Cold Water Steelheading with a Trout Mentality

Photo Credit Benjamin Jose
One sure way to improve your early-season steelheading chops is to do a little winter trout fishing. There’s nothing quite like getting a thorough beat-down prior to the steelhead season to make you pay attention to fundamentals. Given the right conditions, a winter butt-kicking can actually be quite enjoyable, and keeps you tuned and ready to go for when the big migratory rainbows once again enter North Shore Tributaries.

First up on the order of business is deciding where to go. Southeast Minnesota is an option, but if you’re looking to get out before the regular Catch and Release opener which doesn’t occur in Minnesota until January, you have other options.

Fortunately for me, Northeastern Iowa isn’t all that much farther away than my favorite SE Minnesota streams. Plus, I can fish any time from the Minnesota September closer all the way through until March. Sometimes conditions are just a bit better south of the border with more moderate stream temps due to spring-fed activity and slightly warmer air temps, not to mention the chance of exploring some new water.

With Minnesota trout closed in December, we decided to head for Iowa. Snow, slick roads and 15-20 mile-per-hour winds blowing directly on-shore up on Gitchee put the brakes on a North Shore trip.

The stream we fished isn’t really necessary to know, all one needs to do is hit the Iowa DNR Website, scroll down, find a stream or two, print out the maps and you’re in business.

Winter trout have quite a bit in common with steelhead as they are both creatures of metabolism. When the water is really cold, they will utilize slower areas of the stream more heavily as it takes much less energy to hold in pools, pockets and seams while allowing food to come to them. That doesn’t mean you won’t find them in faster water, but targeting these other areas first maximizes hookup potential.
Typical Winter Holding Water
The next piece of the puzzle is your approach. Don’t just go charging up to the next likely pool or run, approach carefully from downstream, and scan the water as soon as you are able. Look for fish before you leap, you may have to actually circle back downstream a bit, especially if you didn’t realize that tail-out where all the fish are holding is further down (and closer to you) than it looked. Cold water is typically clear water; there’s nothing worse than getting pegged from 40 feet away and not realizing that every fish in a pool or run is now hunkered down with lock-jaw, or already 100 yards upstream heading for safer pastures until it is too late.

Get low. This applies to any kind of fishing where you can see the fish, but is particularly relevant to trout and steelhead any time they are in the streams. Steelhead and trout see up and out of the water in a 360-degree cone, but there are limitations. I’ll skip all of the light-refraction physics involved, but they are essentially “blind” to anything outside the cone. The rough rule of thumb is that you gain 3 feet in height (from the ground) of blind zone for every 18 feet of distance you are from your fish. For example, a 4-foot tall angler standing 36 feet away from a fish holding in a stream could do jumping-jacks and the fish probably would not see this. But don’t try that either! They may not see it, but all that thumping on the ground will be picked up via their lateral line and they will still boogie. Take the same scenario, but use a just-under 6 foot tall angler. At 36 feet, the taller angler can still stand there observing fish and not be seen, but as soon as he or she raised their arms straight over their heads and penetrated the cone at 6 feet above the ground, the fish sees a couple of disembodied arms waving around and heads for the next county.
Staying Low
As you get closer, you have to scrunch down below the cone so as not to be seen. At 18 feet from the fish, you need to be “hiding” in the blind spot, which at 18 feet away is roughly only 3 feet from the ground to the bottom of the vision cone and what a fish can see. Don’t forget to factor bank-height into this, if you are on a high bank, you need to get low further away from the fish. If you’re a total dork like myself and prefer working out the physics, stay below a ten-degree angle at any fixed distance from the fish and you’ll have mastered invisibility. At least to the fish, I tried this once on my spouse to get out of vacuuming, it doesn’t work and you look really stupid crouching motionless in the middle of the living room.

As was previously mentioned, don’t stomp. Fish have lateral lines and anglers clomping around up and down the stream get the same results from the fish as being spotted, “Buh-bye!”

