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Yes, I’m guilty. I’ve waded through snow over my knees, in a blizzard, to fish the streams for winter steelhead many times, trying to shake off a little cabin fever. Funny how as you get older, you’re able to build up an immunity to that cabin fever. Granted, it is a beautiful time to be on the stream, with frozen waterfalls and ice that sparkles like diamonds. If you’re dying to take out that new rod you got for Christmas or to wet your new boots, just bear in mind a few things.
Winter Steelhead Fishing Tips
1. Stay Warm
Keeping your trunk warm affects your extremities. A hooded wading jacket with lots of pockets, designed for the fisherman, is a good choice. If the weather turns especially nasty, the hood feature will be worth its weight in gold. I always buy my hunting and fishing clothes a size or two larger. This allows me to layer up if needed and still have plenty of wiggle room to cast. Constrictions and cold weather don’t go together! Yes, the bigger size can be a little bulky, but this is not a fashion show. Being warm and dry and comfortable lets you fish longer and happier.
Warm gloves are essential this time of year, but make it a little difficult to cast and handle line and flies. Even so, don’t forego good warm gloves. Mechanic’s work gloves are a good compromise. They’re thin, tough, and sport a palm-side grip that provides warmth. Woolly fingerless gloves are worthless. You’ll spend half your precious fishing time unhooking flies and hooks from the woolly mesh. Your finger tips will still freeze, and in fact, the sewing construction around each fingerless hole actually constricts blood flow to your extremities.
One particular cold winter day, I decided not to wear gloves. I ended up with frostbit fingertips. Fortunately, after two days, I got feeling back and they seemed to return to normal. Not smart, but then I never said I was. I usually have to learn the hard way.
Also, it’s a good idea to wear a wool hat over the top of your ball cap. You’ll need the extra warmth. If you’re fishing near the lake, the wind can be nasty. Cold air flows up the stream gorges from the lake. Caps with visors are still suggested, providing glare protection that allows you to read the water.
2. Don’t Fall In
If I haven’t discouraged you yet and you’re a total diehard, then exercise extreme caution when winter steelhead fishing. I know I’m sounding a bit like an overly-cautious little old lady, but I hate to confess that I’ve dunked in over my head more times than I care to admit. But in my defense, the percentage is low compared to all my hours on the water. I’ve always said that, at the end of my life, at the final judgment, I’m probably going to have to give an account for the huge amount of my lifetime that I spent fishing.
Anyway, the ice along the side of the creek this time of year is especially dangerous. Sometime during the trip, you’re very likely going to fall. You may not get hurt, but you’re more apt to break the tip of your fly rod. Been there, done that, a couple of times. Good idea to have an extra set of dry clothes and boots in the car!
You should exercise extreme caution when fishing long icy banks and ice platforms that jut out over the stream pools. There is no way to judge the thicknesses of the ice, which varies and is unpredictable. Using cleated waders is a good idea. They will give you a better grip on icy rocks and banks. Boot foot waders provide ankle support which is a big plus under these conditions.
Ice jams mound up quickly, both in creek bends and at the mouth of the lake. Shifting ice blown in from the lake clogs the outflow. This in turn hinders new fish from entering the stream. Ice flowing down the stream backs up, creating quite impressive ice hills. They can easily rise 20 feet and are beautiful, but treacherous to navigate. It’s a siren’s lure to try to fish the edge of these.
Most of the time when I’m steelhead fishing, I don’t like to have the extra concerns of carrying a wading staff. However, this time of the year, it’s worth the trouble. It may just save you from a hard fall or an unpleasant dip in frigid water.
Be careful, especially when moving stream side, between pools. Everything is icy. Snow drifts hide branches and elevated boulders. Slow down. Try not to get too excited when you get a big fish on and he takes you for a run downstream. If he’s really big, that’s easier said than done. I’ll say it again- just slow down with each step.
A few years back, I got careless on one particular winter steelhead fishing trip. I had hooked a whopper steelhead and was working it downstream to a landing spot. I threw caution to the wind, and of course, slipped on ice. I caught my foot between a couple rocks and fell hard, landing on my right knee cap.
Naturally, l jumped right up despite the pain to continue the fight since we were still connected. The fish made a strong run toward the lake. Downstream we went, as I hobbled along after him. Wouldn’t you know it, I slipped again, and this time landed hard on my left knee. Like a good little soldier, I got right back up and continued the fight.
To add insult to injury, at the next pool, the fish broke my line. I was disgusted, not so much for losing the big steelhead, but for allowing myself to carelessly fall twice. You’d think after all these years of playing this game, that wouldn’t happen. After all, this isn’t my first stroll along a creek. Both knees were sore for a long time, and even after a couple of years, one is still a little stiff.
