Weather plays a major role in fishing. This fact of fishing certainly comes as no surprise and is especially apparent during the winter months when the northern states can experience bitter blasts of arctic air or amazingly mild conditions.
For those who aren’t into ice fishing, stream steelhead fishing remains good all winter long. The Great Lakes region has dozens of places anglers can stay warm fighting chrome fish like this.
Across the north, ice usually dominates the fishing scene starting about Christmas time. Bitter cold quickly turns every body of water into solid sheets of ice. Anglers adapt quickly and switch into ice fishing mode, but not all the fishing action in January and February requires sitting on a five gallon bucket and staring down a six inch hole!
Some limited, but amazing open water fishing opportunities take place every winter on key rivers in the region. The most common species targeted on these rivers are walleye and steelhead. A few streams actually offer anglers the opportunity to catch both species on the same trip!
THE JET STREAM
Fishing for river walleye or steelhead during the dead of winter is weather determined. When the jet stream cooperates, the fishing can be down right spectacular. During January and February watch the weather reports and pay close attention to the location of the jet stream. When the jet stream dips south, bitter cold weather creeps into the region and freezes up literally every drop of water. If the jet stream swings north, warm and moist air from the southern states can quickly temper things and yield average daily temperatures that are almost balmy.
COOL, BUT NOT COLD
The ideal conditions are river fishing are when the temperatures hover around freezing or a little warmer. Watch the thermometer like a hawk. Even a brief warming trend provides an invaluable window of opportunity most anglers miss out on.
When the temperature creeps up towards 30 degrees hit the water. When the thermometer drops down into the 20’s ice starts to form on the line and in the rod guides. Open water fishing is possible, but tough. If the temperature dips down into the teens, sheet ice starts forming along the river edges making it almost impossible to launch a boat or river fish. WALLEYE TACTICS
In the winter months walleye tend to seek out deeper river holes. If these holes are long enough to justify setting up a drift, vertical jigging with a jig and minnow combination is tough to beat. Use a jig that’s heavy enough to easily maintain contact with bottom. Ultra thin, low stretch, super braid lines are ideal for this style of fishing. Stinger hooks also make a big difference as winter walleye are notorious for light strikes.
Often the river holes that attract winter walleye are on the small side. Drifting and vertical jigging becomes a poor presentation in this situation. Instead, it’s best to anchor the boat and cast jigs. Position the boat so you can cast slightly upstream and across the current to reach the deepest water.
It’s important to select a jig that just heavy enough to reach the bottom. If the jig is too heavy it will simply sink to bottom and quickly snag. For most jig casting situations a 1/8 or 1/4 ounce jig tipped with a live minnow or soft plastic grub body works best. Cast across the current and slightly upstream. Allow the jig to sink to bottom on slack line, then using the rod tip lift the jig and allow the current to tumble the jig downstream.
A number of walleye rivers remain open all winter providing anglers with open water alternatives while most lakes are a solid sheet of ice.
Like walleye, river steelhead tend to seek out deeper water in the winter time. Slow and deep runs allow these fish to position themselves on bottom and facing into the current. This position affords steelhead the opportunity to let the current wash food within reach while at the same time burning up the least amount of energy.
Two popular river fishing methods produce consistent results on winter steelhead. Float fishing is the ideal way to fish deeper holes or holes that have lots of snags on the bottom.
Float fishing requires a long rod (10-14 feet), light line (4-6 pound test fluorocarbon), and a pocket full of hooks and split shot. A number 10 or 12 egg style hook is small enough to allow for a natural drift and large enough to handle even big steelhead.
Clip on style floats function best in cold weather. This is another reason why it’s important to select a long rod for float fishing. The extra rod length allows anglers to cast even with five or six feet of line dangling below the float. Longer rods also make it easier to keep the line up and out of the water, reducing drag on the float and yielding the most natural drifting presentation possible.
Position the split shots about 12 inches above the hook and use just enough weight that the float sits heavy in the water. Spawn bags, single preserved eggs, wigglers, yarn flies and even soft plastics are all good choices at the terminal end.
The more traditional “bottom bumping” method is also a good way to target winter steelhead. This tactic is similar to casting a jig for walleye in that the rig is just heavy enough to make contact with bottom. The angler uses the rod tip to lift the rig and allow the current to naturally sweep it downstream.
Small split shot pinched onto the line about six to 12 inches ahead of a No. 12 hook represents the basic bottom bouncing steelhead rig. Most anglers favor four to six pound test fluorocarbon line and a spinning outfit in the 9-12 foot range.
At the terminal end a spawn sac, single egg or wiggler are the most common bait choices.
PLACES TO TRY
The lower Niagara River remains open all winter and provides a mixed bag of steelhead, brown trout and transient lake trout. The launch at Lewiston, NY is maintained all winter providing anglers access to the river even in bitter winter conditions. For travel information visit https://www.niagarafallsusa.com/
A handful of streams in the Great Lakes region offer both excellent steelhead and walleye action in winter. The St. Joe, Muskegon and Grand Rivers in Southwestern Michigan come to mind.
Further north, good winter steelhead streams include the Pere Marquette, Little Manistee, Manistee and Betsie.
The Conneaut Creek in western Ohio is one of the nation’s best winter steelhead streams. During winter most of the best action is in the lower river where the water is deeper.
For walleye, the Tittabawassee River in Midland County offers excellent winter walleye action near the Dow Dam. Open water walleyes can also be found in the Saginaw River weather depending.
SUMMING IT UP
Midwinter is prime time for ice fishing, but there are open water options for anglers who prefer the pro-active approach. Weather dictates the fishing action, but when the conditions are right, the rewards are never more sweet.