Transition Steelhead by Brian Kelly

Steelhead Fishing

What to do when Fall turns to Winter

steelhead fall winter fishing

When the fall run is in the rear view mirror, it is tough to come to grips with after a season of mild weather and blue back chromers dancing on the lake front. Plenty of good opportunities present themselves across the Great Lakes scene during the fall run, which means there are plenty of fish in our river systems that will be going into winter mode.

Time to change tactics a bit and focus on the areas that will hold these hard charging brutes until the urge to spawn takes over. It comes down to the two-step process we steelheaders face with any seasonal transition: Where are the fish and what do they want to hit?

Finding Winter Steelhead

Finding steelhead in the winter months can be a pretty simple proposition.

With water temps in the mid to upper 30s on most streams around the region, you won’t find steelhead on shallow gravel bars, riffles or any fast water sections for that matter. Steelhead are a couple months or more away from spawning and their main concern right now is finding a comfortable spot to hold and rest.

Where you will find steelhead this time of year are in holes or runs that can be anywhere from 5 to 12 feet deep. Add some cover such as logs or log jams and current breaks like boulders or stumps and you have the recipe for a good winter steelhead hole. Current speed is also a major factor in finding the right holes. You can have the right depth and good cover, but if the current is too slow or too fast you won’t find many fish.

So what is the right speed?

Many grizzled stream veterans would tell you that “walking speed” is what you want to look for. That may sound like an odd way to describe it, but it’s true. Once you find a few good holes that produce fish, you’ll get a feel for the right current speed.

It would be impossible for me to tell you what are good winter holes on each river around the entire region, but if you keep in mind that these holdover steelhead are trying to conserve energy for the spawning rituals of spring, you can recognize the right places to make a drift. One tip I was given from one of my steelheading mentors years ago was, “If you can’t see bottom, make a cast.” The nice thing about winter steelheading is the water clarity is usually very good and finding holes can be as simple walking down the river with a pair of polarized sunglasses.

When you do your homework and connect with some winter steelhead, make sure you remember these spots for future reference.

Steelhead have a bad habit of holding in the same holes each winter, keeping a record of your catches will pay off in the future. To me, that is one of the beautiful things about this sport—you are rewarded for hard work and paying attention to details.

How To Catch Them

There is a multitude of ways to catch steelhead, but none is more effective this time of year than float fishing. Float fishing is so effective in the winter since you are presenting the bait at the fishes’ level at current speed; this is so very important since winter steelhead are pretty lethargic in the icy water temps.

Another advantage to float fishing is you can see exactly where your drift is going and can control your presentation; this allows you to drift in front of, next to, and behind current breaking obstacles that steelhead like to hold near. One very important point to keep in mind when float fishing for winter steelhead is that you must be near the bottom as much as possible.

I cannot stress this point enough; I see too many anglers that try their hand at float fishing each winter and the biggest mistake I see them that they are not fishing deep enough.

When I am float fishing a hole or run for the first time, I keep adjusting the depth of my float until I make contact with bottom. Once I accomplish this, I adjust my float so my bait is just off bottom. You will hang up on bottom from time to time, but giving up a handful of hooks in order to hook a handful of fish is a good trade off in my book!

The way I like to rig my floats for winter steelheading is pretty simple. With the water being clear to lightly stained in the winter, I like to use a staggered shot rig. Starting at my hook, use a leader length of 12 to 18 inches to a small barrel swivel or “ant” as they are commonly referred to. Above the ant, evenly space a number of small split shot (size B or BB) up the line—typically 2 to 4 inches apart. The number of shot depends on the river size. For smaller rivers where most holes are 5 to 7 feet deep, you may only need to use 4 or 5 split shot; on larger rivers where some holes may be as deep as 10 or 12 feet deep, you may need to use as many as 6 or 8 split shot. This staggered split shot arrangement allows the bait to drift ahead of the split shot so the fish will see the bait before anything else. The small B or BB split shot are also very unobtrusive to a steelhead and won’t spook them after repeated casts. Be sure to add some heavier split shot (size 3/0 up to size 5) just below the float as this accomplishes several tasks: they help to balance the rig so just the brightly colored top of the float is sticking above the surface of the water, they aid with casting distance and act as a keel to help slow the float down in the faster surface flow.

