To be totally honest, I hate the cold.
It doesn’t matter if I am ice fishing, deer hunting, or waterfowling, I flat out dislike freezing my backside off. I do it to chase my passions, to be an outdoorsman 12 months a year.
No matter how long I shiver, or how cold my hands and feet get, I still do it, because eventually, the sacrifice is worth the payoff. When it comes down to overall reward for effort during the winter months, nothing tops the hours I spend freezing my body to an ice cube chasing winter steelhead. For me, and thousands of other Great Lakes anglers, few things soothe the soul and make one forget they are experiencing frostbite like chrome-sided winter steelhead.
When it comes to winter steelhead, Ontario tops the list for Great Lakes river anglers.
By sheer geographic size, and the hundreds upon hundreds of tributaries pouring into four of the major water bodies, Ontario provides more opportunities than any other bordering state to “our” shared waters. You could spend a lifetime checking off bucket-list rivers during the winter months, and endless amounts of fuel. Amidst all of these options, there are no doubt a few winter fisheries that stand out among the rest.
Timing is key no matter when and where you chase steelhead, but overall I think it would be safe to say that winter steelhead are fairly predictable creatures. Good-sized rivers across the Great Lakes that see decent amounts of rainfall in October and November produce strong fall runs. Come winter, an angler can put his or her odds in their favor by focusing on big systems with guaranteed fall runs, resulting in hold-over fish throughout the winter months. Many of these same systems also see pushes of fresh fish throughout the winter, adding to the numbers stacking up during cold snaps in “year-round angling sections” which allow anglers to target them legally. There are also plenty of small tributaries in the Province that see winter migration and hold-over fall runners, but timing can be trickier as some of these flows freeze solid, or there is little legal angling water available during the winter.
Let’s look at 3 of the top winter steelhead fisheries in Ontario during the winter months. Each provides a different experience and is as solid of a bet as you can get for winter success.
There isn’t a cold-water month on the calendar that doesn’t produce lights out action on the mighty Niagara. Sure the monster river on the New York – Ontario border can be tough at times, but there is no doubt that the fish are there, often in great numbers, with big fish in play. This is serious water, where the options for presentations are great whether you attack it from a boat or on the bank. The Niagara is like no other river across the Great Lakes, but a steelhead is a steelhead no matter where they are found. Throwing hardware, drifting three-way rigs from a boat, or float fishing the deep currents are all options that produce fish in the winter.
Descending into the Gorge via the Whirlpool Stairs on the Ontario side is a must-do for any Great Lakes steelheader. The steps are easy on the way down but will kill you on the way up. Still, the rumble of the Falls on a cold winter day while watching a float slip under the foamy surface over 125 feet of water is pretty wild. Pack beefy gear, as winter steelhead here can push 20 pounds with big lake trout and browns adding to the mix. 10- to 12-pound mainline with floats in the 20-gram range are a baseline for the centerpinner, while baitcasters and slipfloats are also common.
Gear junkies can score big here on hardware, specifically Mepps spinners and casting spoons getting popular nods. Bait takes plenty of fish here, from fresh or cured roe bags to shiners. Baitfish imitating plastics also shine on the Niagara, rigged on 3-ways while presented vertically from a boat and even under a float.
When it comes to understanding the Niagara, few anglers have the experience on the border water like Paul Castellano. One of the busiest guides on the Great Lakes, Paul runs Cast Adventures with his specialty being putting clients on unforgettable steelhead, lakers, and browns on the Niagara from his Alumacraft.
When asked why the Niagara is his top winter pick for Ontario steelhead, he noted: “the all year angling season over the entire lower Niagara, with major water regardless of rainfall, temperature and ice for the most part.”. He added, “there are very few places that provide the opportunity like the Niagara for both bank anglers and boaters during the winter”.
Water clarity usually isn’t an issue with mid-winter thaws, since the river is fed directly by Erie. Big west winds can move water from Erie down the upper river stirring up mud which can dirty up the lower and also move shoreline/pack ice around and plug up the bottom end at times. This is far from a normal occurrence however, and this is one of the biggest reasons the Niagara is a top draw…. steady fishing.
Few will argue with the Saugeen as a top pick on Lake Huron for winter chrome.
Many will also claim it rivals as the top flow in the Province. Bolstered by a successful stocking program and wild adult transfer program, the Saugeen has seen some record-breaking annual returns over the past decade. The river provides an All Year Angling season for rainbow trout from just downriver of Denny’s Dam to Lake Huron, a stretch of just a few miles, but don’t let that fool you. Fast water in terms of rapids can be found scattered across the lower end, mixed with winter holding water and gorgeous tailouts. The ‘Geen is big water in terms of Ontario standards and often provides ideal flow rates for the majority of the cold water season.
