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Written By: Bob Gwizdz, January 1, 2014
To many anglers, steelhead fishing doesn't really begin until spring, when the fish begin moving up on their redds to do their annual duty to Mother Nature. But for some veteran steelhead fishermen, waiting until spring is missing the best of the season.
One such steelhead angler is Jon Kolehouse, a veteran river guide/charter boat skipper who would just as soon fish in winter. To Kolehouse, the rivers that spill into Lake Michigan are at their best when most other anglers are far away from them. A full-service river guide, Kolehouse will pull plugs, roll spawn, fish with flies, toss hardware -- whatever. But in the winter, Kolehouse believes that fishing with bobbers will out-produce all other techniques.
"It's a real natural presentation," says Kolehouse, who does the bulk of his winter fishing on the Muskegon River near the town of Newaygo, Mich. "Your bait is moving at the same speed as the current and you're not disrupting the water like you are when you're fishing with spawn bags and getting hung up all the time, ripping it loose."
Kolehouse prefers baitcasting reels over spinning reels (if his clients can handle them) because he believes he can get a better drift — and a quicker hook set — than if he has to continuously open and close the bail. He uses fairly long (11 foot) medium-action IM-6 graphite rods.
Kolehouse typically rigs up with a 12-pound high-visibility floating monofilament main line (he likes Raven) and a length (about three feet) of fluorocarbon leader. The high-viz floating mono line is easy to keep track of; keeping the belly out of the line as the bobber drifts downstream is key. He puts split shot on the main line above a swivel (as much as it takes to keep the bobber vertical) and a couple of small shot (BB size) about a foot above the hook. And he likes to use a slip bobber, though that gets tricky when the temperature is below freezing.
Kolehouse says anglers should adjust the bobber so the spawn bag is running anywhere from about four inches to a foot above bottom.
"The fish will come up to take a bait," he says. "It's better than dragging bottom. Even the guys who are rolling spawn bags will often put those little foam floaters in the spawn bags to keep them up off the bottom."
Although many steelhead anglers prefer to fish deep holes in the winter, Kolehouse says it's unnecessary to fish deep.
"Current speed plays the biggest role," Kolehouse says. "When the water gets cold, the fish have to use more energy to sit in that fast stuff. They don't want to spend energy fighting that current. They'll sit in the slowest water they can find."
Kolehouse says to look for any kind of current break you can find.
"Boulders, log jams - anything they can tuck behind where the water slows down," he said. "Small depressions are good; a foot is enough. When those fish dug their beds, they scour the bottom out, create a bowl and there's less current in that bowl. Even in winter you'll find places where those fish will sit in two feet of water. Depth is more important when they're pressured."
And in the winter, they're not nearly as pressured as they are in the spring.
One complication in winter is clear water. After a freezing spell, when there's no run-off from snow or rain, the water can be ultraclear. When that happens, Kolehouse will go with small spawn sacks tied with natural color mesh.
"I use yellow or white mesh in clear water, brighter-colored mesh - chartreuse, pink or orange -- in cloudy or colored water," he says. "And I like smaller baits in clear water. I use one to four salmon eggs in a spawn bag. Or wigglers or wax worms. Bigger baits are better in darker water. Bigger spawn bags give off more scent, too. It helps the fish find them."
Warming weather is always a plus -- even if it does nothing more than keep you from having to suck the ice out of the rod's guides after every other drift. The temperature is not as important as the trend; a rise of a degree or two can have a big impact on the bite.
But warmer is better because if it gets the snow and ice melting, it has other benefits, too.
"When you get some run-off you get colored water," Kolehouse explains. "It gives the fisherman a little bit of advantage. The fish aren't as spooky and they seem a little more willing to investigate things when the water's colored. They may feel a little bit safer -- less available to predators in the darker water. In their world safety is number one."
Run-off often causes the water to rise, which gets the fish moving. The ideal conditions are after a melt when the water comes up and then stabilizes.
"Usually the best bite is dropping and clearing water," he said.
Typically, Kolehouse will anchor out from and a little upstream from the run or hole he's fishing, though he'll occasionally pull anchor and drift with the current when he wants to cover a lot of water.
Detecting the bite is just a matter of watching the bobber. It might shoot down or it might ease down slowly or it might just wiggle, but if it's doing anything besides floating downstream, set the hook. Sometimes the fish will inhale the bait and move upstream with it, so you want a strong hook-set that picks up a lot of line, just in case.
Winter fishing takes more attention to detail than fall or spring fishing because if nothing else the fish have usually been in the river for a while. It's rare that you encounter silver bullets on a suicide bite. You're usually dealing with steelhead that have been fished over for a while.
And that's one more reason Kolehouse prefers to fish with bobbers in winter: It's a little bit more forgiving than some other approaches.
"I think it's the most consistent producer in winter," he said.
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