Who are the Winter run Steelheaders? - Fly Fishing Forum
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Old 05-13-2002, 12:15 AM
Scott K Scott K is offline
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Who are the Winter run Steelheaders?

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...
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Old 05-13-2002, 12:56 AM
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NrthFrk16 NrthFrk16 is offline
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Just follow Juro through a run!!!! :make ass kissing sounds:


Oh yeah, heard the Vedder was fishing well. If you do not mind filling me in, send me a private message. Thanks!!
Ryan S. Petzold
aka Sparkey and/or Special
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Old 05-13-2002, 06:44 AM
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juro juro is offline
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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?
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Old 05-13-2002, 11:01 AM
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sinktip sinktip is offline
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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.

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Old 05-13-2002, 09:43 PM
roballen roballen is offline
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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..
Only steelhead matter!
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Old 05-13-2002, 10:30 PM
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I'll agree with Rob

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.
"Good angling ethic is not a monopoly practiced just by fly fisherman" - Bill McMillan
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Old 05-14-2002, 12:01 AM
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gordonf gordonf is offline
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A Fish for Firmin - A River Never Sleeps; by Roderick Haig-Brown. That's were it all began for me.
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Old 05-14-2002, 07:48 AM
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pmflyfisher pmflyfisher is offline
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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 !

Last edited by pmflyfisher; 05-14-2002 at 06:35 PM.
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Old 05-14-2002, 07:29 PM
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rich_simms rich_simms is offline
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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.

Last edited by rich_simms; 05-14-2002 at 07:39 PM.
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Old 05-14-2002, 09:37 PM
GBSkunk GBSkunk is offline
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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.
The best head.........is STEELHEAD!
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Old 05-14-2002, 10:13 PM
Jumbo Jumbo is offline
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Talking winter fish aplenty

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.
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Old 05-15-2002, 06:49 AM
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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.
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Old 05-15-2002, 09:31 AM
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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. ?????
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Old 05-15-2002, 09:50 AM
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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.
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Old 05-15-2002, 12:00 PM
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pmflyfisher pmflyfisher is offline
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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.
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