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Prep For Winter Steelhead Spey Fishing by Mark Bachmann

Catching winter steelhead consistently with any kind of gear takes practice.

Catching winter steelhead with flies and fly fishing tackle may be the most challenging of all fresh water fishing sports.

spey fishing fish steelhead fly flies trout

Fly fishing for winter steelhead can also be one of the most fun things you can do.

Fly fishing for steelhead during the winter months takes special planning, special tackle and refined skills. Two-hand fly rods have given fly anglers the ability to cover vast amounts of water in larger rivers and make winter steelhead fly fishing practical.

Waders and waterproof clothing are more reliable now than they were even just a few years ago. This protective clothing allows anglers to be comfortable while fishing on wet rainy days. There is a host of well-trained winter steelhead guides, and fly fishing instructors available to help you as well. But, your personal organization, dedication and fishing skill-set will ultimately have a lot of influence on your success as an angler. Here are some things to think about when planning for success.

Plan Ahead

Take time to build a strategic schedule of when and where you want to be during the coming season. Try to plan ahead by at least a couple of months. Planning four months or a year ahead is even better. That makes getting days off from work and family obligations easier. The anglers who plan ahead get the best motel rooms, which are most conveniently located closest to the best water and they also acquire connections with the best fishing guides.

An annual schedule might look something like this: During mid-November (after the major leaf fall), head for the southern Oregon coast. During this period, it is hard to beat the lower Umpqua before the big water rises from winter rains. During this time of year, winter steelhead are also nosing into the Elk, Sixes and Rogue Rivers. By mid-December, the lower Umpqua becomes much larger and is very difficult for wade-fishing. December and January are great months for exploring the rivers that empty into Tillamook Bay. Inland Rivers such as the Clackamas and Sandy will have fishable numbers of steelhead then also, but the odds will be better there in February, March and April. February, March and April are also great times to be on the Olympic Peninsula, etc.

fishing rivers steelhead fly flies spey

Never pass up an opportunity to improve your skills. A great plan would be to take a winter steelhead fly fishing school before the start of every season. In this way you can work on your sunk-fly casting and presentation skills. Acquiring those skills is easier during the off season when there is no pressure from other anglers. Don’t put off this work and expect your guide to teach you how to cast while also putting you onto trophies that you have no skills to catch.

Your waders and wading shoes are extremely important during winter.

Examine your waders for leaks and possible break-downs before the winter season starts. Summer trout fishing can be hard on waders. Lots of shoreline plants have stickers or thorns. Seeps from pin-holes are slightly annoying when the water is 50-60 degrees, but are much more noticeable when the water is 30-40 degrees.

The time between fall and winter is good time to send your waders in for repair, or to hunt for leaks and fix them yourself. Especially inspect the feet, crotch and legs. If you wear Gore-Tex waders, turn them inside out and spray them with alcohol. If done properly, leaking areas will turn black and be easy to locate. Patch you waders on the inside with mixture of Aquaseal and Cotol 240. If you are contemplating bootfoot waders for the winter season, it is a good to order them before the rush.

Wading shoes can make or break your days on the water.

Slipping and sliding and taking a dunk during the winter is far more serious than the same act during the summer. Breaking a shoe lace at o-dark-thirty while the guide is trying to launch ahead of other boats can be a huge distraction. Wading shoes take a lot of abuse and need to be inspected regularly. Traction devises on your wading shoe soles are more important on some rivers than others.

When traveling to new water, always check ahead with your guide to find out what they advise.

Some guides allow studs and cleats in their boats, others do not. Inquiring about that very fact will tell you a lot about your guide. Guides that take the time to prepare their boats for studded wading shoes are the ones you want to hire if you are wade fishing.

Inspect your shell and layering at the start of each seasonal change.

Looking at it as if you were taking your house fishing, your waterproof jacket would be the roof. You need a jacket with a hood to protect your head and neck from the exterior elements, such as wind and moisture.

wild steelhead fishing rain spey flies fly

If the roof leaks, everything in your house gets wet. The next part of the air born moisture protection is your hat. Consider your hat carefully. A hat during a hard rain is more than just a place to display a logo.

