Well its that time of year again when all of our favorite streams are getting pretty frigid. Normally we have an over abundance of rain giving us small windows of productive days on the water. This year however the Puget Sound is cold and dry. It’s keeping many anglers off the water due to the bitter cold. I have heard it for a couple weeks now, “the water is too low and too cold to fish”. It’s true that steelhead begin to hit cold water dormancy around 40 degrees and water being its heaviest at around 36 degrees. But, it by no means precludes steelhead from striking your fly. Sudden cold snaps will put fish off, but given a little time to acclimate or a couple degrees of warming on a sunny day and it is game on.
So the rains have stopped for a while now, your river is getting cold and is below what is considered the average flow for any given year. It is by no means low and clear but it is getting there. The river is still slightly green and has visibility somewhere around 6ft. It is around this point where the fish begin to anticipate that the river is going to get low and clear. The steelhead start moving from the slow, lazy water on the edges of the faster water toward deeper and slower water. During this transition is where large flies have produced well for me. You will be chucking the proverbial frozen chickens and your spey casting abilities will be tested. But hey, so long as you get it out there, it does not have to be pretty. Most of these large flies are 6 inches or so in blacks, blues or purples with some form of flash and or colored butt. I tie a lot of my own flies now but some commercial patterns that have a home in my box for these conditions would be the Skagit Minnow with a worm weight or lead eyes, Silvie’s tube snake, Scott Howells Squidro’s and Travis Johnson’s Lady Gaga.
Now we separate the men from the boys. It has been really cold and dry and your river has hit the low, clear and frigid phase. As your fingers are going numb and you wonder what you are doing out in this cold you remember that Mr. Steelhead has had time to acclimate to his new conditions and is willing to strike. He is by no means as active and full of vigor, as he is above that 40 degree mark. But he is looking ahead, with unlimited visibility, for any predators coming his way. He will now park his fins on the slowest, deepest, darkest water he can find, this way he can expend less energy and find water that is degree or two warmer. Mr. Steelhead may also be found at the beginning of pools where the riffle flattens and smoothes out if he needs more oxygen with temperatures being in the 30’s. This is where we break the mold by putting away those big, bright, gaudy intruders you were told winter steelhead just love. Steelhead can count each feather and strand of flashabou under these conditions, so its time to scale the flies down. Leave the super bright flies in the box in exchange for whites, greens, browns and tan flies in the 2 inch or so range. I like to tie various temple dog and arctic fox flies for these conditions. As far as commercial flies look online for similar flies as listed, many flies meet the criteria. I have even been known to tie some summer steelhead flies on size two hooks for uber spooky steelhead.
So grab a couple friends, some warm drinks and go have a good time. If you have any questions just let us know.