Who are the Winter run Steelheaders? [Archive] - Fly Fishing Forum

: Who are the Winter run Steelheaders?

Scott K
05-13-2002, 12:15 AM
Compared to some, such as Poul whom frequents this board occasionally and has a massive book collection, my readings into the realm of Steelhead fly fishing haven't been particularly above and beyond what I'm sure many of you have read. I have read and skimmed a few books, but I don't think it has influenced a lot of what I do on the river, or at least changed it for that matter.

To put it plainly, as many of you know, I am a Steelhead flyfishing fantatic, and I love using the two hander exclusively now compared to my old gear rod days (still use the gear rod for broodstock fishing). Like us all (or we wouldn't be here) I aspire to learn and make myself better and I am always looking for ways to refine myself and make myself a more aware and all around better angler.

From what I have been subjected to, a lot of the writings and teachings and sort of "know how" on Steelhead fly fishing has been directed towards Summer run rivers. Trey Coombs Steelhead fly fishing has chapters on various rivers in BC, Oregon, Washington, etc, and if I recall correctly, most of these rivers are Summer run rivers. Summer runs are believed to be far and above easier to entice for many reasons, some of which (in no particular order) are water temperature/higher metabolism, more significant stream residence which makes them more responsive to streamy things, less sexual maturity upon arrival which means they might be more adapt to maybe lightly feeding somewhat (although they are not believed to be feeders based solely the fact the bugs in the river aren't enough to supplement them based on their size, but more so they are considered "oppurtunists."), and a variety of other factors, all which contribute to them being a spectacular fish on the fly to pursue for many Steelhead fly fishers. If Summer runs don't have a lot written about them, Spring run Steelhead do. Many fisheries, like the Skagit "Winter run," fishery which is Wild and C and R (at least from my understanding) in March/April, are quite popular and this probably lends itself to the fact that the numbers of fish are optimal at that time, and the water temperatures are coming up which makes for a more responsive fish....

Well this is all fine and dandy and I like chasing Summer run fish and Spring run fish like the next guy, but to be quite frank...where I live there are a host of Steelhead rivers which receive both hatchery and wild fish from late November on, considered true Winter runs. The Vedder-Chilliwack is a prime example with lots of gorgeous fly water. The Gold River on Vancouver Island is another noteable river that I enjoy trekking to in the Cold December, January, and February monthes with the two hander. Something about taking a Steelhead on the fly in cold water that really gets the blood pumping...a little ice on the guides, layering under the waders jacket, the tuke, the sink tips, the breakfast at the local riverside cafe, the snow, the ice shelf on the side of the river, and the hot chocolate...All contribute to a very enjoyable expierience for me on a Canadian Winter run Steelhead River and make me enjoy fishing for Winter runs, more so than Summer runs...

MY question to you is, who are the Winter run Steelheaders?
Who are the guys, who have refined Steelhead fly fishing in cold water temperatures. Who are the guys who have written about it and taken Steelhead fly fishing for True Winter runs to the next step? There are guys who have pioneered the waked fly, the swung fly, the greased line technique, who have written about their love, their passion, their know how on the sport, but who are the guys who can make a fish move that is embedded in the bottom of a run in behind a rock because of the frigid 35 degrees of water flowing through their gills....

If you can suggest some writings, suggest some techniques that go above and beyond, or just mention what you love about Steelhead flyfishing in cold water, that would be awesome...because I sure love it, and I want to improve myself in those cold Winter monthes, for those damn robust football shaped chromers...

05-13-2002, 12:56 AM
Just follow Juro through a run!!!! :make ass kissing sounds: :rolleyes:


Oh yeah, heard the Vedder was fishing well. If you do not mind filling me in, send me a private message. :) Thanks!!

05-13-2002, 06:44 AM
Very funny Ryan. ;)

Scott, about the only thing I do right when winter steelheading you are already doing - loving the doing of it rather than obsessing over the results. In other words, if you genuinely love the act of deep winter steelheading then you will do it a lot, and if you do it a lot you will accumulate the wisdom that it takes to connect despite the odds.

Great Lakes runs are primarily deep winter runs and the vast majority of "fly" anglers there run slinkies and heavy split shot (what is called drift gear out west) to address the cold and dour state of steelhead in deep winter. Personally, I won't go to that extreme.

In my dozen years in the PNW the flyfisher's seasons are offset from the gear fishermen's seasons and anything you get in between is a bonus. For instance, gear and bait guys can hook fish consistently in December and January while the fly guys get in higher gear in March and April. This trend is same for summer runs, although it's easier to beat the odds in summer gear/bait guys do better in June, July where the FF gets hot in August-November.

