Steelies Are Congregating In Deep Holes And Slow Moving Runs, Waiting For Your Hook…
Last fall was highlighted by abundant warm rain and good numbers of steelhead charged Michigan Great Lakes tributaries and provided fantastic fishing. Excellent catches were coming from all along the Lake Michigan coast from those who worked spoons, flies, spawn bags and jigs near pier heads, drowned river mouths and traditional steelhead rivers. Now, with the cold weather and snow steelies are congregating in deep holes and slow moving runs, waiting for your hook. But do you know the latest tactic for fooling cold weather monster trout? If not, listen up, I’ve got some tips that can make a cold day on the river turn into a red hot fishing outing. The following anecdote best makes my point.
When I finally reached the high bank overlooking the scenic river it was breaking daylight. The banks were snow covered and the steelhead stream looked like a black ribbon meandering between white snow and cedar trees. I was alone with the winter wind in my face, on the crest of a hill overlooking the famous Pere Marquette. There was no sound
from planes, trains or hum of traffic in the city, only the whispering of pine needles and swaying of branches. I hurried to reach the river bank, nestled in the valley, protected from the wind. I could feel my pulse quicken as I stalked close to a deep, slow moving pool. The distant sound of water rushing over rocks upstream was background music to my ears as I made the first cast into the dark water that has historically been a holding location for winter steelhead in search of calm flow and the protection of the nearby log jam.
Dreams of years past when the honey hole served up limit catches raced through my head as I made a second cast and allowed the float to drift a tiny jig, tantalizing any trout. I drew in a deep breath and imagined the spectacular fishing available on one of Michigan’s premier steelhead rivers. Soon I was rewarded for the long hike in deep snow. A large buck slurped the tiny offering; the float jiggled, and then slowly disappeared beneath the surface of the stream. I jerked the long rod to set the hook and the brute ripped line from my drag like a runaway freight train. Soon the ten pound fish was beached and recorded by my digital pocket camera, before the big trout was released unharmed.
Michigan offers some splendid winter fishing for those willing to brave the elements and who are in good enough physical condition to wade through neverending snowdrifts. There are usually deer tracks along most river banks, often little sign of other fishermen; which is perhaps the main reason many Michigan fishermen have a love for winter steelheading. There is something addictively special about enjoying nature one-on-one, when the weather is too cold for those more interested in watching television or working on a computer.
Steelheading is a mesmerizing sport when you set the hook, feel the power run of big fish and see the awesome beauty of huge silvery flanked hens or bucks colored orange or red along lateral line and on the gill plate. Put simply, steelheads are absolutely beautiful fish, period. Those who love them never cease to marvel at their impressive colors, huge size and sleek bullet-like shape. Cradle them in your arms, feel their strength, firm muscles and I guarantee you will keep coming back for more.
But there is much more to catching these wary trout than meets the eye. During winter you need to cover water, be a river nomad, cast thousands of times, make many presentations, work hard and you can expect good catches. During winter steelies tend to congregate in only a few locations, often where the water moves slowly, and offers the least resistance to fish conserving energy in the frigid piscatorial environment. The trick is to find fish, you know, different faces in different places.
Covering water is the best way to stay warm and it gives you a golden opportunity to scout rivers when water levels are low and clear. Savvy anglers use winter treks to scout ever-changing streams and rivers. My advice is to cover uncharted waters during the snow season and learn new hot spots.
The debate rages on regarding the best presentation for winter steelhead. Some fishermen prefer to cast Mepp’s style spinners, drift boats pull plugs and purists ply the waters with nymph flies or bits of yarn. Years ago, when I wore a Dick Swan Custom Rods’ hat and pounded tributaries, the winter bait of choice was a live wiggler on a single # 8 Eagle Claw style 181 bait-holder hook. The live bait swimming in clear water was a deadly presentation and almost guaranteed strikes from lethargic cold trout in clear water. Today the most popular presentation is a waxworm on a jig.
