Winter Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania

An angler winter steelhead fishing Pennsylvania

There are some benefits to winter steelhead fishing Pennsylvania that guides and veteran anglers know. The prepared and knowledgeable angler will do well, but this means understanding the fish and their winter patterns, and knowing how to stay comfortable in the cold.

Winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania can be very good with lots of uncrowded waters and plenty of steelhead just waiting for something to eat. Some of the biggest steelhead are in the rivers in the winter and they will continue to eat under the right conditions and right methods.

The angler that understands when, where, and how to winter fish will do well. Those that don’t will struggle to catch fish. I love guiding for steelhead in the winter and so do many guides. These winter tactics for winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania will improve your success.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania

steelhead fishing with lures

Although challenging, winter fishing for steelhead in the Pennsylvania tributaries offers some of the best steelhead fishing of the year.

You may already know that steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania can be fantastic and rival other great areas of North America.

But, most anglers stop fishing when the weather gets too cold. Partly because some anglers just don’t like the cold, but more often it’s because they find it difficult to catch steelhead at this time of year.

The problem is that they keep using the same tactics that worked for them when in the fall when the water was 20 degrees warmer. Guess what, that doesn’t always work.

Winter Steelhead Are Different

Ohio Winter steelhead Fishing

In winter, the steelhead feeding, holding, and movement patterns are much different.

You need to change when the steelhead change, if you do you can keep catching them.

The winter season provides steelheaders with great steelhead fishing opportunities and is when some of the biggest steelhead can be caught. But, water temperatures are coldest in low light conditions and since steelhead are cold-blooded this cold water shuts them down.

Guys that fish early in the mornings will struggle because this is when the water is coldest. The steelhead will get more active on warmer sunny days, and the water is warmest between 11 am and 3 pm. Anglers that fish during this time will do much better.

Nothing matches the thrill and satisfaction of landing chromers in the midst of the winter cold and icy temperatures. But where the steelhead were in the fall is not where they will be holding in the winter.

When the water is icy cold, the steelhead will be in the deepest part of the bigger pools or at the tail-out of pools where the water is slower. It will be rare to find them in smaller shallower pools, rapids, or pocket water. Fish deep, and fish slow.

It is true that steelhead are lethargic, inactive, and less apt to bite, particularly during extreme conditions of this season, however, fishing can still be good throughout the winter.

Anglers need to adapt and fish smaller baits and fish them slower because steelhead won’t be as aggressive and won’t chase a bait or lure as readily as they would in early fall or late spring.

My game plan in winter is small, natural baits, fished slow, and to be consistent and persistent. You may need to make lots of casts in the same area before they grab your baits and you may need to offer them a bunch of different baits.

Winter fishing is characterized by less pressure on the PA tributaries, and therefore less competition on the river which should mean more fish. This is one reason why I love guiding and fishing through the winter season, it usually translates to a good steelhead fishing experience.

However, you need to use multiple baits, most guys use one or two baits, usually spawn sacs, and that’s it. I will discuss the baits below.

I have seen some professional and experienced anglers who have had successful steelhead fishing in winter. My clients and I have experienced some of the best steelhead fishing during the winter season but as a guide, I will rotate through bait size, bait colors, and bait types and I will do this over and over until I find something they want.

If you want more fish, you need to adapt to a different type of steelhead. All you need is the knowledge of how winter PA steelies behave, and to adjust your fishing methods and techniques accordingly. 

Pennsylvania Steelhead Fishing Through The Winter Months

Winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania usually begins mid-December through to March with water temperatures dropping under 40°F. I tell clients that when I start to see ice forming at the edge of the river, it’s winter steelhead fishing tactics.

As this happens, the steelhead become inactive, and gradually transitions into slow and deep waters. You may still find some late-movers in the faster runs especially if there was a recent rain, but this is not the norm.

Even though the river is ice cold, anglers can still be lucky to experience a steelhead bite on lures and swung flies.

Winter spey fishing for steelhead
Winter Spey fishing for steelhead requires patience, the right tactics, and the right gear. There are often lots of steelhead holding over in the river and few anglers around.

There’s a further drop in temperatures to between 35-38° which is usually in January and early February, and steelhead activity becomes dramatically slow and feeding windows are reduced.

At this point, many of the rivers will be frozen solid, and even in areas with open water, it will be very difficult for them to take on any form of presentation.

There are often mild periods and thaws at this time and the rivers might open for a few days. This is when I pay particular attention to the noon time bite and try to fish on full sun days and milder days, and also focus all my efforts on the slowest, deepest pools of the PA Steelhead Rivers.

Temperature Is Key To Good Steelhead Fishing

Spey Fishing For Winter steelhead

Dropping water temps suck, rising temps are good, stable temps are a maybe.

Remember this, and winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania might get more manageable for you.

Since I guide in the winter months and have been fishing for steelhead during the winter for over 36 years, I think I’ve figured out water temps.

I’ve fished in slush and even stood in the river dodging ice chunks of ice so big they would move a car.

