1. Under 36°F, seek low-gradient river segments and slow sections of pools.
2. Steelhead may avoid overhead cover in the coldest flows.
3. Water levels determine extent and distance when steelhead run.
4. Make successive drifts in tighter increments—short first, long last.
5. Slow the drift and hit their nose
6. Carry a thermometer.
Driven by high winds across an open field, snow came over the ridge above us in vast sheets and clouds. It curled as it hit the dead air of our protective hideaway and settled on us where we sat warming our fingers. Through ghost-like trees only a few yards away we could barely make out the river.
Bare fingertips exposed above heavy woolen gloves could only last so long before we needed to retreat to the base of the ridge under protective cedars. The blizzard was so miserable, several friends failed to show up at all.
Yet, when feeling surged back into our fingers, we waded out again, dropping floats into the flow only to watch them disappear behind sheets of white 20 to 30 feet down river.
Reel, drop, short drift.
But we stayed, because we knew steelhead were following the usual rules. And we were rewarded.
Every third drift or so, our Thill River Master floats would jet under so fast it seemed like David Copperfield had something to do with it. Instinctively the rod hand would snap up, our 12-foot sticks would bend then suddenly thrash like palms in a hurricane. Big bent-jaw males with crimson sides boiled on top, then sailed downriver like the wind.
Hooksets were up close and personal.
Frozen fingers, bent like claws around the handles, threatened to lose their grip. But all thoughts of frozen hands and necks disappeared with those floats, and wouldn’t return until long after that big buck was wrestled to the bank. A 12-pound steelhead can warm you like a campfire. And in the dead of winter it seems most of the fish we catch are males, but nobody complains.
The last time I hooked a big female in winter it ran under an ice shelf and jumped, shattering the thin ice like glass in a Hollywood bar fight. When water hits the low 30°F range, few fish fight with the athleticism of steelhead.
Water temperature doesn’t matter when the wind blows and rain, snow, sleet, or “sneesh” (which is basically all the above) falls heavy. Steelhead go nuts in those conditions. So do we. A couple friends arrived late, but we otherwise had miles of river to ourselves in that Wisconsin blizzard, and every pool gave up numbers.
When heavy precipitation hits the surface, steelhead can’t see above it, and they don’t fear what they can’t see. In clear conditions on sunny days, I’ve seen them spook from low-flying birds, deer walking the banks, and club-footed anglers pushing wakes across the river. In a blizzard you can walk right up to them. Their courage is up. They even use us for current breaks, sometimes bumping us with their snouts, reminding us to drop a float next to our knees from time to time.
On clear days, it’s a different story altogether.
Fall-run steelhead that spend winter in streams survive by a few basic rules. Those rules were never in greater evidence than last year. During the winter of 2013-14, many Great Lakes tributaries were frozen bank-to-bank, or frozen to the point guides couldn’t drift them at all. Which is business as usual in Wisconsin, where slow farm-country rivers typically freeze until early to mid February. Ice fishing for steelhead on rivers like the Sheboygan and the Keewaunee with a Slammers or an Automatic Fisherman is relatively popular. But in Michigan, people were running snowmobiles up the Pere Marquette for months in places where, in 42 years of fishing there, I’ve never seen it done. It was a brutal winter. Anchor ice almost assuredly thinned the population of parr considerably in rivers like the Pere Marquette, which thrives on natural reproduction alone.
Yet, adult steelhead were there. Under the ice. Waiting for spring. Following the usual winter rules.
Few fish prefer to subject themselves to the coldest water under the ice. In lakes, the coldest water is near the ice-bound surface and it gradually warms the deeper it gets. The warmest water ranges from 38°F—which is the point at which water is the most dense, making it sink to bottom—to about 40°F—which only happens in areas with springs or significant groundflow.
In rivers, water temperatures are pretty homogenous top-to-bottom. Slight warming occurs during a normal day, and cooling takes place at night.
When air temperatures drop significantly during cold spells, water temperature dips. When the air warms up, the river warms a bit, too. Winter rivers around the Great Lakes typically range from 32°F up to 42°F or even higher during unusually warm thaws. While I’ve taken readings of 31°F, just below the freezing point of water, it’s very rare, and only happens after sudden, severe cold snaps when air temperatures dip to 0°F or lower. After any length of time in those conditions, the river will freeze on top.
What keeps most rivers from freezing top-to-bottom is groundflow, which typically registers somewhere around 40°F. Like lakes, rivers tend to be surface extensions of the underground water table. Some streams depend mostly on runoff from rain or snowmelt. Others, like Michigan’s Pere Marquette and Little Manistee, depend largely on groundflow. Fisheries Scientist Dr. Paul Seelbach says the rivers of that region are “the most stable in the entire world.” Stable rivers resist flooding and never run completely dry of their own accord (humans may drain them for agriculture, fracking, or bottling water, but that’s grist for another tale).
Steelhead will open their mouths and bite in the coldest water possible—even at 31°F. In fact, I’ve experienced awesome bites in that water temperature, with ice floes constantly forming on top, twice. Both times, steelhead were in the same, predictable locations. In the 31°F to 36°F range, I think steelhead experience current the way we experience wind chill. Nobody walks on the windy side of the street with it’s 0°F and the air is whipping past at 30 mph. By the same token, steelhead are looking for the slowest water around and that’s rule number one.
Slower water can be found:
1. Where the gradient of the land levels out;
2. On inside bends in the river;
3. Where the river widens out, spreading the current, and
4. In the lower stretches of rivers where pools get deeper and the landscape flattens out near estuary areas.
We call it “frog water.”
But another factor is sunlight. Summer steelhead avoid it. Winter steelhead can crave it.
