Written By: Capt. Max Werkman, RiverQuest Charters
Proper fly selection is always an important component of success, but when it comes to chasing Great Lakes steelhead during winter, choosing the right fly has two additional benefits. First, it increases your chances of enticing one of these sluggish fish sitting in near-freezing water to actually move and eat, and second, it increases your confidence that the next cast could potentially produce a strike–motivating you to spend more time on the water despite the cold, further boosting your chances for success.
Before deciding which type of fly you’re going to use, you should determine whether conditions favor natural patterns (which closely mimic real food sources) or attractor patterns (which use gaudy colors and flash to get attention). If water levels and/or temperatures are rising, or if the water has a slight stain, try fishing attractor flies. If water levels are low, with stable flows and cold temps, try fishing more natural flies. Once you’ve decided between natural or attractor, it’s time to choose a fly type: eggs, nymphs, or streamers.
During winter, displaced salmon eggs left over from the fall spawning run wash downstream and become a primary food source for steelhead. The eggs are bright orange when fresh, but their color fades, becoming more “milked out” with each passing day they spend in the water. So it’s important to have a variety of shades to experiment with, ranging from tangerine to yellow to off-white. If eggs in natural colors aren’t getting any attention, try throwing the fish a curveball by switching to attractor-colored eggs in chartreuse or hot pink.
Stonefly and caddisfly nymphs of varying sizes and colors are also available to steelhead throughout the winter. When using natural color schemes, start with simple patterns such, as Hare’s Ears and Pat’s Rubber Legs in black, brown, or tan. For attractor patterns, throw Prince Nymphs or Copper Johns. Adjust the size of your nymphs based on water clarity, using larger flies (sizes 8 and 10) when it’s turbid, and smaller flies (sizes 12 and 14) when it’s clear. When throwing larger nymphs, remember to switch to a larger indicator that can support the additional weight.
Sculpins, baitfish, and leeches are also on the menu for winter steelhead, and they come in both natural and attractor color schemes. Apply the same criteria outlined above to decide which color schemes to use, but on days when two anglers are both swinging streamers, rig one rod with a natural fly and the other with an attractor fly, in order to determine which one draws more strikes. If you know a certain area is holding fish, change flies every 20 to 30 casts until you get a bite. If you’re not sure where the fish are, we just pick a color scheme and cover water until you find them.
Capt. Max Werkman is co-owner and guide for RiverQuest Charters in Grand Rapids, MI.