Winter steelhead are a finicky bunch. Something that produced fish one day won’t the next for no reason apparent to us steelheaders. It’s no secret that roe catches fish but as fall progresses to winter and spawning salmon have gone, the roe bite starts to die off. Sure it can have its days all winter long but its catch rate does drop significantly the colder the water gets. It gets to a point that I don’t even bother tying bags for a couple of months. Instead I make sure that my vest is stocked with these three fish catch alternatives.
Jigs weren’t a major part of my steelhead repertoire until well after I picked up my first centerpin. Those first few years running a float on a pin saw a very strict use of roe. It caught fish and honestly was the easiest way to master what was a completely new technique, to me anyway. There were plenty of days when the roe didn’t work, but those were quickly erased by the days when it did. I was content with sacrificing a day here and there because for every bad day there were three or four good ones.
It was on one of those bad days that I truly learned the effectiveness of jig fishing. Sparing readers the details (besides it’s all laid out in my previous post Ugly Bug) I spent some time watching a veteran float fisherman absolutely hammer fish on one of the crudest looking steelhead jigs I have ever seen. And so began my ascension into the world of steelhead jigs.
Jigs have their moments any season steelhead are in the rivers, but for me they shine during the winter. Food sources are limited in the winter. Since it could be some time between meals steelhead are looking for something high in protein. Bugs offer that protein; jigs imitate bugs. Hair jigs here in the Great Lakes are micro, the kind you would see used to catch panfish, typically smaller than 1/16oz. When I float jigs in the winter I work under the theory the bigger the better. My winter arsenal consists of jigs more typical of west coast steelheading; the majority being tied on 1/8oz heads.
The right color is something that will vary from river to river and day to day depending on conditions. Marabou and Rabbits Hair color combinations are seeming endless so experimenting is critical. One thing is for sure, you can never go wrong with pink. A pink rabbits hair jig will drive a winter steelhead bonkers.
Despite the fact that I’m listing these three baits in no particular order it’s fitting that I talk about jigs first. They are my go to for winter steelhead and I spend more time fishing jigs than anything else.
Well north of ten years ago I began reading of Alaskan fly guides taking steelhead on custom painted plastic beads. I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical as were the steelheaders in my small float fishing circle. Even as beads slowly began showing up here in the Great Lakes most were passing them off as a fad. It’s clear now, years later, that they are much more than that. Beads have become common place in Great Lakes steelheaders vests.
Over the course of time when steelhead are river bound, beads are a major part of my steelhead arsenal and with the right color/size combination can out fish roe much of the time.
I know I already said that come winter the roe bite dramatically decreases. It’s why I don’t tie bags in the winter. So if beads are designed to imitate fish eggs, then what makes them so affective during the winter months? Personally I don’t have any type of scientific answer for that question, only a theory. Essentially that theory is based on a steelheads instinct. A few short months before, eggs of spawning salmon were a major food source to these now wintering steelhead. Although they’re not going to go out of their way to chase down a single egg, a well-placed bead will trigger their natural instinct to ingest a passing food source. So why would a bead be any more productive than a roe bag? My guess is in the clear water of winter a single egg drifting by looks much more natural than a cluster of eggs.
By now most Great Lakes steelheaders are familiar with the term ‘pinky’. It’s a term coined from the use of small pink trout worms. For me, and many like me, it all started with a 3” Floating Trout Worm. To this day it remains the most common trout worm on the river bank.
Despite the fact that I’ve caught steelhead on pretty much any color companies can come up with, pink remains my favorite, especially in the winter. For whatever reason pink in any shade is a color steelhead just cannot resist. In most winter situations a 2.5” to 3” worm will suffice but there are times when 4” and even 6” worms excel. The bigger worms are something I rarely see anyone using on Great Lake tributaries and I’ve got more than a few funny looks when people see a 6” worm hanging below my float. I use the same philosophy with worms as I do with my jigs; in the winter, the bigger the better. I can’t stress enough that big worms catch big steelhead, and plenty of them.
I’m sure most steelheaders reading this have at least one of these three things in their vest. If you don’t carry all of them, you should. Although often very predictable, steelhead can baffle the best of us and a cold day on the river becomes a lot less enjoyable when you’re not catching fish. Carrying these three things all winter will not only increase your odds, but may quite possibly make you a more successful winter steelheader.