How I Now View the Challenges of Winter
Winter is by far my favorite steelheading season! Lack of river traffic, the beauty of a white winter wonderland on a bright sunny day and the peace and tranquility of solitude make you feel extremely blessed to enjoy this time of year in the Great Lakes!
Each steelhead you catch - you earn! This is the beauty of the winter bite. Every year you learn so much more about their behavior, their preferences for holding water, and how they are so introspective.
Fall, spring and summer are when you learn about a steelhead's savagery - its aggressive primal force. Ahhhh! ... but in winter, you learn about a steelhead's mind, soul and true existential being. In that I am drawn to them and the beautiful bond between predator and prey elevates our sport to an ethereal level.
Size Really Matters and Slowing Way Down
Each passing year, I am amazed by how small a fly a winter steelhead will take. My winter steelhead fly boxes put all things into perspective since they look like trout nymphing boxes - and they seem to get more sparse and tinier in size each year - whether it be eggs, nymphs or small baitfish patterns. Winter steelhead consist of two types: resident holdovers from fall and fresh arrivals on full-moon thaws and slight increases in river flows. Fresh arrivals have the enthusiasm and playfulness of young year-old puppies—eager to grab and play—gotta love that! But it's the darker, smarter and cunning winter residents that bring out the true hunt and deception thing that I find fascinating. I guess that it is why I'm such a fan of spring creek trout and all that is not easy!
A holding steelhead in a primary pool of winter behaves like an extremely introspective and selective spring creek rainbow. Its curiosity is still very much intact, yet it has probably seen many offerings, perhaps it has been caught once and released and is just about as voyeur as a fish can get. On a sunny day, no matter what the air and water temperature, light rays generate the stream's heating and biological drift and aquatic organism movements take place. Early black and olive stoneflies start wiggling toward shore. Sculpins and baitfish scurry for minute food forms from midges, scuds to plankton. Giant burrowing mayflies leave their burrows to find more fertile homes. Even a few Pacific salmon and brown trout eggs hatch and the sac-fry start scurrying amongst the rocks. A simple one- or two-degree warm-up in water makes this all happen, and simultaneously a steelhead's demeanor and metabolism start to make it a little antsy and curious—yet still behaving in a reserved manner.
This slow awakening that cold water temperatures inflict requires a complete mindset change in how a steelheader reads, presents and stalks the river. Everything must slow down: the drift, the speed in which you cover the water and how you temper and stymie your inherent need for gratification - the catch!
Here are some simple rules to go by when pursuing winter steelhead:
- Fish every pool, run, pocket, tailout very slowly and carefully: Cover every foot of water - rest - then go back and do it again at the prime time of winter fishing - noon till dusk. The dusk bite is very powerful!
- Winter steelhead will strike in water that is 32 degrees or below. However, a slight one- or two-degree warm-up in temperature makes a big difference in a steelhead's metabolism and curiosity.
- Concentrate on the warmest part of the day. Sunshine is a blessing in very cold weather—cloud cover is preferred on warmer days.
- Switch flies often; think small and translucent and duller in color.
- Keeping your blood circulating is the key in winter steelheading. Walking and wading rivers is a great way or swinging a Spey/switch rod creates good body movement.
- Dress in layers and make sure you have a moisture-wicking layer. The Patagonia system is imperative for winter steelheading.
- Hand warmers and propane heaters are a life-saver, along with hot pots of soup streamside and warm Thermos beverages.
- Pace yourself-fish, warm-up, rest water, fish... repeat the process. Enjoy the wildlife-eagles, swans, foxes and wolves, turkeys, owls-the river and woods are alive with winter's display of nature.
Great Lakes winters are harsh and unrelenting. Yet oddly, the long, frigid months are met with celebration by the true lovers and natives of the lakes' basins. Its blistering-cold lake-effect snow squalls and the sub-zero wind chills are incapacitating. Winter floors us with its ability to rob millions of people of the opportunity to function at the socially accepted modern-day frantic pace. Blizzards close workplaces and schools and suffocates traffic commutes. Skiers, snowmobilers, ice fishermen, and dog-sledders are all in their sporting glory. Hunters pursue rabbits with a passion. For many, like me, winter is the season of the elusive steelhead. It has been that way for centuries in the Pacific Northwest, but in our brief Great Lakes centennial, the steelhead have become the sporting demigods of our cold, icy rivers.
Every winter steelhead must be earned-the hard way. Flogged by brutal weather extremes and river conditions, icicle steelheading is a cult sport for the hardcore fly-fisher. Throughout the Great Lakes, "these crazies" (as some people call them) don polar fleece, heavy neoprene waders, hand warmers, and may even grab a flask of cognac in their hunt for that magic hook-up with a winter fish. If you're sitting at a bar in Baldwin, Michigan on the Pere Marquette or watching the lake-effect snow pile high and deep in a Pulaski, New York diner near the Salmon River, you'll recognize winter steelheaders by their weathered red faces and the wild look in their eyes.