Good question, I don't know if anyone has every really figured it out per se without resorting to splits shots and drift gear on a fly rod; but I know people who are happy enough with the pursuit to justify being out there, and they hook some big winter fish.

Maybe it's not about figuring it out but being out there getting better each day, month, year. A journey, not a destination as they say?

05-13-2002, 11:01 AM
In my mind, two major factors influence success rates for winter fish.

First, you need to get the fly to the fish and this often requires some combination of larger hooks, faster sinking tips and bigger rods to throw them. With the colder H2O temps, the metabolism is down and the fish are less likely to come to the fly. Instead you need to really take it to them, sometimes bumping it off their nose.

Secondly, the number of wild fish you are fishing over impacts success. I would rather fish over 5 early wild fish than 50 hatchery brats. The wild fish just respond better to the fly in my opinion.


05-13-2002, 09:43 PM
Fly fishing for Steelhead like it of not is a numbers game. Whether it be winter or summer steelhead flyfishing is about finding an aggressive fish. When there are lots of aggressive fish you'll catch lots of fish. When Fishing for docile fish you will catch only a few or maybe even none. I flyfish for winter steelhead with a fly and every winter steelhead I have caught has been wild even though hatchery fish outnumbered wild fish by who knows how much. Because of my own experience and the experience of others I will say this as a fact.. Wild fish are more agressive that hatchery fish. I'll go one step further and say that if a winter run of steelhead is mostly hatchery or all hatchery fish your better off staying home. The last 4 years I have fished the East Lewis about 70 winter days total. I have hooked and landed 2 winter steelhead there both were wild. Most of thoes 70 days I saw gear fishermen who had fish on the bank. My point is unless you have plenty of wild fish early in the season I suggest leaving the fly rod home until there are good numbers of wild fish.

I don't know that anyone has written the type of book you want. The best I have read about winter steelheading was wrintten by Bill Mcmillan in his book dry line steelheading. I think the main reason it is a topic not often written about is because fishing for winter steelhead is no different than fishing for any other steelhead, Just less productive. About all you can do is use a heavy tip a heavy fly and pick the right water.
Now that I have a driftboat I am going to be content to pull plugs Late November-December in January I'ff start in with an occasional bug rod trip then In feb the gear will be put away till November.

Choose your battlefields well and you'll hooks winter runs on a fly, just very few if any of them will be hatchery fish..

05-13-2002, 10:30 PM
I don't think I've ever caught a brat on a fly. I've caught alot of fish in the winter, most that I have caught were in the 80's (back when there were a few more wild fish). They are aggressive fish. I know if you get a fly to them, they'll hit it. Like the fly my daughter designed. God awful ugly thing, but caught a nice nate with it during the winter.

I guess I admitted that I'm a winter steelheader (gear and fly wise). Still haven't figured them out, except if you present the fly, you will have a take. If you have it out of the zone, you go home hitless. You probably won't find a book, since I don't think anyone really knows what the true deal is. Have had a few occasions where a few of us were all throwing different flies on a run, and all had hookups. Go figure.

05-14-2002, 12:01 AM
A Fish for Firmin - A River Never Sleeps; by Roderick Haig-Brown. That's were it all began for me.

05-14-2002, 07:48 AM
The Master and His Fish - Roderick Haig Brown has several great steelhead stories and one specifically on winter steelhead. Have to check the name of the story. Thats where it started for me in the early 80s. Read "Fascinating Challenge" 1971 from RHB, his perspective on the challenge of winter steelhead on the fly. Book has a whole chapter on steelhead, this is the one I go back to each winter for inspiration to continue the steelhead quest.

Great lakes winter fish are the same as PNW, you have to bounce if off their head or forget about it, it can be done with fast sinking heads etc.. and knowing which water to fish where they could be and you have the best oppurtunity to get it down to them.

These river locations are zipperlips to those in the know about winter steelheading.

Experimint and search for them on your home rivers is my advice, it takes several years or more to figure out 1-2 rivers well in my experience.

Good luck !

05-14-2002, 07:29 PM
What Sinktip and Juro said. I really enjoy fishing the in between run time Jan-Feb because of less competition. I don't believe there are any super stars who have perfected the art of deep winter steelhead. The tools are there, it boils down to applying the tools, knowlege of steelhead behavior and most important persistence.