3. Use Proper Technique
Despite the risk of falling (or falling in), if you still must go winter steelhead fishing, the fish are typically located midway in the length of the pool. Since fish are not on the move, focus your time and efforts on the biggest and deepest pools. Midway is usually the deepest part. Target where the current is slowed by bottom structure. These breaks provide a resting spot for the steelhead.
Adjust your presentation. Under these conditions, winter steelhead are more lethargic due to the cold water temperature. To slow down your drift, pinch on split shots 10 inches or so in front of your fly or bait. By adding or subtracting weight, you can match your presentation to the natural speed of the current.
When casting, think what’s happening underwater. Cast appropriately upstream, mending out line, so the fly has time to drop and drift to the fish. The presentation is about four feet or so, upstream, across the current, so that the fly will swing to your target area.
If you can’t spot fish, even though you’re wearing the requisite polarized fishing glasses (I like Berkley polarized), then read the current breaks and bottom structure. Analytically, in your mind, grid off the pool, and methodically make casts to each potential grid box. Remember, this time of year the fish are sluggish, and they’re not going to move to take your fly.
Through the years, I’ve experimented with about 40 brands and types of monofilament on both spinning reels and fly rod tippets. I’ve also tested fine braided lines and various manufacturers of fluorocarbon. Some of the factors in considering a line: line opacity, tensile strength, abrasion resistance, line diameter, line memory, knot strength, translucency, color tint, and toughness. All of these factors are magnified when using lighter weight lines like those used when steelheading, such as 4 lb., 5 lb., and 6 lb. test.
The bottom line (no pun intended) is that one line has risen far superior to any that I’ve fished. Ironically, I’ve talked to several guides from Alaska who also use the same brand. And that line is Maxima Ultragreen. I prefer 5 lb. test. With the winter cold water conditions, and the fish being more lethargic, 4 lb. is plenty for this time of year. When you’re using this light of a line, any abrasion or pinch from split shots will weaken the line a pound or two, so you must check it often while you’re fishing and replace or nip off any damaged section.
A quality reel with a good smooth drag is essential. Also your drag must be light so the fish can run. You’re not going to be able to stop a 12 pound steelhead with 4 lb. test and just crank him in. A flexible 10 foot rod, either spinning noodle or fly, will help absorb the shock of the fight.
The colder stream temperatures dictate the presentation with winter steelhead. As with any time during the season- make the right cast, drifting at the right speed, at the right depth level, with the right fly, and you’ll catch fish.
4. Remove Ice Buildup
Maneuvering your line between ice chunks and presenting a proper drift is no easy task. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, most days the temperature will be below freezing. While casting to the steelhead, typically you’ll make your drifts through the pool, then repeat the process over and over. In this weather, the line coats with ice every time it’s lifted from the water. You’ll find a tube of ice forming on your line, with your fly freezing like a little ice cube. Similarly, ice will form on your rod’s eyelets. Any of these factors will stop a steelhead from taking your presentation.
If you’re fishing under these conditions, you need to strip the ice off your line about every third cast, running your line between your fingers. Frozen flies don’t catch fish. Warm it every cast so the fly has more natural action. Cup it in your hand and breathe warm air on it until it thaws.
5. Use Scent
Some fly fishing purists would frown on my next suggestion. However, this tip will better your success, this time of year especially. (If you’re a purist, just look away.)
Scent your fly. You’ll be presenting the best of both worlds. The fly material and color have fish-tantalizing visual appeal. By applying scent, you’ll be triggering another of the steelhead’s senses. Fish will be more apt to take the presentation and hold it a few seconds longer.
Crushed salmon or trout eggs can be liquefied and carried in a small squeeze bottle to make for easy application. Note: I’ve found from experience that the best way to liquefy fish eggs is to use the kitchen blender. Your spouse will not appreciate this at all. Do it anyway, when she’s not home. Also, note from my experience: Bring home sushi for dinner that night- it will help mask the smell of your deed.
Seriously though, scenting flies works really well. If fish eggs aren’t available (or you’re too chicken to use the blender), a commercial scent brand that works well is Dr Juice Super Juice Trout/Salmon Scent.
So go after winter steelhead if you must, but remember, there will still be good runs of fresh steelhead, even into the warm days of May. Also, If you do go now, make sure it’s on a weekday. As the old adage goes, “a bad day fishing is always better than a good day at work!”
Do you have any other winter steelhead fishing tips? Leave a comment below. Or tell me about a time you fell in…I can’t be the only one!
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