Becoming a Better Winter Steelheader Part 3: Putting it all together

It’s taken long enough but it’s finally time to finish our three-part series on becoming a better winter steelheader. Now that we have discussed equipment and reading water, it is time to talk about putting it all together and increasing your odds at hooking more winter steelhead.

Here are the last few things we are going to go over….

Fishing Conditions/Flows

Water types

Flies for the right situation

Thinking like a fish

Fishing conditions and flows: This is one of the most vital elements when chasing winter steelhead. As an angler it is important to learn the rivers you want to fish and find when these rivers drop into shape after a storm and when they blow. Knowing the river levels and flows will help increase your odds at fishing for winter steelhead under ideal flows and conditions. Make it a point to check river levels and forecasts such as the NOAA river forecasts page. Ideally, we like to fish many of our rivers on the drop with green water that has 3-4′ of visibility. All rivers are different, some fish well low and clear and some fish better higher and off color. The point is, know whats going on with the rivers you fish!

Water types: The next important factor that goes hand in hand with knowing the right flows to be fishing a river at is knowing what levels certain runs and water types will fish. In most cases, when a river is high and starting to clear, a lot of steelhead are going to sit in sifter flows near the edge of the river. These soft inside flows are great places to swing a fly in high, off color water. That being said, when many rivers get low and clear you may want to look for more broken water such as the heads of riffles that will provide cover in low clear conditions. These are just a couple of examples but seem to hold true in most instances. The more time you spend on a river, the better you are going to know where to fish and at all river levels be it high or low.

Flies for the right situation: This to me is one of the most important factors when chasing winter steelhead and is often overlooked by many anglers. While I have a select few flies I really like to fish for winter steelhead, each fly fits a different situation. Many winter steelhead flies can be rather large (2-6″ long) and have materials that move in the water. Some of these flies fish better in softer flows while some fish better in faster flows. One thing to keep in mind is that we want to maximize the movement and profile in our flies to get the attention of a winter steelhead. So here’s how I like to break down what flies I like to fish in what flows and water types…

The soft stuff: These are softer flows such as slow-moving pools and tailouts or super soft inside current seams. Here we are looking for a fly with maximum movement and profile. Flies tied with materials such as ostrich, marabou, and rabbit will have a lot of movement and profile in these softer flows. Flies such as Hickman’s Fish Taco, Hartwick’s Hoser, Marabou tubes/popsicles, Silvey’s tandem tubes and tubesnakes to name a few.

Middle of the road: These are the runs that have medium or walking pace flows are might have a fast outside seam that slows to the inside. We still want maximum movement but need to keep a larger profile in a little heavier flow. Materials such as ostrich, marabou, polar chenille, amherst, and rabbit area all good to work with. Flies such as Hartwick’s Hoser, Silveys Tandem Tubes, Hickman’s Party Boy, Morrish Cold Medicine, Howell’s Prom Dress, and Intruders are all good choices.

The Heavy Stuff: Here we are referring faster riffles/runs and heavier currents that will collapse a fly tied without profile. You can still use materials such as ostrich, marabou, or craft fur but that must be supported by deer hair, arctic fox, or dubbing balls to help keep there profile. Stiffer materials such as arctic fox, amherst or pheasant tails, and saddle hackle are good choices. Flies such as Intruders, Silvey’s Tandem Tubes, Hickman’s Party Boy and pick yer pockets are great for this type of water.

That being said, if I had one style of fly to fish in all water types in the winter months it would be a rabbit strip type fly such as a Silvey Tandem Tube or Hickman Party Boy that allow for maximum movement no matter what water type you are fishing.

Lastly, Think Like A Fish!

Sounds kinda stupid but if you were swimming up a river where would you swim and where might you take a break. Winter steelhead can move rather quickly upriver and are in a hurry to spawn. This means they may travel in long stretches without taking much of a break, but when they do, they may rest for a little while and that where we need to target them.

Most steelhead seam to take the path of least resistance unless they are disturbed. Dont immediately jump out waist deep in to a run and start bombing line first thing in the morning. Start close to the bank and in close. It is amazing how many fish can be hooked in your first 1-5 casts if you haven’t almost stepped on them already. Look for runs fast current on the outside or down the middle and soft inside flows where a fish is going to rest or move upriver. Large boulders or ledgerock that offers soft pillows or seams in fast current will hold a fish or two. Tailouts are good places, especially when you have whitewater or heavy current below them. Not enough people fish tailouts for winter steelhead. While these are just a few things to keep in mind, there are also many more examples but if we wrote about every single one of them than this would be way too long to read and I don’t have enough time to write.

Hopefully a few of these tips might help you out there get into an extra winter fish or two throughout the season. Just remember that there is no better substitute for time on the water and if you do your homework, you will eventually be rewarded.

Go for the grab!


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