“THE WINTER BUG BITE”
Steelhead anglers are unique individuals. Winter steelhead fishermen are downright crazy! Compared to other anglers an avid steelhead enthusiast is willing to work harder, fish in tougher conditions and be content in catching fewer fish than just about any breed of freshwater angler.
Steelhead fishing isn’t about numbers, although there are days that hooking a dozen fish is considered no big deal. Steelhead fishing, especially winter steelhead fishing is a cat and mouse game that’s as much about hunting as it is fishing.
Understanding Winter Fish
Steelhead like other fish literally evolve into different animals as the seasons come and go. A river run steelhead in October is an aggressive fish that boldly feeds on the spawn of other species like king and coho salmon, brown trout and lake trout. Often, catching these fish is about setting up the best spawning gravel and rolling bottom with spawn sacs or single bead rigs designed to imitate salmon skein and individual eggs that are naturally drifting free with the current.
In the fall, steelhead also actively smash hard baits including plugs like Yakima’s Flatfish, Fatfish and Mag Lips along with other classics like the Storm Wiggle Wart, Brad’s Wiggler and Luhr Jensen Hot Shot. You can catch these same fish casting in-line spinners, rolling the bottom with a Yakima Spin-n-Glo or casting jerkbaits.
The point is that in the fall, steelhead are aggressive and they can be caught with a variety of popular angling tactics. Come December, the face of steelhead fishing starts evolving into a dramatically different fishing situation. As the water cools down into the mid to low 40s, the fish that were once terrorizing the river, gradually turn into sluggish creatures that seemingly scrutinize every tiny detail of the food they are willing to eat.
Not only does it appear that winter steelhead become ultra-picky feeders, they seemingly feed less often and with far less enthusiasm. As December wanes into January and then February, traditional steelhead fishing tactics like those already mentioned falter to the point that a mere mortal would simply toss in the towel.
Thankfully, tossing in the towel isn’t something a steelhead angler’s mind can compute. Instead, these unique fishermen adapt as the fishing conditions change and continue fishing using tactics better suited to ultra-cold, exceptionally clear and slower moving water. In the winter, a different kind of bite takes place on many of Michigan’s top steelhead streams. It’s a bite that can be summed up in three simple words…the bug bite.
The Bug Bite
A growing number of anglers have discovered that in the winter steelhead are less likely to feed on artificial lures and various spawn rigs and much more likely to feed on presentations that imitate aquatic insects or what anglers simply call bugs. The transformation from feeding on spawn to feeding on bugs makes sense if you think about it. As winter progresses, spawn becomes a far less available food source.
Steelhead being opportunistic feeders naturally start to target other food resources and aquatic insects fill that niche. Tiny jigs tipped with wax worms, spikes or soft plastic creatures have become the winter tactic of choice among hard core steelhead anglers.
Deeper And Slower Water
The winter “bug bite” is about fishing jigs that do a good job of imitating insects. The bug bite is also about understanding the need to target slower moving water and deeper pools.
In icy cold water steelhead become less active and less willing to fight strong current. These fish adapt by stacking up in key areas of the river where the current is slower and deeper.
Often the best winter water is also far upstream where the river bottom is mostly made up of gravel and rock. The downstream regions of most steelhead streams tend to be sandier and silty and less conducive to producing the insect life winter steelhead depend upon.
Because in the winter steelhead tend to stack up in very precise areas of the river, fishing success is surprisingly good despite lousy weather and less active fish.
Floats Are Critical
Tiny jigs do a great job of imitating insects, but rolling a jig on bottom isn’t exactly the most efficient way of fishing. Any time a jig comes in contact with the bottom, the odds of snagging and losing that lure are high.
Instead of bumping the bottom, a growing number of anglers use floats to present their jigs close to bottom. This presentation is absolutely deadly on winter steelhead that hug the bottom and use rocks, boulders or submerged wood as cover and current breaks.
