My fly was the smallest offering fished. Except for the small glow bead head, it was also the most natural imitation in the pool. It stood out as something different, perhaps more realistic. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I hooked up. Spin and center pin anglers were fishing various jigs and gobs of egg. These work well on fresh, or less pressured fish. They also do plenty of damage during the early morning bite. But increasingly on crowded pools and wary fish, I’ll place my faith in smaller, more natural presentations. Sometimes a small glow bead nymph is just the solution for late afternoon, stressed steelies that have seen every type of offering drifted past their snout.
Three times this past week I fished a well known plunge pool in Monroe County. Every time there were already 2-3 anglers already fishing this large pool. I didn’t have time to fish the Salmon, Genny, Sandy or Oak. Each trip my tiny # 12 or #14 glow bead nymphs picked up fish. When the air temp is below thirties, I adjust my angling expectations and am generally pleased with a hook up on a cold February day! During each trip, I never witnessed my fellow spin/center pin anglers hook a fish. I only fished for an hour or so each time and never donned waders. These three mini-trips offered further evidence for me to continue to place my faith in small flies for mid winter tributary fish. I’ve lost count of the times tiny flies work their magic in January or February. There’s also a subtle satisfaction to hooking up in front of bait guys. More often than not, those same bait guys ring the dinner bell much quicker than fly fishers. Rare is the day when I experience more hook ups than a competent angler fishing egg sacks or spikes/grubs.
When fishing is slow, you have to try something different. Despite fresh fish coming in daily, our water temperature hovers in the low thirties. The metabolism and aggressiveness of steelhead, especially fish that have been in a system for more than a few days, is typically reduced. I’d much prefer to swing streamers for active, aggressive fish. That likelihood of hooking up on the swing is lessened due to cool temperatures. Of the seven fished I’ve hooked in the past week, only one came on a moving streamer. Last night we experienced a low of one degree. While there are exceptions, my experience swinging flies has always been more productive when the air temp is in the thirties, or higher. Speaking of temperatures, while that early morning bit can be stellar, it can also be frosty and uncomfortable. My preference is to wait until late morning, or ideally early/late afternoon when the air temp is warmest. There’s also the possibility that the water temp has crept up a degree or so, just enough to make a difference for steelhead. That said, if you have a chance to cast a line on an unfished pool, go for it!
Next time you’re on the water, experiment and try something other than an egg sucking leech or egg patterns. Try a natural pheasant tail bead head, a hare’s ear glow bead nymph, a sparkling green caddis pupae or perhaps a black stonefly pattern with a purple abdomen. Some of our finer water quality tributaries hold verifiable populations of stones, caddis and mayfly species. It only makes sense to fish something that they might actually see. Sometimes that dark purple, bright blue, subdued orange or hot chartruese hint of color, is the difference maker. If you’re fishing the same water as other anglers, shake it up a bit. My rule of thumb is to change fly patterns every 15-20 minutes. This is especially true if I’m fishing a deep pool that traditionally holds fish. You never know when that change of fly pattern might also entice a holdover brown. One of my bonuses this week was a 24″ holdover brown. Some tributaries still harbor post spawn, lake run browns looking for an easy meal before their return to Lake Ontario.
Here’s another piece of advice, plan your landing strategy for that beautiful steelhead. If you’re fortunate enough to hook one, have a plan on where to safely land and release that fine fish. Shelf ice, rock ledges, downed trees, fast riffles, etc are all obstacles to overcome. Map out a plan, bring an appropriately sized net (not a teardrop wooden trout net) and try to safely release that fish. Please be especially careful to keep those female hens in the water. I’ve seen more fresh eggs on snow this past week than I care to count. In several of our finer water quality tribs, those eggs represent the possibility of natural reproduction. We’re fortunate to be blessed with exceptional winter steehead and let’s do our part to protect those precious females.
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