Winter Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics Of Expert Guides

Winter Steelhead Fishing

It’s Mid-November and it’s starting to snow and my guides and I are on the verge of some great winter steelhead fishing. Winter steelhead fishing can be tough for many anglers but you want to start catching winter steelhead consistently then these are my guide tips and tactics that I use to keep my clients catching steelhead all winter.

Winter steelhead fishing starts when the water temperatures get close to freezing and the air temperatures are close or below freezing most days. Winter steelhead fishing means cold hands, cold feet, ice in the rod guides, and it’s also when the steelhead can get harder to catch for many anglers.

Anglers that continue to use methods that work in the spring and fall start to struggle when the water temperatures get close to the freezing mark because they don’t understand winter steelhead. I will discuss the things you need to know about steelhead fishing in the winter.

Winter Steelhead Fishing

While many anglers are struggling in the winter, many steelhead guides around the great lakes region are enjoying winter fishing for steelhead. Winter is a great time to be on the water because there are fewer anglers on the river and there’s often more and bigger steelhead in the river.

For me, the winter is also when my clients are having the most 15 to 20+ fish days.

It’s possible to catch lots of steelhead all winter by understanding the fish itself which includes migration and holding patterns, and how temperatures affect steelhead.

It’s also critical to know what methods to use, what baits work for steelhead in the winter, and use the setups that we have proven to catch steelhead anywhere around the great lakes region during the winter.

In Northern USA and Canada, especially around the great lakes region, winter steelhead fishing starts around the first of December when the edges of the rivers start to freeze and some mornings you will wake up to snow on the ground.

Winter fishing for steelhead goes until about the end of February which is often when the snow starts melting and the big spring steelhead runs start. During this cold water period, it’s time to change tactics.

Can You Fish For Steelhead In The Winter?

You can fish for steelhead in the winter as long as the fishing rules and regulations in your area permit you to legally fish for steelhead in the winter, and also if the river is not frozen solid.

Fishing guides like me will use different methods, different baits, and we have a different approach to fishing for steelhead in the winter than we do in the fall or spring. With these simple adjustments, we can keep our clients catching good numbers of steelhead even in the coldest months.

I will cover all of that in this article.

Do Steelhead Bite In the Winter

Steelhead fishing in the winter
One of my clients fighting one of over 40 steelhead that he landed with me on this day.

I have met anglers that tell me that steelhead won’t bite when it gets too cold or when it gets below a certain water temperature so they just stop fishing for steelhead in the winter.

These anglers just don’t understand steelhead. They don’t understand how temperatures affect the steelhead and how that will affect where the steelhead will hold or what and when they will eat. Not understanding these things means many anglers miss out on some of the best steelhead fishing of the year.

Temperature And Winter Steelhead Fishing

Very cold water temperatures can affect steelhead negatively but that doesn’t mean they won’t bite.

I’ve heard anglers say that 40F water temps are too cold to fish for steelhead, or that 37F is when the steelhead will stop biting, or you can’t swing flies in water that is below 45F temperature because the fish won’t chase a fly at that water temperature… Bla, bla, bla, if I stopped fishing every time some know-it-all told me it was too cold for steelhead to bite I would have missed out on thousands of steelhead.

I can catch just as many steelhead in 38F water temps as I could in 54F water temps, especially under the right conditions and with the right tactics. You just need to understand this one thing about water temperatures.

I was out early one morning in mid-November and I said to my client that “the air temperatures dropped below freezing last night and the water is too cold now so the steelhead won’t be very active until later in the day”. I’ve said this many times in November and throughout the winter months.

About 30 minutes later I was telling him a story about how in the middle of January I had a two-day guide trip where my client landed 72 steelhead out of over 100 hooked during those 2 days, and then the day after that, another client landed over 30 steelhead.

He said to me, “isn’t the water colder in January than it is now, why did you catch so many steelhead then but you say we can’t catch them now because it’s too cold?”. He also asked, “what temperature is too cold for steelhead?”

I told him that was two great questions, and that yes, the water was much colder in January and February than it was that morning in mid-November.

What I explained to him was that I believe it’s not the actual water temperature that matters and there’s no magic number or rule that says 38F is bad and that 45 F is good.

When it comes to water temperature and steelhead fishing in the winter, what matters is whether the water temperature is stable, or is going up, or is going down. That is why 38f one day can be great and 38f another day can be bad. 38f and rising from 36f is good, 38f and dropping from 40f is bad.

If it was 50F the day before but drops to 45F overnight the fish will become lethargic and slow their feeding. However, if it was 36F in the morning but the temperature of the water warms to 38F the steelhead can become active and the fishing can become fantastic.

