Winter Steelhead

Being successful swinging flies for winter steelhead is all about adapting to changing conditions and paying attention to details. Over the next few months our steelhead rivers will get pummeled with fierce storms and high water events. Other times we may see extremely cold, low water conditions.

Whether you swing for chrome on the West Coast or in the Great Lakes, it’s a rare day to have an “optimal” situation during the winter. As the conditions change you need to adjust your tackle, the water you choose to fish and the way you swing your fly. Here are seven tips that might help you find chrome this winter.

Look for the “couch” water

Regardless of the time of year, water temperature should be the biggest factor in where you decide to focus your efforts. Steelhead are a lot like us, if it’s cold and nasty outside they conserve energy and hang out on the couch. Couch water is the slow, soft water usually located in the guts and tail-outs of pools. In the cold months of winter, don't waste precious fishing time focusing on fast riffles. The fish rarely live there when the water temps plummet. That said, don’t miss the transition zone at the heads of pools. Look for the place where the water slows down just below a riffle as these are often key winter holding locations (credit to Great Lakes guide Jeff Liskay for this awesome term).

Wade shallow and cast short in high, dirty water

When the rivers rise steelhead will often times travel and hold very close to the shore. It’s very easy to walk through the fish. More so, a short, integrated sink-tip like an Airflo FLO Tip or a RIO MOW Tip will allow your fly to fish all the way into the hang down without getting hung on the bottom. It’s also critical to avoid over-casting a run when the water is dirty. Keep your casts short, 60’ or less and you’ll be covering the “inside water” very effectively. Plus, you won’t be wasting time swinging through unproductive water. Because long casts are not required and you’re often standing in the alders when the river is up, a switch rod is the prefect tool for fishing in high water conditions.

Winter Steelhead

Look for traveling lanes in rising water

As our rivers rise during a storm, Steelhead will be on the move. Many anglers believe that a moving fish won’t eat a fly. While a rising river does make finding fish tougher, you can catch fish on the rise. It pays to fish “pinch points”; places where a steelhead has to migrate through and hopefully slow down enough to take a look at your fly. A river wide riffle with a soft gut just below it would be a great place to start your search.

Wade deep and cast far in low, clear water

During low water periods steelhead will hold in deeper lies than normal. Longer Spey rods in the 13’6 to 14’ lengths are the tools of choice when you need to huck to a distant seam. It also pays to fish longer sink-tips that will allow you fish your fly deep and slow. A 12’ to 15’ tip works wonders for getting down. More so, a longer sink-tip takes longer to un-roll during the cast, which ultimately helps get more distance.

Keep your hooks sharp

It’s a bummer to loose a hard earned fish to dull iron. Check your hook and use your hook hone often. If you’re not already, become obsessed with sharp hooks. If you fish stinger style flies or tube flies rigged as a stinger (which you should be), replace your hook often. Even with a good file you can’t get your hooks as sharp as when they come out of the package.

Fish your fly slow

During the coldest water temperatures of winter it’s asking a lot of a steelhead to rise dramatically in the water column and chase a fast moving fly. This is the time to slow your swing down and be patient on the hang-down. Intermediate Skagit Heads are very useful for getting that slow, seductive swing winter steelhead love.

Hope Is Your Strongest Weapon

Winter steelheading takes persistence, patience and confidence. Keep your head down, fish hard and never loose hope.


Great article and tips. Slowing the fly down can't be overlooked. This starts with finding the right water. Do you guys have any great tips for reading water if you are new to a river? I know that some of our large west coast rivers can be daunting for people who are new to it.