December 25, 2019
This story appeared in the 2019 Oct-Nov-Dec issue of Fly Fisherman and was originally titled “Icy Steel: Guide Strategies for Great Lakes Winter Steelhead."
To winter steelheaders, snowy and shitty weather is a good thing. They are a tough breed, not far removed from Siberian Gulag survivors with icicles hanging off their long-frozen beards. Coffee mugs, jerky scraps, trail mix, and fast-food bags litter their trucks. Fresh intruders and egg patterns are pinned to their dashboards. For them, frostbite and hypothermia are mere nuisances intended to hinder their pursuit of a screaming, half-frozen reel. And bad weather often means good fishing as the snow and rain feed the rivers and draw fresh chrome up out of the Great Lakes, whether that’s on the Salmon River in the Tug Hill region of New York, Lake Erie’s Steelhead Alley, Michigan’s Muskegon or Pere Marquette, or on the Knife River on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.
A true sign that you are sick with the affliction is when you find yourself obsessing about your next trip while driving back from your current one. After guiding year-round for Oncorhynchus mykiss the past 23 years, I insanely still find myself not getting enough of the crimson and chrome buzz. I’ve finished 37 straight days of guiding and my first day off, gone out and got the same buzz as the first day I ever fished for steelhead. The steelhead drug is a very powerful one that will eradicate any semblance of self control.
Oncorhynchus mykiss originated about 1.5 million years ago along the west coastal Pacific Rim rivers from California to Russia. They are as diverse as the rivers they live in, but fly fishers think of them in terms of their calendar polarities: winter steelhead enter the river between October and May, while summer steelhead migrate from May through October. Both strains adopt different life survival strategies including different spawning times, spatial niche preferences in river habitat, and metabolism thresholds. Summer-runs evolved on larger, vast river systems like the Columbia and Skeena, where great distances favored early start dates. Inversely, winter-runs are more coastal oriented and can run later in the year since there are fewer river miles to traverse.
In 1876, Pacific steelhead were introduced to the Great Lakes, where they are now thriving. Wild, naturally reproducing river strains have taken root in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario. With 140 years of genetic and behavioral modifications, Michigan winter steelhead have the most uniquely adapted survival strategies of all Great Lakes steelhead. They have adapted to quickly changing river conditions and have learned that taking advantage of big-water prey is much more profitable than long, early migrations.
So what makes these massive, broad-shouldered winter fish so special? What makes them savagely attack your fly at times, and at other times scoff at your offerings or become totally dormant? Since 1992 I have been analyzing every aspect of a winter steelhead’s behavioral repertoire, and have come to some firm conclusions.
Compared to summer steelhead, winter steelhead move slowly in very pragmatic calculated metabolic maneuvers and slower attack speeds in frigid or freezing waters. Winter steelhead also travel in smaller migratory pods or as singles, whereas summer fish are often schooling fish and travel in large packs like stripers.
This solitary winter-run lifestyle affects how you pursue the fish of a thousand casts. Each winter fish must be earned since you must not only put in the time, you must often overcome harsh conditions, which makes every capture of a winter steelhead so much more rewarding. Even if you don’t catch a fish, every winter steelheader deserves a participation trophy or at least a stiff pull from a flask of bourbon or Scotch.
Also as juvenile parr and smolts in the river system, winter steelhead have aggressive and quick responses to food, often out-competing even browns and native brook trout for dominant feeding lies. They have insatiable appetites and are not as cautious and calculating as browns, thus steelhead parr get caught more often—ask any Pere Marquette guide and they’ll tell you steelhead parr are caught 10/1 over resident browns.
Given these developmental factors, the winter steelhead strike response is shaped more on what I call biotic stimulation than on aggression. Biotic prey stimulation goes on constantly for winter fish from birth, through spawning, and eventually mortality. There are three main biotic categories: pelagic hunting, biological riverine drift, and natal imprinting.
Pelagic hunting strike responses have their greatest display when fresh-run steelhead just enter the rivers and their eyes are glued to the blue/green/orange UV light spectrum, which is most visible in the pelagic zones and deeper in open waters down to 200 feet. Thus, swinging two-handers with Intruders with color motifs such as blue/chartreuse/purple are highly effective.
In the Great Lakes, deepwater sculpins and gobies now make up a larger part of the prey profiles since alewife baitfish numbers have decreased as much as 90 percent. Thus with pelagic strike responses, on the two-handed swing or streamer, the response is violent and usually unleashes a massive aerial battle. Often as they do with baitfish hunting in the pelagic zone, steelhead bump the fly like they are trying to stun their prey before eating it.
