Rigging Up For Ice-Bound Steelhead

The rod is already engaged with a wild steelhead by the time you're able to grab it. Reeling the tip down to the water line, you tighten the drag a couple notches and — provided the fish isn't running — cinch the hook home with a short, quick pull and just hang on. Things will be fairly interesting for quite a while yet.

In previous posts this week, we discussed location, timing, and equipment like rods and reels, line, Automatic Fishermen, etc. Time to talk about hooks, jigs, floats, and baits.

Carrying everything in small, pocket-sized Plano Specialty Organizers is a good idea. I use size #8 and size #6 Owner Mosquito Hooks (if you click on this link, scroll down past the new Owner Down Shot Hooks to find the Mosquitos) most of the time, but plenty of hooks in that size range work. Since we're only fishing 4 to 6 feet down most of the time, I tie the hook directly to the main line (6-pound Seaguar AbrazXm Fluorocarbon). Not much opportunity for line twist with so little line out, and a swivel can become a major problem if it lodges into the bottom of the ice hole.

The Plano 3582 Fly Box is filled with TC Tackle (406/683-5485) steelhead jigs and Lindy Little Nippers ranging from 1/64- to 1/32-ounce. When things really start thawing out and the rivers are running pretty good, current will drag a baited hook away from the hole, but a jig anchors it in place where you can continue to see it by shading the hole and putting your face near the water. Which is important. "You need to keep the bait an inch or two from bottom," says ice-guide Chris Beeksma. "They'll bite if it's suspended a little higher, but we get the most consistent action when it's close to bottom."

Chris uses floats more than I do, but they're an important visual cue, especially when using "traps" that don't set the hook for you, like the HT Enterprises Ice Rigger shown to the left of the hole in the photo above. If all the rigs are close enough, and the snow and ice are cleared away from the edges of the holes, the tip of the float can be seen from 20 feet away or more — a good safe distance when steelhead are milling around 4 feet beneath y0ur boots. The clear float dangling from my rod tip, and displayed on the snow in the lead photo, is a clear Red Wing Tackle Phantom. Since the float is just a few feet over their head, I prefer to use clear versions in clear water,  just in case the more visible floats might be a spook factor. You can have all the opinions you want about that, but nobody knows what each individual fish might spook from. In the absence of empirical knowledge, it's always better to err on the safe side. If the water's cloudy and the weather not too cold, we use Red Wing Blackbird Slip Floats. On cold days, ice can fill the tube inside a slip float, and stop you from reeling with the fish still 4 feet under the surface. Not good.

We bait up with spawn bags or wax worms about 90% of the time. For the most part, this is "stillwater" fishing, with a stationary bait, giving steelhead plenty of time to ogle and sniff. Artificial baits work about half as well, but Gulp! panfish worms and other scented plastics do trigger strikes — some days being better than others.

And we always carry some scent products to cover the negative cues on our fingers when tying knots and applying  bait to hooks. Shown above is a bottle of Eagle Claw Crave Trout Gravy, and a BioEdge Salmon Egg Wand, which is like a Chapstick applicator. My favorite is probably Blue Fox Dr. Juice Super Juice Trout/Salmon scent, which I've been using with great success for many years.

And that about wraps up the terminal considerations. Not a complicated game at all, really. This is something you can be successful at with a quality ice rod, a bucket with a clip-on rod holder, a few hooks, a few good baits, and a little patience. (And an auger. Couple hand warmers. And a sled to pull your gear out with. A bobber. Some Chapstick. And a sandwich.)

(Some pickles. And a soda....)

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