05-14-2002, 09:37 PM
I agree with Rob. I don't target winter fish till their are good numbers of wild fish. February is about right on some rivers. By March and April they're everywhere. I fish a 15' tip, type 6 166 grains and pick my water carefully. By the time the water gets into the mid-upper 40's, those wild fish will move for a fly.

05-14-2002, 10:13 PM
I flyfish for and catch steelhead on a variety of rivers all year long. Some of my best days have been in Nov, Dec and Jan.

I disagree with the above posts about hatchery vs. wild. While it IS true that wild fish are more agressive to the fly than hathcery fish, I have caught loads of deep winter fish of hathcery origin.

There is one person who has certainly earned superstar status in my book as far winter steelheading, of course it's Mike Kinney.
He'll probably never write a book, but he is intuitively "fishier" and knows more about actually catching steelhead than a flyshop full of book learnin' types. He's got more "fisherman" in his little pinky than any of us could ever hope to have.

stay off my river.:tsk_tsk: :razz:

05-15-2002, 06:49 AM
Yes I was also surprised by the statements that hatchery fish will not come to the fly. I can not really make a statement since for the last 20 years I have been fishing rivers that have ALL wild steelhead and salmon, except for some strays occassionally.:hehe: :hehe:

On most of our rivers that are primarily hatchery fish, the FFs do well with them to the fly.

05-15-2002, 09:31 AM
My luck with winter hatchery fish over the last few years has gone to zero caught. Before that time I never had a problem hooking them on the Sky. I think a few have mentioned here before that the hatchery fish seem to be moving faster each year to the hatchery. It used to be a few days after heavy rains and if you guessed right where on the river you got into December hatchery fish. Now it seems that you got to get on the river while it's still in flood stage and ya got to wade knee deep in water that's still running through the woods to have a good chance at a food fish.
How many of you have noticed that hatchery fish seem to be moving to the hatchery faster each year? Could this be a genetic trait through the years of generation after generation of hatchery breeding? Maybe it's just me but everytime I think I've timed it perfect I find out later the fish had already shot through a day or two earlier and the plunkers had a great time at full high water or close to it. ?????

05-15-2002, 09:50 AM
If you learn to catch winter runs with gear first, I think fishing here in B.C. with flys for winter runs becomes relatively simple because you will realize that there are very few good pieces of water in any of the lower mainland and vancouver that fish a fly well. The biggest challenge is finding enough decent runs on any one river to fish in a day. Places like the vedder have way too many "swill pits" and narrow runs to find a decent run with nice flowing water and few enough people to be able to fish thru it from top to bottom at a decent pace.The next big problem is the few rivers with "good" fly water have little or no december to february fish to give the flyfisher a good chance of a hook up. Once march strolls around the last of the winter fish come (they maybe the first for that individual system) but tempuratures are warming up and you are no longer really in winter conditions. It seems that there is a big void of decent fly fishing for steelhead from the end of november to march in B.C. now unless you have time to travel and a bit of expendable income.

05-15-2002, 12:00 PM
Interesting comments, maybe thats it, the hatchery fish are less aggresive and move very fast up river to their final destination at the hatchery or dam. So they are not in the good FF water long.

Could the wild fish be moving a slower pace upstream ?

Learn something every day about these magnificent fish.

Scott K
05-15-2002, 10:45 PM
I asked for some perspectives on what it takes to become more successful with true Winter run Steelhead on the fly, I get some fairly good replies, and then I hear a bunch of excuses and theories as to why they can't be caught.

Do NOT take that personally. My point of view is I don't make excuses or formulate theories (Ok, well, that's not totally true LOL), or if I have them, I try not to let them get in the way of what I want to do (call me stubborn in this perspective).

Yes, it isn't a numbers game, and I have come to grips with that definately and I will always have to face that. But I know that there are some guys who do it better than others. I'm just wondering who they are, and what do they do that puts them above that threshold. Do they hang up the boots? or do they persevere? When I played football, I was the starting quarterback and one of the team captains. When everyone was sucking wind, I had to go above and beyond to help lead everyone to persevere in the gasers at the end of practice on the Dust Field in East Vancouver at Notre Dame Highschool...it has given me some character to some extent, and why I feed on this "hardcoreness," so to speak.

I'm asking you to heed my stubborness. Many of the theories and excuses may be perfectly valid, but, I don't want to want them to get them in the way of heightening the expierience, so to speak, of the adverse conditions, and little "things," that contribute to the total expierience of being on the River during December, January, and February and putting some Winter run Steelhead on the fly. Up here in BC, we have Wild Steelhead entering some rivers every month of the year to be caught, including the local rivers around the lower mainland.

