Frost nipped fingers try to manage the drag on a screaming reel as numb toes inside wading boots navigate slick river rocks. The silver bullet on the end of your line makes another run downstream and you have no choice, but to follow along and hope your line holds. When it's time to put your hands on your silvery prize, you brave taking your gloves off just for the chance to feel the frigid skin of a steelhead.
The fish of 1,000 casts is starting its winter migration up rivers in several regions of the country. Winter steelhead fishing often brings to mind large colored rivers surrounded by Pacific Northwest rainforests.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, however, each experience their own plentiful steelhead run in an area so plentiful it is commonly known as steelhead alley.
Steelhead alley refers to a famous stretch of southern tributaries of Lake Erie from the middle of Ohio all the way to Pennsylvania and a touch of New York. Mad River Outfitters is one of the premiere steelhead guide services in the Great Lakes region and Fishbrain had the chance to sit down with experienced guide Ryan Ratliff to learn more about this unique fishery and the amazing fish that run it.
Fishbrain: How many steelhead runs does steelhead alley get a year?
Ryan Ratliff: We do not get a summer run because of a lack of water in the rivers at that time. Between September and October, though fish start looking to head up river for the fall run
Once you get into December the weather patterns are different and you could consider it a late fall run or a winter run. Rivers typically freeze between January 15-Feb 15 and little is happening migration wise at that time.
After ice jams blow out at the tail end of winter a few more fish will come up.
In general PA fish are a fall run fish Ohio are a winter and spring run as well as NY fish.
FB: How (if at all) do these fish or runs differ from a traditional coastal run?
RR: Coastal steelhead are considered anadromous, because they migrate from the freshwater to the ocean and back. Are our fish anadromous?
If your definition is predicated on the salt? No If your definition is predicated on migration then yes, so there is a bit of a gray area there.
As far as behavior goes, our fish do not come up in the water column. They travel more left to right in the stream, not up and down. I have caught some fish on the surface but it's a perfect storm situation when you can do that..
Also, our fish don't imprint on a stream like wild fish so the stream they travel up can be random and based on where they are within the harbor at a given time.
FB: What is your basic fly fishing setup for steelhead?
RR: I like a switch rod 11-12 ½ foot between 5 and 7 weight. Most people use 6 and 7. I like Tibor riptide spey reels spey light skagit heads shooting line. I prefer line to line connections with no loops, which helps with ice in the guides. For nymphing line I go with Scientific Anglers Great Lakes switch indicator.
FB: What are some of your go to flies?
RR: Dead drifting white zonkers (white death) with egg pattern attached is very effective. Baitfish like emerald shiners and shad travel into the system but can't handle the cold snaps and die, which is why we dead drift a lot of the streamer patterns.
I like adding bucktail to swinging flies like Jerry French’s intruder, the ai intruder and the Dirty Hoh.
Bites are more predicated on water temp. Cold water tends to give more taps, less hard takes and nymphing is more of an option in this case. When the water gets up the 50s you can get much more streamer action and even strip streamers and have the fish chase them right to your feet.
The cool thing is these are hatchery fish and put here for us to enjoy, but that doesn't mean you just disrespect them.
Nymphing is probably the most successful overall, but in the right circumstances, swinging streamers is much more exciting.
FB: What river and weather patterns do you look for on a good day?
RR: Ideally you get a good push of rain to push out fallen leaves. There are leaves from top to bottom in the rivers making swinging a streamer very difficult. I Look for water levels on the drop but not leveling out. I like cool weather patterns, but not a big cold front. If the water temps in the rivers are a little cooler than the lake that's good, but if the water temps are significantly cooler than the lake the fish will stay in the lake and not start their migration.
FB: How big of fish can you readily expect to catch?
RR: The goal is always a 30 inch plus fish.
FB: What are some of the mistakes you see most steelhead anglers make?
RR: For those swinging streamers it does not use the right color. Color is big regarding water clarity. It's kind of the opposite of the classic rule of bright day bright fly. Dark water, bright fly, clear water go with a black, or olive color.
Most nymphers have way too much drag and not enough weight. You want to get close to the bottom and keep it there. Make sure that when you mend, you're not bringing your nymph too high in the water. You want to stay down as long as possible.
Just because winter is looming, never means you should put away your fishing rod. There are always opportunities to keep fishing new waters, methods and for new species. Every angler should try, at least once, to battle the elements and understand the passion and frustration involved with winter steelheading.
Now let’s go fishing. We’ll bring the waders and hand warmers.
To learn more about guided steelhead opportunities, and some of the best steelhead fly patterns found anywhere, check out Mad River Outfitters website and online tutorials!
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