Fighting The Odds: Streamers for Cold Steel

Winter steelhead

When I hear the word streamer I don’t think about Muskies, Browns, or Bass.

I think about turning non aggressive Steelhead into pissed-off meat eaters. Many people around here seem to think Steelhead are some fragile fish. Think about it, Steelhead normally live in the ocean. They are bright silver and aren’t trying to hide. They roam the deep waters in search of prey. All these fish do is swim, swim, and swim some more. These fish also survive aggressive fishing pressure and natural predators along their journey to their home waters. Fragile? I think not. In the fall, when the Steelhead ditch the depths and begin to run up small streams and big rivers, they have one thing on their mind, Spawning. These fish aren’t looking for streamers, we’re just trying to get their attention. In the winter Steelhead’s sensations are dulled, and heart pounding takes become difficult to evoke. It is a rare occurrence for a Steelhead to chase down your streamer and crush the thing, especially in cold water. But that’s what makes catching winter Steelhead on a swung streamer such a momentous occasion.

 

Let’s just start by saying that where I’m from, by January everything is frozen solid besides one river. The weather becomes too unbearable to fish. This year we were lucky to have a day in the thirties. The last two years the river of 240,000 CFS decided to freeze over in a few places during the extreme cold. Most days it was unfishable due to extreme ice flows. From January to early March the weather was too harsh to even attempt to swing a streamer. It almost seemed like winter was a never ending event.

 

You’re going to be fighting the odds swinging streamers on a river that’s 240,000 CFS. Water temps hovering around 32 degrees. Water clarity: 20-something feet. How much harder can it get you may ask? The fish are deep. When I say deep I don’t mean 10 ft., I’m talking Niagara River deep, 20 plus feet. That means you’ll be throwing 15 ft. sink tips of t-14 and sometimes even t-20. The water’s clear so add a nice long leader and a heavy copper tube fly. Casting this rig in normal conditions wouldn’t be a challenge but I forgot to mention the shelf ice. Yeah, that D-loop you need to cast all this junk isn’t happening. Your casting stroke needs to be perfect so you don’t hang up on the shelf ice. Did I mention the high temperature is around 20 degrees if you’re lucky. Your hands and feet become completely numb. Gloves are basically useless. You might as well be barefoot in your waders. Your guides freeze solid every 15 minutes and your running line becomes impossible to handle. I forgot to mention the slush, real fun to mend around.

Winter steelhead

Most days consist of fishing for 8 hours and not feeling a single tug, not even seeing a single fish. I mean, I gotta be nuts. Right? The weather sucks, the Steelhead are basically frozen solid. The pinners are throwing bait at the things with an ounce of lead and aren’t hooking up. I mean that’s gotta be a sign. Most people pack their shit up and go home after a few hours of this bullshit. What do I choose to do? Fight the odds. pick up my spey rod, fire another cast, and continue to fish hard. Putting everything I got into every cast, swing, and strip. Constantly changing up flies, sink tips, and sometimes even lines, even though my hands struggle to do what my mind tells them. You might wonder why someone would put them self through this kind of madness just for a few stupid winter Steelhead on a swung streamer?  Here’s why.

 

My day of fishing starts at 12 am after getting home from a long Friday night at work. I eat my dinner and go straight to my bench to tie few streamers. One of them happens to be a craft fur intruder. It’s one of Greg Senyos innovative patterns. After I throw my sinks tips and leaders on my spey and switch rods it’s 3am. I call it a night and wake up around 7. As my dad and I begin our long drive to The River we tell tales of the stupidity that occurred at our workplace the previous week. After our long walk down the gorge I see what I normally see. Crystal clear frigid water that looks lifeless. However I walk with confidence knowing that there is a Steelhead luring in the cold depths just waiting to crush my streamer. In the winter you can’t fish hoping. In the winter luck isn’t a factor, everything has to be perfect. You have to know you’re going to hook up. I continue to cast, swing and strip for an hour or two with some of Jerry Frenches crazy creations before remembering what I have tied the night before. At this point it is twenty something degrees and is starting to snow. I can’t feel my face, feet or hands. I walk upstream to where my dad is fishing and tie on my craft fur intruder I tied the night before. I then look at the water knowing I have fished this run at least a thousand times. I know where the boulders that hold fish are. I just need to get down to them. I test my streamer in the water, the flowing marabou and craft fur makes it look very fishy. At this point I knew it would catch a fish. I jump off the shelf ice and wade into the frigid river. I fire off a few casts and figured out what I needed to do. I stripped more running line off my reel and let my spey rod do its thing. I make perfect upstream mend to get my streamer to the depth I want to swing through. As I start my slow deep swing everything is coming together perfectly. The hair on the back of my neck and arms stands up as I feel my line cutting though the deep turbid water. I feel a small tick and another. I know something is up. I continue my swing waiting to feel the weight of the fish. However no weight was felt. Then BOOM! The fish crushes my streamer and nearly rips the rod out of my hand. I yell to my dad “Fish, fish, fish!”, as I swiftly set the hook. He comes straight towards me like he has done this before. As all hell breaks loose I start picking up line as fast as I can just to keep my rod bent. After fighting him for a minute or two I get him closer to shore. But he isn’t finished yet, my Hardy starts to sing. After a few short runs I have him within landing distance. I lose my pawls and lunge towards my line. I  hero shot the thing and get splashed as he swims away. I wipe the water from my face and watch as he swims into the cold depths. I fist bump my dad and sit there for a few minutes trying to wrap my mind around what the hell just happened. I am no longer numb. My heart is pounding. I just sit there with a shit eating grin on my face staring into the depths. Thinking, this is why I swing streamers in 240,000 CFS. This is what keeps me driven when the weather is complete shit. This is what keeps me coming back time and time again to this river.

Winter steelhead

I will continue to get my ass kicked by Mother Nature just to experience those few winter fish that destroy your streamer. Once you experience a Niagara River winter Steelhead on a swung streamer you will realize what fly fishing for Steelhead is truly about. It ain’t about the fight, it sure as hell ain’t about the numbers. It’s about fighting the odds putting the time in, seeing things you never saw before, and fishing hard just to experience an explosive grab on a cold winter day with a swung streamer.

By: Joe Szczecinski

Rich Duda

About Rich Duda

Site admin. Obsessive angler. Cancer nurse.
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