The key to winter steelhead fishing in Ohio is knowing how to target winter steelhead and how to dress to stay warm.
You also need to use the best methods, baits, and flies that the guides use to catch winter steelhead in Ohio.
It’s also good to know where and when to fish and how winter steelhead behavior affects your success.
Winter steelhead is best done on the larger rivers on warmer days using small baits fished slowly. The steelhead fishing is also best later in the day once the sun has stabilized water temps or warms the river a bit.
Let’s find out why.
Solitude When Winter Steelhead Fishing In Ohio
Some of my best days of fishing and guiding for steelhead have been in the winter, especially 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 and fall fishing, 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.
With less angler pressure, 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.
Steelhead Fishing Ohio Through The Winter Months
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 success when winter steelhead fishing in Ohio rivers 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 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 starts 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 deeper 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 in 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.
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 Ohio Steelhead Fishing
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 Ohio Steelhead Fishing
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.
Don’t Use Braided Lines in Winter
Instead, go with a mono line for float fishing and other methods, or use Fluorocarbon line for lures and drift fishing. FYI fluorocarbon line is not good for float fishing.
Best Methods For Winter Steelhead
There are a number of methods and tactics that I use to to consistently catch Ohio winter 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 involve 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.
When lure fishing in the winter, I like to use fluorocarbon lines with a lighter 14 to 24-inch fluorocarbon leader of 10 pounds.
For more information 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 will 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 will 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. There are a lot of great flies for Pennsylvania steelhead that guides and anglers find very effective.
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 method for winter steelhead.
For more on this great method, check out my page, Winter Fly Fishing: Flies, Tips, And Tactics.
Dressing for Winter Steelhead Fishing
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 the weather conditions, 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 on 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 Ohio’s Winter Steelhead
Your choice of bait is even more important when fishing in the winter. 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 my favorite steelhead baits in detail.
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 and are often the fly patterns the guides use on most winter days.