Winter steelheading weeds out the fair weather anglers. It draws a thrill-seeking adventurer-an angling animal that can't be caged. You learn to love the exhilarating cold. In a primal way we do it because we can. When our health is strong, even though we battle the cold and flu seasons, our passion and desire for a steelhead hook-up is insatiable. Usually by February, cabin fever and post-football-bowl-game depression are raging. With a feeling of "I can't take it anymore, get me out of here," we go in search of a winter steel head river. The first numbing of the fingers and icy blast of wind in the face tells us we're back in our element.
Each time I try to describe the winter experience I get caught up in the peculiarities and nuances of the ritual. The act of catching a stealhcad is the end that justifies the means-in winter steelheading, however, the "end" is often never achieved.
One outcome can be controlled. At the end of a day on the river we can bask by a glowing fireplace sipping warm coffee or sampling heart-and-soul-warming cognac as we puff on a fine cigar or a new pipe tobacco blend. These moments are precious when spent in the company of angling friends, spouses, growing children, and hospitable guides and innkeepers. Often with a special dinner soon to be enjoyed, the ritual of this cozy gathering, along with the good night's sleep we always seem to have at a river lodge-all of this stems from our love and pursuit of steelhead. This winter celebration of being alive while nature lies dormant is etched forever in our fondest memories.
The Nature of Winter Fish
Without question, steelhead are one of the only cold water salmonid game fish still at the top of their game at this time of year. The gusto with which they strike a fly is still present despite chilling water temperatures hovering near the freezing point. Even though winter-run Pacific Northwest steelhead run their rivers under the more comfortable water temperatures and conditions more common to their environment, these transplants run the harsher environs of the Great Lakes rivers and streams with abandon.
Since my addiction to coldwater steelheading grows stronger each year, I've come to realize that just when you think you've figured out winter fish your baffled by a new event that throws all your theories into the garbage bin of "dead knowledge."
One of my most humbling encounters with these winter fish took place on January 7, 1999. After a fierce winter blizzard dumped up to 40 inches of snow and air temperatures tumbled into the sub-zero range, my thoughts were far from steelheading. Sun-tanned goddesses in bikinis, warm turquoise waters with sand, and taking a sail in the tropics with Captain Morgan were my daily fantasies.
Dozing off in my reclining chair after shoveling 3 1/2 feet of snow from our deck, I snapped forward as the phone rang. On the other line was an overly enthusiastic graduate student from Indiana University and his friend who were dying to go on a guided winter steelhead trip. "When?" I asked. "Like tomorrow," virgin winter steelhead apprentice Ramon Zabriskie replied. "You've got to be crazy," I replied in a nice yet discouraging way. "We don't care about the weather, we're ski bums and fly-fishers from Park City, Utah and we've gotta hook one of those beauties we saw in Fly Fish America magazine." That month my mug was on the cover holding up an 18-pound winter steelhead with plenty of snow around me. That shot would continue to haunt me and send me on more bone-chilling fishing days than I've ever imagined. After Ramon's relentless insistence, he bantered, "I don't give a damn about the weather and you shouldn't either for Christ's sake, you're supposed to be a winter steelhead guide." I felt my manly pride being challenged and shot back, "You're on, but it's going to be a hell of a cold and expensive boat ride."
As soon as I hung up the phone, I planned the dreaded logistics. Obstacles were numerous, yet I was not about to be accused of being a wimp again. Since the sub-zero cold denied us use of the jet boat, we would row the McKenzie drifter. Since the Landings had not been plowed for weeks, finding a place to launch the boat in 40 inches of snow was a problem. I loaded up the space heaters, glued myself to the weather channel and hoped for a break from the NOAA (National Oceanographic Atmospheric Association) computerized "weather nazi" on my radio band. He (it) is a monotone Teutonic simulated voice. Sounding like it was stuck on rewind, it blared, "Extremely cold sub-zero weather with heavy snowfall." It sounded like a cross between Arnold Schwarzennegger and an old German hotellier I once worked for. I was dreading going to work the following morning.
At 9:00 a.m. Ramon and Frank showed up, exuberant as ever, despite driving all night with no sleep. They were pumped. I was nervous. "We'll launch the drift boat down a steep slope at the Croton Dam on a tow rope and let it tumble to the river, that's the only way we can get it in." I sounded captain-like to my new rookie recruits. The air temperature on my thermometer was -2 degrees F., wind chill was estimated at -34 degrees. I was nuts. I warned them that for their safety at the first sign of someone getting hypothermic or any adverse weather change we'd go right off the river. "No problem," said Raimon, "We're happy to be here."
Since the Muskegon is a tailwater, it remains open and ice free all year. We tumbled the driftboat down the slope and giggled as it hit the water. "OK, here's the scoop," I commanded. "The only boat landing we could get a reasonable chance of taking out at is twelve miles downstream. I've got one spot about four miles down from here that I know has some holding fish. But in 33-degree water I'll bet a thousand bucks we ain't gonna get 'em to hit. Besides, we have about five minutes before all of our tackle, anchor rope and the feeling in our hands and fingers freeze up. And I ain't taking anyone to the hospital for frostbite-you guys got that?" I barked. "Aye, Aye captain," responded Ramon.
