Winter wonderland: Quality steelhead fishing
Bob Chernuta had one of those days last winter that seemed too good to be true.
He's a steelhead guide from Finleyville, operator of Angler's Choice Guide Service, who does most of his business in the fall, when the steelhead runs begin in earnest, conditions are easiest and most anglers think of fishing.
But he and a friend traveled north during winter to cast a few lines of their own.
They stopped at Elk Creek; it was high and muddy. Twentymile was more of the same. Then, they went to Sixteenmile Creek.
"Sixteenmile looked a little greener. It was still high, but it wasn't brown like the others," Cherbuta said. "We got down in there and found a whole pool of fresh fish. And I think we caught every one of them.
"I know you hear stories like that all the time, of guys saying they just killed them, but we did."
Days like that might be special, but the truth -- somewhat overlooked though it -- is that the months of January through March offer quality steelhead fishing.
"If the tributaries are open, and not covered with ice, the fishing can actually be very good," said Chuck Murray, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Lake Erie research biologist.
"The fishing pressure is about half what it is early in the fall, and catch rates are about double. There's almost an inverse relationship between the two."
Catching winter steelhead can be different, though.
Uniontown's Mark DeFrank of DeFrank's Flies and Guide Service said most of the remaining fish are dark-colored males that have been in streams for weeks or months. They stack up in deeper holes and catching them requires precision.
"It's almost like you have to get your fly right in their face," DeFrank said. "They're not going to go two feet to take a bait. They're lethargic and conserving energy, so you've got to get right on them."
Randy Leighton, a deputy waterways conservation officer with the Fish and Boat Commission, said bait anglers should think small to entice fish. Shiners drifted with the current are a good bet, he said, as are single cured eggs and grubs fished on a size 16- or 18-egg hook.
"Working micro jigs can be very productive this time of year, especially the marabou variety, as they have a natural movement of their own. They can be effective alone or with a tipped grub or maggot," Leighton said.
Anglers should expect any hits they get to be light, to the point of sometimes being almost imperceptible, he added.
The best winter fishing often comes when the weather is mildest. Fishing when water temperatures climb into the 40s or even 50s is very productive, DeFranks said.
"At other times of year, early and late in the day is oftentimes the best time to fish. In winter, you can see the best fishing in mid-afternoon, when the sun is high, or later in the day, after the sun has had a chance to warm the water," Murray added.
And sometimes, you just have to get out on the water and see what happens, as Chernuta did, and will again.
"I'll get the bug here in a few weeks and go fishing, probably in February," he said. "You may have to walk a little more to find fish that are more scattered, but you can go out and have some days up there in winter."Additional Information:
Winter fishing tips
-- Dress in layers. You can't catch fish unless you can keep warm enough to stay on the water, so wear multiple layers of clothing to trap body heat.
-- Carry Chapstick. It will not only keep your lips from chapping, but smearing some on the guides of your fishing rod will keep them from freezing shut with ice.
-- Carry different baits. Sometimes, fish that will let one bait float by will strike the next, so long as it's something different. Don't let the thought of exposing fingers to cold air keep you from changing baits periodically.
-- Wear cleats. Most times, felt-bottomed waders are best. In winter, with snow and ice, consider cleats instead.