Winter Steelheading: A Love/Hate Relationship?

Winter Steelheading Fishing

Ok, anyone who has ever taken on the challenge of fishing for steelies in the winter time knows that it is a love-hate relationship. You love being out on the water and pursuing a beautiful chrome brute, but you hate the utter disappointment at the end of the day when you’ve had hook-up after hook-up, but miss bringing one to hand or you just flat out had no action.

Steelhead fishing in winter is for what I consider some of the most hardcore fly fisherman out there. It’s cold, snowy, and you run a high likely hood of going home empty handed. Here in the northeast, we don’t have true “steelhead” per say. Great Lakes steelhead are different from their western cousins. Speak to people who swing flies out in the Pacific northwest will tell most East coast guys, “You have never caught a steelhead”. To be clear, a steelhead is an anadromous fish that migrates to the sea. Great Lakes steelhead migrate into the lakes. Another big difference between the two are, western steelhead are wild steelhead, that unfortunately are declining in numbers, for different reasons. Mostly due to damming of their migratory rivers. In the northeast, we have stocking programs. Now, I have never fished for Pacific steelhead, so I cannot attest to that, however, I fish for steelhead regularly in Upstate, NY on the Salmon River. The Salmon River is a Lake Ontario tributary. Either way, winter steelhead fishing is extremely tough. The norm in my neck of the woods for steelhead involves centerpins and single0hand fly rods. I myself use an 11’6″ switch rod and swing flies and also nymph. If you were to go out west, you’ll see large spey rods and big fat intruders. The name of the game is swinging flies for some chrome.

What makes steelhead fishing so tough. Well besides the cold weather, which is obvious, you are dealing with most times, less than favorable water conditions. The especially true toward the end of the winter season. You have multiple variables to deal with. Snow Melt, fluctuating temps, changing flows, and the list goes on. In winter, the water is the most mitigating factor. The tactic you choose for the day is highly dependent on the water conditions. Low clear water calls for lighter tippets, smaller flies, and delicate presentations. During low water, fish can be easier to find, due to the fact that they have less area to hide in. At the same time, they become hyper vigilant and spooky. You can’t throw heavily weighted rigs that make to much noise. When water levels rise, you face a whole new level of obstacles. Fish become more difficult to find, flows increase, wading becomes more difficult. When water levels rise, you need to ensure that you slow down your fly. Fish are extremely sluggish during the winter months, food becomes scarce and the name of the game is energy efficiency. Fish do not want to overexert themselves chasing a meal. Especially a meal that is not particularly high in calories. This is basic predator/prey relationships. A predator, whether it is a fish or mammal, will do its very best to expend as little energy as possible pursuing it’s prey. This becomes an important factor when hunting for steelhead. Slow down the presentation giving the fish the best opportunity to grab a meal.

More times than not the bite is going to be relatively slow. Try and pick days when low pressure systems are moving in. Fish have a good sense of when low pressure systems are entering an area. A low pressure system, brings with it warm conditions compared to times when high pressure systems moves through an area. Sometimes the best/most beautiful days for us are the worst days for fishing. In winter, when high pressure systems are in an area, they bring with the cloudless skies, and bitter cold days. When low pressure moves in or pressure is falling, these would be good times to think about getting on the water. Increased cloud cover means warmer air temperatures, less shadows on the water to spook fish, and a better chance of good bites. Brush up on your high school science and weather. In this case, the weatherman can be our friend.

Top 3 tips

1.) Watch the Water Flows

2.) Pay attention to the weather

3.) Hope; it is a good friend when steelhead fishing