Now for the important part of the entire rig—the right bait to use!

You can be on the best winter steelhead hole with the proper rig, but if you don’t have the right bait you won’t get bit.

Spawn is my most consistent and best producer each winter, with fresh, un-cured or brined eggs being my go to bait. At this time of year, the eggs will still be tight in the skein; take the skeins and wrap them in a paper towel and put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator over night. Then take the skeins out and lay them out on several layers of paper towels to get as much moisture off the eggs as possible. Make sure not to over dry the eggs, when they get “tacky” they are ready to go. Lay the skeins skin side up and use a spoon to scrape the eggs out of the skein. Once this is done, put the loose eggs on more paper towels for one last drying session. Sometimes I let the eggs sit overnight, sometimes just a few hours depending on how dry the eggs are already. Once the eggs get to this point, tie as many spawn bags as possible and freeze them in quantities that you will need for each outing.

winter fall steelhead great lakes

What eggs I have left from the scraping process that did not get tied up go into a brine for an overnight soak. The brining process not only cures the egg for a longer shelf life, but toughens up the outer skin and adds an element of scent to the process. Winter fish can be a moody lot and there are times a salty egg from the result of a brine soak can be just what flips the switch in their little steelhead brain! There are several commercially available brines the market today, most of my success has come with the Pautzke Fire Brine or Atlas Mike’s Bright and Tight brine in the natural or clear color.

Lastly, be sure to use several different colors of spawn netting when tying your spawn bags. Sometimes bright colors like pink or chartreuse can be the ticket or paler colors like white or peach can be what the fish want; and don’t overlook blue netting, even outside the “blue zone” found on the eastern Lake Ontario tribs.

Weather and Water Temp

Fishing for winter steelhead can be a maddening affair at times. One day they will bite really well only to go really quiet the next. Barometric pressure affects steelhead in the winter more than any other time of the year due to the stationary nature of winter steelhead.

Winter steelhead are holding far more than they are moving or migrating so keeping an eye on the barometer will help you be on the water at peak times. Try to avoid fishing in extreme low pressure or high pressure situations. These tend to have a negative affect on the fishes’ mood and will put them off the bite for prolonged periods.

Calm, stable weather periods are best as the fish will be in a comfortable and biting mood. Look for barometer range of 29.90 to 30.05, this means stable weather and a consistent bite; pay attention to the barometer this winter and put the odds in your favor.

Water temp is the last variable to consider for winter steelheading.

Water temps in the winter can range from a low of 32.5 to 36 degrees on most streams around the region, depending on influences such as hydroelectric dams.

These structures tend to concentrate fish that ran in the fall and tend to have a more constant temperature range throughout the winter. Since these dams draw water from the top of the lake that they create, the water temp usually stays in a range of 33 to 35 degrees. This will change the farther away you get from the dam as feeder creeks can warm the water a few degrees or extremely cold weather can freeze up the lower ends of these river systems. The advantage to streams like these is that you can fish them all winter long as the flows from the dam keep them from freezing up.

steelhead fishing brian kelly

Keep in mind the time of day you are going to fish as well. The old adage of fishing the middle of the day in the wintertime often holds true as this is the warmest part of the day and the fish can become very active from late morning to early afternoon. This is especially true on rocky streams with very little or no ground water influence. Often times these streams will be full of slush and ice until the heat of the day melts them off. It’s no coincidence that this is usually the time when you’ll find a steelhead or two willing to bite your offering.

I enjoy the peace and solitude of winter steelheading more than any other season.

It is a great time to get rid of cabin fever and bend the rod. Just like fishing for these magnificent fish at other times of the year, knowing where to look and what to use can lead to some fantastic opportunities.

- written by Brian Kelly



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