Although sight casting to any fish in general is relatively the same, winter steelhead offer even more challenges than most. Anyone who has winter steelhead fished much knows that the climate and water conditions are very unstable, and this reflects directly on the attitude of the fish you are targeting. When temps warm up into the mid 40’s and the water levels aren’t too high or too low, winter steelhead can light up like Peter Townsends pinball wizard. They can turn and swim downstream 20 feet chasing a fly that is whipping across a riffle. They can attack a dry fly like a summer run steelhead swallowing a bucket of water while trying to get there mouth around your fly.
Conditions like this are far from typical of winter steelheading so lets focus on conditions that are a lot more prevalent. Lets focus on the worst possible cold snap, when you clamor through 2 feet of snow to get to the rivers edge. Days where you are the only one crazy enough to even consider heading to the river.
The first thing about winter steelhead is that although they are much more accustomed to cold temps than there preppy, socialite cousins “the summer run” they still hate extreme cold water. When temps sink as low as 33-36 degrees these normally aggressive fish who are usually as drawn to a fly as a Kardashian to a paparazzi become very lethargic.
Winter steelhead in these conditions will begin to act funny. They will move into shallow, slow to dead water and dig there nose right into the gravel. They will lie in water you couldn’t imagine getting a fly to, and if you did, you would never entice a strike. So does this mean when it gets really cold, the fishing is hopeless? Not quite, but it means you will have to hunt much harder, and cover a lot more water than you normally do. Focus on shallower glides with less current and dark bottoms. Fish tend to move away from overhanging trees and lay in slow shallow water in hopes to gain a decimal of a degree in temp.
Normally in these conditions the water will be fairly low and clear which gives the advantage of sighting fish. In the winter the sun is typically very low in the sky, and it does not provide adequate light to see into much water from the beach. On a gravel bar I first walk the beach looking into the shallows for fish that are very close to shore. Than I make a second pass wading about knee deep searching the water for shadows. Walk very slow, and any shadow you see stop, and stare waiting for smooth patches of water called windows to drift by. Look for the tail, and the shadow on the bottom of the river which are usually dead giveaways to confirm a fishy looking shape. Many times you won’t know 100% that you are about to cast to a fish, in fact it may be a rock, but as you gain experience most of the time it will end up being a fish.
When you find a fish in an extremely slow and shallow piece of water there are precautions you must take to give yourself the best chance at success. Make sure you switch your tip to a floating line or intermediate. These fish will be extremely easy to spook. Secondly go with a small pattern. I have had the best luck with bead headed nymphs, small woolly buggers, or egg imitations. You need to stock the fish and make sure the first time they see your fly it is being properly presented. Avoid the short roll cast to gain line where the fish sees your fly, or making any disturbance on the surface.
Fish will rarely move more than 2 inches in conditions like this. Mend and feed to ensure your fly ticks along the bottom before you swing it out. By being extra selective about the water you fish, focusing on shallow, slow currents, you can cover twice as much water as you normally would. By doing this you increase your chances to find that one fish cold water be damned, will nail your properly presented fly and make your day.