Winter Fly Fishing Tips & Tactics for Steelhead

Sometimes the weather can be extreme for Steelhead Fishing

Over the next few months, the steelhead, rivers will get pummeled with fierce storms and high water events.

Then are other times that you may see extremely cold and low water conditions.

Whether you cast for steelhead in the Western States like Oregon or Idaho or in the Great Lakes. It’s a rare day to have an “optimal” situation during the winter.

When the conditions change you will need to adjust your tackle, the water you choose to fish and the way you swing your fly.

Here are a few tips that might help you find some steelhead this winter.

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Look For Calmer Water

Regardless of the time of year, water temperature should be the biggest factor in where you decide to focus your efforts.

Steelhead fish are a lot like us, if it’s cold and nasty outside they conserve energy and hang out on the couch.

Couch water as it is called is the slower, soft water that is usually located in the guts and tail-outs of pools.

In the cold months of winter, don’t waste your precious fishing time focusing on fast riffles. The fish rarely live there when the water temps plummet.

That said don’t miss the transition zone at the head of the pools.

Look for places where the water slows down just below a riffle as these are often key winter holding locations.

angler releasing a steelhead rainbow trout

Wade Shallow and Cast Shorter

Wade shallow and cast shorter when the water is high and dirty. When the rivers raise the steelhead will oftentimes travel and hold very close to the shore. It’s very easy to walk through the fish.

More so, a short, integrated sink-tip like an Airflo FLO Tip or an RIO MOW Tip will allow your fly to get lower.

These lines will allow your fly to fish all the way into the hang down without getting hung on the bottom. It’s also critical to avoid over-casting a run when the water is dirty.

Keep your casts short, 60’ or less and you’ll be covering the “inside water” very effectively. Plus, you won’t be wasting time swinging through unproductive water.

Because long casts are not required and you’re often standing in the alders when the river is up, a switch rod is a perfect tool for fishing in high water conditions.

Low Water

You will want to wade deep and cast farther in low clear water. During low water periods, steelhead will hold in deeper lies than normal.

Longer Spey rods in the 13’6 to 14’ lengths are the tools of choice when you need to huck to a distant seam. It also pays to fish longer sink-tips that will allow you fish your fly deep and slow.

A 12’ to 15’ tip works wonders for getting down. More so, a longer sink-tip takes longer to un-roll during the cast, which ultimately helps get more distance.

fly fisherman fishing in river in winter

Another Low Water Tip

When the water is low, clear adjustments need to be taken when choosing a fly and terminal gear. Generally, smaller flies and lighter fluorocarbon tippet are required.

A standard set-up might include a small egg pattern or nymph pattern fished as a dropper underneath a Stimulator dry fly or some other high floating fly.

Most of the strike indicators on the market will spook these wary fish and prevent them from taking. A yarn indicator works as well, however, steelhead have been known to take the dry fly under these conditions

Make Sure Your Hooks are Sharp

It’s a real bummer when you lose a hard-earned fish do to dull hook. Remember to check your hook and be sure to use your hook hone often.

If you’re not already, you need to become obsessed with sharp hooks. If you fish stinger style flies or tube flies rigged as a stinger, which you should be, replace your hook often.

Even if you use a good file you can’t get your hooks as sharp as when they come out of the package.

catch of a rainbow trout with a fly

Fish Your Fly Slow

During the coldest water temperatures of winter, it’s asking a lot of the steelhead to rise dramatically in the water column and chase a
fast-moving fly.

This is the time to slow your swing down and be patient on the hang-down.

Intermediate Skagit Heads fly line can be very useful for help getting that slow, seductive swing winter steelhead love.

Remember that fly fishing for winter steelhead takes persistence, patience, and confidence. So keep your head down, fish hard and never ever lose hope.

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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