Cold Weather Gear for Steelhead Fishing
The recent drop in temperatures has us fishing everyday in very cold temperatures. That’s the life of a fly fishing guide. We fish in all kinds of weather. Yesterday when we got in the boat it was 17 degrees, clear, and no wind. Cold indeed.
Last year my wife bought me a new base layer , Patagonia’s Capilene Air Crew Base layer. A combination of Capalene and Merino Wool. It is seamless, has a 3-D knit structure that produces the most amazing warmth and comfort. The fabric is stretchy and comfortable against the skin. It is truly an innovation!
At $129 retail it isn’t the least expensive base layer that you’ve bought but I’m telling you it is the the most comfortable and warmest I’ve worn.
Capt. Chuck Hawkins
King Salmon, Caught on Streamers
For years most people believed that salmon could not be caught after they entered the rivers on anything but dead drift methods. When dead drifting using indicator rigs or chucking and ducking sometimes you get bit another times you are lining or flossing the fish. While fun to fight such large fish and a great way to get people interested in fishing it isn’t the most satisfying way to catch fish for many.
Due to our 23 years of fishing on the Garden River in Sault St Marie, Canada we have had a unique opportunity to fish for King Salmon that are pretty unmolested in smallish, private river. We tried many different streamers, both natural looking and bright, gaudy patterns. Nothing produced with any consistency. I remember one day many years ago when an olive wooly bugger got lots of interest, never happened again!
Slowly, very slowly, a pattern and some colors emerged. They were pioneered by Russ Maddin and his fly, the Flash Monkey. The Flash Monkey is a typical Maddin pattern, beautifully conceived and expertly tied. It’s very complicated. Far too complicated for me to produce enough of them to supply my Garden River and Michigan Rivers clients. However the basics of the fly, lots of flash creating lifelike movement gave me some ideas.
Dead Eye is born!
I started with a double hook rig, Owner 2-4/0 front hook and a smaller stinger hook at the back end of the tail. Kings often just nip the tail so you need the stinger. Colors came from our experience in Michigan, number one color for Thunder Sticks (hardware) is Fire Tiger, chartruese and orange. The next best is chartruese and white. There have been a couple of other combos that have produced like pink and purple.
The body consists of a heavy dose of flashabou overlayed with a fair amount of Ice Wing followed by a head of Ice Dub. It is easy and quick to tie and as effective as anything I’ve found. The fly should be 4-6 inches long. Salmon are hard on flies. They are big and toothy! I like this pattern because it is a quick, easy tie that doesn’t leave me in tears if it only lasts for one fish.
The Secret Weapon
The pattern, Dead Eye, can be tied and fished two ways. The first is to keel weight the front hook and add lead eyes. That gets it deep and will help it run true when it’s stripped. That means it stays up right and doesn’t spin. This it time consuming but vey effective.
The second variation of the pattern has no keel weight or lead eyes. Instead you fish the fly behind spinner blades. The blades add weight, motion and vibration. They are very effective at getting strikes from king salmon.
I carry small and medium sized blades in silver and gold along with appropriate beads in colors that make sense with the fly. Vary size and color of the blades as there doesn’t appear to be any consistency with what will work.
When fishing salmon with a streamer using the Dead Eye without the blades, a very fast jerking retrieve works best. When fishing with the blade use a steady two handed retrieve. Retrieve it slowly, steadily, just fast enough to keep it off the bottom. With either variation make sure you strip strike, twice isn’t a bad idea. Cloudy days and smaller water will increase your success with either of these methods. Both flies are fished on sink tip lines. My favorite is the Scientific Anglers Cold Sink 25. On the Garden River I use a 250 grain, on the Manistee a 350 grain.
While fishing for salmon with a streamer isn’t classic upstream, hatch matching trout fishing it is an exciting, suspenseful way to fish. For those anglers that like to swing flies for steelhead or rip streamers looking for big browns fishing for salmon with streamers is right up your alle
I will post a step by step fly tying instruction for the Dead Eye this winter when I have time.
We are now actively booking the Garden River in 2020. This year we had an incredible increase in both numbers and size for both pinks and kings. Check out our website page for more info.
After I finalize reservations for this years customers I’ll post availability for 2020 on that page. Or just give us a call at 23-228-7135 for more info.
Have a great fall!
Capt. Chuck Hawkins
These two islands have been virtually destroyed by the hurricane with large loss of property and life.
Below are a couple of links where you can donate to help rescue and rebuild these two beautiful places.
