‘There’s always open water somewhere’. It’s something I was told when I first started fishing winter steelhead and it’s something that really does hold true. If you’re willing to find it, there really is open water somewhere. But not all of that open water is holding water for winter chrome. In harsh winters like the last couple, fish might not be holding in any of it.
Winter steelhead are doing nothing more than waiting for their opportunity to push up river and spawn. They’re resting. The obvious place for them to be doing so? Slow, deep water. Food is at a minimum so the less energy they have to expend the better.
In order to avoid expending too much energy, steelhead are looking for the calmest, least turbulent water. As steelheaders we’re drawn to big deep river bends. These bends provide everything we are told that steelhead require. Slow water, cover in the form of downed trees or boulders and the occasional food source brought in by the faster current above; why would they be anywhere else.
River bend pools where the flow slows are a great place to start. These pools are the spots most will fish and the only water I fished during my first few years chasing winter chrome. That is until the day I got taken to school by a fellow steelheader fishing a hundred yards or so downstream of me. To me the water he was fishing was laughable; a long straight stretch of ‘frogwater’ that couldn’t have been more than four feet deep at its maximum. It was void of any structure; a barren wasteland of river water that steelhead have no intention of inhabiting. At least that’s what I thought anyway. As it turns out I was wrong. To my surprise this guy banked fish after fish while the mid-day sun was high in the sky.
It wasn’t wrong by any means to be fishing those slow deep pools, there could be countless fish occupying those very spots at any given time, but while focusing all my efforts on those particular spots I was missing something. Downed trees or logs create current breaks. We think of these current breaks as a place for steelhead to rest; an area of slow water amongst the faster current. No doubt this is the case in late fall or when rivers run dirty but as temperatures plummet this rule no longer applies. In the coldest water of winter steelhead are looking to avoid any turbulence. Current breaks slow the water but also create turbulence causing winter steelhead to steer clear. Combine this with the fact that winter steelhead will seize the opportunity to warm themselves in the high mid-day sun and suddenly it make perfect sense that wide, slow, relatively shallow stretches of water will hold much of the winter steelhead population, especially during the coldest of winters.
Steelhead are more predictable during the winter than any other season; cold water really narrows down ideal holding water. As with anything there are always exceptions, like the mild winter we are having now in which the fish are behaving more like its fall rather than winter. Location of winter steelhead is dependent on water temperature more than anything else. Winter patterns begin when the water temp drops below 37 degrees Fahrenheit; any warmer and the fish could be in more of a fall pattern, or preparing for the spring spawn depending on how early or late it is in the winter. A stream thermometer could be one of the most important pieces of equipment a steelheader could carry.
Open water isn’t always holding water. Holding water in the winter can be very limited which can make fish location predictable, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. The locations I’ve discussed above need to be fished with patience more so than usual. There is no hurrying when it comes to finding winter chrome. Cover the water meticulously and rewards will come.