Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio: Best Baits, Methods, And More

An angler winter steelhead fishing Ohio river

The key to winter steelhead fishing Ohio is knowing how to fish in the winter and how to dress to stay warm. Learn what methods, baits, and flies the guides use for winter steelhead fishing Ohio as well as where and when to fish and how winter steelhead behavior affects your success.

Winter steelhead fishing Ohio is best done on the larger rivers on warmer days using small baits fished slowly. Winter steelhead fishing in Ohio is also best later in the day once the sun has stabilized water temps or warms the river a bit.

There are many guides and good anglers catching steelhead in the winter while others stay home, and these guides and anglers often know something others don’t. As a guide myself I love guiding in the winter because this is often some of the best fishing of the year.

Let’s find out why.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio Means Solitude

Some of my best winter days fishing or guiding for steelhead have been on days when there’s not another footprint in the snow or another car in the parking lot. These days I have the entire river to myself and that means I have all the steelhead to myself too.

Unlike spring steelhead fishing, or fall steelhead fishing in Ohio, in general, during the winter you’ll find less pressure on the Ohio steelhead tributaries. In my opinion, this is good news as there is less competition on the river, which in turn translates to a good steelhead fishing experience if you know how to fish for winter steelhead.

Often, steelhead that have entered the river in the fall and spread out or moved far up the rivers will concentrate in the bigger deeper pools during the winter. They become less active and feed selectively but they do feed and there are times when they feed more.

With less angler pressure this means these steelhead are there just waiting for a well-presented bait.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio Means Fishing The Bigger Rivers

The larger Ohio tributaries such as Chagrin River, Rocky River, Grand River, Vermilion River, and Conneaut Creek are good choices for winter steelhead fishing. Some will stay ice-free longer but they all have bigger pools that will hold steelhead.

Sometimes these rivers will have small sporadic runs of steelhead that will move into the river in the middle of the winter.

Some steelhead that went up small tributaries under high water or went as far up the headwaters of these rivers will drop back down to the bigger sections of the river to winter over.

Both of these types of migrations provide fishing opportunities for winter steelhead anglers.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio Through The Winter Months

An angler with a nice winter Steelhead

It takes a hard-core steelheader who understands the behavior of steelhead in winter to be out there fishing and catching these amazing large rainbows. Many times river guides and experienced anglers have more succes winter steelhead fishing Ohio simply because they understand the season and the fish.

Ultimately, if you are able to adapt and adjust to fishing methods and tactics particular to winter steelhead, you are going to catch more winter steelhead.

Start Of Winter Steelhead Fishing

Winter steelhead fishing Ohio begins in December and continues through early March and is generally characterized by icy cold water and plunging temperatures.

During the early days of this season which often start in early December, the water’s temperature drops under 44°F, and as a result, the steelheads behavior and migrations will change.

Most steelhead will start to gradually transition into slower and deep waters (some late-movers may still remain in faster runs). At this time, they will still take on any bait or lure that comes their way but only when the conditions are best.

Later in December and into January, as the temperature of the water further drops to about 34 to 38°F and ice starts to form on the edges of the river, this signals the beginning of a dramatic slow in steelhead activity.

At this point, a presentation or a bait that would previously trigger a bite from a steelhead might now seem like casting practice to fishless waters. This is when anglers need to slow down their presentation, use different baits, or sizes and colors of baits, and start fishing in different spots.

This is when you can expect to find the steelhead in the slowest, deepest pools, and particularly in the middle and tail-out of the pools.

As much as winter is characterized by cold weather and declining temperatures, there are also intervals of stable and rising temperatures which anglers should know about and take advantage of.

These intervals are usually the peak times for Winter steelhead fishing Ohio. During these times, steelhead are usually more active and feeding as their bodies have adapted to the daily temperature changes.

These intervals of stable or rising temperatures are usually experienced during the late hours of the morning through early afternoon hours (between 11 am and 2 pm). By this time, the winter sun has had a chance to slightly raise the water temperature to either a stable or warmed up state.

Knowing when to fish and how to fish is key to winter steelhead fishing anywhere around the great lakes region and I discuss this on my page Winter Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics Of Expert Guides.

This is also when you really need to start dressing properly to keep you warm and dry. If you have ever wondered how river guides and experienced anglers fish all day in ice-cold water I discuss this below.

Mid Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio

There comes a time during most winters when the rivers will freeze solid and the steelhead season is finished. This often occurs in January and February. During this time which can last weeks or over a month anglers might be able to fish during short breaks in the freezing temps.

These warm spells might open up some sections of rivers for a day or two or maybe a week. These warm spells in January and February have often been some of my most productive days and there’s rarely another angler on the river.

The steelhead will often become more active during these warm spells and since they have had zero fishing pressure they are eager to bite.

Late Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio

The end of winter often occurs in late February or early March.