Once steelhead settle into their “incubation pools” before they spawn, biotic riverine drift stimulation becomes much more dominant. These incubation periods can last up to six months for summer steelhead, and as little as a few months or even weeks or days for winter fish.
In the Great Lakes, the long, cold winters create lengthy incubation periods for fish that run in the late fall and don’t spawn until spring. It is here that the personality of a selective rainbow trout comes out in steelhead, and they pick at food sources such as mayfly and stonefly nymphs, caddis and midge larvae, sculpins, and shiners, and scuds. This is when nymphing—either with an indicator or with a European tight-line technique—becomes vitally important.
The strikes can be very soft and light—I can’t tell you how many 10-pound steelhead I have caught while nymphing for trout with size 16 scuds and 5x tippet. With water temps often in the 30 F. range, the takes are often slow and subtle. When nymphing for winter steelhead, I always suggest waiting for two or three head throbs after the fish takes the fly before setting the hook firmly. We too often take the fly out of the fish’s mouth with quick trout-like nymph striking.
Natal imprinting also has a powerful effect. Since winter steelhead are such prolific feeders as juveniles, they imprint to every imaginable food source. Most significant of these are eggs. If a rainbow trout fisherman had but one fly to put food on his table, it has to be an egg pattern of some sort.
Just as a brown trout’s DNA seems hardwired to earthworms from the meadow streams where they evolved, steelhead have an oval object (egg) firmly hardwired into their DNA since they have evolved alongside runs of the Pacific salmon spewing billions of salmon eggs. Finally here, the big question is and will always be “Do steelhead really eat once they return to the rivers?” The obvious answer is that yes they do . . . sometimes.
Great Lakes steelhead in fertile river systems like Michigan’s Pere Marquette and Muskegon, Wisconsin’s Bois Brule, and New York’s Salmon River and Cattaraugus Creek have greater urges and eat for longer periods than their West Coast cousins, but the actual successful digestion of food doesn’t always occur since their stomachs shrink to make room for reproductive organs. I’m not sure if you’d call it feeding or merely “throat mouthing,” but they definitely take in food items.
Dissecting the River
Seams, creases, transition water, fulcrum interception points, all have powerful influences on where winter steelhead position themselves. Keep slower flows, current deflections, and the idea of “path of least resistance” forward in your mind since winter steelhead are slow creatures.
Early-running winter fish sometimes hold in faster, shallower waters, but once water temperatures start to plummet, deeper pools and runs hold the majority of the fish. Bridge pools, train trestles, and lowhead dams all work to congregate steelhead, and tributary influences are sure places to find these comfortable lies.
River bends with tailouts provide some of the most perfect steelhead lies, especially where you can see demarcation where a bubble line of moving water meets with slow water to create eddies, creases, or seams. Places like this are perfect for dredging Sculpin Intruders.
There are three types of strata that steelhead gravitate to: rocky/boulder, gravel, and (less often) sandy bottoms. Pocket/boulder/pool water is a winter steelhead’s ultimate holding, resting, and thermal refuge water.
Steelhead seek gravel as spawning season approaches, but it’s not always required. The exception is on Lake Erie tributaries, where much of the river bottom is smooth slate. On these streams, any kind of gravel or cobble bottom is a magnet for steelhead.
Sandy “sucker water” is often in the river bends and tailouts of bigger rivers. A sand or silt bottom signifies slow water, and that’s what the steelhead prefer. Scuds, burrowing mayflies like Hexagenia, and chubs love this water, and they often get attacked when they move too close to steelhead.
Swinging versus Nymphing
The two-handed steelhead revolution in the Great Lakes has now become a full-blown cult, and there is no turning back. No individuals have done more for the winter swinging game than the MOW boys—Mike McCune, Scott O’Donnell, and Ed Ward—who developed Skagit lines to fish heavy sinking tips and dredge deeper waters with big flies like Scott Howell’s Intruder. It took a while for these West Coast techniques to catch hold in the Great Lakes, but there’s no denying it’s the most beautiful and exciting way to catch steelhead. When a broad-shouldered winter fish violently strikes your swinging Intruder, the savage aggression has no fly-fishing match.
Explaining the tackle and the technique surrounding swinging for steelhead would take a whole book, and there are many fine ones already out there. The rod, lines, and the flies all need to match the water size and conditions. With winter steelhead, you obviously need to get your flies down near the fish, but controlling the swinging line speed is the most critical element for winter steelhead.
In 1876, Michigan’s Daniel Fitzhugh never dreamed that his California rainbow trout experiment on the Au Sable River would result in migratory winter steelhead. These first steelhead were incidental catches when trout season opened in late April, and they were taken by spring trout fisherman on the Pere Marquette and Platte rivers who were plying the waters with nymphs and small wet flies.