I rowed my butt off to the honey hole to keep warmed up. Upon arrival at the winter steelhead pool, I started to rig rods with pink egg patterns and Hex nymphs and lots of lead as the virgin Hoosier steelheaders' teeth were chattering. With one rig ready, I handed it to Frank. "Cast right there, in the gut of the run, bounce the bottom very slowly and if you feel it stop, drive the hook home. If it starts talking back, get the line on the reel and let the fish rip your drag-got it?" As I proceeded to tie Ramon's rig, despite my fingers already numbing up, I heard a yell after Frank's second or third cast. "Holy bajesus, look at that huge fish jump downstream," Frank excitedly proclaimed. As I looked up, I saw Frank's rod throbbing. "That fish is on your line, man! It's yours!" I yelled. Because his hands were numb, I don't think Frank felt it. It was a chrome fish of about twelve pounds and it was dancing around in the air like a fall- or summer-run fish. "You gotta be kidding me!" were the first words that ran through my mind. After a careful coaching on how to battle the fish, we coerced it to the net. It was a freshrun chrome female with rose-colored cheeks. We lifted it up fur photos as steam poured off the water and then kissed it goodbye. Frank was delirious. I was befuddled. Raimon was screaming, "It's my turn, it's my turn!"
Before I could get my bearings, Ramon was already chuck-and-duck bombarding the run below where we drifted down as we chased Frank's fish. I was still in a daze as I noticed slush on the water's surface. Ramon immediately yelled out that he was snagged on the bottom. Just then the fish Gods, after recovering from their laughter over the previous hook-up, decided to show up again. The snag began to move. With hard strong runs, we knew we had a big steelhead on. It ripped deep into a 20-foot pool and charged downstream, upstream and dove under the boat. After a twenty-minute battle, Ramon hoisted a 16-pound, dark buck male that hammered a large Hex nymph. As I slid the net under it, I was further dumbfounded. Pictures, high-fives, and adrenaline going crazy, it was a sight to see. Here were three grown men acting like giddy schoolboys. "See, I told you we could catch 'em," Ramon screamed. "You're the best guide in the world!" he bellowed. In shock, I shook my head in disbelief. Before rowing the eight miles to the take-out, I cut lines, lit the heaters, and took a first water temperature on my digital thermometer, 33.2 degrees. Air temperature is -5 degrees, wind chill is out of control, and who gives a damn-we are outta here!
Looking back at that memorable day, all of my previous theories on winter fish and behavior were crushed. In all of my previous information on steelhead striking behavior, an air temperature of 33 degrees was a red flag for non-activity and hopeless angling. Yet despite these water temperatures we saw active, aggressive steelhead taking the fly. An important note on that day: conditions were sunny and clear with a high-pressure barometric reading of 30.18.
The two fish that were caught were quite different. The first, a chrome female which leapt and fought near the surface, was definitely a fresh-run fish that occupied the end of a tailout on the outside riverbend-prime fish-holding water. The second, a dark male who was in the river for perhaps months, struck like a dead log in the gut of the pool, then came to life with strong runs on the bottom. These two totally different responses, considering each was in 33-degree water, is directly linked to their metabolic rate of activity. The fresh chromer was still semi-migrating or newly migrated and stalled, it had not yet learned to turn down its metabolic thermostat for survival. The darker fish was already in its winter, slowed-down metabolism, thus the strike felt like a slow tree snag. As in the fall, we were presented with an active, somewhat moving fish and a subdued and holding fish, both in a state of suspended activity. The fact that both fish struck the fly shows they still maintain their aggressive strike response.
Besides an ideal barometric pressure reading, which appears to indicate the strong possibility of angling success, another factor that cannot be overlooked is the non-existent angling pressure while we were there. From January 1st to almost the 10th, the Muskegon accommodated no anglers since boat and shore anglers were unable to use access points. Not to mention the downright nasty sub-zerodegree air temperatures, and the fact that the fish were spared from their daily bombardment. I firmly believe that steelhead become more aggressive in a wild, natural setting and are much more territorial and show a greater curiosity when left unmolested. These are some of the reasons first-water advantage at dawn is lethal.
In conclusion, because of this new information on water temperatures, I believe steelhead will respond favorably to a winter steelheader's presentation in waters as low as 33 degrees, when it's coupled with stable, high pressure and a lack of angling pressure. Of course, as water temperatures increase from 33 degrees to 40 degrees and above, metabolic activity and migrating behavior will increase.
As far as moving and holding winter fish, I say with confidence that perhaps 80% of the fish will be in the dormant holding stage when water temperatures are low, so it's wise to fish deep holding lies.
Sunlight on a winter day is also correlated with success, whereas during fall and spring fishing it can be a deterrent. Since fall and spring fish have water temperatures more conducive to moving and spawning, these fish usually occupy more shallow and vulnerable lies. In winter, sunlight will penetrate deep pools holding the dormant fish. Sunlight also might heat up the water a degree or two, which affects the steelhead's metabolism.
Biological drift or migration of aquatic insects also arouse steelhead, especially when food forms they have been eating since their pre-smolt stage are knocking on their noses. Given the steelhead's curious predisposition, something is bound to happen.