Magic Bullets for Winter Steel

Matt Straw Steelhead Fishing

Light snow falling as you step into the woods.

One set of footprints in the snow, leading to the river.

Old tracks, made more than a week ago.

Suddenly your heart skips a beat.

Those are your tracks!

No one has been here but you for weeks!

No doubt about it, then.  You feel almost certain, steelhead will be there, in a half-dozen pools at the end of this trail through the cedars and pines.  Put your hood up, so that snow brushed from low-hanging branches can’t find your neck.

Fishing alone, again.

Nobody else would come.

Can’t blame them, really.

Most people don’t consider it a good time, watching immobile fingers invent new shades of purple.  What they don’t Winter Steelhead Fishingrealize is the power of human adrenalin.  When silver-and-pink missiles with fins erupt from a winter stream and they are tethered to a thrashing float rod that you hold in your hand, fingers not only regain color and feeling, they stay warm for hours afterward!  Fish on!  Who can be cold?

Wading in rivers during winter is always warmer than ice fishing.  Out on the ice, the wind sucks the heat right through your clothes.  In a small river valley, the wind is something that only makes treetops dance.  When you get cold, just walk to the next pool, getting warmer with each step.

Another great thing about winter wading is the predictability of the quarry.  Steelhead often concentrate in wintering pools, especially during the toughest winter conditions.

Here’s how I find winter pools:

  • Begin searching based on the precipitation event that brought fall-run steelhead into the river in the first place.  Big rains and high water will draw them way up river.  Smaller rain events and lower flows will keep them closer to the ocean or the big lakes.
  • Within the segment of river chosen, find the area with the lowest current flow gradient. Identify these areas where the land slopes the least with topographic maps or just by paying attention to current speed.  The object is to find the slowest current areas, especially when the water is 34°F or less (a stream thermometer is one of the best tools to use for locating steelhead during any season).
  • Within the area of lowest current flow gradient, look for pools that widen out—where the river is wider than average. This spreads and slows current further, especially in areas with noticeably low gradient.
  • A wintering pool doesn’t have to be very deep. In fact, 3 to 4 feet, depending on clarity, is about optimum.  Especially when the water is 32°F and would be frozen if not moving, steelhead like to feel a little sun on their backs.  Not that deep pools can’t be wintering pools. The slow water is the primary draw.
  • The keys are slow, straight, and even currents.  Steelhead may use current breaks like logs, but in the coldest water the turbulence created by current breaks becomes uncomfortable.
  • Straight pools or wide, slow runs tend to be better than bending runs and pools for the same reason.  Steelhead try to avoid turbulence.  In a straight pool, steelhead tend to locate dead center in winter.  In a bend pool, winter steelhead tend to hold on the inside of the bend, where the water is slower and less turbulent.

Winter Steelhead FishingSteelhead are more aggressive in flowing 33°F water than any other species I’ve encountered—and that includes lake trout.  Big rainbows do seek shelter from the cold, but stay in flowing water.  Slow, yes.  Stagnant, no.  Steelhead crush the same lures, baits, jigs, flies, and beads they strike all year, but the effectiveness of some presentations trails off as the water dips below 37°F.  Personally, I prefer beads or jigs baited with fresh steelhead eggs tied into spawn bags with nylon mesh (such as Redwing Tackle Spawn Netting) fished under a stream float.  The keys to presentation:


  • Steelhead won’t move far to intercept a bait or lure in cold water, meaning the water has to be covered both incrementally and methodically.
  • To cover the water incrementally, start with your shortest cast and end with the longest cast. That ensures you won’t “line” a fish before giving it a chance to take a bait.
  • To cover the water methodically, make each cast only a few inches longer than the last one.
  • Use small jigs (1/80 to 1/32 ounce) to present baits like waxworms, plastic nymphs or spawn bags.  A jig anchors a bait in the flow.  Using a bare hook allows the bait to waft around—something steelhead like in warmer water.  In cold water, it’s more effective to have a slow, steady drift that stays put.  Steelhead won’t chase as much and tend to be put off by things that slip, slide and dance around.
  • When the banks are locked in ice and snow, rivers tend to drop and clear.  Long, thin fluorocarbon leaders are a must. (I use Raven Invisible 4.5- and 5.6-pound leaders.)
  • Use the smallest or least obtrusive floats possible.  Most of the time, I use clear plastic floats from Drennan, Ultra, or Red Wing during winter.

When the snow is falling, steelhead seem ghost-like, undulating slowly in the current.  The colder the water, the more wraith-like they become.  Find the slowest water they’ll accept.  Step carefully, working slowly into position.  The rings from footfalls seem to go on forever in slow, placid wintering pools.  Take your time baiting up.  No sudden movements.  No bright clothes.  Stand still during each drift and those ghosts will materialize into solid form, muscling into the quiet scene to transform into rod-bending, silver-bullet, demons.