Steelhead Eat Cold For Breakfast


Someone pointed out I haven't lived up to my promises. Several posts back I mentioned that the week we went steelheading came in like a puddy tat and roared out like Aslan. I asked, rhetorically, what does that do to the fish? The super-chilling effect of snow falling on the water all night long, leaving 6 inches on the ground in less than 9 hours — shouldn't that shut the bite off?  I failed to return to that discussion, as promised, so here goes:

Yes, the snowfall chills the water and drops the temperature. But that's not the worst that can happen. Over the years I've encountered several weather incidents where air temperatures plummeted from the high 30°F range to below zero overnight. Even in the stable rivers of Western Michigan, temperatures that low make the surface gel up. The sudden pressure change is punctuated by ice floes and anchor ice, the most daunting conditions river fishermen anywhere ever face. Anchor ice grips the bottom, turning it white. Wading becomes an involuntary Macarena. Fly fishing in ice floes is impossible. Any technique that depends on a horizontal line becomes impossible.  Almost.


I originally learned to beat the ice on top by overweighting my rig so that it plummeted through the floes and stopped wherever it hit bottom. The next ice floe would pick it up and move it for a few feet before the added weight — which produced great tension on the almost-anchored line — actually made the ice spin and drop the load. Not a natural drift. Not even close. But it caught fish. Steelhead would come rising out of the river in a spray of ice, sending pink and blue flashes in all directions. It was one of the most memorable events of my angling life because A/ I figured something out that worked to beat one of the toughest conditions imaginable, B/ the beauty of those fish rising into the ice floes, and C/ the realization that steelhead will bite no matter what.

The water temperature that day was 31°F. Which is, of course, below freezing. And steelhead still bit, laughing at the cold.


Since then I've learned that a vertical line works even better around ice floes. Last year we went to a river way up north for opening day (one of those Superior tribs that has a closed season during the winter). I actually despise opening days because so many people show up. Generally, I wait until the crowds disperse, but last year the prognosis was for temperatures in the single digits. That means ice floes. (Whenever the air temperature drops below 10°F for any length of time, stable trout streams develop ice floes. Rivers that house mostly warm-water species can gel up any time the air drops below 20°F, or even warmer than that in some cases.) Mary and I fished all day on the opener without seeing another angler wet a line. Most of them just looked at the river and walked back to their trucks and cars. We banked 18 steelhead.

Mary, here, laughs at the cold, too. She's from Big Falls, Minnesota (land of "moose und sqvirrel"). We had no ice floes the day of this photo, but we fished floats and little hair jigs around, beside, and between the ice floes during the opener last year to hook big numbers, landing most of them. We almost certainly would have done a lot worse for numbers had we experienced the usual opening-day crowds. And we would never have landed so many fish with any other popular technique. We held our lines high with 12- and 13-foot rods so the ice couldn't grab them and manipulated the rigs into pockets where we could control the speed of the drift. And we had action all day long.

Which is a great reason to laugh at the cold right along with the fish. So, no — snow falling on the water — even for days on end — won't stop steelhead from biting. In fact, if anything, snow increases their tendency to bite. Bad weather in general makes steelhead feel more secure as the surface is broken by rain, snow, sleesh, sneet, wind, or all the above.

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