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6 Can’t Miss Tips for Winter Steelhead Success

When it comes to winter steelhead fishing the odds are literally stacked against us; but that doesn’t mean they are insurmountable enough for the hard working fly angler not to have consistent winter steelhead success.  Here are some fly fishing tips for steelheaders from a guy who’s done it for over 30 years.

First, fish where there are fish, this might sound insanely simple but it is imperative to success.  Do your research and find out what section of the river steelhead would be in the highest concentrations and what time of the year.  During the winter you will often find winter fish headed to a hatchery or spawning tributaries.  As winter fish come into the river sexually mature they don’t linger too long before spawning and heading back to the ocean.  Study the available research and find rivers that support winter steelhead and discern if they are early run (Nov, Dec) fish or if they tend to be later run say Feb-Mar or even April on some rivers systems.  See how you could literally be months off and just out there practicing your cast?  On the Oregon Coast early runs are most often hatchery runs.  You’ll find hatchery fish in rivers such as the Alsea, Three Rivers on the Nestucca, Necannicum,NF Nehalem, and the NF Alsea rivers.  Later run fishery examples are the Clackamas, Umpqua, Rogue, Wilson, Trask and Nestucca Rivers.   Get our entire river year-round, where to go-when, along with how-to in our Clackamas River Steelhead Workshop we have a few spots left in Jan, March and April.

Learning the tricks of winter steelhead success in the Clackamas River Steelhead Workshop

2.  Get your fly down to the fish.  It’s no mystery that the water is cold.  This is not the easy times of summer steelhead swing success like on the Deschutes River where fish will come up and slash your fly off the surface.  Nope, get your fly deep for consistent success.  I like to think of the cast swing step formula as the starting point.  Then you incorporate mending, swing speed and a couple other tricks to get the fly deeper for optimal success.  You can learn my Five Step formula for success in my DVD – Winter Spey Strategies for consistent winter success.

3.  Use the right sink tip.  I’ve had students in my class tell me they fished all season with no fish- when we looked at their set up they were using a slow sinking poly leader.  All sink tips are not the same.  Be sure you know what it is that you are using.  The goal is to get the fly at least half the depth of the water.  How do you know where the fly is?  Try the sink tip test.  To do this stand in thigh deep water moving at walking speed (good steelhead holding water speed) and bring your sink tip to the rod tip.  Place the rod tip upstream from you.  If your using a 10′ sink tip and an appropriate leader (about 3′ of 12lb) the fly should swim right in front of you.  Hold the rod tip at the surface of the water for a bit watching the fly.  It will rise, sink, settle of hover; how it responds will tell you if you are in the game.  If it’s right near the surface try a heavier sink tip.  If it’s slammed to the bottom-lighten up.  Sometimes switching from an unweighted fly to a lightly weighted fly is the secret.  This helps your fly ride just a bit deeper and keep it in the success zone.  Here is are some of my favorite fly patterns for winter.

4.  Keep your hooks sharp!  This is rule number one really- it doesn’t matter what fly your using it has to be sharp!  The old saying goes like this: “DULL hooks make for good stories (ie. the one that got away) and SHARP hooks make for good photos!”  Always keep a file with you and check your fly often.  It’s not a choice, when you snag up- check the hook for sharpness.  How to test?  Put the hook point on your thumb nail and slide it.  If it sticks, it’s sharp if it slides it’s dull.

5.  Dress for success-today’s fishing clothing is better than ever.  Layer up with a good shell to begin with, count on rain for winter fishing.  From there have layers of warm fleece or a good thick hoody (my favorite hoodie) often a down vest is a killer way to keep the core warm.  Then be sure to have long underwear-this stuff is priceless and it’s worth its weight in gold!  Lastly good socks.  I like a good thick sock that has a wool blend to it.  Be SURE to leave some room in your boots.  If your boots are tight your feet will get cold.

6.  Hire a good guide; if you want to make the most of your precious hours on the water go with someone who has spent a lifetime on the water and knows where the fish are most likely going to be on any given day.  Winter water conditions are constantly changing – knowing which sink tip, what fly and what run to work at the conditions you are dealt for that day are often the difference between just trying and hoping and consistent success with fish on!  Oh yeah, maybe I should put a link for a great guide service here!  Check these guys out, the best around (totally unbiased of course!)- Water Time Outfitters

I think I could keep going on and on!  Here’s one more tip because I can’t help myself.  Come to our FREE seminars.  We will be speaking at the Royal Treatment Fly shop in West Linn on these dates at 10:30 am.  Jan 11,  Mar 7, April 11

Best of luck out there on the water!

Rob Crandall

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