Cold snaps in late November usually slow the migration down through the ladder at Denny’s, but fish continue to move in from the lake, stacking up in prime holding water sections. Float fishing with centerpin gear reigns king here for winter chrome.
Water conditions normally dictate set-ups, but anglers can expect winter steelhead to test 8- to 12-pound mainlines paired with floats in the 8 to 20-gram range. Spawn, beads jigs and pink worms are top picks with anglers also swinging flies on the Spey. Hardware picks up plenty of winter chrome on the ‘Geen, with Len Thompson spoons being a local favorite.
Prior to the winter closing date, the entire Fall and the month of December provide anglers with the opportunity to fish the waters above Denny’s to the town of Walkerton nearly 70km upriver. Bridge crossings and Conservation Lands provide access points for both bank and boat anglers, with a few drift boats and guides frequenting the upper stretches.
Steelhead spread out in this vast stretch of river, and often bomb through further up past the Walkerton Dam into closed waters during the winter season. Regardless, the sheer numbers in the ‘Geen run ensure that there are always fish to catch in the system during the winter.
Once the true winter weather sets in, the lower section below Denny’s can provide solitude (pick the right day) and double-digit hook ups are fairly common. The river can get nasty during winter warm spells and thaws. The upper reaches are mainly agriculturally based land use zones, and the river can get muddy quick if rain hits and spurs a melt. Nonetheless, the fishing is usually lights out once the angry river begins to drop and clear. The same can be said for extreme cold snaps that can lock 80% of the lower few miles up and severely limit the water anglers can legally fish after the 31st of December. It never lasts long, however, and anglers normally have a couple of miles of what many consider the best fishing in the Province when it comes to winter steelhead.
The East Creeks/Ditches
You don’t normally find solitude in the Greater Toronto Area, and you likely won’t get that experience during the winter on the popular tribs to the east of Canada’s largest city. But rest assured, there are prime winter steelheading opportunities to be had here.
From the Credit River in Mississauga to the Ganaraska in Port Hope, the 401 highway corridor provides access to these Lake Ontario tribs. Many have extended fall seasons for steelhead into the midsections of the river, and most have All Year angling opportunities in the lower ends. These All Year sections are often short in length, and the majority of the tribs are fairly small, but they cough up great catches in the winter. Due to their size, these tributaries are often affectionately referred to as the “East Ditches” by the Ontario steelheading fraternity, but don’t let the name fool you.
City/urban design helps to keep many of these small tribs fishable with runoff warming the frigid flows during the winter. Rain and melt events can often blow them out very quickly, but they come back into shape just as quick. A few of these creeks are woody and require finesse approaches thanks to the tight quarters and heavy pressure. Roe presentations are by far the most popular bait, followed by beads, jigs and flies, all offered via centerpin float gear for most anglers. 10-pound mainline setups, on float rods no longer than 13 feet are ideal here thanks to the small size of most creeks. Sensitive floats in the 4 to 8-gram range are perfect for these waters that often require you to fish slow stained flows in marsh-like river mouth sections.
The bonus of the East end tributaries of Lake Ontario is the fact you can creek hop via the 401 and sample a half dozen good fisheries over the course of day or two, devoting return trips to the ones that fish well or are just coming into shape based on the weather. Many fish push into these systems during the mid-winter, far before the masses think about a spring run. Often, the steelhead have come and gone, completing their annual ritual before the upper sections open in late April. Time your visit right during a January thaw and you have a legit shot at punching your ticket to the 20-pound club. These flows produce some absolute stunners when it comes to oversized Great Lakes steelhead and the cool part is that you can catch them within a major urban population area, in a river you can cast right across. To some, this might not be too intriguing, but it provides an easy accessible opportunity that is hard to match.
Regardless of which month you want to chase winter chrome, Ontario provides opportunities across the entire cold water period.
Whether its big water you relish with frost biting away at your exposed fingers or face or ducking beneath snow-covered cedars lining the bank of a small creek, you can find it here. Ease of access and variety of water spoils the Ontario steelheader and traveling angler. I know I will be cursing Jack Frost more than once this winter, freezing myself stiff standing waist-deep in the icy flows. My numb fingers will be worth it though no doubt, as nothing brings back the blood flow like a fresh lake run twisting and turning after dropping the float. Hopefully, you will see the merits and brave elements, I guarantee you it is worth it. Or, you can stay at home by the fire, staying warm, leaving mid-winter steelhead to those who enjoy the self-abuse, standing out in the cold….just more fish for us crazy folk.
- written by Josh Choronzey