple more. If you land a fish, don’t change what you were doing. If a current is faster than usual, the bait will not sink to 4 foot depth on a 4 foot leader from the float. Test the current, but typically add an extra 1 to 2 feet of line to make sure the bait is getting down into the strike zone. This may mean a 6+ foot leader from the float to cover a 4 foot deep pool. Keep in mind that surface water moves much quicker than the water at the bottom of the pool. Line control is important in winter especially, as the bait should be moving as slow as possible – which will be the speed of the current at the bottom of the river. Use a long rod (10-13 feet), keep the tip up and avoid too much line catching the current on the faster surface water. Do not start with too much line running below the float, you want to start shorter, and progressively work your way deeper. “Lining” a fish, that is, having too much line drift over and contact the fish’s body will ruin the pool. The key is to be methodical and patient. The same concept applies horizontally when we discuss casting.
Your very first cast should just be a short pitch to drop the float into the current. With each new cast, extend the distance of where the float lands by only a matter of inches. This can get painful, but is crucial as not only will the pool be covered inch by inch, but you’ll also avoid “lining” a fish as we mention above. A steelhead in cold water may only move 1 inch to take an opportunistic slurp of food, so it’s essential to make incremental casts at a couple inches at a time to really cover the entire area properly.
So sure, winter is by no means the fast-paced fishing of the spring spawn or early fall runs, but we know how to eliminate water and find fish easily. Forget runs, riffles and fast current – the fish are heavily concentrated in the deep, slow pools, and especially if you find 2 or more pools together in a span of slow-moving, flat river. Take the time to really work them inch by inch. You may fish one pool for an hour or two at a time, but the patience will payoff. With the right clothing, an understanding of how the fish are behaving in accordance with the weather and water temperature, the ability to find and methodically work a pool, you can expect to have more successful days than many anglers do in the jam-packed spring and fall seasons.
Special thanks to Wayne Anderson, Matt Champlin, Mike Quinn, Dave Chernitsky, “jewelsbuddy” and “dash4me” for their permission to use the beautiful images found in this article.