Capt. Chuck Hawkins
River Temperature and Trout, They Can Be In Danger
Hopefully most anglers realize that when water temperatures get too warm in our trout streams it is best to leave the fish alone. The reason is that warmer water holds less oxygen and therefore stresses trout. When you add in being hooked and fought by an angler even after a proper release the trout maybe so stressed that it won’t survive. There is not a consensus at what temperature should anglers leave the trout alone but this article from Hatch does the best job that I’ve read laying out the facts about warm water and trout. It seems to draw the line at 68-70 degrees as being the time we leave the fish alone.
How to respond to higher temperatures
When warm temperatures are near these critical heights there are things we can do to protect our trout. First if you are fishing, fight a hooked fish very aggressively. Bring them to the net quickly and do not lift them out of the water for photo. When releasing hold them in the current to help revive them. Do not release them until they swim away from you under their own power. Better yet, quit fishing in the streams and rivers that are warm and switch to colder locations. Colder rivers like the Boardman and Pine Rivers stay cooler than the Manistee and Ausable. Therefore they are great warm weather hopper fisheries. Also be aware that some sections of the same rivers stay stay cooler than others. It’s a good idea to carry a thermometer, that will help you learn where you can and where you shouldn’t fish.
The Upper Manistee in some recent years has been warm enough that I quit fishing there, usually preferring to switch to smallmouth. They become even more plentiful as water gets warmer.
In conclusion, if you wish to have more and larger trout in our rivers we need to protect them when they are vulnerable. That way they can live to fight another day.
River Data on the Web
The following resources help you to learn river temperatures on the web
*USGS Current Conditions StreamFlow – Manistee River at Sherma
*App for your Phone – River Data
*Hawkins Outfitters is working on a temperature monitoring station at CCC Bridge that will be available on our website. Thanks to the EDTU Chapter from downtown Chicago for funding this!
Capt. Chuck Hawkins
The Hex Hatch The most highly anticipated may fly hatch in Michigan is the hex hatch. These big mayflies bring the largest fish in the river up to the surface to feed. Hexagenia Limbata is a floating filet mignon to a trout. Therefore the Hex Hatch, whether duns or spinners probably produces more large trout […]
The Reach Cast
We are going into prime dry fly season right now. The third most important thing in your arsenal behind being able to cast accurately and picking the correct fly is the ability to execute an accurate reach cast. A reach cast is an in the air mend and, once perfected, will give you perfect drag free floats.
When fishing a dry fly when you lay the line on the water the currents begin to affect that line. Often they create drag, moving the fly unnaturally on the surface. The classic way to deal with this is a mend, lifting the line up and moving it on the surface to eliminate drag. This is difficult to do without moving the fly and blowing the drift.
A reach cast accomplishes the line positioning in the air while casting. When you let the line hit the water it’s in a position to eliminate drag while the fly is going over the fish. The difficulty with the reach cast is learning to both reach and accurately place the fly on the water. Because you are pulling the line back to control how it lands you need to shoot line to compensate for that. Practice is what teaches you that accuracy!
In my opinion this is the most important specialty cast there is. Watch this video by Orvis and get on the water and master it! Your catch rate will improve because of it.
Tying knots in low light
I also carry a set of “readers” with higher magnification than my normal glasses. This is helpful as the sun sets, those hook eyes just seem to shrink! I put those one when I need greater magnification.In addition to the readers I also have a pair of Costa Silver Sunrise Glasses that are very good in lowlight situations. They cut glare, are polarized and they provide eye protection!
Finally, I carry needle threaders available in any sewing department. These little tools are designed to thread sewing needles but they do a great job of threading hooks. As you can see in the video below you insert the thin wire look through the eye of the hook then put your tippet through the loop in the wire and pull the wire loop back through the eye of the hook and you end up with the tippet through the eye of the hook. Prior to dark I put a bunch of the appropriate flies on these threaders, grease them and I’m ready to go. Changing and or replacing flies is a snap with this set up.
As the lights go out just a little preparation will keep you in the game rapidly, effectively and efficiently.
Early Season Trout Fishing
When winter breaks and water temperatures start to warm it’s time to consider early season trout fishing.
Many anglers would ask, why? They are steelhead in our rivers that will probably bite better than resident brown and brook trout. The reason is that if you are a big trout hunter early season provides one of the best opportunities of the year to score on a big ole wiley brown trout.
There are several reasons that I think Early Season Trout Fishing provides one of the very best opportunities to land a significant trout in Michigan.
As the water temperatures increases so does the trouts metabolism. The urge to feed combined with the lack of insect activity creates an opportunity for an early season fisherman.
The fish haven’t seen a lot of angler pressure since fall. That makes them a little less wary and making mistakes more likely.