I always hear the guys who talk about their theories on various issues of spey casting. They will only use longlines in the winter because of ice on the guides, but a lot of these guys don't see ice on the guides because they hang up the boots in November, and pick them up all dusty in March.

Truth be it, that I think Winter run fishing can be equally performed using all line techniques. Especially when you have to feed line for the hang down, and eventual slow swing, you want a line that goes through the guides easy and that shoots. In extremely techinical situations on the Gold where the fish sit on the other side of the river, unless you are an INCREDIBLY EXPERT long liner who can time and work out your D loop EXACTLY so it doesn't hit the trees in behind you while you wade up to your waist in flowing water, you will want a line that shoots and gets down at the same time in the current seem 80-100 feet out.

So let me ask again, who are the WINTER run Steelheaders?
(Do I come accross as a Jerk??.....GOOD! LOL >:^) )

05-16-2002, 12:29 AM
I fish a 7wt spey rod all yr. long
I actually prefer to fish when it is "butt-ass cold"
Had one weekend this winter with temps in the low 20's and had 6 fish over 10lbs. to hand. Only one native.

Nothing like seeing hoarfrost on the rocks as you wade to a
favorite run.

Ever have to chain up on the drive to a run? I have many times. That's when you've got the river to yourself.

The only other practical advice I have is to be very carfeul on your hook set with winter fish. Usually a spring/summer/fall fish will essesntially hook themselves if the fly is presented correctly. Winter fish need a measure of finesse.

The following is the distillation of my many years of winter fishing.

"You don't catch winter steelhead unless you are fishing for winter steelhead."

count me in as a hardcore winter spey fisherman

As far as legends, Mike Kinney is the real deal.

stay off my river:mad:

05-16-2002, 06:35 AM
Yep, deep cold winter fishing is the best, have the river to your self usually. Must be very careful though a fall in that water and the cold icicle walk out could be fatal, if there is deep snow it is rough.

Beautiful though being out there in winter wonder land, just you and Mr. and Mrs. Mykiss.

Hard core great lakes winter steelheader here.

Scott K. i can relate to your football toughness, having also played and have two sons that played for one of the top HS programs inthe state of Illinois. If you are that tough you will make one great winter steelheader eventually.

05-16-2002, 03:41 PM
Scott is right about the excuse thing in my book, especially about steelhead fishing with a fly in December. It's easy for us second, third tier steelhead fishermen to constantly try and justify when we don't hook up.

But lets get down to Scotts question here,"who are the guys that produce when the rest of us are failing"? Jumbo brought up a perfect example of a man who is truely a great steelhead fisherman, Mike Kinney. If you have not heard of him I wouldn't be surprised as Mike does not care if he is famous, I doubt he wants to be famous. It's funny how we all claim to be steelhead fanatics and fish every chance we get and talk endlessly about this technique or this line or what ever we think is cool. But boys most of us are second tier steelhead fly fishermen. Why? Its got nothing at all to do with technique, hell technique is the easy thing to learn about steelhead fishing, It's got a lot more to do with our life styles and how it relates to experience/instinct.

Do you think Mike Kinney or JD Love work a 9 to 5 job in some office, do they worry about the wife and kids or bills and retirerment a whole lot. They probably have little if any of that and for a good reason because some where along the line they made a decsion that the rest of us didn't make. They have basicly dedicated thier whole entire being to not only catching steelhead but living steelhead. I don't know Mike very well but for those who do I have a feeling what I just said is very very true. He is not interested in a 100 K job with so much stress or any other job that will take away from living steelhead. I have yet to meet one great, truely great steelhead flyfisherman that deals with the basic job, kids, big houses big bills and worrying if they are gonna have enough to retire. I bet a guy like Mike kinney doesn't care if he is gonna have enough for retirement, he probably already knows he won't. But he knows he is doing exactly what he wants and will except the out come.

Through this comitment guys like JD and Mike have learned thier skills well and have taken thier experience on the river and honed it to a degree that is impossible for us who think they steelhead fish could imagine. Guys like them through thier experience have developed instinct to go with time. We hardly ever talk anymore about instinct/intuition when we talk fishing here. It's almost always what gear, what technique and none of that crap as nice as it is catches fish.

Anyway, Steelhead fishing is not like trout fishing on the Yellowstone River where there are 5000 to 15000 trout per mile. When we are steelhead fishing in December we might be lucky to have 15 steelhead per mile and only a few of them are in water we can fish. Guys like JD and Kinney Without even being on the river know when fish move in, know how far they traveled where they are most likely holding. Unless you commit almost your entire life style to the sport as they have it is doubtful you can aquire the experience/ instinct they have. The rest of us may like to think we have those skills and we have some but not like these guys that spurned everything we didn't and just went fishing for life.