Since then, trout techniques have continued to play a role, and nymphing for steelhead was a very practical method that originated in the Great Lakes and has now been imported to hallowed swinging rivers in Oregon, California, and Washington.
Remember steelhead are still rainbows, and in winter conditions no matter where you fish for trout, deep dredging and nymphing are the preferred choices since a fish’s metabolism slows down dramatically. Thus, the winter steelhead chuck-and-duck method using running line is still very effective.
But with the new switch rod revolution, you can swing, nymph, or use a method I came up with called chuck/swinging, all in the same day with the same tackle. I wrote about chuck/swinging in Selectivity. It is a combination of deep bottom nymphing and swinging that uses a clear intermediate line instead of a narrow running line, and two weighted flies (where legal) moving broadside to the fish and along the bottom.
Nymphing has clear and obvious advantages in “hatch matching” scenarios, especially in the fall when the rivers are loaded with spawning king and coho salmon. When the egg hatch is massive, fresh-run steelhead cannot ignore their urge to feed, especially since spawning might be five months away. Salmon eggs put steelhead noses to the pebbles and keep them bottom oriented. Glo-bugs, beads, Krystal Meth Weave Eggs, Sucker Spawn, and Otter Eggs are all highly effective, but with the gravel being dug and dislodged, caddis larvae and mayfly and stonefly nymphs also get into the biological drift.
Also, the Early Black Stonefly hatches of late winter on rivers such as the Muskegon can have adult steelhead focused on stonefly nymphs, while the younger year class of “skippers” actually eat off the surface. [Read Supinski’s story “Checkmate: A match-the-hatch chess game for Great Lakes steelhead” in the February-March 2014 issue or online at flyfisherman.com. The Editor.]
In smaller rivers, indicator nymphing with switch rods is effective and cuts down on the potential of “lining” a fish (merely drawing the fly into the fish’s mouth). Usually when an indicator goes down and stays there, the head shake throbbing is a solid sign of a hook-up.
Euro nymphing is also effective for fish holding in deeper runs and bigger rivers. Strikes are usually detected by the rod tip throbbing or stopping. Euro-style sighters allow you to watch the high-visibility monofilament connection for movement. These sighters, along with Cortland Liquid Crystal lines are a perfect way to go ultra stealth.
Final Tactical Thoughts
Winter steelhead are frequently in 32- to 38-degree water, so the ultimate key for success is to slow everything down. A steelhead’s attitude becomes dour as the temperature drops, but two-handed rods and swinging flies are still effective in the right hands. Pick the holding lies carefully, envision where the fish are, and penetrate the depths effectively by slowing down the line speed and the fly speed of your Intruders or sculpins/leeches. The philosophies are the same for nymphing methods—slow and deep presentations only.
Fish the warmest times of day. This usually means afternoons until dusk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited a pool at the crack of dawn, got skunked, and later caught a massive winter steelhead in the same pool after a slight 1- or 2-degree increase in water temperature.
Target traditional winter holding pools and fish them carefully. Make frequent fly changes, rest the pool between each fly change, and then dissect the pool again if you believe there are fish in it. Winter steelhead hold in the same pools year after year, so concentrate your efforts on old standbys. When these pools get bombarded on busy rivers like the Salmon River in New York, target tertiary lies where fish retreat.
Watch for fast-dropping barometric frontal systems. When this happens, it may be time to head to the bar. Once a frontal system stabilizes, get out there, as the heavy snow bite is usually ferocious.
Finally, invest in the best clothing you can buy. You can’t beat Patagonia and Simms outerwear for the most brutal winter steelhead conditions. Time on the water is the one element that separates the true, die-hard steelheaders from the duffers, and you can’t get the time on the water if you can’t stay warm.
Out of all the steelhead seasons, winter is by far my favorite. Each fish must be earned, and the joy of battling and landing a big crimson and chrome beast in the middle of winter brings on a euphoria like no other. Those moments quickly make you forget your frozen toes and fingers, and makes those moments back at the lodge—looking at your images and sipping a Scotch or bourbon by the fireplace—so much more heartwarming.
Matthew Supinski has been guiding for steelhead 250 days a year for the past 24 years. He and his wife own Gray Drake Lodge (graydrake.com) in Michigan. His recent book The Brown Trout-Atlantic Salmon Nexus has received acclaimed reviews, along with his other books, Selectivity: Trout Steelhead Salmon, and the classic Steelhead Dreams. He has contributed to Fly Fisherman for over 28 years.