Winter Steelheading

Lake effect squall
Winter can be the most challenging time of the year. Frigid winds, cold, ice, slush and bone chilling water will test even the hardiest steelheader. But it's the individual who is willing to subject themselves to those bitter elements are the ones that find success. When the cold weather hits, the number of people on the rivers drop and the winter steelheader can find spots with relative ease, even on the Rocky. The weather isn't for the faint of heart and the majority of anglers often wait for spring. I relish the winter months and I remember past trips of driving out east in squalls that swallowed the truck in front of me, walking through the woods blazing a trail in 3' of fresh snow, and chattering like a crazed chipmunk after standing in bone chilling water for hours- all for a fish. I've seen people walking along trails in the metro park and staring at me standing in the cold water, shaking their heads. For them, it goes beyond their understanding and I tell them it's a steelheader thing.

Braving the elements
The biggest foe for the winter steelheader is slush and ice. Slush also known as anchor ice will generally form in rivers during periods of extreme cold. Due to the motion of the water, ice cover may not form consistently, and the water will quickly reach its freezing point due to mixing and contact with the atmosphere. Ice platelets generally form very quickly in the water column and on submerged objects once conditions are optimal. Once this happens fishing can be difficult if not impossible. If there is enough space between blobs of slush then a successful drift can be done albeit short. If the river is choked in it, you'll be lucky to drop a bowling ball through it. Over the years, I've learned if the temperatures overnight are in the teens - stay in bed and wait until it warms up. If the sun is out, generally the slush will burn off by afternoon. Many times, I've drove through the metro park in the morning and watched guys trying in vain to fish only to watch their float land on top of a slush or get consumed by a large slush blob.

Side ice can also pose a problem as the best wintering holes can be covered over. Usually the fish will hide under the ice making it difficult to coax them out or drift right along the shelf. If the ice isn't thick, simply busting it up into sections and pushing it out will open up some water. For the angler looking to fish on side ice, they are playing a deadly game of chance. River ice is usually 15 percent weaker than pond or lake ice because underlying currents below can make it thinner then it appears. In the past, I did it a couple of times because I was desperate to catch fish, but I never felt comfortable doing it. Since then, I've stop doing because losing my life wasn't worth it. There is no such thing as 100% safe ice.

Waiting for the slush to burn off

Clothing can make your day enjoyable or down right miserable. I like to dress light because I often walk a lot. Even though it can be cold, I can break out in a sweat. For me nothing beats fleece because of wicking ability and retaining heat. For a typical winter outing, I wear a Under Armour base 2.0 crew shirt and leggings, Polartec 200 fleece pants and jacket, and polypropylene and wool socks. All of these provide warmth while keeping me dry. The only I will not wear are gloves when I'm fishing. I find gloves cumbersome and they are usually relegated in the back of my jacket and I only use them when walking from spot to spot. The most important piece to will make day enjoyable or a living hell are waders. There is no worst feeling when you your feet start getting wet due to leaks. Once your feet are wet, your screwed. After an hour the pain starts getting worse and after a while its intolerable. I've experienced a couple of times and it's not fun when the day has to be cut short because your feet are killing you.

Just like humans, fish react to the cold the same way- they don't like to move if they can help it. Since fish are cold blooded they prefer to seek out areas that don't have to expend a lot of energy to fight the current. Prime spots include tailouts, large deep pools, and any structure such as bridge supports, dams, downed trees, large rocks that deflect the current. But, I have seen steelhead leap out of the water when the water temperature was 34F and the air temperature was in the 20s. I had some fish fight like water logged boot and others rip off line. Despite cold water, there have been times when we've hit fish in big numbers in certain spots, you would of though it was October. These fish never cease to amaze me.

Winter Steelhead falling for a white sac
When comes to presentations I like to go big and bright. When your cold and lazy, you need something big and tasty to spark your interest. In past winters, the top bait for me was a large emerald shiner. Not the ones used for perch, I'm talking about the 4" to 5" monsters. Unfortunately the VHS ban and demise of old Pete's bait shop pretty well eliminated my supply of those shiners. To replace them, I had to switch to either the gulp minnows or jigs. But I still prefer to use sacs and they've never failed me. Over the years, I've noticed that cured eggs seem to work better then uncured eggs. I suspect that the scent of cured eggs are more noticeable in colder water and it seems to "wake up" the fish from their winter slumber. Trotting the float is another key for success as it helps give the fish more time to decide whether they want it or not. 

Winter steelheading can be fun if you dress according and stay warm. The crowds in some places are non existent and you can enjoy the solitude while taking in the snow covered trees, large icicles on the cliffs and green water provides beautiful scenery. 

