Winter Steelhead Fishing: Challenges and Rewards

Jay Peck

Winter steelhead fishing provides both opportunities and challenges. The opportunities offer reduced fishing pressure and the chance to fish for fresh run steelhead. Here lies the reason for these unique opportunities and unique challenges -- the elements of winter. There are numerous fishing conditions specific to winter; however, the two biggest concerns we have are not unique to winter steelhead fishing. There is always a concern about water temperatures and water flow fluctuations. When the cold temperatures of winter are added to these issues, water temperature and water fluctuations have a big influence on steelhead behavior. Understanding how water conditions and water temperature affect steelhead will allow us to take advantage of the unique opportunities of winter. Water temperature may not seem like a big issue during the winter, but water temperatures do fluctuate and have a big influence on the behavior of steelhead. Water temperatures can get as cold as 32 degrees. I have often seen a personal thermometer read as low as 31°. I do not think the thermometer is off ; it’s just reading liquid ice.

We experience our coldest water temperatures during warm weather periods when snow ismelting. Ironically, warmer water r temperatures during the winter can often come during for long cold spells. In this situation, the warmer groundwater will have a big influence, raising the water temperatures a few degrees to as warm as, if you want to call it that, 34 to 36°.

There are other factors that can influence water temperatures - sunlight and time of day. The point is, the water is going to be very cold. We need to fish for steelhead differently than we would during the fall and the spring.

Start by adjusting your fishing time. Think banker’s hours. There is sometimes a quick bite at first light, but after that the river will generally go quiet until mid-morning. From mid-morning until mid-afternoon there is a slow but steady bite that you can normally count on. I like to start fishing about mid-morning, 9 a.m. We don’t need to be cold and frozen from waiting for the mid – morning bite and thinking of hot food. When you start fishing at mid-morning, it is also easier to stay warm and pay attention to your fishing . By mid-afternoon, shadows will start to cover the pools and the fish will once again shut down for the day. Instead of trying to tough out for a full day, just fish the prime hours.

The coldwater temperatures will also drastically slow down metabolism of wintertime steelhead. As a result, they will use the river differently. Where you find steelhead in the fall or the spring is not always where you’ll find them in the winter. Winter is not spawning time, so stay out of the riffles. If steelhead are there, they won’t be there for long.  Steelhead are in a run and hold mode, but more hold than run at this stage of their spawning cycle, with water temperatures nowhere near freezing. When winter water temperatures are this cold, steelhead will stay in the deeper pools for an extended period of time.

Not all winter steelhead pools are created equal. Some pools will have everything that a
steelhead needs so they may wait out the entire winter months there. Finding and identifying these prime pools will take some time. River bottoms and structures are constantly changing and so are the prime winter steelhead pools. Spend some of your winter-time on the river looking for these prime pools.

Even though winter water temperatures have a big influence on steelhead behavior, water flows have the biggest impact on both the movement of the fish and the flies we fish. More so during the winter than any other time of the year, water fluctuations will trigger fish movement. In some tributaries along  the lake, the only time we will have reasonable quality fishing is after a water flow increase.
On the Salmon River, an increase in water flow will mean two things: first, new fish entering the river and second, fish that are already in the river will be stimulated to continue moving up river. The end result is that immediately following a water flow increase you can experience some of your best steelhead fishing.

Water f lows have another influence on our fishing, and this is very unique to the Salmon River. The ecology of the Salmon River has improved over the years. The river now has a thriving aquatic insect population. The insect population is so intense from mid river upstream that it does influence steelhead behavior. This may be one reason why the black stonefly nymph is so effective here.

At this point I must add a disclaimer. Remember we are dealing with fish. When dealing with fish there is never an absolute; however, by monitoring water flows, we can fairly accurately predict which flies will most likely be productive. This phenomenon will become more prevalent as late winter approaches. During a water flow increase, the river bottom is being shifted around by the increase in water flow. This in turn is sending leftover eggs from the previous fall’s spawning activity adrift in the river, triggering an egg bite among then steelhead. This egg bite can last for a few days to a week. Obviously the later in the winter we go, the shorter this egg bite will last.

Once water flows stabilize or start to drop, steelhead will usually shift to aquatic insects. During prolonged low flows, steelhead in the upper river can almost become trout - like in their feeding behaviors. Once again, this behavior grows more prevalent as the winter months progress. To sum all of this up, when we have a water flow increase, fish egg patterns. After a few days to a week or when water flows are reduced, start shifting back over to various nymph patterns. For my winter fly box I often downsize many of my fly patterns. I generally use my normal egg patterns, dropping the size down from 8 to 10 and 12. With nymph patterns I do the same. My stonefly patterns will vary in size from 12 to as big as a size 8 and for caddis patterns I usually stay around size 10 and 12. Obviously I’m fishing lighter tippets, so I like to drop my rod size down to a seven weight to protect the lighter tippets.

The best overall fishing tip I can give for winter fishing is to dress for the conditions. It is
very tough to concentrate on your fishing when you’re fighting off hypothermia. Do not hesitate to add that extra layer of fleece and bring an extra pair of gloves. Winter steelhead fishing has a lot of challenges; however, the rewards are well worth the effort.

Jay Peck is a fishing guide on the Lake
Ontario tributaries. He fishes the
Salmon River for steelhead and salmon
in September and October then Sandy
Creek in Monroe County and the
lower Genesee River for brown trout
and steelhead from November on. He
then fishes he Salmon River from mid
to late spring for steelhead. To contact
Jay, e-mail him at jay@jaypeckguides.
com or
check his website www.jaypeckguides.
. You can also contact him
at Coleman’s Fly Shop (585-352-4775


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