Winter fishing in the Northern reaches traditionally has been through the ice. While you’re likely to see a tremendous number of ice fishermen on lakes and ponds from Maine to Washington State, you’re also likely to see anglers waist deep in rivers. After all, they’re fishing for steelhead.
Wild steelhead are anadromous fish, just like salmon. They’re born into a river and migrate to the ocean where they spend some time growing up. When they’re ready to spawn they return to the same rivers in which they were born. Over the years, steelhead have been raised in hatcheries and transplanted into the Great Lakes. They bypass the saltwater completely and move from the deep water into the tributaries to spawn. Some die-hards don’t consider these pen-reared fish worthy of catching, and I can understand their view. But I also know that when I feel a tug at the end of a swing in the middle of winter I get cranked up just the same.
Some fish enter the rivers and tributaries in the fall, others in the winter, and a later group in the spring. Catching a steelhead in the fall or in the spring is wonderful, but there is something about hooking a hard-running fish in cold temperatures with snow on the ground that is perfect. It’s not easy fishing. Wading on ice covered rocks can be treacherous. Guides freeze up and it can be a pain to have to thaw them out regularly. Sometimes the bite is hot, while other times I’ll spend more time casting than catching. It’s just the way it goes sometimes.
Winter steelheading is a time for solitude. The crowds are thin, and there is plenty room to move about. The cold air is invigorating, and it’s a quiet, peaceful time, perfect for gathering your thoughts and escaping the roar of the world. The crunch of boots on snow sounds and feels good, and I think the rhythmic swinging of a fly downstream can be considered meditation. It’s more fun to me than trying to twist my body into a pretzel. At the end of a day, sitting by a warm fire crackling in the fireplace prepares me for some of my deepest sleep of the year. That is, until I wake up before my alarm clock rings and I do it all over again.