True Winter Steelheaders, Question for you... [Archive] - Fly Fishing Forum

: True Winter Steelheaders, Question for you...

Scott K
10-06-2003, 01:26 AM
My questions are for Steelheaders who fish the winter monthes for True Winter Steelhead (Dec-Feb).

Have you ever fished the whole season on variety of water bodies using ONLY the floating line, long leader, and a weighted fly? What is your feeling on limiting yourself to this set up? Do you think with a properly weighted fly and right leader length you are in the game as well as say someone using 15 plus feet of leadcore or equivilent tips and non/slightly weighted flies?
If you have done this, do you feel you've faired as well as you should have if you had gone to tips?


10-06-2003, 03:06 AM
I haven't done it. I don't use floating lines in winter. I don't even fly fish exclusively in winter. By fly fishing, you're limiting yourself to what water you can effectively fish. By fishing with only a floating line, you're limiting yourself to even less water.

10-06-2003, 05:55 AM
I flyfish only for steelhead, knowing it's not the most effective but satisfied with the fair number of fish I hook and land just the same.

Although I have thought of using the McMillan techniques, I have become so accustomed to the deep swung fly in winter on tips that I have given it much more than a half-hearted attempt in the softest seams where I knew fish lay, particularly in the lower Green River (King Co.) which was minutes from my house. I wish I had given it more of a try... not for purism, but because in those soft lower river seams it's probably much more effective than dragging a tip across the fish's lie. The more I think about it, one could definitely succeed with that method given enough persistence and in many cases would do better than with a tip.

On the Beginner Hole on the Kalama where hundreds of salmon lay waiting for rain the #1 method is dry line, long leader and small dark fly. A tip is a recipe for a skunking.

Certainly such pools in winter when the bulk of the winter run is in the river would be fished effectively with this technique IMHO.

10-06-2003, 09:23 AM
I don't have a chance to do a lot of winter steelheading but you mentioned the McMillian technique. I've heard this drifting technique mentioned before but really don't know how it's done. Could you or anyone else elaborate on it and how it's preformed.


10-06-2003, 10:16 AM

As I understand it, Bill McMillan used a floater, a long leader and a heavy hooked fly (such as his Winter's Hope) to dead drift for winter steelhead. The technique was simply an across or across and up cast followed by upstream mends and slipping line to allow the fly to sink to the lower column. As Juro mentioned, it lends itself to soft seam holding water.

I have used it only on a couple of occasions without major results but can see where in certain water conditions, it would be deadly. I do believe though that you are limiting yourself overall when compared with using a sunk fly swing and tips.

10-06-2003, 10:43 AM
Just for clarification please..... The hook itself provides the weight on this method right?? no lead added to the fly.... no barbells etc... just a 2x heavy relatively sparsley tied fly....?

10-06-2003, 10:56 AM
I have a friend that does practice the method throughout the winter months- The technique is not as effective as tips. Under most circumstances tips will outproduce for winter fish.

The deep wet fly swing probably gets you down to about the level of a type III. Careful editing of the water, line control skills far beyond any tip presentation, and finally fly design (they don't have to be weighted) are the requirements. You also need the confidence to stick it out and accept reduced odds.


It is a deep wet fly swing. Not dead drifting. McMillan did dead drift the Paint Brush (and stone nymph), but, his preferred method is controlled mends (to gain depth) and leading the fly on the swing. To this day he still fishes the floater, with a two hander, on his new home river.

10-06-2003, 11:47 AM
Fishing the Paint Brush or similar: simple dead drift .. cast up and across, stack mend a few times then fish the drift watching the tip of the line for a strike..

fishing the Winters Hope or similar..

Cast across or up and across, throw stack mends fish as a dead drift then fish the swing leading the fly across as slowly as possible. mending will only jerk the fly to the surface All the mending must be done before the fly starts to swing.

Flies that are tied and fished properly with this presentation will sink faster than about any type 3 or type 6 sink tip but the fly will rise through the column as it swings. The whole key is finding the right kind of water to fish this method.

The problem with December- Feb is not water temps not water height.. The problem with the early winter season is the reletively few wild steelhead available as compared to Feb- April... Wild fish make ALL the differnce..

