The Winter Fishing Lay-Off by Tony Ensalaco

The Winter Fishing Lay-Off by Tony Ensalaco

Baby, it’s cold outside!

And just when the fall steelhead fishing started to heat up for you, mother nature has other plans. She decides to send an arctic blast over the fishing grounds, completely shutting down the hot action that you have been recently enjoying.

Then she decides to deposit a foot or more of snow a day or two before your next scheduled trip. It gets worse.

The forecast will be calling for sub-freezing weather for the following two weeks. The cold spell will surely drop the river to unnervingly low levels which will cause unwanted ice to form, making it all but impossible to get your revenge on the fourteen-pound buck that ran you under a log and sawed you off during your previous outing.

jig tying fishing jigs

Every season steelhead fishermen experience periods when inclement weather shuts down any chance of decent fishing and making the commute to your favorite rivers potentially dangerous.

Of course, when the weather decides to become more manageable, rain and run-off become problematic, further delaying any future fishing trips. The streams go from barely a trickle to being blown out over their banks with no happy medium.

This is the time of the year when steelheaders can go stir-crazy.

So, what does a deranged steelhead fanatic, like myself, do when faced with this type of scenario? When I was much younger, I probably would have driven the icy highways with my face pressed up against the windshield while squeezing the hell out of the steering wheel and at the same time praying that my vehicle doesn’t skid off the road and end up lying upside down in a ditch.

Fortunately, those reckless days are gone, and I am well aware of the importance of safety. I also realize that there will be plenty of days in the future to fish under more favorable conditions.

I have learned that there are several things that a steelheader can do from the comfort of his home that could improve his next outing and help satiate his fishing addiction when he can’t be on the water.

There are some simple chores and tasks that should be done every off-season that will enable him to fish more effectively. There are also some activities that are more entertaining to do and will take less motivation to finish. I believe in getting the mandatory work out of the way, so that is where I would usually start.

After a few months of fishing, equipment takes a beating no matter how careful you are with it, so it’s always a good idea to give it a thorough inspection during the break in the action.

Starting with your rods, be sure to check all of the guides and tip tops to ensure the ceramic rings are not cracked or damaged.

guides fishing rods tips ceramic

Also, make sure that the rings are securely attached to their frames and that the frames are not bent.

Tip tops need to be properly aligned and firmly secured to the end of the rod.

Look to see if there is any damage to the guide wraps and to the wrap’s finish.

Clean the rod blanks and the handles with warm water and a mild detergent.

Lemon Joy is the “go to” detergent to wash lures, so I use it on all of my rods.

Pay close attention to the handles because foul odors can accumulate from using bait or commercial scents. Failure to remove the odors from your equipment can be transferred to your hands, which can negatively affect your fishing.

Extra fine sandpaper can be used on freshly washed cork grips to make them appear brand new again.

Reel maintenance is extremely important and should never be overlooked. Clean, grease, and oil your reels as instructed by their manuals. Check the condition of the line and then add fresh line to the reels that need to be re-spooled. I always check and tighten all of the screws on all of my reels because it seems that a screw will loosen at the worst possible time.

You can add a drop of Loctite on most screws to help prevent them from loosening. On spinning reels, the screws around the bail seem to give me the most problems.

While inspecting the bail screws, check the line roller for grooves and that the roller is firmly in its place.

On casting reels, examine all visible screws. Don’t forget to look at the ones that attach the reel’s foot to the reel. If there is a screw holding the line guide in place, then that should be tightened as well.

If you own line-counters, the compartment were the numbers are visible can get a build-up of water condensation, sand or dirt inside. Cleaning the compartment with a Q-tip and then let air dry for a couple hours should do the trick.

washing plugs lures kwikfish

Other items that need your attention are the ones that keep you comfortable.

Check the condition of your waders. The funny thing about waders is that one day you can be wearing them for hours in waist-deep water without a problem, and the next time you use them they leak like a sieve for no apparent reason. Give your waders a systematic inspection by examining every inch from top to bottom.

Pay close attention to all of the seams, especially around the crotch and the stitching were the neoprene boots attach to the legs. Search your waders for any rips, tears or holes. Pay close attention to the backside of the waders were punctures can occur from sitting on something sharp. Check all of your raingear in the same way that you would check your waders and make repairs as needed.

Another “chore” I like to do accomplish during the break is to get my vest in order.

I try to avoid this because I’m afraid of what I might actually find., Still, I find it necessary to do at least a couple times a year to keep things in some sort of order. I will empty out everything onto a table to survey what needs to be replaced, replenished or just thrown out.

I will remove rusted lures and trash that I have retrieved along the river and I discard all of the candy wrappers and empty plastic bottles that have accumulated in the pockets. My favorite discovery is finding plastic containers of eggs that were once perfectly preserved, but have become unidentifiable after several weeks of not being refrigerated. After the vest has been completely emptied, I will wash it in hot water and let it hang dry with all of the pockets open.

