Winter steelheading requires playing the weather game


By Bob Brown

Winter steelheading can be a madding affair. One day the fish bite well and the next day get lockjaw. It is enough to make the novice wonder why he left a warm living room. So what is it that keeps steelheaders going, putting up with miserable weather and endless weeks of fruitless casting? Could it be fishing for steelhead is the ultimate challenge of freshwater fishing, or simply an addiction? I would think it is probably a bit of both.

Experienced anglers have learned to watch the weather and especially the barometer, because barometric pressure affects steelhead more in the winter than any other time of the year.

Chris Mulpagano, a longtime fishing guide on New York ’s Salmon River, said, “Anglers should avoid fishing in extremely low pressure (under 29.50) or high pressure (over 30.10). These tend to have a negative affect on fish moods and will put them off the bite for prolonged periods of time. Calm, stable weather periods are best, as the fish will be in a comfortable and biting mood. Look for barometer range of 29.90 to 30.5. This means stable weather and a consistent bite. Generally, paying close attention to the barometer during the winter will put the odds in your favor.”

Water temperature is another variable to consider when fishing for winter steelhead. It isn't unusual for water temperatures to fluctuate as much as five to seven degrees throughout the day. Be aware that a two or three-degree swing in temperatures is a big deal for fish. Often it is water temperature that influences why fishing is better during one time of the day.

All species of fish have their preferred temperature range. Salmon prefer a temperature range of about 60 degrees on the high and 50 degrees on the low side before they become affected by cold water. Steelhead prefer slightly cooler water, but they start to be affected by cold water if the temperature drops below 40 degrees, said Jay Peck, fly-fishing guide on New York’s Oak Orchard River.

Water temperature is not the only governing factor anglers have to consider when going fishing; however, water temperature is one of the biggest factors when it comes to influencing fish behavior.

“The final factor in the winter steelhead puzzle is the time of day to go fishing," Peck said. "The old adage of fishing in the middle of the day in the wintertime often holds true, as this is the warmest part of the day and fish can become very active from late morning until early afternoon. Sometimes it is best to start the fishing day mid-morning and plan to fish late into the day. This has been referred to as fishing on the fish’s schedule. Winter steelhead tend to be a creature of habit; anglers can take advantage of this by paying attention to details. It’s those details that separate the five percent of anglers who catch 95 percent of the fish from the rest of the pack.”


Bob Brown lives in Roy and is a freelance outdoor writer. He can be reached at


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