January 22, 2012

Winter Steelheading

Lake effect squall
Winter can be the most challenging time of the year. Frigid winds, cold, ice, slush and bone chilling water will test even the hardiest steelheader. But it's the individual who is willing to subject themselves to those bitter elements are the ones that find success. When the cold weather hits, the number of people on the rivers drop and the winter steelheader can find spots with relative ease, even on the Rocky. The weather isn't for the faint of heart and the majority of anglers often wait for spring. I relish the winter months and I remember past trips of driving out east in squalls that swallowed the truck in front of me, walking through the woods blazing a trail in 3' of fresh snow, and chattering like a crazed chipmunk after standing in bone chilling water for hours- all for a fish. I've seen people walking along trails in the metro park and staring at me standing in the cold water, shaking their heads. For them, it goes beyond their understanding and I tell them it's a steelheader thing.

Braving the elements
The biggest foe for the winter steelheader is slush and ice. Slush also known as anchor ice will generally form in rivers during periods of extreme cold. Due to the motion of the water, ice cover may not form consistently, and the water will quickly reach its freezing point due to mixing and contact with the atmosphere. Ice platelets generally form very quickly in the water column and on submerged objects once conditions are optimal. Once this happens fishing can be difficult if not impossible. If there is enough space between blobs of slush then a successful drift can be done albeit short. If the river is choked in it, you'll be lucky to drop a bowling ball through it. Over the years, I've learned if the temperatures overnight are in the teens - stay in bed and wait until it warms up. If the sun is out, generally the slush will burn off by afternoon. Many times, I've drove through the metro park in the morning and watched guys trying in vain to fish only to watch their float land on top of a slush or get consumed by a large slush blob.

Side ice can also pose a problem as the best wintering holes can be covered over. Usually the fish will hide under the ice making it difficult to coax them out or drift right along the shelf. If the ice isn't thick, simply busting it up into sections and pushing it out will open up some water. For the angler looking to fish on side ice, they are playing a deadly game of chance. River ice is usually 15 percent weaker than pond or lake ice because underlying currents below can make it thinner then it appears. In the past, I did it a couple of times because I was desperate to catch fish, but I never felt comfortable doing it. Since then, I've stop doing because losing my life wasn't worth it. There is no such thing as 100% safe ice.

Waiting for the slush to burn off

Clothing can make your day enjoyable or down right miserable. I like to dress light because I often walk a lot. Even though it can be cold, I can break out in a sweat. For me nothing beats fleece because of wicking ability and retaining heat. For a typical winter outing, I wear a Under Armour base 2.0 crew shirt and leggings, Polartec 200 fleece pants and jacket, and polypropylene and wool socks. All of these provide warmth while keeping me dry. The only I will not wear are gloves when I'm fishing. I find gloves cumbersome and they are usually relegated in the back of my jacket and I only use them when walking from spot to spot. The most important piece to will make day enjoyable or a living hell are waders. There is no worst feeling when you your feet start getting wet due to leaks. Once your feet are wet, your screwed. After an hour the pain starts getting worse and after a while its intolerable. I've experienced a couple of times and it's not fun when the day has to be cut short because your feet are killing you.

Just like humans, fish react to the cold the same way- they don't like to move if they can help it. Since fish are cold blooded they prefer to seek out areas that don't have to expend a lot of energy to fight the current. Prime spots include tailouts, large deep pools, and any structure such as bridge supports, dams, downed trees, large rocks that deflect the current. But, I have seen steelhead leap out of the water when the water temperature was 34F and the air temperature was in the 20s. I had some fish fight like water logged boot and others rip off line. Despite cold water, there have been times when we've hit fish in big numbers in certain spots, you would of though it was October. These fish never cease to amaze me.

Winter Steelhead falling for a white sac
When comes to presentations I like to go big and bright. When your cold and lazy, you need something big and tasty to spark your interest. In past winters, the top bait for me was a large emerald shiner. Not the ones used for perch, I'm talking about the 4" to 5" monsters. Unfortunately the VHS ban and demise of old Pete's bait shop pretty well eliminated my supply of those shiners. To replace them, I had to switch to either the gulp minnows or jigs. But I still prefer to use sacs and they've never failed me. Over the years, I've noticed that cured eggs seem to work better then uncured eggs. I suspect that the scent of cured eggs are more noticeable in colder water and it seems to "wake up" the fish from their winter slumber. Trotting the float is another key for success as it helps give the fish more time to decide whether they want it or not. 

Winter steelheading can be fun if you dress according and stay warm. The crowds in some places are non existent and you can enjoy the solitude while taking in the snow covered trees, large icicles on the cliffs and green water provides beautiful scenery. 

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