Saying the Great Lakes winter steelhead fishery is popular would be a grave understatement. On days when the fishing is hot, the more well-known steelhead rivers look like something akin to the check-out lines at the grocery store during the early days of the pandemic. Anglers line the banks, standing exactly 6 feet apart, snarling savagely at anyone who comes in their personal bubble. By the time the later season rolls around in January, the harsh weather conditions along with so much fishing pressure can make catching a steelhead seem impossible.
During this time of year, a lot of anglers simply give up the gray ghost and start looking forward to spring. Yet, for the chosen frozen willing to face the brutality of late-winter steelheading, a simple change in tactics will put enough fish in the net to make them forget their frostbite: think trouty.
Part of the Crowd
Everyone who fishes for Great Lakes steelhead has their go-to fly pattern, lucky lure, or fan-favorite egg sac color that works for them in the early season. And, by and large, faith in those patterns causes most steelhead anglers to stick with their guns no matter the conditions. To quote legendary news host Brian Fantana, “60% of the time, it works every time.”
The problem with these often large and gaudy steelhead flies and full-spectrum rainbow of egg colors is that despite an angler’s personal belief in a “secret” pattern or color, it’s probably fairly similar in size and profile to what everyone else is using. By the late season, steelhead have seen it all before, with constant fishing pressure combining with low, clear water conditions to give them a serious case of lock-jaw. Now that’s not to say that on occasion these confidence patterns and baits won’t still stick a steelie, but their success rates will have noticeably diminished by mid-winter.
To keep the hookups coming, steelhead anglers need to be thinking outside the box. The best way I’ve found to do that is to break away from the tried-and-true and to take a smaller, more delicate and trout-like approach to my presentations.
Trout Up Your Setup
At times we seem to forget that every mighty steelhead began its life as a humble rainbow trout. All wild fish spent their early lives in the soft pools and gentle riffles, where they ate diets of nymphs, scuds, and small baitfish. They only became steelhead after heading downstream to grow and strengthen in the vast proving grounds of the Great Lakes—though many West Coasters will dispute whether we can even call these trout “steelhead” at all since they never actually enter salt water.
Despite their transformation and travels in the vastness of Superior or Eerie, these fishes’ trout instincts remain. These are the behaviors you can capitalize on. In the winter, steelhead will move into the center of the deepest, slowest pools they can find, holding there until the water begins to warm up and the instinct to spawn takes hold. These fish have seen a lot of gear by now, making them extremely spooky. Their metabolism has slowed to a crawl, making them hesitant to eat.
To catch these fish, the first thing I do is put away the 20-pound leaders of the early season and instead tie on lighter stuff in the 8- to 12-pound range. I prefer fluorocarbon since it sinks faster than monofilament, allowing me to use less weight. Fluoro is almost invisible in the water, making it great for winter’s typically clear conditions.
The gear I prefer to use this time of year is almost the same as I would use for trout. Small and natural-colored nymphs including Pheasant Tails, small black stonefly patterns, and Zug Bugs in a range of sizes from 8 to 16 are my personal favorites. Egg patterns will still work at these times as well, but instead of the big, bright, eggs sacs or dime-size egg flies of the early season, I tone it down. I choose small, single egg patterns in dull colors like pale pink, yellow, or that consistent dark horse, blue. The same could be said of spoons, spinners, or any other presentation: go smaller and go darker.
Find the ‘Hot’ Spots
For fly fishing this time of year, indicators and are a must because they help keep the flies in the strike zone longer and cause less commotion than bottom-bouncing. If I’m center-pinning or using a spinning rod I’ll use a small pencil float, which really helps pick up the subtle mid-winter bites I might normally miss with a larger float.
I also use very little weight, relying on casting upstream and lots of mending to give my presentation more time to sink into the strike zone. This also makes the drift look as natural as possible. I concentrate my efforts in the deepest, slowest water available, either in the center of the river or along the banks. These are prime mid-winter steelhead holding areas and focusing there will make the most out of your time on the water.
I fish these spots by drifting the water closest to me first and then gradually working my drifts further out, casting a foot or so further each time. Steelhead are hesitant to move and wary in the cold water so you want to make your offering easy to eat and to show it to as many fish as possible.
Fishing for steelhead in the winter often feels almost masochistic. Between the brutal cold, iced-up guides, lack of strikes, and general misery of a fishless day, we often start to severely question our sanity. For those willing to stray from the traditional and to take up the challenge of fishing lighter gear, winter on the river can provide the most memorable days of the year. That’s the best thing about winter steelheading—the possibility. At the end of any given day, you can either go back to your truck, frozen, fishless, and broken, or feeling on top of the world. That mystery keeps us coming back.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.