A wide variety of floats are employed in this style of fishing, but most anglers favor cigar shaped floats that attach to the line using surgical tubing at the top and bottom of the float. The fishing depth is simply adjusted by sliding the float up or down the line so the jig is suspended in the water column. The Yakima Maxi Float is a good example of the style of float winter steelhead anglers favor.
Close Isn’t Always
Winter steelhead fishing success with jigs and floats is a game of inches. Being in the proximity of bottom isn’t always good enough to produce strikes. Often the jig that gets hit is the one that’s fishing precariously close to bottom. Savvy anglers are constantly adjusting their floats and micro-managing how close their presentation is fishing in relationship to bottom.
The best approach is to start with the jig positioned a safe distance off bottom for the first drift or two, then progressively fish deeper and deeper until the jig can be detected contacting the bottom.
If the fish are active they will rise up off the bottom to slurp in a jig as it drifts past. If the fish are in a more neutral mood, you may have to literally hit the fish on the nose to stimulate a strike.
Long Rods Are A Must
Because steelhead are often found in deeper pools during the winter, it’s not uncommon for a float rig to be set up to fish water from six to 10 feet deep. Casting a float/jig set up with that much line dangling from the rod tip becomes a lesson in long rod fishing. The typical float fisherman is using a rod at least 10′-6″ long and many float fishing enthusiasts favor even longer 13 to 15 foot rods. Okuma produces a couple float specific rods including the Guide Select and Aventa series produced in both 13 and 15-foot lengths.
Longer rods make it easier to cast and also to mend line so the float drifts downstream with little or no drag in the water. There is a bit of a learning curve associated with fishing “float rods” as these extra-long rods are a handful.
Float Line Helps
Fishing floats with long rods is a game that is best played with specialty fishing lines designed especially for float fishing. These lines are typically high visibility coated versions of braids made from Spectra fiber. Vicious Fishing recently introduced their Driftmaster line in 10, 15 and 20 pound test ratings. For most steelhead fishing applications the 15 pound test is ideal.
Because float lines are typically high visibility lines, they must be tied to a fluorocarbon leader which is in turn tied directly to the jig. An ideal set up is to use a Double Uni Knot to tie the Driftmaster float line to about four feet of 10# test fluorocarbon line. Next slip a 1/4 ounce egg sinker on the fluorocarbon line and tie in a small barrel swivel using a Polamar knot. Finish the rig by adding a 20 inch length of 8# test fluorocarbon line that’s tied directly to the jig using a clinch knot.
This rig allows the jig to be broken off without losing the egg sinker, swivel and float, making it quick and easy to tie on a new jig and get back at fishing.
A Word On Jigs
A number of jigs are used for float fishing in steelhead water. Mostly these are 1/32 ounce models. The trick is finding jigs this small that have adequate hooks for holding powerful steelhead.
The Yakima Maxi Jig features a tempered Owner hook designed especially for steelhead fishing. Available in 1/32, 1/16, 1/8 and 1/4 ounce sizes, the tiny 1/32 ounce model is the most popular choice among Michigan anglers who are routinely targeting fish in very clear water.
Maxi Jigs come in a host of color options, but the various shades of pink and orange are hands down the shades most anglers favor. This jig is also dressed with a marabou tail and a couple of small colorful beads.
A wax worm threaded onto the jig is standard fare, but many float/jig fishermen are using spikes, mousies, butter worms and wigglers for live bait. These jigs can also be tipped with scented soft plastic bugs and bug larva in the Berkley Gulp line up.
The Bug Bite Is A System
In summary, the winter “bug bite” is a fishing system that incorporates tiny jigs, floats, float fishing lines, longer float style rods and a host of live bait options. Collectively these fishing tools give winter steelhead anglers the ability to target the deeper and slower moving waters. Compared to bottom fishing tactics, float fishing enables the angler to fish relatively snag free.
Float fishing tactics can be applied fishing from shore, wading or from a boat. Starting in December and stretching into early March, the bug bite brings a whole new meaning to the word consistent. Consistency is something that should be music to an angler’s ear. Rarely is anything consistent about winter fishing and that goes double for steelhead fishing.