The best spots aren’t necessarily loaded with cover or deep. Steelhead may prefer a little sun on their backs in the coldest water, and almost always hold outside overhead cover except on sunny days in low-clear water. That’s rule number two.
Whether a stream is highly stable or not, if steelhead run it in fall they tend to overwinter—if possible. In water temperatures of 38°F or higher, steelhead might be anywhere in that stream and may even migrate back-and-forth. Why would they back up? Conditions. River steelhead experts like Captain Mark Chmura of Manistee, Michigan have observed many times over the years that rain or rising water will bring steelhead up river, but dropping water levels can cause them to start backing up.
“Steelhead enter rivers in waves or pods when water levels rise a bit,” Chmura said.
“That pod may spread out over a two-mile stretch of river. They run to a point where they feel comfortable with the water level and they stop. But if the water starts to drop and clear, they slip back down. I’ve tracked them on a daily basis. That two-mile zone begins to steadily retreat back toward Lake Michigan. In the lowest water levels, most might leave the river altogether. Some always stay, but the fishing slows down.”
Water levels ultimately determine how far steelhead are willing to run upriver and that’s rule number three. The other rules have to do with presentation.
The warmer the water, the more steelhead will chase things. The colder it gets, the less likely they are to move to eat or kill something. On many occasions in articles past I’ve mentioned the lack of feeding observed among steelhead by fisheries biologists and scientists during winter. Fisheries people are reluctant to conduct foraging studies on steelhead in winter for a variety of reasons, but the ones that have been conducted prove steelhead are like ascetic monks—feeding opportunistically and only on small items like invertebrates and fish eggs.
Spinners, crankbaits, oversized streamers, and big hair jigs take steelhead in winter, probably because of territorial aggression or something related. We see steelhead form wakes as they chase lures across pools, but seldom in water colder than 36°F.
Those larger lures and low-profile tactics employing beads, spawn bags, small hair jigs, or plastics, really have to do the same thing in winter to be effective: Hit steelhead on the nose. Big rainbows are less likely to chase and that suggests starting with very short casts and gradually, inch-by-inch, working your way across the river with incrementally longer drifts. That’s rule number four.
Decades ago I covered a pool in a manner I thought plenty thorough as darkness settled on Michigan’s Rogue River on a cold January evening. I made my way back around a huge ice shelf, waded ashore and started trudging up the bank. Looking back at the river I could see rings expanding from a recent rise in the middle of the river. I was shocked, thinking I would have at least touched the fish with one of the many casts made.
As famous fly angler Jim Teeny once said, “If I spot ‘em, I got ‘em.”
I always felt the same way about steelhead. Challenged, I waded back into the river and began covering the spot above where the rings appeared in more incremental fashion and soon I was battling a 9-pound hen in a pool where, a few minutes earlier, I thought no fish could possibly have been.
Hunting for slower water and covering it incrementally are just pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes you have to slow the drift. On the Niagara River, steelhead find the slowest water at the bottom of deep runs with uneven bottom where friction slows the current. Fishing from a traditional walleye hull boat that can venture out into Lake Erie or Lake Ontario when needed, Captain Frank Campbell stays in the bow and slows the drift downriver with his bow-mount electric motor until the boat is barely progressing downstream. His three-way rigs weighted with pencil lead sporting long, 7- to 10-foot fluorocarbon leaders, small single hooks and spawn bags, progress very slowly along. He grids the pool or run with incremental drifts, knowing the fish won’t come to the bait as readily as they do in spring or fall.
Slowing the drift is rule number five in winter, and it can be accomplished from the bank or an anchored position, too. Bottom-drifting rigs can be overweighted slightly. Chmura often anchors and “backdrifts” with casting gear and bell sinkers. He drops the overweighted rig below the boat, waits a few seconds, lifts the rod, drops it in a new spot and repeats. Each time the rig is lifted from bottom, current carries it a few feet covering water methodically.
From the bank, a slightly overweighted bottom rig keeps a spawn bag from slipping by too fast. And a float rig can be “checked” by getting all the line off the water behind the float and gently holding the float back. A good stream float from Ultra, Raven, Thill, and others has a sleek, oval upper body that allows water to flow around it with less resistance, without dragging it off its drift. This is best accomplished with a jig because current is going to swing the bait up. In winter, a 1/64- to 1/16-ounce steelhead jig from Voodoo Tackle or TC Tackle keeps baits and plastics down in the strike zone longer when checked.
The real deal from the bank, however, is finding water so slow a bottom rig can’t progress downstream until reduced to a single, small split shot. A wide, dish-shaped pool in an area with low to zero gradient becomes a steelhead magnet in winter. Fish tend to hold right in the middle of the river, and depth is seldom an issue. If the bottom is dark, steelhead will hold in water 2 feet deep in wide, slow pools where small, sensitive float rigs and single split-shot rigs excel.
But the best tool to carry? A temperature gauge.
Nothing narrows the search quicker. At 35°F or less, look for steelhead to hold in the slowest available water. At 36°F to 38°F, steelhead might be nosing around near the head of a pool in moderate currents. At 40°F, fall-run steelhead might even be in riffles and faster runs.
Best time to fish winter steelhead? About 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Not saying fish can’t be caught at daybreak or sunset, but the best bites tend to occur after the water warms a couple degrees. Grabbing an extra hour of sleep is forgivable in winter.
Other than that, the best times occur during adverse conditions. Blinding snowstorms, rain, withering wind chills—the nastier the better. Steelhead feel more secure, and intelligent people stay home. Leaves all the fish for dummies (like me) that forget numb fingers when watching line blur off the spool.
- written by Matt Straw
For those with short memories, this little article should be folded and put away in every tackle bag or vest. Timely information for cold water steelheaders!