Winter Steelhead Fishing NY Salmon River Pulaski Tips

Winter Steelhead Fishing in Attracts New Anglers

It is no secret that we have been enjoying a steelhead resurgence over the last few years. Depending on the river, we will have steelhead from late September to early or mid-May. This has brought a lot of new fishermen who are now discovering that steelhead fishing goes right through the winter. Despite the harsh weather there is a lot of good winter steelhead fishing  but you have to adapt to the changes

How to Prepare for Cold Weather River Fishing

Man posing in front of a snow covered river bank with large steelhead while winter steelhead fishing.
Jay Peck doesn’t let cold weather stop him from winter steelhead fishing.

The obvious cold weather affects everything  from how the fish move or don’t move, your fishing gear, and the way the water flows. Learning how to deal with all of these winter conditions is a big part of winter steelhead fishing. We put up with these harsh winter conditions because the fish are there and they’re willing to take our flies. Another bonus for most anglers is that due to the unique challenges of winter, there is often less fishing pressure on the rivers. Here are a few tips that will help new and seasoned anglers alike.

Dressing for the Cold Weather

This is where most fishermen new to winter fishing make the biggest mistake. It is hard to concentrate on your fishing when you’re running up and down the river bank doing calisthenics trying to get the blood flow back into your hands and feet. You are not moving as much with winter steelhead fishing, so the body does not generate warmth.

A good pair of boot foot waders are a big help during the winter months. Carry spare gloves to keep your hands warm, because we are often dropping our gloves into the water, and you won’t want to stop fishing to go get a new pair. We are also always getting our hands wet while handling the fish. The fastest way to warm hands is to dry them off in cold weather. Old dish towels work really well for this and can make a handy scarf when worn around your neck in a pinch.

Cold Weather Fishing Gear

This may sound obvious, but many fishermen fail to prepare with the proper cold weather fishing gear. Reels are the most affected in the cold weather because oil and grease can gum up the performance of most expensive reels. Cleaning out all the old oil and grease and re-lubricating your reels with a dry lubricant will help keep your reels running smooth when you are cold weather fishing.

Consider changing the fly lines. Many of our modern fly lines become stiff and coil like a bed spring in the cold. This is where taking a step or two backwards in technology is beneficial. The older style fly lines made of the softer coatings are not as adversely affected by fishing in cold weather. Fly lines such as Cortland 444 or 333 work well for cold weather fishing.

Fly Fishing Presentation for Winter Steelhead

In winter, water temperatures are often just above or at the freezing point. As a result, reaction time of the fish is often much slower when you are cold weather fishing. At these temperatures a steelhead’s metabolism has slowed down considerably, and they are reluctant to move far from their resting position to take flies, which makes it hard to catch fish on a cold winter day. Most of the flies that steelhead respond to need to be drifted very slowly. I like to describe it as giving the fish time to think about what they are seeing.

Stay with egg patterns and nymphs in sizes ranging from 8 to 12, depending on conditions when you are winter fishing. These fly patterns are always best fished with a dead drift presentation. I generally use 3x and 4x (i.e. 8 and 6 pound test) tippets.

Using Strike Indicators to Help you Fish

Using strike indicators has many advantages when you are winter fishing. Besides obviously helping you detect when you have a fish, they also help you to control your drift. We sometimes refer to our strike indicators as drift management tools. With strike indicators you can keep your fly fishing at the proper depth longer, and also keep your fly in the part of the pool or run where you intend to fish longer.  Strike indicators help you fish a little more line without having to strip wet fly line into your guides to make a new cast and thus helping control ice in the guides.

Keep Your Gear Dry

Freezing up is one of the biggest problems when winter steelhead fishing, but a few simple steps can prevent this problem. One of the most important things you can do is not to dunk your equipment, especially your reels, into the river. Water temperatures are usually only a degree of two above the freezing mark. Drop a reel into the water and it will almost immediately turn into a block of ice. I’ve seen reels freeze so solid that they cannot be used and have to be thawed out before you can try to fish again.

Wet fly fishing lines are the cause of frozen guides. A solution is simply not to pull wet fly line into the guides. Break the pool down into smaller bites and use a high-sticking technique. Fish about two rod lengths of line, or whatever you’re comfortable with, without having to pull line back into the rod to make a new cast. Work a fixed length of fly fishing line and just move your feet to work the pool.

Daytime Fishing

Man poses in front of river in winter with steelhead caught while winter steelhead fishing
Adjustments to cold weather allow you to enjoy winter steelhead fishing all season long.

I call this fishing during the banker hours. When you are winter fishing, you should in the water and fishing by 9 a.m. and fish until 3 p.m. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not worth being on the water at first light when you are fishing for winter steelhead. At times there may be a short bite at first light and then the river will go dead until mid-morning when the sun gets on the water.

By midmorning to mid afternoon the winter steelhead normally offer a steady and consistent bite. I prefer to start at this time and be warm and dry throughout so I can take full advantage of this part of the day. By mid to late afternoon you can just sense the river shutting down. Besides, at that point of the day you are generally cold and icy and ready for some hot food.

Winter Fishing is Worth the Effort

Winter steelhead fishing most certainly has its advantages such as less fishing pressure and fresh run steelhead. It also has its challenges such as the cold and the ice but these challenges can be easily managed. With modern clothing and waders staying warm is much easier. With a few modifications to equipment and some basic techniques you can manage the frigid weather.

The biggest challenge for many anglers when winter steelhead fishing is getting over the mental hurdle of worrying about being cold. The fish are there and they are willing. You will learn that cold weather can mean hot fishing for winter steelhead .

Original Article By Jay Peck

About The Author

Jay Peck is a fishing guide on the Lake Ontario tributaries. With 40+ years of fly fishing experience including 30 years as a licensed New York State guide, Jay has been applying his knowledge of the sport and local waters to help anglers in their pursuit of migratory fish, inland trout, and a variety of warm water species. Jay is also an accomplished spey caster and fly tyer. He has developed several fishing techniques and fly patterns for fishing the tributaries and inland trout streams. To learn more, check out Jay’s youtube channel, and get in touch with Jay at

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