Winter steelhead are dour, sluggish and far removed from the scrappy, hungry silver beasts that prowled the rivers in the fall. Water temperatures, extended periods of darkness (changing photoperiod) and hormonal changes for the upcoming spawn all have a hand in this. These fish hold in deep pools and slots, expending the minimum amount of energy required to stay put in the current. They only move when needed, and getting them to strike a fly or lure can be simple luck or exact lure placement.
When in rivers, holding steelhead are extremely territorial. Dominant fish will hold in deep water near prime redds, anticipating the rising water temps that trigger spawning activity. They can be seen chasing interlopers out of these areas long before the spawn starts. Part of the reason that "plugging" and dropback methods work so well is that these dominant fish are loathe to give up these lies. When a rattling, shiny plug appears in their face and pushes them to the rear of a slot or pool, they will often strike it. Throwing in the dangle method when swinging or bottom-bouncing flies can trigger this same behavior.
Spey fishing aficianados almost always hang an extra coil or two of line from their reel hand when swinging flies. The reason for this is simple - a swinging fly is essentially hanging at the end of a curving flyline. This line represents a significant amount of slack in your drift, hampering your ability to set the hook if a fish hits your fly. Fly swingers can feel the line tighten up on a strike, but instead of setting the hook, they wait until their reserve line is pulled out. When the line goes tight, they lift the rod and if the stars align, Miss Mykiss is snubbed and begins her acrobatics.
Using the dangle method is similar to this, although you dont hold line in reserve for a strike. When your fly reaches the end of its drift, you let this line slip out, allowing the fly to work further into the run a few feet. Feel free to let it hang in the current for a few seconds or longer. Steelhead don't always hit flies that are fished the "right way." Sometimes, a fly that hangs in the current is just what the doctor ordered.
The first time I purposely used the dangle was on a winter steelheading trip on the Muskegon River. My longtime fishing buddy Eric and I had booked a trip with guide Fred Steuber, and we were rigged to drift tandem flies along the bottom with running line and lots of lead. It was mid-February, and the afternoon sun was taking the chill out of the air as Fred's jetboat nosed into the current towards our first stop.
Once we were anchored in mid-channel, Fred pointed out a slack seam and bubble line thirty feet or so off the port side. The stained waters of the Mighty Mo were just dark enough to conceal what he was pointing out.
"There's a long cut in the bottom right there, with a rockpile at the upstream end. Get your flies in just upstream of that bubble line and let them tap along the bottom through that entire slot. There's almost always a few fish holding along this spot. When your flies get to the end of the run, let them hang for a few - sometimes that helps you get bit."
From the bow of the boat, Eric missed a strike on his second drift. Standing at the stern, my line was ticking off stones and hardpan on the bottom of the run. I squinted into the sunglare on the surface, partially obscuring my view of the neon yellow running line slicing through the dark water. When the ticking stopped I dropped my rod tip to extend the drift and started counting. Before I had reached five-one-thousand, something solid smacked one of my flies. I set the hook sharply and felt that first jagged headshake followed by a run that started my reel singing. The dangle had done its job, and we soon had eight pounds of silver dynamite wrapped in the dripping folds of the rubber landing net for a quick picture and quick release.
I had probably caught steelhead doing the dangle inadvertently before this, but the first time I purposely tried it, I hooked up. Success on subsequent trips and different rivers, including the Huron, Pere Marquette, Au Sable, Chagrin and Grand (Ohio) proved that my first hook-up that afternoon was not a fluke.
Winter steelheading means spending long cold hours prospecting for that one strike or hook-up that warms your extremities with adrenaline. Whether you choose to use spawn, spinners or flies, throwing in the dangle at the end of your drifts can only increase your chances for that all-important strike. Tight lines!