Although the typical and prevalent temperatures during winter are icy and plunging, there is a window of opportunity where the water temps are stable or stepped up a few degrees which is when steelhead activity will increase.

This window comes with the rising sun, usually from the late hours of the morning through to the early hours of noon, that is, between 11 am and 2 pm. During these times (as steelhead adapts to this temperature change), steelhead return to their active feeding. But there is a but to this…

GUIDE TIP: Regardless of the time of day or temperatures, fishing in such is always bad.

Warm air and sun might make you think the river water is going to warm up, but it can also melt the snow and ice and all that ice-cold melting water enters the rivers and can actually make the water colder.

For this reason, predicting water temps and fish feeding windows based on air temps won’t always work. However, you won’t know until you try.

However sunny days with air temps just above or just below freezing are often best. These periods are usually the peak times for winter fishing Pennsylvania steelhead.

It is important that anglers are able to recognize these periods and employ appropriate steelhead fishing methods in order to enjoy successful winter steelhead fishing.

Best Methods for Winter Fishing Pennsylvania Steelhead

An Angler Steelhead Fishing PA Rivers in winter

Anglers can catch Pennsylvania winter steelhead in a variety of ways, with some methods being more effective than others depending on the conditions of the river.

The right methods can be the difference between a successful or a disappointing winter PA steelhead fishing day. 

Float Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

Float fishing has over the years been a popular and probably the most effective method to use when winter fishing for steelhead anywhere, and without a doubt, it’s great in Pennsylvania rivers.

Float fishing allows you to slow your presentation down and thus effectively target both the aggressive and neutral steelhead. Slow and deep is the key to catching more steelhead.

Successful float fishing at any time of the year, but more so in the winter requires four fundamentals such as covering the water well, using the right setup, speed control, and depth control.

If you would like to float fish for winter steelhead, you can learn more about how to effectively do so, including the right floats, my gear, and leader set up by checking out my page Float Fishing For Steelhead – A River Guides Advice.

Fly Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

Fly fishing for winter steelhead can be challenging for a whole lot of anglers but it can also be one of the more effective and rewarding ways to land some big winter steelhead.

As the name suggests, fly fishing revolves around flies. There are a number of ways to go about this and you can check out my favorite choice of flies on my page  21 Best Flies For Pennsylvania Steelhead.

In the winter, small nymphs and egg patterns can be deadly on steelhead, especially if they are still being pressured with lots o spawn sacs.

However, with the wrong presentation and method, even the best fly can be useless. This obviously boils down to presentation and is one of the major things I teach my clients and students on any guide trip.

If you want to consistently have success with steelhead fly fishing, check out my page Fly Fishing For PA Steelhead.

Best Baits and Flies for Winter Fishing Pennsylvania Steelhead

Rainbow trout baits

There are a number of baits and flies that can be used for winter fishing Pennsylvania steelhead.

Knowing the right bait to use, whether in terms of size or color can go a long way to make a significant difference.

Personally, I like to downsize or change my bait a lot. I have observed that steelhead often ignore big intrusive baits and are likely to take on smaller baits.

Generally, I recommend to my students to try as many different baits as possible, in terms of colors and sizes. This will enable you to determine any effective patterns for the winter Pennsylvania steelhead.

If you are interested in knowing all the baits that I like to use during my steelhead fishing trips, you can check them out on my page Best Steelhead Baits.

Dressing for Winter Fishing Pennsylvania Steelhead

Fishing Trout In The Winter Can Be Good
Fishing for trout in the winter can be good if you fish at the right times of day and use the right methods and bait.

Preparing for winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania is not just about having the correct gear, such as rods, line, and even flies, and so on.

It also largely depends on having the correct outerwear and clothes.

The cold days, weeks, and months can be very uncomfortable without the proper dressing.

This is often the toughest part of the whole experience for many anglers but river guides are standing in fridge water and air temps all day every day and they do so easily because they know how to dress properly.

Knowing that the tributary banks are likely to be extremely icy and slippery, it is very important that you get the proper footwear with good traction. Cleats are almost a must-have. Even slip-on cleats are a good idea.

As for your hands, you’ll always be holding onto a cold reel and rod, and sometimes putting them into ice-cold water when picking up your steelhead; therefore you need really good gloves.

To generally keep warm when fishing in this season, make sure you use the proper base layer and outer layers. I can’t stress this enough as it is so important to keep your core warm. A warm core can actually keep your hands and feet warmer.

It is also important you take care of your equipment. It is quite frustrating to be in the middle of your steelhead fishing during the winter only to find the guides of your rod icing up.

I recommend coating the guides with Stanley ice off-paste before any winter fishing outing to help with reducing the icing. 

I discuss a lot more guide tips on what to wear to keep you as warm as possible from your head down to your toes when winter fishing PA steelhead, no matter how cold it gets, see Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania Q&A

That sums up this article on winter steelhead fishing Pennsylvania, just be sure you check the fishing regulations before you fish. If you have any questions, comments, or advice you would like to share, let us know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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