Winter Tactics for Steelhead

There’s an old adage among steelhead anglers, “All you have to do is hit ‘em on the nose.” Sounds easy, but I’d argue that it’s harder to do so when your fingers are frozen and steelhead hunker down. Winter-time steelies not only slow their pace, but they also head for cover. So what can you do to put your offering in their reduced strike zone? Equally important, how does low water temperature, daily photoperiod and spawning behavior influence your approach?

Influence of Water Temperature

Steelhead are cold-blooded creatures. This means their body temperature will be nearly identical to the temperature of water they reside in. It also means their metabolic rate and activity will change in direct proportion to changes in water temperature. Scientific research has shown that fish experience a two to three fold decrease in the rate of biological processes for every 10 0C (18 0F) decrease in temperature. To translate, a steelhead at 36 0F has one-third to one-half the capacity for activity as they had at 54 0F.

In other words, don’t expect a steelhead to chase after your offering in February like they do when they enter your favorite stream in October.

Certain stimuli become less important than others in cold water. For example, scent does not travel as far. Bait anglers should arrive on the stream stocked up with a variety of smells that attract: nightcrawlers, coon shrimp, crawdad tails, roe. Knot two or three strands of yarn above the shaft of your hook and soak the yarn with scent to stretch out your bait supply. When it comes to eliciting a take in water plied by other anglers, something different often wins a prize.

Winter Photoperiod

Low light conditions predominate in the winter. Inclement weather is a contributing factor, as are shorter day lengths and increased angle of inclination of the sun. As a consequence, it’s not so important to arrive on the water at the crack of dawn. Indeed, a slight increase in water temperature later in the day can spur steelhead activity. Sleep in, wait for the roads to clear and fish afternoons if that’s your druther.

There are several proven tactics to help trigger a strike under somber skies. For example, you might add crystal flash to your fly or slide a Mack’s Smile Blade above your jig. Gentle wave action, such as that found in slow-moving reservoirs of large rivers, may be sufficient to lend attractive motion to a shrimp-and-bobber rig embellished with a string of high-vis beads above the top hook.

Seasonal Flows

Consider that water levels can be variable in late winter, ranging from low and clear to high and turbid, as effected by seasonal rainfall, snowmelt and dam operations. What’s important is that you match your technique to the conditions at hand. Seasoned steelhead anglers focus their efforts on a declining hydrograph, but don’t limit yourself to perfect conditions that may never happen.

Over-wintering steelhead, while operating in an energy-conservation mode, can spook at the slightest movement in low clear water. Once disturbed, they will seek cover in the form of depth, turbulence and structure. Overhanging brush and submerged wood provide security for steelhead as do large boulders. This is where stealth comes into play. Move slowly, stay low and quietly work yourself into position. Try the inside current edge first and save the sweet spot for last.

Under low, clear conditions, I switch to lighter line, (i.e., 6 to 8-pound test) and swap out monofilament leaders for fluorocarbon. A longer rod, in the 9- to 11-foot range, increases casting distance and allows for more subtle presentations. If you favor a drift bobber, downsize to a smaller float with jigs in the 1/32-ounce size. Another trick is to pin a single artificial egg above a size 4 or 6 Gamakatsu hook. A “Hevi-Bead” arrangement can also elicit a strike where other more obtrusive offerings fail. This innovative product comes in a wide range of sizes, colors and buoyancy characteristics.

There’s good a chance that you will arrive on your favorite stream to find high water or off-color conditions. Don’t fret. High flows stimulate fish movement to low velocity areas, including side pools and edge habitat. This is where larger baits and lures with contrasting color become more important. Casting perpendicular to your target in swift current requires less line management than casting directly upstream. Mend your line and adjust lure weight to provide time for a lethargic steelhead to respond.

Seasoned fly casters focus their efforts on holding water having moderate depth and currents characterized as “walking speed.” Swinging flies in frigid conditions can be a challenge though, even with sink tip line and fast sinking leaders. Streamer-type flies with attractive color and action, such as Wooly Buggers and Intruder-style Maribou patterns are a good choice; although nymphing techniques that employ beads, cones or metal tubes to keep your fly near the bottom may be more effective. Alternatively, dead drift a bead-head nymph or egg imitation.

Spawning Behaviors

Radio-tagging studies have shown that over-wintering steelhead stage in selected areas following their initial entry into tributary streams and that fish exhibit very little movement until spawning time nears. Warm water upwelling from groundwater sources may influence these same holding locations.

Steelhead spawn in early spring in response to increased day length and warming water temperature. As spawning time approaches, they begin to pair up. The good news is if you catch a hen, an aggressive buck is bound to be close by. Bring out the hardware. Bouncing a spinner or hammered spoon along the bottom may be all it takes to elicit a strike.

Here’s another. The jaw and teeth of steelhead elongate as they approach spawning time. Having a hank of yarn on your hook makes it harder for a complacent fish to spit out your offering.

Prepare for Lousy Weather

It’s one thing to go fishing and it’s another to catch fish under adverse conditions. I heard a Scottish television commentator recently say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” It’s the same for winter steelheading. Dress in layers, cover your head, and have a hand cloth handy, such as a “no-stink” Boat U.S. towel, to keep your hands dry. Also, never leave home without a rain gear.

Although wearing gloves can be a challenge for those of you who prefer to feel the bite, numb fingers don’t detect bites. I personally find fingerless wool gloves too bulky for everyday use. In contrast, lightweight water-resistant gloves allow for greater tactile response and provide some measure of protection from the elements. As for wading gear, I prefer insulated boot foot waders because they are easy to get in and out of and keep you warmer than most stocking foot waders on the market. Non-slip soles are essential when navigating ice-crusted shorelines.

It’s not all about your personal comfort, however. Make sure your reel is well lubricated. Sharpen your hooks before you leave the house and organize terminal tackle to be easily retrievable. For example, Mack’s Lure makes a leader dispenser that allows you to store multiple rigs free of tangle. Finally, keep a tube of Vaseline lip balm handy to slow the rate of ice buildup on your tip guides.

Patience is a Virtue

Remember that winter-time steelhead are rarely “on the move.” You might say they need cajoling. If you see a steelhead resting in the shallows or sense its presence, work the water with multiple presentations. Cover the entire drift by changing angle of cast, adjusting weight, size of lure and altering your stance. Don’t move on until you are satisfied that you have covered every square inch of the bottom at least twice.

Chasing cold-blooded steelies when you could be sitting by the glow of a wood stove can be peaceful along with being productive. Although you should expect to hike further from bridges and other angler access areas to find new fish, there’s no better season to be on the water. Streamside vegetation and wildlife are awakening from a long winter nap. Competition is at a low point. You might even hit a steelhead on the nose.