About Gear and Presentations:

Everyone goes through a process or evolution as anglers, and not everyone progresses at the same rate. Some have such a great time doing one thing they say the hell with graduation. Some master one technique and move on, but keep using previously acquired gear and techniques whenever the situation dictates. Others continue on in their angling evolution until you don’t even realize what they are doing is fishing. I ran into a guy once on the upper Brule who was wearing nothing but rainbow suspenders and tighty-whities made out of puff-ball fungus. No rod of any kind in sight, but darned if that guy wasn’t catching fish. He’d just sort of stand there knee-deep in the run, meditating, and the fish would jump right into his arms; sublime… Point is, we at Minnesota Steelheader don’t care where you are at in your journey: support the fishery, respect the fish and your fellow anglers, and it all works out in the end. There are however a couple things to remember about cold water:
  • It’s cold: The fish will utilize slower areas of the stream, look for those: Pools, Pockets and Seams. Remember too that the current speed at the bottom will be moving slower than what things appear to be doing on the surface. You may have a depression or pocket in the stream bed below fast moving water, and the fish may just be hiding there.
  • It’s usually clear: From a presentation standpoint, this ordinarily means using longer, lighter leaders and/or tippet material. It doesn’t fundamentally matter whether you are spinning, pinning, flying or plunking, but using longer, lighter leaders/tippet does. If it’s ridiculously low and clear, and you’re down to 2lb. test, frog hair, or a string of oxygen atoms with a size 32 midge bonded to the end through willpower alone, remember that using a longer rod will allow you to fish much lighter. Longer rods help take strain off the business-end of your rig, and you can catch some ridiculously large fish on ridiculously light terminal line. A 10’ rod sounds stupid in some circles, but it’s a good starting point for clear and cold. It’s also far less likely the fish will see your line because you can get stupid light.
  • It’s cold and clear: Trout and steelhead holding in slow, clear water have a loooooooong time to scrutinize whatever it is you are throwing at them. I’ve watched both trout and steelhead break from a lane and lazily follow a fly for 10-15 feet, only to turn their noses up at last second and reject my offering as bogus. Whatever you show the fish in these conditions, it has to look like food. Better yet if it also smells like food. Some days it’s just best if it really is food. A good rule of thumb on the North Shore seems to be watching for “Magic 40”. Below 40 degrees, bait or scented yarn really produces well. Above 40 degrees, flies really shine. Again, we don’t particularly care which side of the “Tastes Great!”, “Less Filling!” debate you are personally on, we’ve just made the Magic 40 observation through many years of hard-won experience and catch-logging. Since for this particular trip we were fly-fishing, running through the nymph box was the order of the day. Turns out that size 14 and 16 caddis pupa with a gray body were the ticket. Most cold-water days, you just have to experiment a lot: size, color and shape. Adding scent is up to you.

Other considerations:

On this day, I started out with 3 feet of 2lb. tippet, a small caddis fly and nothing else. I was fishing the gut of a pool and only had one missed fish to show for an hours-worth of labor. Ordinarily I’m watching my leader loop and using it as a strike indicator. Basically this is just a piece of highly-visible 25lb. red amnesia shooting line nail-knotted to the end of the fly line, and finished with a perfection loop. Any hesitation, twitch or odd motion of the loop gets a hook-set, just as in steelheading. Problem was I was getting nothing out of it despite knowing there were fish in the pool. So, I switched to a tiny Palsa indicator and a bead-head caddis, and that made all the difference.
A Rainbow Duped by the Caddis

Sure there are fish that will hammer the business-end in cold water making your loop/line stop, race up, down or sideways, but most of the fish I hooked took the fly with an almost imperceptible sip. The Palsa indicator would just do one all-but invisible “plip”, and that would be it, no movement of the line whatsoever.
One of several Brown Trout
The same can be true while steelheading in cold water. If you know there are fish in, make all the other normal adjustments to shot weight, leader length and leader/tippet weight first. If you’re already fishing long, light, small and smelly, but not getting results with a bobber for instance, try downsizing the bobber. Or indicator. Or keeping a tighter line. Whatever you do, watch your rig like a hawk and set that hook on anything that is out of the ordinary in the way of line movement.     

In the end, the greatest gift winter trout fishing imparts is confidence. If you can sneak up on winter trout in skinny, clear and cold conditions, then read the water, figure out what they want and fool them into biting, you’ve gone a long way towards ensuring your next early steelhead trip will be successful. But unless you’re a Zen-Fishing master, I don’t recommend winter fishing in only puffball undies and rainbow suspenders. Try working your way up…

Regards and All the Best in 2016-

Minnesota Steelheader


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