While some flyfishing rules are inviolable, most are not. The two largest variables in flyfishing are weather and the fish being sought, and never is that more obvious than when chasing steelhead. As winter settles in throughout the Great Lakes, steelhead are on the minds of many fly anglers looking for a long rod fix. Cold weather steelheading can be an exercise in futility if you are waiting for the savage strikes of fall-run fish. However, if you have the patience to slow down and adapt to the sluggish pace of holding fish, success may tighten your line. To this end, here are a few tips for winter steelheading in Southeast Michigan.
Most Michigan rivers don't freeze completely
Winter weather can freeze ponds and lakes throughout Michigan, but most moving water will remain relatively ice-free in the winter, unless a severe cold spell has settled in. Large, slow-moving rivers like the Saginaw often get enough ice on top to allow ice fishing, and the slack areas and margins of smaller rivers will develop shelf ice (another hazard of winter wading that bears careful consideration). Tailwaters (i.e. rivers or streams below a dam) often stay open all winter long. With winter steelhead moving into tailwater areas, there is always a chance that dark, quiet water where the snowflakes seem to hiss as they disappear into the surface could be holding a dusky, silver beast that might make your day.
Hatches do occur in the winter
Water-dwelling nymphs and larvae can comprise 50 percent of a trout's diet and this may swell to 75 percent during the winter. While your chances of taking a steelhead on the surface during a Michigan winter are probably less than zero, you should remember that these salmonids key in on midges and stonefly hatches as they revert to their stream fish roots. Steelhead only feed sporadically during the winter, but if they are instinctively striking at hatching nymphs, drifting a Copper John or Tug Bug past their noses may get you bit.
Winter fish are late risers
Just as in the summer, winter water temperatures can make or break your fishing day. Winter temperatures typically peak in the early afternoon, and as such river fish aren't active until later in the day. 9 a.m. is an early start time on the river, and even noon may not be too late. Take your time - make breakfast, enjoy a pint with lunch, retie your leader and tippet knots before rushing to the water.
Slow your roll (or drift)
As cold-blooded creatures, fish slow down metabolically in the winter. Your fishing speed should slacken accordingly. Steelhead are hunkered down in holes and pools, saving energy for the spawning duties that lay ahead in the spring. As such, they are less likely to chase your streamer in winter conditions. While indicator fishing or bottom drifting are anathema to fly anglers who live to swing flies, these methods may draw strikes from sluggish winter fish. Remember, too, that low, clear winter flows make for spooky fish. If you do fish streamers, strip slowly or swing them in the current. Allow drift rigs to pass out of their strike zones before picking them up for a cast. Wade quietly and keep your movements slow and deliberate.
Go light or go home
Winter river flows are low and gin-clear, and this means your rig may look more fake than usual to your quarry. For some anglers, this means dropping a size or two tippet-wise (i.e. 5x instead of 4x). I believe that going light for steelhead is a bad idea, especially if you like to catch and release. A strong, heavy fish can be landed on light line, but the battle can render them too exhausted to survive when released. Tippet material that disappears in the water, like fluorocarbon, can allow your rig to stay invisible while allowing some backbone during a fight. Unless you keep what you catch, going too light on tippet may mean you release a fish that floats later.
Ditch your strike indicators
Low winter flows mean your indy could spook the fish you seek. Whether it's a bright slip float or Thill-style ice bubble, your indicator may be too visible from below. You can ditch the indicator all together, and try high-stick nymphing in deep, narrow runs. Watch your leader for movement where it enters the water, and be ready to strike at the first hesitation or pause. Keep your eyes peeled for subtle, sub-surface flashes that indicate a possible take. If you insist on using an indicator, a simple tuft of sheep's wool (orange or white) treated with floatant may blend in with surface flotsam and bubbles.
Split shot - more is better
"If you aren't snagging up, you're not getting deep enough." This adage is especially true for winter fishing. The colder the temperatures, the more sluggish the fish. This means that steelhead holding in the bottom of a six-foot-deep slot are less likely to move for your nymph rig drifting three feet over its head. Add another split shot or two to get your flies down where the fish should be. Don't be afraid to leave a few flies on the bottom.
Hang up your breathable waders
Heavy neoprene waders made for duck hunting are perfect for winter fly fishing. Most breathable waders are large enough to allow several layers underneath, but the stockingfoot models only prevent you from feeling your feet. The more socks you wear, the less blood circulates to your feet. You'll start fishing with cold feet, and will eventually feel like your feet have been replaced with blocks of wood. Skip the breathable waders, three pairs of socks and wading boots. Grab the neoprenes with heavy, insulated boots. Your toes will thank you for it.
Winter stoneflies are real
During warming trends and lower-pressure systems, small black stoneflies can hatch all the way through March. Snowbanks will suddenly look like they have been covered with carpenter ants. The silent, smooth dark surface of your hole may start showing an occasional roll or splash as steelhead below feign striking at emergers. Be sure to have some small stonefly nymphs and emergers in your box in case this happens. If you happen to hit one of these hatches in the winter, enjoy it. The fish may not be striking the stoneflies, but the hatching activity could be enough to get them "off the couch" and in the mood to strike. Enjoy the solitude of a winter afternoon on the water. Tight lines!