One more thing if you are so worried that you don't get enough time to fish and it's really important to you and it makes you miserable that you are not fishing as much as you really want then maybe it's time to reavaluate your life. If it's not as important as the wife and kids then stop the complaining and just enjoy when you do get to go.

05-16-2002, 08:43 PM

I have heard of Mike Kinney but not JD Love.

Your right they are way ahead of us and I bet they have many days of no touches also. So why should we be disappointed when we have these, we should not.

Just be glad to have the opportunity to be out there chasing them and perhaps you will be blessed with an occasional encounter.

As a R.H. Brown stated, which is my favorite winter steelhead statement:

"This then is the sum of the challenge: rough and varied winter weather, the cold of the winter rivers and great, handsome silvery fish that have no practical use for anything a fisherman can offer them"

Also the last sentence of this short essay: "Can you catch him in the way you want, with fullest respect for his qualities and a real testing of your own skills? It is a fascinating challenge that never grows old"

These are from the essay, I mentioned in previous e-mail above Fascinating Challenge".

Deep swings and occasional tight winter lines to all

Green Butt
05-16-2002, 09:26 PM
OC --- Great Post

Yup, I agree we get back from anything what we put in to it.
The real sucess in this sport comes from personal experience. What you yourself learn out there while you are going at it

05-16-2002, 10:30 PM
As you know from many of my other posts that Mr Brown is a hero to me. Can you imagine what it would have been like to fish with him. I think you could fish all day with him never once mention steelhead, rods, lines and flies and learn more about the sport we love than reading hundred books on how too.
Have you read James Duncan's "the River Why"? There is a man who's story can explain exactly what it takes to be a great fisherman. I'm sure you have read it James Duncan has many essays out there that are absolutly astounding and I believe they can be found at Amazon . com or at a progressive book store. I think fly fishing needs a spokesman that can get us out of the mediocrity we seem to be in. I think over time Duncan may become the man.
Green Butt ,
It's crazy that so many off us conplain that we don't get to fish as much as we would like. But god we should think ourselves truely lucky in this day and age if we only get out once a year. People should think about how they would spend a day fishing if they knew it was thier last day ever to fish and then every time they get to fish they should fish as they thought.

05-16-2002, 11:16 PM
I thought you simply wanted an "I DO" and if you caught fish. Like I had said, I am a hardcore fisherman. Got caught up in the woman thing and got married. Had kids, got divorced, and kept kids. So, my fishing is limited. They're getting old enough now to start luckily. But as I said, I mostly caught them in the 80's. Got married in early 90's, hence really cutting down my river days and fish caught. Though, the amount of fish I did catch per river day was probably more then the average guy.

Yet, I still haven't figured them out. I've caught fish on some of the weirdest things at all different water levels/conditions. But I am still a gear guy. I use both fly/gear. Will I go exclusively fly? I can say probably not as long as my Dad lives. Then, I'll probably keep doing it after that in his memory. He's my fishing partner, and though I'll swing a fly while he gear fishes, I still join him with my baitcaster alot. I'm a "mood" fisherman. I fish the way my mood takes me. During the winter, it's usually gear, but I do swing a fly. Just weird I guess. Don't try and figure me out, no one else can. LOL

05-17-2002, 04:38 PM

Is "The River Why" about steelhead fly fishing ?

I have never read that one.

05-17-2002, 09:51 PM
Steelhead, salmon, sea runs, Portland and the Oregon coast, a crazy fanaticle fishing mom and dad and you will laugh your butt off and at the same time deeper than you can ever imagine. It's fiction and once you start it you won't put it down. James Duncan can write like no other modern day author be it fiction or non fiction. He is the lead spokesman for the new enviro movement which is finally going in a workable direction. He writes essays often in Orion Magazine, a high quality quarterly on the new enviro movement. You can order his books at Amazon or any book store or library and knowing you are interested in enviro related concerns just go to search and look up Orion Magazine.
Just go get it tomorrow and you will have a ball remembering your days as a kid when fishing was innocent all the way to when fishing became something different as adult hood came into being. "The River Why?"
All have a good weekend I'm off to work on the sloop for a couple of days.

05-18-2002, 12:21 AM

both mike kinney and jd love have families, etc..they've just carved a life out of the fishing game.


although i agree with his politics, Duncan is a mediocre author.