As the end of winter approaches, there is an upsurge in water temperature, signaling the coming of spring. At this time, you can gradually expect regular steelhead fishing on the various Lake Erie tributaries in Ohio.

You will see winter hold-ver steelhead becoming active and new runs of late winter steelhead entering the rivers with higher river flows.

Best Methods For Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio

There are a number of methods and tactics that I use for winter steelhead fishing Ohio that makes me more consistent at catching steelhead even in weather that so many anglers have given up on.

These methods, together with the right tactics and baits can be the difference between a successful trip and a disappointing steelhead trip. Let’s briefly take a look at a few of them.

Lure Fishing For Winter Steelhead

I have been lure fishing for steelhead over the years, and I must say that this method can be effective even in the winter. In general, this steelhead fishing method is quite easy, you simply cast your lures across the current and slowly retrieve, but during the winter you need to change your tactics.

During cold winter weather, fishing lures involves a very slow presentation of downsized lures with erratic retrieves. The best lures for me during the spring and fall are spinners, plugs, spoons, and jigs, but during the winter lures like Kwickfish, and Flatfish are by far the more effective.

For more on how to effectively take advantage of lures for winter steelhead fishing or any time of the year, as well as the most effective lures, you can check out my page on Lure Fishing For Steelhead: Best Lures, Guide Tips and Tactice.

Float Fishing For Winter Steelhead

Float fishing is very popular amongst Steelhead anglers in Ohio because it is a very effective method and it could be the most effective method for fishing winter steelhead.

This method of fishing is effective for both aggressive and neutral steelhead and it works very well in the slower deeper water that the steelhead hold in all winter.

As long as you have the right bait which I will discuss below, and you control your speed and work your float through the drift, you are going to be more effective.

If you want to learn more about how to effectively float fish, the best leader setup, and the right gear and floats, you should check out my page Float Fishing For Steelhead.

Fly Fishing Winter Steelhead In Ohio

When it’s freezing out, you might not think fly fishing is the method for steelhead fishing, however, most steelhead guides in Ohio are fly anglers and they fish with fly rods all winter.

With fly fishing, you can make slow presentations and drift egg patterns, small nymphs, and minnow imitations below an indicator.

You can also slowly swing flies through the pools using the Spey fishing system that our Ohio Spey fishing guide and expert Gareth discusses in his article Winter Spey Fishing For Steelhead: Tips And Tactics Used By Guides.

Either way, Fly fishing is a very common and effective way for winter steelhead fishing in Ohio.

For more on this great method, check out my page Winter Fly Fishing: Flies, Tips, And Tactics.

Dressing for Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio

Every experienced angler knows that as important as the best steelhead fishing methods, techniques, baits, and presentation are, so is what they wear.

We have already discussed that winter predominantly consists of cold weather. However, cold days, weeks, and months don’t have to be uncomfortable if you are dressed properly. 

When you are prepared for this weather condition, it will go a long way to help you focus better on your fishing. If you are not correctly dressed, you will get cold; consequently, your experience will be not so nice.

The secret to staying warm when winter steelhead fishing Ohio rivers is the best layering and the right fishing gear.

From the base layer to the outer layers, you want to make sure you have the best and most suitable gear for ice cold water and air temps. This includes the best winter-specific gear for your hands, legs, and feet to stay warm.

For more specifics and details on how to stay warm, you can check out my page on Fishing in the Winter: Stay Warm With These Guide tips.

Best Bait and Flies for Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio

Your choice of bait when winter steelhead fishing Ohio is very important. The best baits are often the smaller and downsized ones. Spawn sacs, small worms, beads, and flies make up some of the most effective winter baits.

Bait color can be critical as well. I recommend that you experiment with different colors to discover what’s best based on the current conditions, but in general, smaller natural colors for egg baits, like white, peach, light yellow, or light pink will work best in the winter.

Both pink, red, and natural brown plastic worms can be effective. I discuss in detail my favorite steelhead baits on my page Best Steelhead Bait.

Flies are not left out for those interested in fly fishing. In fact, one of my best baits during winter is flies.

Artificial steelhead flies mimic aquatic insects, which are the most abundant food source during winter steelhead fishing. Flies can also be egg patterns and minnows. These are what the guides use. You can also check out my favorite flies on my page Best Flies for Steelhead.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Ohio Q&A

I hope you enjoyed the article on winter steelhead fishing Ohio and got enough good information to help you out on your next winter fishing trip.

If you have any questions, comments, or tips, let us and our readers know in the comments sections below.

Tight Lines,

Graham

Author

  • Graham - River Guide / Instructor

    I am a full-time river fishing guide with over 20 years of guiding experience and I run one of the top river guide services with a team of great river guides. I have guided about 3000 anglers and this website is a compilation of the tips and methods that I teach my clients and other guides. Check the About Us page in the bottom menu for more about me and our river guide contributors.

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