Fly fishing for winter steelhead presents several challenges. The first is cold air. Air below freezing soon builds ice ‘footballs’ in your line guides. These then impede fly line, and the surface also gets covered in ice. While you can snap the football out easily, not so with ice on fly line. Both guide and on-line ice sooner or later cracks the surface of the line and chunks come flying off, ruining the fly line.
There are two solutions: don’t fish in cold weather; and, at the end of the season, pick up those fly-lines that are being cleared at low price. An example for me, was an Airflo Sixth Sense full sink line I got for $20 bucks – a line to sacrifice when conditions are bad. It also has the advantage that because it is heavy, it casts heavier flies; just what you want because you want to tie heavy winter flies, that cause hinging unless the line is heavier than the fly. This particular line also casts farther than most, always an advantage in deeper and thus farther across rivers.
Note that the Sixth Sense line was made to have zero stretch, the advantages being that you sense the bite sooner and the strike sets the hook more securely, again because the fly line does not stretch. That is Ariflo’s spin on it, though I have not noticed it myself. One last advantage of this line is that it is a green colour that shows up well in winter water.
Get in the habit of pawing through the end of the season line container, as for $20 you can pick up several for the same price for one of those lines in-season. I picked up another Airflo Forty Plus switch, Spey line with a clear intermediate head, intended for overhead casting. Its great advantage is that it has 35 feet of clear head, so in those ultra-clear waters, winter or summer or beach, you don’t have to worry about lofting 10- to 20-foot leaders to get the fly away from the very visible fly line that spooks the fish.
For heavy flies, lay some lead on the up side of the hook – it makes the fly ride head/bead-chain-eyes up rather than turning over and riding head down, a condition you can easily see when the fish you catch has the hook upside down, the point in its beak, and, of course, you will catch fewer fish because the fly doesn’t look right to it (the other side of this one is that because steelhead are opportunistic and as aggressive as any fish in the river, they will bite an upside down fly) - and thread in securely.
Cold air also means cold water. On below zero days, rivers will be 0- to 4-degrees Centigrade; the river is colder than the ocean, and this make the fish hunker down and not move an inch to a fly. This means you have to plumb every last inch of water in a run to bonk the fish on the nose. So fishing takes longer, meaning, you will get to fewer runs in the day, so plan for only a few highest percentage spots.
In some waters, the Campbell, for instance, you can put a small split shot between the fly and the fly line, because it offers both ‘fly fishing only’ and ‘artificial fly’, the latter definition, intended to cover, dink float gear fishers using a yarn fly with weights, allows a fly angler to do the same. Do note that it is not the case on many other rivers, the Cowichan, for instance, which is fly fishing only, not artificial fly.
On the Cowichan, the winter standard is a stonefly nymph in the upper section of the river, with a split shot on the leader. As mentioned, this is not legal, and should be avoided. The simple solution is to weight the fly as above.
The second challenge in winter fishing is the reality that with rain, rivers are deeper and farther across. The deeper the water, the more difficult it is to put the fly near the fish. And, summer runs may not exist in the winter, and you should know your rivers well enough to understand the 3-D structure in all seasons, something you gain over years of repeated fishing. There is, for example, below Woss a run on the Nimpkish that has a terrific run in low summer water, but in winter, another run which is right beside it, but out of the water in summer, comes into its own; this is a rare occurrence in any river, and you need to get out and figure them out. The up side is getting to fish a lot more.
In winter, you will be forced back into the trees on most rivers, the Stamp being a good example, in its farm regions. The room you had to do back casts for single-handed rods in summer, typically doesn’t exist in winter. For this and the need for long casts, a switch or Spey rod comes into its own. Single Spey casts, for example, require ten to 15 feet of room beside and behind you, not 60 or more. Also, the line in a D, or loop, tends to lay on vegetation and immediately lift free. The alternative of a hook turning into vegetation is more likely with single-handed rods, and leads to lots of frustration.
The other advantage in these rod types is that they loft those heavy winter flies with ease, as well as the ‘nasty’ rigs of winter, where you have a heavy sink tip that you have to haul out of the water on every cast all day long. A single or double Spey comes in very handy in the process because the initial move lifts the line out of the water’s grip and sets it out on the surface so you need less effort on the second or subsequent part of the cast to get that fly and tip out into the river.
Another winter reality is that in faster moving water – a winter river, deeper than in summer, has to move faster to put the increased amount of water through the run in the same amount of time – is that you can shorten your leader. In salmon and steelhead fishing you can cut down, except for ultra-clear water and hunkered down fish, on leader length to four feet because the fly moves faster across the fish, making the fly line more, well, invisible – the fish has less time to spot and track the fly and the water is more turbid, so there is less need to separate fly and fly line.
The final challenge is to choose the right water to fish. The givens are deeper, colder water, and fish less likely to move. Where you have caught fish before on the same conditions, you will catch them again. It is individual fish behaviour, not schooling behaviour that tells you where to fish. Plumb the good water, and this includes that first foot of the top of a run because steelhead often move right up and under this ruffled water and it is the easiest to reach. You will catch dozens more fish over the decades if you cast into this water, rather than walk into it; this one is corny but works.
As depth is a challenge, it makes sense to fish the soft and the shallow. Soft water is that middle of the pool – not run – water where current is least, and while not a high percentage water, as it is pass-through water rather holding water, sometimes fish stop because it needs to use less energy than in faster water. Plumb such water, quickly.
And tailouts are a natural place for steelhead to stop. They are moving slowly, and the fish, having come up a run, may stop for a time, before passing through the pool to its head. Later in the winter, tailouts are more productive as some spawning takes place in them, and thus fish slip back into these waters or hold prior to leaving the system. The reason for fishing tailouts is that they are higher percentage water, higher than the pool above them, and mostly because they are shallower, it is much easier to be in the zone. Do note, however, that it is not sporting to intentionally fish spawned out fish late in the season.