10-06-2003, 01:07 PM
I agree with pretty much all that has been said above. I don't care for the "paint brush" methods, that is nymphing nothing more, nothing less. If I can't get a fish to take a swung fly, then I can't get a fish to take.

But water temperatures are a problem. I usually fish the floating line in winter in low water consditins and there is typically a window when the water is approaching base flow levels before it gets too cold where the fish can be responsive. I see water temps here down to the freezing mark, but these are really difficult to get fish to move. And these are all native fish. In really low water a heavy hook with a sparse dressing is all that is necessary to get down enough while in slightly higher water a comet may work better.

To answer the question: I have never done this for a whole winter and furthermore, doubt I ever would. Tips are definitely a more productive way to fish.


10-06-2003, 02:32 PM
I use this method on small winter streams (10'-15' wide) where the fish lie in small enough buckets to make swinging impractical. Quite frankly, the mending gets tiresome, so I prefer a sink tip on bigger waters.

10-06-2003, 03:48 PM
My bad on the dead drift. If Bill was swinging it on a floater, then more power to him. I would not expect great results but hey, this was never a numbers game.

10-06-2003, 04:25 PM
But a fellow that I fish with used a dryline and swung the fly( not nymphing) for two years. Although he only fished the OP in December through early February he never had a single grab other than a few Dolly Vardens. He did however get several Sauk Skagit fish in March and April. One actually came from the Baker Pool fishing behind the guy who has caught more fish than anyone else, who was fishing a sinktip! The fellow was reported to have commented "You know if I had been fishing a floater I would have got that fish" . There is a point there, but I guess I don't quite get it.
I fish all winter and I find very few places that I want to fish that I have need for something other than a swung fly and a sinktip. But there have been a very few spots that lent thereselves to swinging a sparse fly on a big hook with a dry line. I always have the dry tip in my wallet just in case I run into one of those spots.

10-06-2003, 05:48 PM
I have not fished a floating line in winter despite always having the floating tip in my line wallet. I detest casting weighted flies or flies tied on very heavy hooks with spey casts because of the way they leave the water when spey casting. Also, I want my fly to be higher in the water than my sinktip to greatly lessen the possibility of lining fish or hanging up the fly on the bottom.

I fish all winter with various sink rate sinktips and unweighted flies. I can see where the floating line, heavy fly technique would work in eddies; but this is a water type that I usually pass by when steelheading in the winter.

10-06-2003, 06:28 PM
debth is the ' key' to dry lining in the winter.

The upper Rogue (being dam controlled) gives you a lot of opportunities to use a dry line year round. At normal water conditions the Chetco does the same.

I only use tips if I have to during the winter, heavier rods/flys during the winter, and more restrictive on where you can 'succesfully fish.' But worth the restrictions.


10-06-2003, 08:17 PM
I have used a floating line in some of the smaller rivers, The Green in King county is a very good river to use a nymph style of fishing in the winter. I used glow bugs and a shimp imataion, occasionally a large black Stone fly. I also fished some runs on the Puyallup this way. Dead drifting with a strike indicator. The Only time this seemed to be effecive was CLEAR water conditions.


10-10-2003, 12:43 PM
searching for biters,searching,hmmm,so many dynamics to the winter thing,,Roderick Langemere Haig Brown,wrote in one of his books about the air temp;warmer than the water,have seen winter fish feeding on midge like,smolts,as fred A stated the Rogue has a lot of opportunities for dry line work but a popular thing is to use the otis bug to get down,actually was broken to the method with a 5 wt,sure wish i had a film of that!!!,guide strapped an indicater on that was as big as a golf ball,made from strike paste,two otis' then a prince,Hoo Haa,Hmmmm,biter's,,searching,,,s,,,,,

10-10-2003, 02:20 PM
Comments about methods aside, the secret to winter steelhead fishing is simply fishing. If you don't put in the time, don't expect the rewards.

Low and slow, big and bold, soft seams and shadows all have their place but nothing is a substitute for time on the water.

10-10-2003, 07:08 PM
You get no hookups if your fly isn't in the water. Isn't that a law of fishing, like Newton's laws of gravitation?

