Lake Erie tributaries offer great steelhead fishing in the fall, but you should not overlook winter steelhead fishing. When the weather turns cold and snowy, most steelhead anglers give up. Big mistake!
Regardless of the season, a few factors will determine the fishing outcome and the quality of your experience. With that said, do you want to schedule a successful winter steelhead trip? Here is a check list of planning suggestions that I always follow:
Check with your spouse or significant other. Make sure someone knows where you will be fishing or better yet, invite a willing friend to go too.
Check your gear for sure. That rat’s nest of line is still on the spool.
Finally, check with a trusted friend that has been fishing recently or a source you trust to get a prediction for your trip’s success.
Now with all that done to your satisfaction, go!
When you arrive and prepare to start fishing, first check your drag. The first fish you hook may be your last for this trip and it will snap the line if you have not made the check/adjustment.
Find open water or find safe ice [you can catch plenty of big steelhead through an 8" hole.]
Learn to safely fish shelf ice. Steelhead love to hide there if this cover is available.
Fish smaller presentations in clear water and fish larger presentations in stained water.
Fish the head and tail of each run or hole. Fish the current/flowing sections of a run or hole rather than the dead water.
Fish a chosen location until you are sure the place is not holding active fish, then change weight and try again, then take off your favorite bait/lure and put on something different and try again.
Fish any location where you can’t see the bottom in a deep hole or run, you will have fish in front of you apply previous sentence.
Fish your favorite locations until you are satisfied then move the fish do!
Best winter baits for me are white or pink eggs sacs, black jig [you can tip with a maggot or wax worm, I don’t], white jig/minnow, minnow without weight drifted through tail end of deep holes and finally single eggs.
The color of a jig head or the presence of flash material in the jig hair/marabou is open for debate. I like black marabou with a few strands rainbow flash. The marabou dressing seems to get tangled in the steelhead’s teeth and when they shake to get it out I notice the float twitch and set the hook.
Fight: A winter Steelhead is just as powerful as the fall fish, but the cold water dulls their fight. Especially the breeder stock that is netted at Trout Run stripped of eggs/milt and returned to Elk Creek, Walnut Creek Channel or the McKean Hole. Some will fight like a wet sock, some fight with surprising energy even jumping at times. If you hook a fresh fish that just arrived from the lake, you will notice the difference - bonus time!
Bite: Fish short casts for better control and a good view of your float. Use as little weight as possible. Don’t expect the float to get dunked. Watch for a slight movement, dip or twitch. Floats or strike indicators are seldom jerked under the surface. Instead, they slowly descend under the surface or they just twitch slightly. Once you get accustomed to the hit you will get your share of the action.
Hookset is a science in itself. I set the hook hard on any movement! Many times a fish will hold the bait/jig that passes by and you will notice the drift has stopped. When you lift the rod that snag starts to pump and thrash and may make a quick dash so be ready.
Safety: Watch your step. Edge ice is tricky and Erie streams can freeze from the bottom to the top. When you are walking in open water, you will notice several inches of ice on the stream bottom. Wade with caution. Stay out of swift currents. No one wants to be the next over dressed, water logged angler washed out into Lake Erie.
Here are two Elk Creek videos that show typical, winter, fishing conditions.