Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing is Not For the Feint of Heart
By Dana Sturn
For many anglers autumn marks the end of the year, a melancholy time of maintenance and memories. Tackle is cleaned and stowed away amid reminiscence of summer’s long days of trout on top, bookended by spring lakes and fall salmon. For some, however, the last falling leaves signal that something magical is about to begin, the time of short, often bitter days, long stretches of introspection, and rare moments of glory. This is the time of winter steelhead on the fly.
While winter steelhead tend to enter rivers during the winter calendar months, in practice “winter steelhead” tends to refer more to the time of year you fish for them rather than the fish themselves. In some rivers late returning summer steelhead will grab your fly in March whether you are actively targeting them or not. These fish will usually be quite colored, while the true winter runs will be the classic bars of silver. But make no mistake, a steelhead caught in the dead of winter or the precipice of spring will bring you to a finer appreciation of catching them on a fly.
The Winter Steelheader
There are a few things you’ll need to accept if you’re going to get serious about winter steelhead fly fishing. First, it’s tough. Winter steelhead enter their natal streams generally between November and April, a six-month stretch that usually includes some of the worst weather. So on any given day you could face freezing temperatures, howling winds, snow or rain—or any combination of them—while you cast and step and cast and not catch anything. Success requires a good deal of patience and the ability to ignore discomfort. Someone once said you can get a good approximation of winter steelhead fly fishing by standing in your backyard casting on a cold day with a lawn sprinkler on. In my experience that’s pretty accurate.
Second, you’re going to meet folks who make it look ridiculously easy. They are either liars—or gods. If they are liars, ignore them; if they are gods, ignore them, too. Whether you turn out to be a liar or a god, it is best to be seen as a liar. At least then no one will try to discover your secret spots, and you can enjoy your fishing.
Third, if you stick with it you will find suddenly one day it actually does become ridiculously easy. Everywhere you go you’ll hook fish. Nothing will seem any different to you, but clearly something is. You might not notice it, but if you listen really carefully you might hear the faint sound of horseshoes falling into the river behind you. This will last for a while—maybe even a long while—then one day it will stop and you will be mortal again. This is winter steelhead fly fishing. Get used to it.
The reel you select for winter fish can be anything from the latest high tech disc drag to the oldest Hardy Perfect. Pick your reel carefully. Winter steelhead are a cool, classy fish; you should select a cool, classy reel to fish for them. A hint: when air temps get around freezing those high tech reels with their close tolerances will constantly freeze up on you. The big old reels with the gaps between the frame and spool won’t—or not as quickly, nor as solidly. I’ve seen big winter steelhead lost on the take to space-age reels that were frozen solid. If you go with one of these reels and it’s cold out, move the spool a bit every few casts to make sure that you aren’t locked up.
The best rods for winter steelhead are 13- to 14-foot Spey rods in line weight 8 or 9. These will allow you to comfortably cast the big sinktips and flies you’ll find yourself using for winter fish.
Over the years I’ve tried a variety of line systems for winter steelhead. There is no one “best” system—it really depends on your casting skills and the level of challenge you like while you’re fishing. Winter steelheading is tough enough without adding in all the subtleties of casting long-belly line systems, so most of the time I use a variation of the common Skagit systems now available through all the major line manufacturers (I currently use Airflo and RIO Skagit systems). Skagit lines are basically just extra heavy shooting heads for Spey rods. These heads are designed to turn over heavy flies and sink tips, and are so easy to cast that a complete beginner can be making fishable length casts in a relatively short period of time.
On the business end of these lines are a variety of sink tips in 10– to 15-foot lengths. Type 6 and 8 are common densities, but some winter anglers prefer lengths of T-14 spliced to floating line. Either system works fine. Remember, that the idea here is to get your fly down, but not necessarily on the bottom. In a run that’s 4- to 6-feet deep you’ll want to get your fly down 2 or 3 feet as steelhead will be suspended in the current. A fast sinking tip along with a weighted fly will do this if you utilize presentation methods that allow them to sink on a relatively slack line before you start your drift.
