January and February are the peak months of river angling on Vancouver Island because the highest number of fresh winter steelhead fill the rivers. The most well know are the Cowichan, Stamp, Campbell and Gold. There are wild runs of winter steelhead in dozens of our rivers, though usually in small numbers.
Most anglers will not discuss the less well-known rivers because of the low steelhead numbers and desire to protect them – solitary fishing is also a good thing when you have gotten up in the middle of the night and driven up to several hundred kilometres to be there are first light. The books of Roderick Haig-Brown will give you many rivers to get to know, and joining a fly fishing club will, over the years, with their fish-outs and general discussion, help you build an extensive knowledge that is the price of long term admission and satisfaction.
Regardless of system, it is winter steelhead behaviour that is the key to catching them. They are bold beyond good sense and their aggression is why we can catch them, admire them and then release them unharmed. I have seen a summer steelhead move 50 feet to intercept a fly; that is how aggressive they are. In winter, though, the water is generally cloudy, deeper and swifter than summer lows when fish get pooled up and wary. In winter, falling, clearing water after rain is the best time to fish.
There are three methods of angling for winters: floats, lures and flies. The most commonly used method is floats. Typically a ‘dink’ float is threaded on the mainline, and slid up from the tag end, and adjusted so the weighted end just misses the bottom. The simplest weight system is putting some lightly crimped pencil lead on the mainline tag end that is left deliberately four inches long when tied to a tri-swivel. A leader of 10 lbs mono – lower in clear water, higher in cloudy water – of up to 2 feet is tied to the swivel as well.
The reason for a short leader is to keep the lure at weight level rather than floating higher, something that is much more important in fly fishing that does not use weights – no more than four feet leader.
At the tackle end, typically small, simple lures – Spin ‘N Glos, Jensen eggs, Lil Corkies, plastic beads, bait (where allowed), yarn and Gooey Bobs – are slid above a black steelhead hook (kirbed, octopus style), size 1 to 5, with a bead between lure and hook. Bait curing is an article in itself, as well as Roe Bags.
Float fishing is the most consistent method for winter steelhead. You cast the float out and run it down current. If it disappears you strike the fish, or adjust the float. Then you cast a foot farther out and run the rig down current. By casting out sequentially farther, you are able to contact all the water in a run, tailout or pool head from one side of the river to the other side of the fish bearing water. Go back to this article for steelhead behaviour and fishing: http://onfishingdcreid.blogspot.ca/2014/12/winter-steelhead-habits.html.
In cold weather – from 5 degree C to below freezing – rivers are colder than the ocean and fish tend to, well, freeze and not move as friskily to a lure. In other words, fish the absolute best part of the run, a number of times, as a fish in torpor will rarely move even a few inches. On the Gold once, I ran a drift 40 times down a narrow run that I was assured had a steelhead in it, without a nip. Then, when I had given up hope, I received a bite and landed a 14 lb buck.
Finally, add scent to a lure where allowed. It really makes a difference. Jensen Eggs are scented with aniseed and not considered bait in the regs, for example.
The alternative to float fishing is lure fishing. Depending on depth, temperature and water speed there is a wide spread of lures of different weights, allowing more or less penetration. At the lighter end are most spinners, the Mepps Blue Fox line in size 4 and 5, in red, chartreuse and pink, Bolos from Luhr Jensen in the same colours, but higher weight to volume ratio. At the large and heavy end are the high quality Gibbs lures, including the Ironhead, Koho and Kit-A-Mat in the same colours.
Note that lures are cast out across from you and reeled in slowly across the run. Although you adjust each cast to reach a slightly different radius of the run, note that the lure is running across the fish bearing water, rather than running directly down it, as is the case in float fishing. In other words, you are fishing less of the fishy water, and the colder the weather, the less likely you will catch a fish. Think spinners in warm weather.
On the other hand lure casting is a pleasant, simple method of fishing. Use a 9.5 to 10.5 foot rod with a quality baitcaster reel with 35 pound braided line and 15 feet of 20 pound mainline mono. A bait caster will cast father than a spinning reel and thus has an advantage.
Fly fishing for winter steelhead is the third method. In winter, if you concede a skunk before going out – which is a reasonable expectation – then a take or a landed fish is a great positive surprise. These days most winter fly fishers use Spey or Switch rods because they allow you to cast with a much shorter load behind you in the higher waters of winter, that push you back into the trees where there is zero room for the back cast of a single-handed rod.
The beefier, short D-loop rods, allow for the heavy, ‘nasty’ rigs of winter. By the end of the day, your arm will feel the weight of dragging line from the water on every cast. On the other hand, you can change tips all day to reach the bottom. I suggest you get a pouch and keep all the tips from all the fly lines you have ever had, as one day, a decade down the road, you will find good use from the Quad-tip system that by today’s Skagit modified methods, is from a different olden-day dimension. For example, I have several Leadcore tips that I try never to have to use, but that will reach any bottom you are trying to penetrate. Added to that are tips made from Type 3 to Type 6 full sink line, and so on. Use nail-less nail knots to form loops on tips and fly line.
Fly fishing reaches its greatest likelihood of presenting properly to a winter steelhead in shallower, slower runs, and swung flies through tailouts, which offer the same conditions. Just as important as deducing higher percentage fly water is the fly you use. Two styles of flies lend themselves to quick assembly, weight and use: marabou creations and bunny fur flies.
Use contrasting colours as the point is to make the fly easier for a steelhead to see and dash for. My simplest high-percentage Popsicle style fly has medium bead-chain eyes, then red over orange over yellow on a size two, black salmon hook. In bunny, my ugliest fly of high percentage, is black over chartreuse over red, also on a salmon hook. For shallower water, bead chain eyes are optional.