In a nutshell, dropping water temps are often bad news when steelhead fishing in the winter, but stable water temperatures can be good, and warming temperature in the winter can be great. The actual temperature number is often irrelevant. You see, steelhead are cold blooded so when the temps drop, so does their activity level.

When the water temps are stable the steelhead can be active and feeding because their bodies have acclimatized to that temperature.

When the water temps increase even by 1 or 2 degrees they can become even more active. I also think everything in the food chain from the aquatic insects to the minnows to the predatory fish can become more active when the water warms and that triggers feeding for the steelhead.

Because I’ll often do 50 to 100 guide trips for steelhead a year from November to the end of March, I have seen how rising and dropping temperatures affect steelhead feeding behavior over a thousand times now. This is why I think there is no magic temperature and that steelhead will feed when the water is a few degrees over the freezing mark.

And it’s not just for steelhead, it’s the same for trout and bass, and other river species as well.

GUIDE TIP: Slush on the water is an indication that the river is getting colder and is starting to freeze and this is often not a good time to fish. But if later in the day you notice that the slush is less or has disappeared the river is warming and the steelhead can start to become active.

Best Time Of Day For Winter Steelhead Fishing

When I guide for steelhead in October I might start around 7 am, but when I guide for steelhead in November, I’m often meeting the guys around 8 am or 8:30 am, and when I guide from December to Early March I often like to start at 9:30 am or 10 am, and I do this for a reason.

My observation after guiding and fishing during the winter for the last 37+ years is that during the coldest month of the year, the best time of day to fish for winter steelhead is between 11 am and 2 pm. This is when the sun is highest and when the sun has had a chance to either stabilize the water temps (stopped it from dropping) or has warmed up the river a degree or two and that gets the steelhead active.

Remember those guys I told you about that say they stop fishing in the winter because the steelhead won’t bite? Those are the guys that get up early in the morning because they think the best steelhead fishing is early and based on what I just told you, that is often when the steelhead are least active, so it makes sense that those guys rarely catch any steelhead in the winter.

Guide Tip: Sunny days can often be the best days to fish for winter steelhead.

I love it when I get to a spot at 9 am in the middle of December and I see 20 cars parked there, and by noon there are only 3 cars left and the fishing is now great. All the other guys leave by 10 or 11 am because the fishing sucked earlier in the morning because it was just too cold for the steelhead, but by noon I often have the entire river to myself with a bunch of steelhead that are now active and feeding.

GUIDE TIP: If you are going to winter fish for steelhead and you want to catch the most fish possible, sleep in and start fishing later in the morning.

Where Steelhead Hold During The Winter

My guides and I will sometimes fish for steelhead 30+ days straight. We also fish 25 to 30 days a month from late September to late December, or until the rivers freezes, so we get to see how the steelhead transition from one area of a river to another as the water temperatures change throughout the season.

I’ll even get to a 100-foot long pool and point to a spot and tell my clients, that is where I catch most of the steelhead in October, and then point 3or 40 feet down the river and say that is where I catch most steelhead in November, and then point further down the river and say during the winter I catch all the steelhead there.

I discuss the best spots for steelhead fishing during the fall on my page Fall Steelhead Fishing.

Let’s discuss the dynamics of a pool.

Winter fishing spots for streelhead
Steelhead will hold in different parts of a pool and where they will be will depend on the time of year, migratory patterns, temperature, and light.

Early in October, I catch 90% of the steelhead in the top part or head of the pool and in faster shallow water rapids and pockets because the steelhead at this time of year are on the move in the warmer water.

Later in December, January and February when the water is very cold and in the mid 30’s, 90 percent of the steelhead I catch are in the deepest or slowest parts of the bigger pools and that is often the middle of the pool or the tail out or back of the pool.

Fact: Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 Celcius but I have done well in water temps that are 36 and above or when warming.

I often see guys fish a pool and they pull their bait out before it gets all the way to the very end of the pool and they miss fish because of it.

They also don’t fish the tail out very well because they have their bait set deep enough for the middle of the pool which might be 7 feet deep, so their bait is dragging below the fish’s head and out of sight in the shallower tail-out section that might only be 4 or 5 feet deep, and that results in missing potential steelhead that could be caught.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Tactics

Now that you understand water temperatures and where steelhead hold in cold water, let’s talk about the tactics that I and other river guides will use to keep catching steelhead in the winter. These tactics can mean the difference between hooking many steelhead or hooking none, or if you are lucky just a few.

There are 4 ways to fish for winter steelhead that can be effective.