Geico Caveman Steelheading

Ice on the guides is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to winter steelheading. After a couple of drifts the line struggles to go through the guides and the end result is the float stalls and the reel keeps spinning and there is a pile of line in the water. The line has to be reeled in and the rod taken apart and the ice removed. After 2 or 3 drifts repeat the same process. Over and over and after a while is starts getting old. The other thing to do is whack your rod in the water to remove the ice. The problem is when your cranky, you whack a little harder. It was a chilly morning on the Vermilion, when I started fishing and the ice started to get on my nerves because it was only a couple degrees below freezing. Being lazy, I whacked the rod pretty hard and eventually I whacked a little to hard, more like a "hulk is mad" whack. To my horror I watched the tip of my G Loomis GLX slowly go down the line and a volley of curse words followed. The GLX was suppose to be caveman proof. Over the years it endured being dropped on rocks, pile drived into the ground, floats hitting it, cracking it against trees and whacking it in the water to remove ice. Maybe the years of a false sense of security finally caught up to me. It was only nine in the morning and I wasn't going to call it a day because the tip broke. Disgusted that I couldn't control my temper, I had to make use with what I had a - 12'5" rod.

The Vermilion for once actually looked good - slightly stained, not the typical coffee with a cup of creamer added. The only reason I fished the V was the streams out east to still too high due to snowmelt. Since the Vermilion is the farthest west and generally not considered a part of the snowbelt, what ever little snow was long gone and barely effected the flow. With the nicer weather and closer proximity to Cleveland's suburbs, I knew the Rock would be a bustling place. 

It was a mixture of males, females and skippers. I heard yesterday the fishing was better and I took it a lot of walking and banging away to get into the double digits. The fish were hanging in their typical winter haunts - tailouts,  flats along the cliffs and deep pools. I didn't find the pods of the fish but it was enough to sooth my disappointment of breaking my rod. Even though there were plenty of people, there was enough spots to fish without nobody really bothering you.

Tonight I must crafted my a large beaver accidentally hooked himself and quickly dove to escape and the tip of rod broke excuse and mail my broken piece of manhood in the hopes I get a new one free of charge. For the time being, I must use the Raven rod I have stowed away in the basement as my backup. The rod can also serve as a pole vault, whenever I feel the need to jump over streams. Compared to the Loomis rod the Raven will feel like a telephone pole. Might need to stock up on BenGay.

Another Year In The Books

What fish will kill me first?
 2011 has finally come to an end and instead of ushering in a new year of happiness and the hopes of prosperity, I'm bitching that the Grand is blown again. But, that's the life of a hardcore steelheader. Nearly every week the rain conveniently falls on a Thursday or Friday and I'll have wait yet another week to get on the big river. With this latest bout of rain, I'm sure a lot of the steelheaders were glad they had the day off to nurse the hangover.

Collapse of the Gates Mills Dam 
Now the year in review. This past fall and early winter has been a hell of a lot better than last year. We experienced drought like conditions last fall and none of the rivers really got a good blowout. Due the low water conditions, I'm sure the fish got fed up and decided to pack their bags looking for other rivers. The fishing was terrible as double digits days were few and far between. A lot of steelheaders were happy to land one or two fish. Then the "freeze" came and it took everybody by surprise. It was early December when everything along the Alley locked up. But that happens when the rivers are low - they freeze over quick. I was forced to fish the Hoga with dismal success, the power plant was even worse. I was losing it as the month of March was upon us. The only good note was the Gates Mills dam finally succumbing to father time and Mother Nature's wrath. It opened new water for the steelheaders and I was eager to add some new water under my belt.

Rainy April = Ditch Fishing
 The rivers were finally ice free, but the fish were still not in big numbers. We waited patiently, but Mother Nature wasn't finished torturing us. The month of April turned out to be the wettest on record. The Rock had it's 2nd worst flood in recorded history and changed a lot of sections. The constant rain threw in a major monkey wrench as I was forced to fish ditches and I wasn't terribly happy with the results. I threw in the towel about mid April was it was evident we got a lousy run and hoped the following fall would be better.

September Steel 
 We crossed our fingers and prayed to the fish gods. September I caught my first fish of the new season. Instead of bone dry conditions, we received plenty of rain that brought fish in. For the first time I purchased a PA licence and put aside my indifference towards PA steelheading. October was an outstanding month on the Elk and Conneaut. The double digits days were plenty and nobody was grousing about the lack of fish. As the season progressed we still received more rain that kept the flows nice and high. Once again the PA licence came in handy as we fished the Elk numerous times as the Ohio streams were still too high to fish. The number of fish in the Elk started to drop during the later weeks of November and it was evident that their run was coming to an end. In Ohio, ours was starting to rev up and the darling of the alley was the much maligned Rocky that got a good push of fish. Because of the good numbers of fish and some big ones thrown in, I hastily made changes in my I don't fish the Rock decree. It was still fishing good well into December as I witnessed and caught some huge fish. The other rivers out east didn't fare as well for obvious reasons.

The Elk saves the day
The Grand could never come down to fishable levels because of the rain. The window to fish it was very brief. I haven't fished it since early November. The Conneaut usually the best bet during the fall was very spotty, with the exception of a couple money holes I know, the fishing was tough but I did catch a respectable number of fish. The Chagrin, which I haven't fish yet has been off and on. The Vermilion, a river that ranks lowers than some ditches I fished only once and caught three fish in conditions even though considered low had the same consistency has my cup of coffee in the morning - heavy with a lot of cream.

 With that said, I hope a Happy New Year to my fellow brother steelheaders. Let's hope we have a mild winter and a fantastic spring to wrap up the season. More adventures to come.