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Walleye In The Net
Wanted Lake Erie Walleye
New York Winter Steelhead

While your hunting equipment may be cleaned and packed away for the season there are a number of great fishing experiences out there. While many anglers take to the ice to seek out panfish and walleye, the true excitement and much bigger fish reside in the streams running into Lakes Erie and Ontario.

These ice-cold flows hold some of the most aggressive and strongest fighting fish of the year. We are talking about the steelhead trout. This species lives in the lake during the summer months feeding and growing and in the spring returns to area waterways to spawn putting them within reach of many fishermen. In the fall, many streams seemingly overflow with these bright silver fish, but as the weather turns colder and the skies begin to darken the migration slows a bit. Fish already in the rivers remain in deep pools and turn darker in color adapting to their surroundings. In addition to these fish smaller migrations occur throughout the winter months. High water from a January thaw can create some of the finest winter steelhead fishing you will ever experience. Before heading out there are a few basics you will need to know.

Location: One of the biggest keys to successful winter steelheading is choosing the right
location to wet your line. Larger tributaries are basically the only game as smaller tributaries generally freeze over making them unfishable throughout the winter. The Cattaraugus Creek and Eighteen-Mile Creek are generally the most popular Lake Erie tributaries. The lower section of the Cattaraugus runs through an Indian Reservation that requires special licenses. The license year starts on January first in this area so be sure your license is up to date. The upper sections of these waterways are typically better as they don't freeze as easily and access is better in the winter. Out of Lake Ontario, there are several favorites including the Niagara River, Oak Orchard Creek, Burt Dam on 18 Mile Creek, the Genesee River near Rochester, and the now world famous Salmon River. All of these streams are nearly ideal throughout the winter months. Rarely freezing over, fresh runs of fish can be found most any weekend.

Gear: When planning your trip, the type of gear you plan to use should be dictated by the conditions. Extreme cold may make flyfishing gear a bit cumbersome. Spinning gear is a favorite during the coldest parts of the winter because it is easier to use. Light lines are usually a necessity as water clarity is definitely a concern. Beyond terminal tackle be sure to dress in layers to keep warm on the water. Good quality neoprene waders are essential. Insulated boot feet will help fight off the cold as well. When fishing, try to avoid wading when you really don't have to. Staying out of the water is one sure way to stay warm and dry. Gloves, hats, and extra socks will round out the necessities.

Technique: As colder winter temperatures cool the temperature of the water in these streams fish will become quite sluggish. It is important to keep your bait or fly near the bottom and concentrate on the deeper holes in the stream. Wintering fish will seek out the warmest water they can find. It is also a good idea to target warming trends or even bright sunny days. As the day progresses fish activity will increase. Typically the noon hour is optimal with temperatures at their peak for the day fish will become the most active so there may be no need to rise at the crack of dawn. In addition to keeping your offering near the bottom and fishing the warmest parts of the day a standard dead drift technique works best as these fish are not likely to chase a swinging fly or fast moving bait. Use float rigs or a sinking fly line and weight to get the presentation just right.

Safety: Take your time when wading. Extra clothing, ice, and slippery rocks can cause a nasty fall into frigid water. A dip in the stream at this time of year usually means your day is at an end. Not only will you freeze, your gear will often stop working all together as ice forms on moving parts. Always tell someone where you will be and when you plan to return. If possible, fish with a partner. Bring food and warm drinks with you to the river to help keep your body active and fighting off the cold.

Winter steelhead fishing is not for the faint of heart. The combination of cold temperatures and often colder water can make getting to the fish and waiting for the take an excruciating experience. However, when done properly the fishing can be first rate. Typically the numbers of anglers on the streams is much lower and you have the ability to move around and try a variety of areas on your favorite stretch of water. Try winter steelhead fishing this month and stay warm.