When I’m fishing for for smallmouth bass in the summer, and it’s too hot for even a camel to be happy, I long for snow and winter steelhead. Then when I’m steelheading and it’s cold enough to give a polar bear frostbite, I yearn for sunshine and summer bass-at least until I connect with a feisty winter steelie.
When trout season closes in the fall, most fly fishermen hang up their waders, but winter steelheading is a great way to extend your time on the water. It’s a lot of fun, too, even if the ice plugs the rod guides. And if you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, as I am, any excuse to get out of the house during the winter certainly helps dull the pain.
Steelhead can actually be quite tricky to catch (almost as tricky as carp, another overlooked all-season prize), but there are a few techniques that can increase your chances of success. The key is to keep things simple-and safe.
Before you head out, check the weather. If it looks as though there’s nasty stuff on the way, stay home-conditions can be dangerous both on the water and on the road. A lot of good trout streams are accessed via lonely backroads, so when you do head out, always carry an emergency safety kit in your car, complete with a cold-weather sleeping bag, thermal blanket, candles and snacks, just in case you get stuck. Trust me: I’ve slept in my minivan when it’s been –15°C outside, and although I was perfectly okay, I now know what a turkey feels like in the bottom of a freezer.
You should also always tell someone where you’re going and, more importantly, when you plan to return. It only takes a few seconds to jot down your itinerary, along with your route and intended fishing location, and stick it on the fridge.
Finally, make sure your gas tank is topped up, but do it the night before you head out. That way, you avoid the risk of getting the smell of petrol on your hands-and eventually on your flies. Nothing will turn a fish away faster. This holds true any time of the year, and it’s probably the number one culprit when anglers fail to catch fish.
Luckily, the very same tackle and flies,including streamers, nymphs and ants, you use for summer smallmouth also work well on winter steelhead. So, if you’re a summer bass angler, you’ve already got everything you need to hit the breakwalls and hike the riverbanks in search of steelhead this winter.
For starters, the six-weight rod and floating line you use for smallmouth or trout will get the job done. You do, however, need to get your flies down, so use weighted patterns, or take along a bag of splitshot. Or if you want to splurge, pick up a clear, intermediate-sinking slime line to match your rod. This clear line is also handy for fishing streamers in the summer months, so steelhead season won’t be the only time you get to use it.
Streamers, such as a size 8 Mickey Finn, will catch winter steelhead in icy water, but don’t be afraid to also use Hare’s Ear and Pheasant Tail Nymphs as small as size 14. The key when it’s cold is to fish them slowly, and deep. You can also tie a bit of fluffy, undulating marabou onto your flies to give them some extra movement, which helps attract lethargic fish. As for ant flies, I’ve taken a lot of steelhead on a size 12 Black Ant fished dry, up against the ice edge.
Along with proper cold-weather outerwear, sturdy boots and plenty of layers, another item you can’t live without is a big net with a very long handle. Breakwalls are really productive fishing spots, but they tend to be about 13 feet up from the water surface, so the long handle is essential when it comes time to actually land a fish.
Finally, for a leader, tie 15 to 20 feet of six- or eight-pound fluorocarbon-I use Vanish, but your favourite flavour will work-onto your fly line. Then tie the fly onto the other end and go fishing. It’s just that simple.
B.C. and Ontario offer plenty of winter steelhead opportunities, but be sure to check your local regulations for season dates and restrictions before heading out.