Once it has completely dried, I will waterproof it with Scotchgard before restocking it.

Once I get all of my apparel in order, the next task on my off-season “to do” list is to work on all of my lures and terminal gear. Tying leaders in different lengths and line strengths have become a ritual during my winter downtime.

tying leaders yarn beads fishing

Although it’s an extremely boring job, I’m glad that I have the pre-tied leaders to save some extra steps when I am on the water. This is also a great time to catch up on pouring lead for weights or jigs. That’s something you don’t want to have to mess around with when the season is in full swing.

jigs fishing lead stove

If you make your own weights, such as “slinkies,” then why not make some up in several different sizes so you’re ready to fish when the weather breaks. If you use lures, pay close attention to the hooks by making sure they are not bent or rusted, and of course, check for sharpness. If it appears the hook cannot be saved, replace it. Check to see that all of the split-rings and snaps are in perfect working order and properly closed. Losing a fish of a lifetime because a snap wasn’t securely fastened would be a hard thing for me to live with. If you use scents and bait wraps on your lures, then it would be a good idea to give them a thorough washing before putting them away.

One thing I’m not going to recommend is that you mess around with is routine boat maintenance. I believe that a better time to change the oil, plugs, filters, etc. would be between the spring and summer runs or before the fall season gets underway. Now, if there is something that needs immediate repair, then that’s a different story. If you still feel the need to get your hands dirty, then be my guest.

The only thing that I will suggest is to have your boat accessible and ready to fish. A decent cleaning and a thorough inspection is all you should need to do before you store it during the season’s hiatus.

Once I complete all my monotonous work, I turn to projects that I find a little more entertaining.

After years of tying flies and jigs, I still enjoy siting down in front of a vise to create something. I feel that tying flies and jigs for steelhead is especially entertaining because there really isn’t a set blueprint that needs to be followed. Sure, there are some basic patterns, but I can deviate from the original idea at any time and create a fly that will still catch fish. I can’t tell you how many times I intended to tie a certain pattern, or meant to tie up a specific color, and I ended up with something totally different.

When I sit down at my bench, I will often get my two children involved and I will encourage them to invent their own concoctions. Fly-tying is a tremendous way to get kids interested in the sport.

kids fly tying jigs fishing

Another thing that I like to do to combat the winter doldrums is to build custom fishing rods. I started building rods as a teen-ager. That’s when most of the Great Lake steelheaders were using spinning rods made from fly-rod blanks.

This innovation derived from Dick Swan and his noodle rod craze. Light-liners needed the longest and softest rods they could find, so fly-rod blanks with their ultra-light, parabolic action became the perfect choice. I used Dick Swan’s design and built customized handles so that I could control the line easier with my fingers.

The “Michigan style” handle was developed by constructing a long fore grip and a short rear grip which is still popular on the Great Lakes tributaries. I continue to build my own rods because, years ago, I was never really satisfied with the quality of a factory-made rod.

My concerns were that the handles were not properly balanced and the components that some companies used were of poor quality. I also felt that rod manufacturers needed to use a better guide spacing formula. I am happy to say that factory built rods have improved tremendously over the past several years and I wouldn’t hesitate to own one.

With that being said, old habits are hard to break, and I’m quite sure I’ll be wrapping some rods this off-season.

rod building guides fishing centerpin fly

All of this prepping for future fishing trips is necessary, but it can also be boring and redundant, so I do a couple of things to help pass the time. I like to do most of my busy work in front of the television, usually during a sporting event. I figure, if I’m going to watch a game anyway, then I might as well get something done for myself.

A couple of summers ago, I tied enough twitching jigs for a fall coho trip to Alaska while watching a baseball game that went fifteen innings. Even though I know that dividing my attention between the television and my projects will never affect the outcome of a regular season game, fishermen can be superstitious, so I just don’t recommend this if your favorite team is in the play-offs!

One of my favorite things to do in the winter is to invite a couple of my fishing partners over to my house and work together on various projects.

It’s a great way to spend an evening, while at the same time, getting some work done. I’ll order food and serve whatever my buddies like to drink. At first, some things will get accomplished, but by the end of the night, it seems that we spend more time reminiscing about past trips and the fish that we have landed or lost.

Last winter, my friend Tom Couston invited me over to his house to help him do some minor rod repairs. When I got there, he had three decades of photos from past fishing excursions spread out over a table. It was a blast trying recall the details of the fish we were holding in the photos.

That’s the great thing about steelheading. It’s an activity that can be entertaining, even though you are not actively fishing.

There is always something I could do that keeps me close to the sport.

- written by Tony Ensalaco

I have to go now—dinner is ready and my wife just ordered me to remove all of the reels and the WD-40 off the kitchen table. See you when the weather breaks!




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