Water is usually still little high from spring runoff and will most likely still have more color. Makes it easier to pull bigger trout out of cover.
All of these reasons plus the lack of angler pressure and my motivation to get out and fly cast to resident fish makes this one of my favorite seasons in Michigan.
Water temperatures play a big role in early season trout fishing.
When the temps are below 40 degrees we don’t usually see the biggest browns but we do get those mid to upper teen fish that always make for a good day.
When the temps go above 40 degrees, this time of year will often produce a few really big fish for those willing to go on the hunt.
Once the water hits 40 degrees I’m looking for those big game anglers that can take the risk and go hunt those browns that we never forget.
How to early season trout fish in Michigan
Here are three tactics you can use for early season trout fishing success.
First and foremost the best method for early season success is streamer fishing. Streamers are a great tool for searching out and engaging aggressive fish. After a long cold winter trout will be on the search for food even while water temps are still on the cold side. Look for trout to sit in areas with darker bottoms trying to absorb any sort of thermal relief from their surroundings.
It’s not uncommon for trout so sit in really shallow water during the colder periods of the day. So if your wading or using a drift boat, make sure to pay attention to the bottom. We have seen trout in less than a foot of water on several occasions.
Chasing early season trout with a streamer is not a numbers game and we usually don’t find a lot of giants early either, but a common trout at this time on the Upper Manistee is 14-18”. It seems as this size class of trout is the most active during the early season. Make sure to have a combination of conehead or dumbbell streamer patterns and fish them with a slow jigging action around structure. The Hawkins Little Racal is a great place to start.
While one of the hardest methods during the early season is Dry Fly fishing, it can be possible and very rewarding. With the largest BWO hatches of the season occurring in the early spring, along with little black stones and plenty of midges, there is always a chance of some trout surface activity on any given day the bugs show up. Now midges work best in the tailwaters like below Tippy Dam. You can have a fun few hours in the afternoon midging for trout on bright sunny days on tailwater sections or on a cloudy day when the BWO hatches show up in numbers.
Normally during the Early Season we carry two separate rods, one rigged with my streamer set up and one with an Floating Line set up. As we are drifting down the river, look for bug activity on the water and active fish feeding. On most days during the early season it is typical to only see a few heads rising per day within very short windows of activity on the surface. But if you capitalize on your opportunities it can be great fun.
The little black stone is probably my favorite early season bug. The Stonefly loves to lay it’s eggs in a fluttering almost tantalizing manner. Flying just above waters surface and even in the film of the current, the little black stones can cause some pretty explosive eats by trout. This doesn’t happen every day, but having the rod rigged and ready for action has brought a few nice early season trout to hand.
This little dirty word doesn’t come up too many times when you think about trout fishing in Michigan, but spring time can be a great time to get out the nymphing gear. If I have to be honest here, nymphing is not in our every day program and while we tend to push the nymphing game on our migratory streams, nymphing for trout is often ignored. Nymphing for trout behind
spawning steelhead or spawning suckers can be great fun. With Spring Steelhead in the peak of their spawning run trout will gorge on eggs and dislodged nymphs behind active spawning areas. While we are big on letting steelhead spawn, fishing the dark water for trout can be very productive, especially on the Pere Marquette River where this has been a staple of the spring program for years.
Now if your thinking about nymphing for trout above the tailwater’s be ready to lose a few nymphs to all the wood that lines our Northern Michigan trout streams. With the amount of wood around keep your nymphs selection simple. Don’t spend lots of time either tying or buying elaborate nymph imitations. Instead try running nymphs like Pat’s Rubber Legs and smaller Squirmy Worms, espically in tandem with a small bead head pheasant tail or hares ear and you will do just fine.
When trout are not chasing streamers or conditions are not right for the bugs to hatch, trout will have to eat something. Nymphing the runs can be the most productive technique for the utterly slow times on the water. Here is an early season trout tip: while nymphing, focus on the gravel areas more than the deep sandy pits as aquatic life in the gravel runs is more active earlier in the season.
Many of our best rivers like the Manistee, Pere Marquette and AuSable River’s are open all year so that’s a good place to start. A favorite of mine is to hunt big trout with streamers in water that also has steelhead present like the Manistee River below Tippy Dam. That gives you two bites of the apple because steelhead, especially drop backs, will eat streamers. Many times I’ve scored both on big browns and steelhead fishing streamers in the same day.
If you are motivated to get out and cast a fly line and looking for some excitement give Cherie a call at 231-228-7135. I’m sure any of the Hawkins guides would love to chase trophies with you.
Capt. Chuck Hawkins
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