Preparing for Your First Great Lakes Winter Steelhead Trip

Presented by Oswego County Tourism

Every winter, in the weeks leading up to the holidays, my thoughts turn to the tributaries of Lake Ontario’s southern and eastern shores, and the steelhead that are filing into them daily. Nearly every year I find myself behind the curve and missing out on the hot bite that comes with fresh fish. But luckily for procrastinators like me, the bite has been rising in a slow crescendo this year as opposed to a rushing tidal wave of fresh fish. The preparation for Great Lakes Steelhead is almost a ritual at this point, an annual excavation of fishing gear tucked away in closets and numerous trips to the local fly shop. Steelhead season on the Great Lakes is here, and this author’s stoke for NY chromers couldn’t be higher!

Make a Game Plan

Great Lakes steelhead are certainly one of the more popular angling targets in the winter. As much as you’d love to have the water to yourself, the likelihood that a fellow angler is fishing your favorite run can run higher than you’d prefer. On our way north, or at the lodge bar, we typically try to identify a quick list of spots we want to hit, that way we’re not left scratching our heads when someone beats us to the honey hole. Having a cursory game plan will not only give you more time on the water, but over the seasons you’ll distill down a list of your favorite, and most productive spots to hit on your next trip!

Clean Your Gear & Patch Your Waders

The last thing you want to happen as you step into the ice-cold rushing water is to feel that telltale ice-cold drip begin to soak your socks. Speaking as someone who has suffered through a below-freezing day on the banks of the salmon river in wet socks and numb feet. I urge you, for the sake of your nerve endings, to triple check your wader seams and get those puppies rock solid for the rough wading and conditions winter on the New York tributaries can show you. If you do, you’ll spend more time fishing, and less time in your car with the blowers on high.

Check out our guide to cleaning and servicing your gear, here!

Layers, Layers, and More Layers

Steelhead and cold, wet weather go together like Jack & Coke. The weather along the shores of Lake Ontario can change at the drop of a hat, meaning that you’re going to want to have plenty of layering options in the back of your fishing mobile. You’re definitely going to want a solid set of base layers, especially for your bottom half as cold water will sap your body heat faster than a steelhead will empty your reel. Next, a solid moisture wicking mid-layer like Patagonia’s R1 will help keep you warm and dry. Top those off with some down and a bulletproof wading jacket, and you’ll stay toasty for as long as you need to put some steelhead in the net!

Check out this article for a quick guide to on-the-water layering!

Get Your Flies Together 

Picking fly patterns for steelhead truly depends on who you ask, so anglers are committed to swinging streamers, others sucker spawns, and stoneflies. Whichever flies you choose to have at the end of your tippet, the most important thing is to have A LOT of them. If you’re new to the river or just love to fight the bottom like me, you’re going to need to have a deep fly box bench. Plus if flows are low, you’ll likely be using lighter tippet, resulting in more than likely, a lost rig or two.

If you need a quick guide to effective patterns, check out our post covering just that. 

Double Check the Gauges

Whether you’re fishing tributaries controlled by dams, like the Oswego and Salmon Rivers, or smaller un-impounded streams, flows dictate a lot of how steelhead act, and if/when they’ll choose to eat. Depending on who you talk to, some anglers swear by the rising river, and others by the drop, depending on your tactics and wading skills, you may prefer the latter. You don’t want to arrive at your destination river and find a stream that looks like it belongs in Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, or find a trib so low that you have to fish 6X to get the poor steelhead stuck in a deep pocket to take your fly.

Grab Your Crew & Send it!

I know there’s the “I only fish alone” crew out there, but if you ask me, I find that having at least one other fishing buddy along for the ride makes for a way more enjoyable steelheading experience. Not only will you have a dedicated netman, but another person covering water and dialing in what fly patterns and/or colors the fish are keyed in on.

Making the Transition: Getting Ready for Salmon River Steelhead

Wading Safely: A Wading Gear Guide [2020]

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