The pool in front of you is straight out of your dreams. It's the water you've dreamt of drifting flies through since making plans to fish last week. It's late afternoon, the shadows are about to start stretching out as evening approaches, and a skim of mist along the surface shows you the water has warmed slightly during the afternoon.
A gentle bubble line lays within easy reach of a single-haul cast for your indicator and two flies, and you have plenty of line coiled in your reel hand, ready to pay out and mend so you can drift the entire pool. You approached and entered the water cautiously, to avoid spooking any fish, manuevering into position without sending out waves or stomping on the bottom. A few moving black specks on the snow-covered banks confirm the presence of winter stoneflies, a surefire
sign of winter steelhead season. Ready to address the pool, you start your first backcast, paying out line and allowing an extra heartbeat for the bulky indicator and flies to straighten out behind you before swinging them forward towards the run...
The indicator bobs through the run without a dip, a sure sign that it's not set quite deep enough. You bring it in and adjust the depth a foot, and your next drift-through shows a tell-tale tick or two, just enough to indicate momentary contact with bottom. Your pulse quickens as you mend, pick-up and cast again, knowing that any steelhead in the pool would be sitting directly below your flies, along the bottom, just waiting for an opportunity to strike. A third drift, and nothing answers the gently bobbing indicator. Your line hand hangs at your side, fingertip drawing a slight V across the moving surface. Another cast and no one is home, then another and another. You begin to wonder if you've picked the wrong flies, or need more weight to get your flies down on the bottom.
What to do?
Winter fishing means gin clear water, whether you're fishing through the ice or in open water.
While the flash of a spinner, jig or streamer may entice strikes, extraneous shiny objects on your line may spook fish. This goes double for fish that have been pressured, are line-shy, or have extra time to examine your rig in a static setting (slack water or through the ice).
Split shot are small clamp-on lead sinkers, popular for adding weight to a fishing line or lure. There are now environmentally friendly versions made of tin, bismuth, etc, which are often coated or painted a dull, dark color. However, the lead versions come from their packaging bright and shiny, and should be dulled prior to fishing.
Just like rushing into the water and hurriedly casting for that first big fish, and spooking a few monsters that were lazing near the bank, spooking fish with shiny splitshot is easily avoided if you plan ahead.
Shiny lead is easily dulled with water, salt or vinegar. My current practice is to buy a few bags of split shot, then put a tablespoon or so of tap water into each bag. Let them sit in the water for a few days, then empty out onto a paper towel and allow them to air dry. After a day or so, the shine is reduced to a flat, dull grey and you are ready to fish. A solution of salt water or water with vinegar will render the same results in a shorter period of time.
Remember to handle lead carefully, don't hold it longer than necessary, and NEVER use your teeth to clamp or loosen shot on a line. Also, do not leave lead out where children or pets may grab it. Air-dry the dulled lead on a surface that's easily cleaned or discarded (cardboard box lid, paper towel, etc).
When you use dulled lead, you eliminate one possible fish-spooking factor from your fishing combination. Tight lines!