Once stream temperatures drop below 36 degrees, trout become selective about feeding behavior and refuse large offerings. Although if air temperatures rise above freezing and the midday sun warms water, steelies will respond by gobbling a well placed spawn bag. A good example of winter steelies eating spawn bags occurs at 6th Street Dam in downtown Grand Rapids. Perhaps the fish here are living in more turbid waters, maybe the spawn has more action in the fast current or steelies don’t see enough bugs floating in the current to be selective about feeding? No one knows why but this river produces strikes on bags, sometimes choker-size offerings the size of a golf ball.
But the trick to catching winter fish is to scale down the size of your offering. I’m talking about using jigs that are 1/64-1/32 weight. To sweeten the pie try a jig that has neutral colors like: brown, black, shrimp, olive, grey, gold or green. My deadliest winter steelie jig is hand made. I use black marabou feathers and a gold head with eyes. Tip the offering with a waxie and it looks like a nymph swimming in the current and steelies respond by smacking the tiny undulating bug.
You can make custom jigs by ordering Mustad hooks style 32833, Eagle Claw #570B bent wire jig hooks or Matzuo sickle 90 jig hook from Barlow’s at www.barlowstackle.com or www.matzuo.com. These hooks are made of heavier wire than most jig hooks, colored black and will withstand the hard pull of a big fish without bending. Other sources for hooks and tackle include www.jannsnetcraft.comand www.hagensfish.com. Attach a BB size spit shot to the bend in the jig hook and super glue it in place. Next get some jig paint from a local craft shop, the hottest paint going is the 3D Paint Scribbles, or order at www.duncancrafts.com. This paint comes in a variety of fish-catching colors, including fluorescent orange, yellow, pink, neon green and some unique glow colors that will give you an added edge over other jig fishermen. Scribbles goes on using a needle shaped tube, dries fast and will resist water, bouncing off rocks or sand and does not stain. Next tie on a body using marabou, silicone rubber skirts, larva angel hair, salmo supreme lace, Metz Ezee Bug, body stuff or mohair plus. Experiment with body materials, the options are endless, even the feathers from a wood duck, pheasant or mallard can give the jig the action and color needed to key strikes. The idea is to give the jig that “bug” look and have a body made of material that will move, wiggle, vibrate or swim in current and entice trout to think it is a living creature.
There are many ways to hook waxies. If water warms and fish become active you can gob them on, thread one up the hook shank and place two hanging off the barb. Sometimes you need to experiment with the number and size waxie you use. Often when stream temperatures are frigid, steelies want a small offering and one waxie will get the job done. The trick is to not thread the bait on the hook. Instead barely hook the offering through the head and leave the entire tail hanging off the back of the hook. This presentation will swim in the current like rubber skirting on a bass spinnerbait, it gives your presentation life and causes steelies to go bonkers. Replace waxies frequently when fishing and use fresh bait. It is also a good bet to keep them in your vest pocket, warm and alive. Frozen waxies become flat, lifeless ribbons that catch few fish.
If shelf ice forms along the bank of your favorite river you can count on steelies using the structure like a big brown will hide under a tree stump. The ice protects wary fish from direct sunlight and steelies often suspend near the surface in a comfort zone found close to the solid structure. Work presentations tight to the ice and trout will swim from under the cover; grab the bait and dash back into their protected liar. If ice forms over a deep hole, set your bobber or float to suspend jigs only 2-4 feet below the surface.
Keep in mind that steelies will come up to grab a presentation but seldom swim down to strike.
Steelies during winter often become active during midday when water temperatures rise. A sudden winter thaw, above freezing noon air temperatures or rain can wake up winter trout and send them on a feeding spree. If the direct sunlight slightly increases water temperature you can expect trout to become active but when the sun touches the horizon in the afternoon the bite dies.
Fishing steelhead in a blizzard can be frustrating yet rewarding when you get a solid strike from a big bow, you set the hook and the fish nearly jerks the rod from your hand. It is amazing how the exciting fight from a steelie can transform a brutal cold winter day into a heat wave. Don’t wait until spring to sample Michigan’s top steelie waters.
Now is the time to scout new hot spots and you can count on local rivers holding plenty of fish from the high water this past fall. Winter steelheading is a fun-filled adventure that enhances your body and mind, a soul cleansing experience that provides excellent exercise and many benefits. The trout are waiting, go get’em now!