A baseball cap fits under a parka hood, and the protruding bill will shade your eyes and help keep rain off of glasses lenses. But, a hat bill that soaks up rain will eventually migrate water to the inside of your hood, which will in turn run down your neck. A water repellent, or even better a breathable waterproof cap is what you are looking for.

Never wear cotton clothing during winter.

Cotton collects water and keeps your skin damp which convects cold to your body. The system that works best for me is a layer of merino wool against my skin covered by overlapping layers of synthetic fleece.

Inside of your waders and under your jacket/hood/hat combo you should layer your clothing to be most comfortable in a particular climatic condition. In our car or boat, carry a roll top waterproof bag with extra clothing to change layering or to recover from a dunk.

An extra pair of dry waders in your dry-bag can sure feel better than climbing back into a wet pair.

Also, keep in mind that all the moisture that collects inside your outer shell, eventually it either escapes through openings at your neck and wrists, or through the wall of the porous outer fabric; or it simply runs downhill and collects inside the wader feet. From this standpoint your socks must be able to maintain a lot of loft in order to keep your feet dry.

Socks made with wool/nylon blend material with loop pile inside the feet are best the best insulation. A pair of calf length socks worn under these heavy insulating socks can add more insulation to your lower extremities.

A wool Buff can be a welcome addition to your winter wardrobe for protecting your ears, neck and face. A couple of pairs of fingerless gloves are also important to have with you.

Inspect your current insulating and water proof apparel for wear and leaks. Check your wading jacket for abrasions and tears. Also take a good look at your underwear and socks. These garments are often forgotten during the preseason check.

Be in tune with your terminal gear and tackle.

Fly lines, sinking-tips, Spey swivels and tippets all take a beating.

This is especially true if you are a newbie at Spey fishing. Certain kinds of sinking tips can be somewhat fragile and break down quickly under an onslaught of poor casting techniques. Check out loop to loop connections and for cracks in fly line coatings. Spey swivels also need to be checked periodically.

Take your rods from their cases and inspect each section for nicks and scratches, which could lead to rod blank failure. Handles, guides and reel seats also need to be looked over. Use a white candle to wax the male end of every ferrule where the female end of the ferrule will cover it. Rods treated this way will stay together better when you are casting and will come apart easier when you want to disassemble them. It is good to send reels to their manufacturer once a year for inspection, and cleaning.

Check your flies.

Open and dry each fly box after use and let it dry completely for a couple of days Flies that are put away wet into non-ventilated boxes usually breed rusty hooks which often stain the materials that the flies are made from.

spey fishing hooks lures flies fly

One rusty hook can infect a whole fly box. While inspecting for rusty hooks, also look for bent tubes, shanks, and flies that are coming apart, or are bleached or stained beyond repair. Discard these flies, and replace them in your storage box. Personally I carry a very small assortment of flies inside of Ziploc bags on my person.

Winter steelhead flies fish just as well after they are crushed.

Ziplocs are perfect storage for inside your jacket or wader pockets because they decrease bulk. Bulk impedes your mobility. And if you fish this way, you will have fewer flies to dry out at the end of your fishing day. I leave the bulk of my flies inside a storage box, inside my boat bag or waterproof back pack.

spey fishing fly flies red water underwater

Don’t forget your tools.

Most accessory tools like clippers, hook files, and hook removers will give great service and last a long time. However, nothing lasts forever. Your two most important tools are your clipper and hook file. Make sure that your tool kit is in perfect condition.

Look over your boat and trailer before every trip.

Off-season (if there is such a thing) is for fixing boats and trailers. Boat trailers need continual maintenance. Check tires, lights, wheel bearings, rollers, winches, anchor ropes and tie-down straps. There is nothing that will put an end to a trip quicker than a broken boat or trailer. Things like drain plugs, oars, oar locks, life jackets, and bilge pumps can also make a day more or less enjoyable.

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Or better yet, just hire a professional guide and let him or her deal with all of that tedious dirty work.

- written by Mark Bachmann


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