Tip # 73 – Great Lakes Winter Steelhead Tips

We’re well into December.  The salmon runs have tapered off and ended for the most part now.  This is the best time of the year for a steelheader.  The air is chilly, days are shorter, snow is falling, and best of all, the crowds have seemingly disappeared.  Now is the time to hit the river and chase chrome bright fresh steelhead coming out of the great lakes to spawn in the tributaries.

When water temperatures begin to drop, steelhead become sluggish, and they’ll be moving around much less in the rivers.  These spooky fish will hunker down in deeper pools, where you may find more than a dozen fish in one single pool!  Depending on the clarity of the water, you may need to size your bait or fly either up or down in order to entice the fish.  If the water is gin clear, start with a smaller sized offering.  With flies such as nymphs and egg imitations, start out  in the 14-18 hook size range and work your way up in size until fish start taking the fly.  If you are float fishing, start out with a roe bag about the size of a dime, and again, work your way up in size until the fish start biting.  You’ll want to start out with subtle colours as well, and if roe bags such as white or rose aren’t working, try some brighter bags such as chartreuse or bright orange.  If the water is stained and has little visibility, or you are fishing high flows, start with larger offerings and work your way down in size until you find something the fish are keyed in on.

Fishing in pairs, with a buddy can give you an excellent advantage when fishing some of the deeper, slower pools.   One of the best steelhead tips I ever got was from an older gentleman I met on the river.  We were both fishing alone, but he suggested we team up and try something.  This required two anglers to do successfully, and efficiently.

First, find the depth of the pool you are fishing by increasing the depth between your float or indicator until you touch bottom with your fly or bait. Once you’ve found the depth, drop your float about a foot to two feet, so your offering is tumbling about 1 to 2 feet above the riverbed as it drifts downstream.  Now here is the key part, have your fishing partner fish the middle of the water column.  So, if you are fishing in twelve feet of water, make sure the second angler is only fishing about 6 feet down.  Steelhead will hold at different depths based on many factors including current speed, water temperature, available prey, etc.  Fish the pool hard until one of you starts hitting fish.  At this point, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what depth the steelhead are sitting at, which should greatly improve your chances at hooking into more fish during the winter months!

Lastly, we are dealing with very cold water here folks.  This time of year can be different than early season steelheading in the fall.  I find there is little need to hit the river as the sun rises when water temps get too cold.  The afternoon, usually around 2pm has been the most productive time for me during the winter steelheading months.  Especially on sunny days, the water will usually warm up just one or two degrees, which causes winter steelhead to become more active for a couple of hours before dusk.

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