Part 2: Reading Water
The second part of our series on becoming a better winter steelheader will focus on reading water and locating winter steelhead. In the last few years more and more anglers are chasing winter steelhead than ever before. Many of these anglers have had some experience chasing summer steelhead. One of the biggest problems I see with many beginning winter steelhead anglers is that they are not fishing productive winter steelhead water. Lets start with discussing the big differences between summer/fall and winter steelhead. Summer and fall steelhead will typically enter the river anywhere from 3-9 months before spawning. These fish can become trouty in nature and will sometimes hold in one pool for months on end. Here anglers are targeting these fish in holding water such as riffles, runs, and tailouts. Winter steelhead are quite a bit different than summer and fall run fish. Winter steelhead will typically enter a river in the wet winter months and will spawn anywhere from a few days to 3 months or so. Since these fish are sexually mature they are almost ready to spawn when they enter their natal rivers and will move very quickly upriver. This means that winter steelhead often will not hold for long lengths of time and will choose the path of least resistance when moving upriver.
Let me remind you that good “fly” water for steelhead, summer or winter, is 3-6’ deep and the current has the speed of a nice walking pace. I like to add that structure can play a key role as well. Now when talking about productive winter steelhead water, I don’t want you to throw the previous information out the window, but we need to modify it as well. We still need to look for “fly” water because there are plenty of places a winter steelhead can hold that we simply cannot get our fly in front of them. That being said, we are looking for water that is 3-10’ in depth and the current has a nice walking pace speed if not slower. Structure is still very important to help stop and hold fish as they are moving upriver. On smaller coastal rivers where structure may be limited, current seams and drop offs will often hold fish. Lets now jump into a few different water types to look for when locating winter steelhead.
Breaking down a run
Inside Corner/seams This is a common place for most fly fisherman. When most steelhead anglers see a riffle, they immediately think steelhead water. Riffles and runs are good places, but lets break it down a little more. The upper inside corner of a riffle where the faster water meets slower water to the inside and forms a nice “seam” can be a good spot to locate a moving winter steelhead. Fish may hold here for a bit before moving up through the fast water and into a tailout. These spots are typically better where there is structure.
Riffle/Runs The next spot down from your inside corner is a riffle where you may find water slower water that is from 3-8’ deep. Some may call this the meat of the run and I would agree especially if you have structure to hold fish. Often this can be some of the best fly water on a river. Not all riffles/run and are good but if you can find ones with a nice walking pace that is 3-8’ deep and contains some big boulders, than you might have just hit the lottery of steelhead!
Pools After a riffle or run, the river might slowdown into a pool or some deeper water. Sometimes with or without structure, slower pools that have enough current for a good swing can be a favorite spot to look for winter steelhead. Slower current speed and depth provides moving fish a good place to rest with cover.
Tailouts The last part of the run is generally flat water before it breaks over into another riffle/run. These are referred to tailout and are great places to fins all steelhead especially if they have rough water below to move through. Typically you want to look for tailouts with at least 3’ of depth and some structure to hold fish, as the flat water does not provide much cover.
Other things to consider…
1.There are also a few other places you want to keep in mind as well. Anywhere a creek dumps into the river/stream you are fishing is a spot that will usually hold winter steelhead. It might not be right at the mouth of the creek but if there is a good piece of water below the confluence you can bet there might be a fish or two holding in this kind of water. The smell of fresh water entering a system will slow down steelhead, especially if it a spawning tributary.
2.Next you want to look for soft tailouts and runs after longer stretches of fast water or rapids. Steelhead are going to have to work harder to move through these faster water sections and are usually going to rest for a little while in the next piece of soft holding water above these fast water spots. This is where tailouts and softer runs can really produce.
3.f you are fishing a river that contains little to no structure look for logs, rocks, or soft current seams to hold fish. Even one rock the size of a basketball in a run with little to no structure is enough to stop and hold a steelhead. This is where to pays to do your homework at lower flows and look for structure that will hold steelhead.
4.Lastly, remember that steelhead will often choose the path of least resistance. Don’t immediately start fishing a run waist deep bombing out 50’ casts. It’s amazing how many winter steelhead we hook on the first 1-5 casts in ankle deep water. This can change as light becomes brighter or people and boats spook these fish into deeper water.
One thing to keep in mind when reading this and when you target winter steelhead is that there are always exceptions to the rules. I have found many winter steelhead in non traditional fly water or in spots where they just shouldn’t be. BUT, more often than not, swinging flies, you are likely to locate more winter steelhead in the water we talked about. Just like in school, there is no substitute for doing your homework. If you spend the time locating good water and fishing it productively, you are going to more hook winter steelhead.
Go for the grab!