You Can Learn a Lot From a Trout
It often seems like the more I fish for trout, the more I learn about their larger cousins - steelhead. One of the best things about this is that school is in session right now.
Winter trout fishing has numerous parallels with steelheading beyond the obvious snow, dead fingers and freezing guides. And yes, cold water can be one heck of a teacher, kind of like the professor who, by making a monkey out of you, teaches you some of your most important lessons...
Cold-water winter trout act a lot like miniature early-season steelhead. They'll seek out deep, slow pools with darker bottoms that absorb sunlight and warm the water slightly over surrounding areas. Subtle differences in water temps between one pool and the next often mean the difference between consistent action, and a long, cold day; so it pays to have that thermometer along, just as in steelheading.
Since you are often restricted to artificials only, selecting small, natural-colored and lifelike patterns with plenty of built-in action, and perhaps a little flash, tends to get the job done. Careful line control is important because winter trout, like early steelhead, are no fans of unnatural movement. It becomes a game of controlling drag and keeping that fly in the strike zone. With fly line this means mending to reduce drag. With mono, correct weight and little to no slack to keep the fly moving along at current speed (or as close as you can get it), is just as important with trout as it is with steelhead. I read a great analogy explaining the effects of line drag on bait and flies the other day: Ordinarily you sit down, and that enticing double-bacon and cheese burger just sits there inviting you to pick it up off the plate and eat it. Now say you sit down and suddenly the burger goes mobile and starts heading for the edge of the table all on it's own... That's the same kind of thing that happens in front of a steelhead or trout when you don't have good line control, and drag starts acting on your rig. I'd be suspicious as heck too; well, maybe not for triple-bacon.
And so part of the trick once you find some potentially willing trout or steelhead, is keeping your whole rig as lifelike as possible. Cold water trout and steelhead are creatures of metabolism. Holding in fast, cold water costs far more energy to get food compared to leisurely finning in a slow cold pool. The problem for the angler is that a trout or steelhead can scrutinize your offering more closely and for a longer time, deciding whether it's food or not, simply because it's drifting along very slowly. Make one mistake and it's all over. I've watched both steelhead and trout follow a fly for several yards before deciding it was bunk.This is one of the reasons why bait: spawn, waxies and even worms, very often out-produce flies in cold water; it looks, feels, smells and ultimately tastes like food which means they'll hang onto it.
Flies on the other hand, even when your presentation is dead-on, don't pass the taste test. I've similarly watched trout and steelhead mouth flies, then spit them out so quickly there wasn't time to set the hook. But this is where careful observation can make you a better steelheader. Fish that mouth flies often have a tell: keeping track of your fly and watching for mouth flash or a quick roll, then setting the hook frequently results in a hookup, even if your line never moves, stops or indicator doesn't twitch, which in many cases never happens in cold water steelheading - darn that slack. Mouth flash is simply looking for that flash of white as a fish opens it's mouth to suck in a fly. You're literally seeing the inside of the mouth very briefly. When a fish rolls slightly to its side to grab something near the bottom, you'll typically see a brief brighter flash as the more silvery side of the fish is exposed.
Yarn on the other hand is one of those wonderful in-betweens. Basically it's an imitation of a single egg or group of eggs (skein), and when wet, takes on a translucent quality. It actually looks very natural in the water, and if scented, smells like food. The edge yarn has over any fly is that steelhead and trout have lots of teeth in their gums and on their tongue. When sucked in, it tends to stick in these teeth just long enough for you to notice the take and set the hook.This is one of the reasons yarn is such a good cold water producer, and should be part of any North Shore steelheader's bag of tricks.
Going to steelhead school in the winter couldn't be easier, but it does take some effort and can be very rewarding. There are numerous streams open during the SE Minnesota winter season, and the adventurous angler has other options available such as NE Iowa. You can start your explorations anywhere the season is open, but winter Minnesota destinations to keep in mind if you've never done it before would be Lanesboro, Elba and also Dorchester Iowa. Never fly fished before?, no problem... You can fish artificials very effectively with mono, and learning the technique will really help your steelheading once those water temps hit that magic 40 range and you want to expand your steelheading repertoire.
So get out there and enjoy, there's a whole world of cold water steelheading in miniature to be found, and you may just be surprised at what you can learn - from a trout.