Most good steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania happens long after the cool fall weather is gone. Many anglers are heading to Lake Erie tributaries as the chill of winter has already set in. Those not well versed in winter fly fishing tactics for steelheads struggle trying to fish for these huge trout. They are unprepared and ill-versed in the tactics that are successful this time of year on the Erie Tributaries.
The Cold is Your Friend
As tributary temperatures drop into the mid to low 30's steelheader's need not hit their favorite steelhead hole at the crack of dawn. Steelheads are lethargic in these low water temps and less apt to bite. Sleep in or travel mid-morning. The rising sun should add a few degrees to the water temps and increase steelhead activity. Don't worry about the crowds, solitude is the norm in winter steelheading as most will not brave the winter conditions. Dress properly for the frigid conditions (knit cap, wool fingerless gloves and mitts, thermal underwear, fleece jacket, windbreaker, chemical hand warmers, neoprene style/boot foot waders) and periodically walk between holes and runs to keep feet and hands warm for the fishing action.
Winter Fly Fishing Tactics for Steelheads
Winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania can be very finicky and these fish prefer smaller, dead-drifted flies drifted literally into their face. They will rarely move more than a couple of inches for a fly on a dead-drift.
With this said, it is extremely important to perform multiple drift presentations and cover the drift completely, whether a run, pool tail-out or back-eddy. The difference of a few inches in your presentation can result in a hook-up that you would have otherwise missed.
Dead-drifting flies like egg patterns and bead-head nymphs as well as small woolly buggers and streamers are deadly in the icy tributary flows of winter as long as you keep them near the stream bottom, drifting at or slightly slower than the bottom water current. Incorporating brass, tungsten or glass beads as well as wire ribbing and heavier shanked hooks into these patterns ensures that they stay near the bottom and allows for less shot usage. Successful fly fishing for steelhead means patience. Multiple presentations covering the entire drift, precise indicator depth adjustment, tippet (length/size), shot adjustments, and fly changes (size/color) are all part of the game to get that perfect drift to steelhead and ultimately setting the hook.
Weather Challenges With Winter Fly Fishing
It is hard to predict what kind of tributary conditions winter steelhead anglers will encounter on the Lake Erie tributaries. Typically temperatures are colder and snow is more prevelent than most other places in Pennsylvania and the northeast. During mild winters, waterways remain open (including the lake shore) with only nuisance slush and ice flows in the morning. If winter comes and comes hard, you can expect to be faced with partially frozen tributaries and tough access conditions. Often the toughest part of winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania is actually getting to (and traveling back) from the Lake Erie tributaries. Local steelheaders definitely have an advantage here. Anglers considering winter steelhead fishing should monitor weather for temperatures and precipitation and check local reports and stream gauges for water conditions.
Although it has it challenges, winter fly fishing on the Erie tributaries offers some of the best fly fishing for steelheads around. Keep a positive attitude and pack your cold weather gear this winter and explore the Erie tributaries with your fly rod.