PITTSBURGH -- When gale force winds whip the snowfall horizontally and ice separates you from the steelhead, you don't want to be fishing.
But while Erie winters can be notoriously cold, they can also be fickle. As temperatures fall and rise, a dangerously cold storm and ice-over that virtually denies all stream access can in a matter of days thaw to a 40-degree sustained snow melt and good fishing.
Between the fall and spring runs, winter steelhead fishing can be productive and safe, giving savvy anglers hours of time alone on the water.
Safety first. Slip and fall into ice cold water on a windy day and a long walk from the car and hypothermia is a real possibility. Steelhead fishing is to die for, but it's not worth dying for. Use good judgment; be careful out there.
Like all salmonoids, the steelhead trout prefers cool oxygen-rich water, and like you, it's not happy when the water turns crazy cold. By this time of year, most of the fall runs have slowed to a virtual stop -- fresh silver bullets nosing around the creek mouths have turned back for the more comfortable depths of the lake.
When the creeks ice over, many of the running steelhead return to the lake, while some big browns and steelhead winter over in the deepest pools. They can be catchable even when the water temperature dips into the 30s, but they're lethargic -- none of those porpoising, tail-walking, muscular fights for which the fish is famous.
"Most of the fish you're going to catch now are darker, older and mostly males," said Mark DeFrank of Uniontown, a Pennsylvania and Ohio steelhead guide and 2010 Pennsylvania State Fly Tying Championship winner. "The hens will drop back into the lake, but those big males hang around waiting to find new females. They'll winter over in the deep pools. But when that ice rips loose and you get ice jams, a lot of those fish get killed."
Despite the stresses, dangers and biological challenges of the spawning run, few steelhead lay eggs that hatch in Pennsylvania's silt- or shale-bottomed waters, hence the need for stocking.
"Some of those hens won't even drop the eggs," said DeFrank. "They can reabsorb the eggs back into the body before dropping them."
In his "younger, stupid days," said DeFrank, he'd punch holes in the ice to get at the steelhead, or even break up drifting ice sheets across the bottom of a pool until most of pool was open.
"But it's not worth it," he said. "When it's that cold, even if you eliminate the ice, you still have slush -- you can't get your line through that -- and the eyes on your rod keep freezing up."
In those conditions, find a spot where an incoming spring keeps the water from freezing over, or go to Sixteenmile Creek where outflow from a water treatment plant usually keeps much of the creek open.
"A lot of times, if you wait around until 10 a.m. to noon, a lot of that slush and skim ice will burn off," said DeFrank. "It gets a little warmer and you have the stream to yourself."
DeFrank often fishes the bigger, deeper steelhead waters of Ohio that often stay open longer than Pennsylvania's creeks.
When the water is very cold, presentations that require a fast attack from the slow-moving cold-blooded fish generally won't work. If you're spin fishing with spoons and flatheads, or swinging flies with a fly rod, slow your retrieve to a crawl.
"They're less likely to chase down a fly," said DeFrank. "You almost have to get it right in their nose."
In cold weather, smaller is better.
"A lot of guys say, 'Go small for winter.' If you're matching the hatch, this time of year all the nymphs are small -- they grow larger to adult size in the spring," he said.
Size 12 hooks are good; in muddy water DeFrank goes as large as 10 or 8.
Winter bait anglers can be successful using jigs or Mini Foos tipped with maggots, or bait sacks with floats.
"For those big brown trout -- a single egg. It's deadly," he said. "Set it up so the only part of the hook showing is the eye. Thread the hook in, twist it and bring it back through so the hook isn't showing."
With less angler pressure in winter, steelhead may be a less antsy but just as line shy. No changes in tippet size are required.
By the end of February or beginning of March, the ice jams have abated and steelhead waters begin to reopen. Although strays stocked in Ohio and New York can enter Pennsylvania tributaries, steelhead stocked in this state tend to run in larger numbers in the fall. The spring runs, however, generally attract fewer but bigger fish.
Mark DeFrank will present a free fly-tying demo and private for-pay workshops Jan. 18, 2014, at International Angler in Robinson, Pa. (412-788-8088). He can be reached at www.defranksflies.com.
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