Winter Steelheading in the Great Lakes

20150329_075940 1Winter has arrived. For the most part it’s a season I despise. If I could hibernate I probably would. At the same time, it’s a season that at times I long for. It’s contradicting, I know, but just the thought of big wintering steelhead makes my blood boil.

As I write this, we’re experiencing a mixed bag of weather and it seems more like March than it does January. It’s not bad weather at all for most steelheders. Personally, I prefer the harsh elements January and February can bring and at the risk of sounding selfish it has a lot to do with the fact that I tend to have the river, and all the fish in it, to myself. Yes, there are other reasons I love winter steelheading, namely the sheer size and power of the hold-over fish, but the solitude and peacefulness are second to none.

I wasn’t always a winter steelheader, in fact at the beginning most of my steelheading was done in the spring, completely unaware of the opportunities I was missing out on. Eventually I started chasing steelhead in the fall, all the while listening to others tell stories of big chrome in the dead of winter. The stories intrigued me, and it wasn’t long until I was standing bankside, fingers numb, snow blasting me in the face, not catching any fish.

Winter steeheading isn’t for everyone. Fish are few and far between and a lot of time is spent dealing with frozen guides, frozen line, frozen tackle and frozen extremities. For those thinking of giving it a shot this winter here are a few tips.

Mind over Matter:

Hardcore is a term I’ve heard used on more than one occasion to describe the winter steelheader. Do I consider myself hardcore? No, not really. Does it take a special person to endure what Oldman Winter has to throw at them for nothing more than a hope of catching a fish? Yes, it definitely does. It’s a mental game to be sure and the winter steelheader’s most important piece of equipment is the mind. Mind over matter. Action is never fast and furious and it takes strong will to face countless hours of bitter cold winds, snow, sleet and anything else that comes in the dead of winter. There are plenty of times I can remember being on the brink of packing it in; cold and frustrated. Had I done so I would have missed out on some of the biggest steelhead I’ve ever brought to hand. If you think it’s time to quit, push yourself a little further. Eventually enduring the hardships will become second nature and big winter steelhead will erase those hardships from your mind.

20170218_071307Dress for Success:

Maybe this seems like an obvious one but it’s something that at times can be over looked and is a direct link to mind over matter. If you’re getting cold soon after you start, you’re not going to be able to focus on anything else. If you can’t stay focused, you’re not going to catch fish. The key to keeping warm is layering. Layering allows you to add or remove as you see fit, ensuring you’re always dressed accordingly. At the very least your base layer should be moisture wicking. Winter steelheading often requires lots of walking to find fish. Walking is a great way to stay warm on those bitterly cold days but no matter how cold it is, if you walk enough, you’re going to sweat. Sweat is bad. When you stop to fish the moisture built up is only going to make you colder; a lot colder. Layers with wicking properties keep the moisture off your body and make for a much more comfortable day.

There are countless lines of clothing available and it took me a few years of experimenting to find the ones that suit me best. The one thing I can say is don’t cheap out. If you want good quality winter clothing, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Go Big or Go Home

Now this is something that contradicts what a lot of steelheaders will tell you. Generally winter water levels are stable, which means with little to no run off they are also running clear. What’s the general rule when it comes to fishing crystal clear water? Small, natural looking baits. This isn’t always the case in the winter. Most of the time I’m getting fish on big bulky presentations and here’s why: meals can be few and far 20170205_131402between for a steelhead in the winter so when they do eat something, they’re going to make sure it’s worth their while; they’re going to choose the meal that offers the most reward for the least amount of effort. Although it’s not the case all the time for the most part bigger is better for winter steelhead.

Don’t Get Hung Up On Bait

I see it all too often, especially here in the Great Lakes. Guys will run roe and they will run it all the time. Roe catches fish, a lot of fish, it’s why it’s so popular, but too many get hung up on using it. While roe has its time and place, winter, in my opinion, is not one those times. Yes, you can catch fish in the winter on roe, and a lot of people do, but thereimg_0735 are better options. In fact, roe in the winter is my last choice when rummaging through my vest. Instead I prefer things like jigs, flies or plastics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to abandon roe all together in the winter, just keep in mind that there are other options that could possibly catch just as many, if not more, fish.




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