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Cold Water Steelhead Techniques
By Rick Stahl

It has been said of winter steelheading with a fly rod, that one can achieve the same effects and have nearly the same results by standing in a bucket of ice water in your back yard casting heroically. Sometimes it may seem so, believe me I’ve had my droughts, but I would like to shed some light on the topic of cold water steelhead that may help a few fly chuckers turn the table. 

When I’m speaking of “cold water” I mean water temperatures that are below 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water temps reach this stage a steelheads metabolism reaches an almost dormant stage. Fish will still proceed up river, however the going will get slower. 

Many cold days I have fruitlessly pounded the water only to have a drift fisherman come in behind me and pull out a fish. This can be frustrating but we can learn from what just happened. 

When a drift fisherman presents an offering to a steely his presentation is most often swimming with a dead drift. This style of presentation allows the fish to have a good long look at his offering and often means that the steelhead hardly has to move to eat his lure. 

On the other hand most fly fishers utilize the swing and step presentation. This involves using a heavy sink tip, to keep the fly close to the bottom, casting slightly downstream, mending and holding tension on the line as it swings across the current. This is similar to the way a spoon and spin fisher covers water. The down side to this technique, during cold water states, is that the fish will have to move some distance to eat the fly and will have to make up its mind quickly if it is going to do so. Steelhead in cold water do not react well to this, however, it is the most exciting way to intercept winter runs in that the bite is often a good “tug” and lurches the fisherman out of a usually subdued state. 

I will use the swing and step presentation when I notice a rise in the rivers temperature of three degrees or more or any time it reaches over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want to fish this technique in colder water concentrate your efforts to slower moving water, as the fly will swim slower, and tail outs, as the fish found there are more often than not on the move and will be a little more active. 

Nymphing is a far more effective way to chase winter steelies as you can mimic the presentation of a drift fisherman and give the fish more time to make up its mind to eat your hook. There are two basic techniques used when nymphing; high sticking and indicator fishing. 

High sticking is usually utilized when fishing pocket water or shorter runs where the fish will sit at your feet. This technique is quite simple in that it requires only a floating line and heavily weighted fly. Simply place yourself slightly up stream of where you believe a fish to be. Next cast far enough up river to allow the fly to sink to the fishes depth, raise the rod as the fly swim towards you, to pick up the slack, and then drop the rod tip and feed out line as the fly drifts downstream of you. Try to apply enough pressure to the line so you can a feel a fish pick up the fly but not enough to drag the fly. Also do not try and fish too much water with each drift, instead move often and fish the water in front of you as effectively as possible. 

The hard wear used by the indicator fisher resembles a drift fisher’s gear in that the angler is utilizing a small float or indicator and a couple of split shot. The split shot does not have to be to far from the fly, 18 to 24 inches is the norm. Apply enough splits to sink your offering to the bottom and use a large enough strike indicator so as not to get dragged under by the weight of the split shot. Adjust the length of leader between the splits and the indicator so as to keep the fly just off the bottom taking into consideration current speed and water depths. 

Look for water that has an even flow close to you and possibly a quicker current further out. The softer, even flowing water allows one to have more control of the drift as it gets further away and the seam created by the faster water will concentrate fish in a local area. Almost every decent steelhead run has a seam or an area where slower water and faster water meets, it may be an obvious line created by an obstruction or it could be a wide transition area that may not be as obvious. Spending as much time in these “seams” separates the consistent fisher from others. 

The presentation is quite simple. Cast your contraption slightly upstream and make a large upstream mend immediately. Allow the strike indicator to float along drag free making mends as needed to keep things drifting naturally. When you fly floats by your position and begins to drag start-feeding line into your drift. This allows your fly the most time in front of any awaiting steelhead. Comb the water at your feet first and then start making drifts further out until all the water with in your reach is covered. Take enough steps down stream so that you are covering new water and begin the process again.

When nymphing for steelhead one usually fishes “blocks” of water. This differs in the swing technique in that instead of taking a step after every cast you fish a block of water often making more than a half a dozen casts before moving on. 

If there is one thing you remember out of all of this its that steelhead are cold blooded animals, their body temperature is dictated by the water temperature around them. This effects the winter fly fisher in that even though the water is cold, if it bumps even a degree or two, fish feel quite a bit warmer and are more likely to bight or chase a fly. Therefore it is a good idea to take water temperature readings every time you go out, then if you show up on a particular day and the water temps are up you can fish a little longer or a little harder or at least with a little more confidence. Tight Lines
 
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