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Secrets to Winter Steelhead Success

Winter Steelhead Fishing can often reward you with the biggest fish of the year but it is full of challenges.

It’s been said you can’t catch fish staying at home; and it’s also true that you can’t consistently catch fish even when you go if your not doing things right.  In over 27 years of guiding Steelhead anglers there are some things that you see over and over; some anglers get it and some don’t.  The secrets to catching winter Steelhead consistently on the fly are actually not that hard when applied consistently.  Yet the average angler and the successful one are miles apart on critical details that make all the difference.  So while it’s true you can’t catch fish while your on the couch, if your not following these principles your not catching fish out on the river either!

Another old saying is, “Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then,” applied to steelhead fly fishing in winter this is true in the sense that occasionally all the components line up perfectly and steelhead being steelhead will aggressively smash a fly even when everything done by the angler is “wrong”.  However, as a fishing guide who’s livelihood depends on producing predictable consistent results we cannot rely on the “stars aligning” to find success.  Following a few strict principles will help even the average angler become more consistent with winter success.

Winter steelhead fly fishing is the most difficult time of year to find success with the swung fly because most often the conditions are working against us.  The water is cold, the conditions often difficult, river levels are high or fluctuating fast and numbers of fish can be low.  In addition remember that steelhead are not in rivers to feed like trout but soley live off their stored fats while in freshwater.  These factors combined with the fact that steelhead are cold blooded creatures and are less aggressive as the water temperature becomes colder create challenges to the fly flinging angler.

The water is cold, your cold, the fish are cold now how do you get a fish to move to and eat a fly?  Water temperature is one of the primary challenges the fly angler faces during winter.  Simply put steelhead won’t often move very far to hit your fly.  This time of year it’s imperative to get your fly deep.  The goal being get your fly at least half the depth of the water.  This way your fly swings just over the heads of fish giving them a great profile to respond to.  Often times anglers with the wrong gear will not be more than inches under the surface.  Your tackle, fly selection and presentation all effect how deep your fly is and dialing this in is critical.

How deep is your fly?  Years ago I was standing on a bluff on a sunny February day on the Clackamas river watching my friend swing a fly for steelhead.  He had on a beautiful pink and white marabou pattern that was highly visible in the green waters of the Clack.  What I noticed from my vantage was that when his fly hit the water there was a long time in the swing when the fly was literally just inches under the surface.  Only towards the last 1/3 of the swing did the fly get deep and out of sight in the deep green water.

During the swing the fly gets deeper as it comes across.  Did you know that 90% of all hits are in the last 1/3 of the swing.  Hmm, that also coincides with when the fly is deepest!  So getting your fly deeper earlier in the swing enables you to cover more water more effectively so that it’s not just 30% of the swing that gets results and 70% of the swing is wasted time!  How do you get the fly deeper?

Getting the fly deeper earlier in the swing is critical for winter success.  This gives your fly a good presentation and a better chance of getting bit than just at the end of the swing.  How do we do it?  I use a 5 Step plan to get the fly deeper.  There are 5 basic approaches starting with the standard cast swing step to get the fly deeper.  The best way to see these is in one of our Winter Steelhead Workshops or in our Winter Spey Strategies DVD produced by Flyfish TV.  With this 5 Step plan you’ll see that you do have many more tools available to you than just cast out there swing and hope!

When you start focusing on getting your fly deeper earlier in the swing you’ll find more consistent steelhead success.  Apply the 5 Step process to the system and balance that with the right fly, sink tip and swing speed and you’ve got some of the secrets to success dialed!  Hopefully by getting that fly deeper in the swing earlier you will see more consistent results – better than “a blind pig finding an acorn.”

Good luck out on the water!


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