Casting & Presentation
The best way to cast these lines is with variations of the basic Spey casts. Washington steelhead guide Ed Ward formalized these variations into what is now known internationally as Skagit casting, popularizing the Perry Poke and Skagit Double as Skagit casting replacements for the single and double Speys. These casts work exceptionally well with the short, heavy Skagit shooting heads. A few hours with a competent instruction followed by review of one of the excellent DVDs available on the subject will have you making fishable Skagit casts.
In order to make best use of these line systems it is important to learn how to control them, both in the air and on the water. The best steelheaders think through their cast and presentation beforehand, so that once the line is committed to the water there is little or no need for adjustment.
The biggest mistake beginning steelhead fly fishers make is mending too much. Once you’ve set up your drift, rod movement and line manipulation should be minimal. This all begins with spending a few minutes reading the water. You need to consider not only the water in front of you where you will make your first dozen or so casts, but the water below you as well. Look for any current changes or obstructions that might impact the drift of your line and fly, and think about how you might deal with these as you work down the run.
Mastering the reach cast, practicing aerial mends, and learning a few ways to sink your fly will give you an advantage over the legions of “chuck and chance it” steelheaders who watched a video and hit the water. Controlling your fly is all about controlling your fly line, and it’s tough to get good at that without a little practice.
There are two approaches to fishing steelhead water. The first is make sure you thoroughly cover a run that you know or suspect holds fish. This might mean making more than one pass. The second is to cover as much likely water as you can in the time you have to fish. This means moving through a run thoroughly but quickly, and then moving on to another and perhaps another until you find fish. Either approach will produce steelhead, and both will result in fishless days.
So here you have a fish in colder water poking around a river for a month or so. You have sticks, cigarette butts, and various other items floating past daily. There are also smaller fish and other recognizable food items in the river moving around causing all manner of distraction. Somewhere in amongst all this traffic you want what you are offering to get noticed. Well, if I wanted to get myself noticed in traffic I’d get myself a big ‘ole Monster Truck all painted up and cruise main street, windows down, stereo ear-bleedingly loud and pumping out an eclectic playlist that includes Eminem, Led Zeppelin, Gangstagrass and Tony Bennett. And that’s pretty much what I’m looking for in a winter steelhead fly. Big flashy flies like Ed Ward’s original Intruder patterns, Sean Gallagher’s Black General Practitioner, and orange or pink marabou speys work well in winter water, provoking the “eat it or beat it” response you want from a winter fish.
You don’t need several big boxes of these flies to fish winter steelhead. The key here is to select a fly style that allows you to replace the hook while retaining the dressing. One box with a selection tied tube or shank style will have you covered. Some purists still love to tie more traditional flies for winter fish and if that’s you, by all means go for it; however, when you hook that fly up on the bottom and bring it back blunted beyond repair, the 10 or 15 minutes it took to tie that fly is wasted. With tubes and shanks, you simply replace the hook and cast again.
I prefer fine wire, relatively short-shanked chemically sharpened hooks on my tubes and shanks. The Daiichi 2451 is a favorite, and well as the Gamakatsu Octopus. When rigging these hooks, beware of the increasingly common practice of setting them up as “stingers”—a hook that trails well beyond the end of the fly. The conventional wisdom on these is that stingers allow you to hook “short” striking fish; in reality these rigs often deep-hook a fish, leading to the potential for increased mortality.
The world of the winter steelheader is a long way from the comforts of swinging dry flies on the Deschutes; serious Skeena system lodge dwellers in need of three fish days and looking after need not apply. Sketchy weather, limited opportunities, high commitment with apparently infrequent reward leaves other anglers shaking their heads. In a sport that labors to associate itself with a certain youthful edginess, those carrying Spey rods to winter waters might well be the only flyfishers remotely qualified to call themselves “extreme” with a straight face. As with any other highly questionable pursuit, in practice it’s probably best not to say anything at all.