Lure Fishing For Winter Steelhead

Anglers can lure fish for steelhead and I have found that if you slow your presentation down and if you downsize your lure size, that some of the more aggressive steelhead will chase and bite your lure.

If the river is very cold and the water temperatures are getting colder it’s unlikely that steelhead will be aggressive enough to chase a lure. This is a tough time to fish with lures and you are likely going to catch nothing, however, if lure fishing is your thing and you want to throw lures anyways, this is when slowing it down, and using erratic retrieves might work.

I discuss some of my tactics that I use to get the steelhead to bite more on my Best Lures For Steelhead page. There are also some lures that work much better when the water temperatures are colder and the steelhead are less aggressive.

Learn more about the best lures for steelhead and how I fish them on my page Best Steelhead Lures

Lure fishing is not one of the most effective methods for catching steelhead in the winter but it can sure be fun.

Float Fishing For Winter Steelhead

Float fishing is probably the most effective method to use when winter fishing for steelhead. With float fishing, you can slow your presentation down and target both the neutral and the more aggressive steelhead.

To learn more about how to float fish effectively including my leader set up, the right floats, gear, and how to float fish better, and gear check out my page Float Fishing For Steelhead – A River Guides Advice.

Fly Fishing For Winter Steelhead

Fly fishing is another method that anglers use to fish for steelhead in the winter and it’s often my favorite method. The downside to fly fishing for steelhead in the winter is cold wet hands.

Stripping in the fly line makes your hands wet and this can become a problem with fingers that are so cold they hurt.

Aside from this, fly fishing for steelhead in the winter can be effective and there are things that I do that prevent my hands from getting wet and cold.

You can see how and what I use to fly fish for steelhead in the winter on my page Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Tactics and Tips

Bottom Bouncing For Winter Steelhead / Drift Fishing

Bottom Bouncing is another method that can be very effective when fishing for steelhead in the winter. It is similar or also known to some anglers as Drift Fishing.

When Bottom Bouncing, you simply cast your bait out with no float and some weights on the line, and then you let your bait drift and bounce along the bottom as you wait for a bite.

I tend to use bottom bouncing in shallower water but it can be effective in any moving water up to about 10 feet deep.

If you like to drift fish or bottom bounce and what to see my methods and leader set up for that check my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

Downsize For Winter Steelhead

When winter steelhead fishing, I find the water is often lower and clearer than at other times of the year so I tend to downsize my leader setup and my bait at this time of year.

If I normally use a 10lb line for the strong hard pulling steelhead that I would fish for during warmer fall water temps, the wintertime is when I will drop down to an 8lb or even a 6-pound leader. I find the steelhead are more sluggish at this time and the lighter leader is all you need, plus they won’t see the leader in the extra clear water.

If you float fish, you can see my leader setups for shallow, deep, and normal water flows on my page 5 Most Effective Float Fishing Leader Setups Used By Pro River Guides.

Best Bait For Winter Steelhead – What To Use In Cold Water

Best Bait For Winter Steelhead

Something else I will do when I am steelhead fishing in the winter is to downsize or change my baits. Big intrusive baits will often be ignored and smaller baits can often be better.

Knowing which baits and sizes to use will make a big difference.

Spawn Bags For Winter Steelhead

Spawn Bags For Winter Steelhead
Often, the best spawn sacs in the winter are dime size or smaller.

While many anglers are using the same size spawn bags in the same colors as they did in the fall I’m often using smaller bags and the colors that can work best for me are white, peach, light pink, and even blue.

When I say color, I am referring to the color of the spawn mesh or netting that I use to make my egg sacs.

The spawn bags that I use in the winter are closer to dime size sacs, especially if the water is gin clear. Dime size means 6 or 7 trout eggs or 3 or 4 salmon eggs per spawn sac. To see my tips on fishing with eggs, check my page Spawn Bags – Guide Secrets For More Fish.

Worms For Winter Steelhead

Worms For Winter Steelhead
Small 2.5 inch plastic worms like the one on the bottom can be great when winter steelhead fishing.

You would think that fishing for steelhead with worms would be a springtime bait, but the honest truth is that I fish with small plastic worms all winter long and they work great for steelhead even in the coldest water.

I will use the standard 3 to 4-inch plastic pink, red and brown steelhead worms all winter, but when the water is really cold my secret bait that I have done very well with is the smaller 1″ to 2.5-inch plastic worms.