10-10-2003, 07:17 PM
Sinktip while i agree 100% I think a person is wasting their time trying fot Chambers creek fish during Nov- Jan. It's my experience it doesn't matter how many hours you put in they won't move for a fly but as soon wild fish come around.. Watch out it's just a matter of time as you said...

10-10-2003, 10:56 PM

I respectfully disagree with you on hathery winter runs in Washington State. Agreed, wild fish are better biters and I hook 3 or 4 wild winter fish for every hatchery winter fish. However, some of the reason for this is that I like to fish away from the hathery holding pools; thus, there will be a better chance for wild fish day in and day out.

I've had wonderful days were I've hooked 3 or 4 hatchery fish in a morning or an evening. And this was in December and January on both OP and PS rivers.

10-10-2003, 10:59 PM
nor does it have to be big and bold....

10-10-2003, 11:05 PM
Originally posted by loco_alto
nor does it have to be big and bold.... long as it is pink!! :hehe:

10-11-2003, 12:07 AM
ultimately `if they're there' as we should be:D

10-11-2003, 09:50 AM
Just a few words about the Lake Ontario tribs.... probably we fish in colder conditions, but here is my take after doing it for 3 years...
in snow, and in VERY cold conditions.

First off, WATER temperature is important... at 33 degrees and colder, fish are VERY lethargic and don't move much. They prefer the gut of the pool, tailouts, places where there is not much effort required to hold and survive. They WILL still hit, but won't travel very far, and drifted nymphs (such as stone flies, small wooly buggers, etc.) are the fly of choice. Late afternoon to dusk seems to be the best time to fish, and why not? The water SHOULD have warmed up, even very slightly, and they seem to go into a little more activity.

As water temps. warm up to 35 and above, fish activity comes alive slowly. 35 to 40 makes 'em more aggressive, and leech or spey patterns of appropriate size work well.

Water temps of 40 to 44 really seems to be the ideal range for activity, but above that it gets to be hit or miss. Why? I don't know. Only the steelies know for sure.

Now, we have to consider barometer. I read somewhere that barometric pressure during the winter at 30.00" to 30.2" seems to be ideal. I just got into the habit of checking the TV weather for pressure, and guess what? My success rate went up whenever it was right around there. Seems to work!

In my limited experience, travelling fish seem to have travelling and not feeding on their mind. Resting fish seem to offer the best opportunity for being interested in hitting.

As it stands, I won't go fishing anymore when air temps are below 15 degrees. I just got tired of trying to cope with ice-coated waders, iced up guides, frozen fingers, nose and ears, and just plain being uncomfortable. Call me chicken, but when the temps drop to "zero" and below, I'd rather tie flies, have the fireplace going, and sip some single-malt. Sorry 'bout that!

BobK :smokin:

10-11-2003, 01:30 PM

There is no doubt that the midwest steelheaders get the worst of the cold. Most of the PNW winter-run fishing is done in temps you might consider balmy (30s) and water temps rarely drop below 36. Of course we have rain, wind, rain, occasional snow and rain to deal with from time to time. I actually love fishing in the snow. One of the percs for working for a school systaem is when we get the rare snow dump and schools close, I am river bound.


I agree with you that Chamber's Creek fish are nowhere near the biters that wild fish are but they do bite and I would never call fishing for them or for that matter fishing a barren river a waste of time. Hatchery fish success can be sporatic as Flytyer mentions but there is just enough to keep you coming back.

Doktor T
10-12-2003, 10:48 AM
I always bring both floating and sink tips, and light and heavy flys. I match the gear to the water conditions, whether summer or winter, lake, stream or salt. In one hole the fish can be holding across the current in 4 feet of water and in the next hole they are nearby in 10 feet of water. It might take me 3 minutes to switch gear for conditions as found. I make adjustments to try to get the fly to float/swing/drift just off bottom. Sometimes that's a sink tip with lead eyed fly. Sometimes that's a floating line with no weight. Every hole can't be fished with only one setup. That would be like fishing only one fly for all waters and species at all times. Very simple, but not gonna be effective for catching fish except rarely.

As far as winter steelhead, I typically find the sink tip with no weight on the fly and adjustment to leader length covers most of the big river water I fish from the bank or wading. Even with low flow rates, it still has quite a current down the main channel. I defer to others for slower waters.:D