My go-to tiny winter steelhead worms are:

  • 2.5″ Mad River Trout Worms ( Bubblegum pink, red, earthworm and Methalonite colors) – Check Price Now
  • 1″ Berkley Gulp! Alive! Angleworm Micro Baits ( natural and red wiggler colors) Check Price Now

Fishing with worms can be great at any time of the year and I discuss the best worms and how I rig and fish them on my page Fishing With Worms For Trout and Steelhead: 10 Guide Tips.

Beads For Winter Steelhead Fishing

Winter bead fishing for steelhead
6mm and 8mm beads are best and bead colors like white, peach, light pink, and light orange can be fantastic in the winter.

One of the hottest baits for fishing for winter steelhead is 6mm and 8mm trout beads. These beads look like single salmon or trout eggs and they come in many colors.

When fishing for steelhead in the winter I like to use light-colored beads because the loose salmon eggs from the fall that drift down with the current will be yellowish or white at this time of year.

Bead colors like white, peach, light pink, and light orange can be fantastic colors in the winter.

You can use beads in both soft beads or hard beads and there are a variety of brands that I have found to be effective. There are also plastic beads and glass beads and I discuss all the bead options and which ones work best on my page Fishing With Beads. I also discuss the best setups and the advantages and disadvantages of soft and hard beads.

Single Eggs Are Deadly For Steelhead In The Winter

Single eggs are just that, 1 salmon egg on a hook. Single eggs are small and can be one of the best baits when winter steelhead fishing, It’s not uncommon to see one of my guides catching a lot of steelhead on single eggs when other anglers around them aren’t catching anything.

But you can’t just use any salmon egg since salmon eggs that are not cured for the purpose of being used as a single egg won’t work. They just pop when you stick a hook through them.

Singles salmon eggs like Mike’s King Deluxe Salmon Eggs or the Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Salmon Eggs work great for single egg fishing for steelhead.

Also, you need the right hook for these single eggs. A size 14 Raven Specimen hook, or a size 14 Daiichi Salmon Egg Hook are good choices for single eggs.

You can see my favorite steelhead hooks on my page Best Hooks For Float Fishing.

There are other baits that I use for steelhead throughout the year and you can check them out on my page Best Steelhead Baits.

Winter Steelhead Flies

Winter steelhead flies
Small size 12 and 14 flies are great for winter steelhead fishing

I’ve mentioned this on other pages and I talk about this all the time when I’m guiding, artificial flies are excellent for steelhead. But in the winter flies can often be my best bait.

The reason for this is that during the winter, often the only abundant natural food source for steelhead that are holding in the river is aquatic insects. Around the great lakes region, it’s not uncommon to have micro hatches of small insects like the tiny winter black stonefly.

The tiny winter stonefly is a great fly pattern for winter steelhead fishing. You can see my most effective winter fly patterns on my page Best Flies For Winter Steelhead.

The other reason that flies work well and why I like to use them so much in the winter is that the steelhead sitting in a pool all winter see spawn bag after span bag go by over and over again, day after day, and I believe that the steelhead will actually be turned off of roe bags and avoid them.

This is the reason why, when I get to a pool that has had a bunch of spawn bag guys fishing I will always run a fly or another bait first, and I will often catch fish that the spawn guys miss.

Float Fishing Or Drift Fishing With Flies

You do not need to actually fly fish to use flies for steelhead. I will use flies when bottom bouncing, drift fishing and when float fishing with good success.

You can see how I use them when float fishing for steelhead on my page Float Fishing With Flies: Expert Advice

Use These Methods That Pro River Guides Use To Stay Warm And Dry

Fishing for steelhead in the winter
Fishing for steelhead in the winter means I am often out in some nasty cold weather but if you know how to dress like I do you can stay warm and dry all day. My Boat and my client in a snowstorm.

Imagine standing outside, sometimes up to your waist in below freezing air temperatures every day for 30 days straight. I and other guides have done this and we have had to learn how to not freeze.

So how do we keep warm and dry and what do we tell our clients to help them also stay as warm and dry as possible?

Layering and using the right gear is the key to keeping yourself warm but there are some other tricks that work great.

I discuss all of my best winter fishing gear and the tips and tricks that I use to spend days guiding in freezing water while fishing for steelhead in the winter all on my page Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips.

Got A Question About Winter Steelhead Fishing

I hope you liked the article on winter steelhead fishing and that it gives you some intel on how to catch more winter steelhead. If you have a tip, an idea, or question about fishing for winter steelhead, let me and other readers know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,

Graham

3 Comments

  1. I would like to book a trip I live close to cincinnati Ohio Not sure where your located and what’s available ASAP

    1. Hi Mike, Although I have fished most of the rivers in northeast Ohio I do not guide that area. You should consider contacting the guys at Steelhead Alley Outfitters. Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *