In this category on the ANGLR fishing intelligence blog, you’ll find useful articles about fly fishing. Whether you’re chasing native trout or stalking that record steelhead, find tips and techniques that will help you improve here.
A yearly goal of mine was to learn fly fishing better. Well, to put it mildly, fly fishing has set the hook in me and now I can’t put the buggy whip down. Recently my wife got the chance to go to a children’s ministry conference in the Tennessee mountains, and since I am self-employed, I took the time off and went with her. I didn’t plan on going anywhere near the conference but instead planned on staying knee-deep in cold mountain streams in pursuit of freshwater trout.
To prepare for this trip, I took to the internet doing some research. I found plenty of info on some of the local forums, Facebook groups, and local fly shops. Through all my research, I narrowed down the equipment I needed to a 5’9” 3wt. fiberglass rod. I paired it with a 3/4wt reel, 20lb. Dacron backing line and 3wt floating weight forward line.
My First Day Fly Fishing Tennessee
Once I arrived at the destination in Tennessee, I went to some local fishing shops to stock up on the flys I needed and leader material. Due to the ultra-clear mountain water, I went with 6X leader material, a size 14 rubber legs fly, a size 18 zebra midge and suspended them under a small pinch-on indicator.
This whole rig slightly reminded me of our gulf coast staple rig, the double popping cork rig. Oddly enough, it worked relatively the same way.
I started my first morning driving around looking for decent access points to the creek I was trying to fish. That’s the point I learned that, due to winter conditions, higher elevation roads were all closed. Bummer. Complete change of plans now. As a last-ditch effort for the day, I found a creek close to the road, parked and headed to the water. The widest part of the creek may have been 8 feet wide. The depth never seemed to be more than 2 feet, but it looked ideal for trout. I started out by swinging the flys upstream and letting them drift naturally downstream. It didn’t take long to realize something wasn’t right.
I started targeting the deeper water right below the small waterfalls and I started getting some takes. Finally, with about 10 minutes left before I had to leave, the small orange indicator shot underwater like a bullet, I snapped the rod back and immediately felt the tension of a fish. It swam downstream, through a small waterfall and into the pool below. I chased it down the small creek and finally brought it into my hand. A wild rainbow trout. Not a big one by any means, but it was definitely one of my most memorable catches to date. I took a few pics and watched it swim away into the strong current before heading back to the car.
My Second Day Fly Fishing Tennessee
Day 2 started in the worst way possible. Absolutely flooding.
Knowing that the rain would muddy the water and raise the level, I headed out a few miles above the same area I fished the day before. This time the hike to the creek was about a mile, and it rained the whole time. Once I got to the creek, I could easily tell the water was already higher than the day before. Using the same technique of drifting the flys into the pools under waterfalls, and tailouts, I quickly watched the indicator shoot under the water. Too slow, I missed it.
A few casts later the fish hit again, but this time I struck back. After a very short fight, I had a brook trout nearly in hand. This one, unfortunately, got away before I could get any pictures, but I had another species checked off. The rain kept getting worse and the creek started getting muddy. Within an hour of getting there, the water had risen nearly 2 feet. Time to head out. This creek was completely blown out.
All in all, this trip helped shape the rest of the year for me. I’m pretty much completely sold on fly fishing. I’ve been several times since being home and caught some pretty great species, but… that’s for another time.
Good Vibes, Tight “Fly” Lines, and God Bless.
With wild trout quietly lurking in 2,300 of its 2,900 miles of trout streams, Virginia’s state slogan should be “Virginia is for Anglers” instead of “Virginia is for Lovers.” In addition to water discoverable by those willing to wear out boot leather in search of a sparkling mountain stream in a private setting, Virginia has over 600 miles of delayed harvest and put-and-take destinations close to population centers and associated road networks. Trout fishing Virginia doesn’t leave much to be desired!
Trout Fishing Virginia: Fishing the Mountainous West
Not surprisingly, the best fishing is in the mountainous west. A 30-minute side trip off I-81 at Abingdon leads to Whitetop-Laurel Creek, a freestone wild trout stream that is the jewel in the Virginia crown. Whitetop has two special regulation areas (single hook artificial) in addition to put-and-take. Whitetop is a medium-sized stream, typically 20 to 30 feet across, featuring the standard set of pools, riffles, and runs associated with perfect wild trout habitat.
Its close proximity to the Virginia Creeper bike and hiking trail built on a converted railroad bed with a wide, smooth surface and a gentle gradient makes it both unique and accessible. The trail gives those willing to sweat a bit the opportunity to get away from any real or perceived pressure near the trailheads.
Instead of making a strenuous hike, smart anglers use a bike to move quickly from spot to spot. Given the popularity of the trail, there are numerous places to rent a mountain bike in both Abington and Damascus. For example, the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop in Abingdon, charges only $25 for a full day rental of a high quality bike (no department store cheapos) with an angler friendly after-hours return policy, allowing you to catch the evening hatch.
A few cable ties on a rod tube converts a rental bike into a fishing machine ready to travel miles on the trail to find great fishing destinations!
For advice on Whitetop, check in with the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop in Abingdon. As a full-service fly shop, it has gear, guides, and friendly staff. In addition to guiding on Whitetop, their service covers the nearby trout heavens on the South Holston and Watauga tailwaters in Tennessee as well as smallmouth on the New River and the James.
Use a 4 or 5 weight rod and fish the prime time from April through the middle of June with quill gordons, march browns, stoneflies, blue wing olives, sulphurs and even green drakes all making an appearance. Before you go, understand the trick to fishing Whitetop!
Since the Virginia Creeper trail gradient runs downhill from north to south, most bikers start at the northern terminus for an easy ride, coasting most of the way down to meet a bike shop shuttle at the bottom. In addition, bikers sometimes stop to either watch or have a conversation as they take a break. If you prefer solitude, start fishing at the lower end at either the well-developed Straight Branch trailhead on US 58 (36.644122, -81.739857; restroom, picnic tables and bike rack) or the middle trailhead in Taylor’s Valley (36.630216, -81.707967; no facilities). Once the bike traffic eventually reaches your location, slide over to one of the many sections out of both ear and eyeshot of the trail.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Looking East for More Fishing Opportunities
Heading East, the next major trout stop has to be the South River outside of Waynesboro just off I-64. While the South River has a sad history as little more than toxic dump for the effluent from various industries lining the banks and even catching fire once, miracles do happen. As a result of the hard work of the Shenandoah Valley Trout Unlimited Chapter and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), the river was completely cleaned up and now leverages the large limestone springs south of town pumping thousands of gallons of clear, cool water into a revitalized fishery for wild browns and the normal mix of stocked trout.
The South River is wide with an easy, wader friendly gradient.
While the town of Waynesboro has an easily accessible, stocked urban fishery under delayed harvest and put-and-take regulations, a better bet is the four-mile-long special regulation area south of town opened to the public in 2011. Fishing there requires a free landowner permit obtainable from the VDGIF website or the South River Fly Shop; a full-service store only a block from the river with guide service covering not only the South River but the Shenandoah, James, Jackson and mountain streams in the Shenandoah National Park.
A feisty South River brown trout giving a dirty look as he tries to wiggle free.
In what is a consistent theme for trout fishing Virginia, the best fishing is between April and June with sulphurs, light cahill, and caddis (check with the fly shop for the specific variant) being the flies to use on the end of a 4 or 5 weight rod. The special regulation area requires anglers be on their best behavior to prove to the landowners the risk they took in opening their land to public use was justified. Never stray from the marked angler trail and only use one of the five designated parking areas. All lead to good water with my favorite being the section upstream from South Oak Lane (38.043038,-78.925506).
Trout Fishing Virginia: Fly Fishing the Blue Ridge Mountains
Just north of Waynesboro, the Blue Ridge Mountains scream, “Fish here!”
Two choices. East slope or west slope? I recommend the east slope since the water is more reliable. The smaller streams on the west slope may go bone dry in years of drought (Paine Run, West Branch Naked, and Madison). The two largest west slope streams, Big Run and Jeremy’s Run, are popular destinations primarily accessible via a tough hike from Skyline Drive. If you want to fish the west slope, check with the Mossy Creek Fly Shop for real time advice.
Paine Run and other small west slope steams can completely dry up in a bad year as shown in this photo from 2010.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Focusing in on the East Slope
Moving to the east slope, the famous Rapidan River is always a good choice, but do not neglect its lesser-known neighbors – Conway, Rose, Hughes, and Hazel Rivers. Ignore the “river” designation – these are small streams where short 10 to 15 foot casts do the job for waiting brook trout that will eat just about anything presented properly.
Key flies are Mr. Rapidan, mosquito, adams, blue wing olives and terrestrials (ants and crickets).
This is ideal Tenkara water with either the 8’10” Tenkara USA RHODO or Temple Fork’s 8’6” Cutthroat rods being the weapons of choice. Not a fan of Tenkara? A 3 or 4 weight works fine. Fishing is physically demanding given the need for stealth, with slippery rocks, large boulders, and dense underbrush making streamside movement challenging. Leaving the feasible, yet strenuous, hike to each of these rivers from Skyline Drive to the very fit, most anglers usually approach from the foothills.
The parking area for the Hughes River at the Old Rag Mountain parking lot (38.589848,-78.315321) is approximately a half mile from the trailhead (38.573030, -78.295552) and the public water is another half mile beyond that via an easement across private property. Public pressure on Hazel is controlled by the limited parking (3 cars) three quarters of a mile from the Park boundary (38.614976,-78.256624; walk up Hungry Horse Lane).
Getting to the Conway requires bumping over a rough dirt road doable on a gently driven “flatland” vehicle to reach a small turnout at 38.432682,-78.4338. Once there, bushwhack west and carefully slide down the steep 20-foot embankment to reach the stream; the trail is on the far side. There are good hiking trails adjacent to the Rapidan, Conway, Hazel and Hughes rivers.
The Rose River is worth the hike!
The Rose River trailhead has room for six or seven vehicles (38.514334,-78.365769). After entering the Park, anglers can begin fishing immediately by walking 100 yards downhill to the stream. However, the best fishing is upstream from where the trail takes a permanent sharp turn away from the stream, leaving the angler in deep forest with not even a beaten game path next to the stream. Regardless of which stream you choose, bring a canister of bear spray or noisemakers (whistle or air horn) since the Shenandoah National Park has a robust population of black bears.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Targeting Metropolitan Areas
Metropolitan area anglers in eastern Virginia can also get a trout fix; albeit not in a very scenic setting. For example, Accotink Creek is literally within earshot of the Washington DC Beltway and is a delayed harvest stream just under 2 miles long (38.817891, -77.223881). It’s a sad, lazy puddle of water with muddy banks, overhanging trees and nothing interesting beyond the stocked trout.
Accotink Creek… grateful it is stocked, but no expectations for typical trout scenery.
A better, more scenic option during the stocking season is Chopawamsic Creek on the Quantico Marine Corps Base (38.528413, -77.381977). The best fishing on Chopawamsic is beyond the final vehicle gate. Walk or “fish bike” upstream to the dam; paying special attention to the two ponds at the top. The creek is open to the public, but everyone, military and civilian alike, must have a Quantico license ($10) available at either the Game Check Station (38.512500, -77.388636) or on Base at the Marine Corps Exchange sporting goods counter (show your driver’s license at the gate). The Base Commander usually closes vehicle access at the turnoff from the main road when the trout are gone.
Trout Fishing Virginia: Some Final Takeaways
In an article this short, I cannot discuss all the great places for trout fishing Virginia. In particular, where you may want to go depends on season, where you happen to be and what is close by. Unlike the days long ago when we would find out about fishing locations through friends and family, there are no secrets any longer. Actually, that is a good thing. Secret water might get polluted or developed if it does not have a constituency. Google “paint branch brown trout” for an example of a wild trout stream in Maryland that would have been wiped out if kept secret.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has gone the extra mile to ensure anglers know every opportunity to wet a line via the interactive map available on the VDGIF website. Not only does this increase license revenue and the sportsmen spend in local areas, but it gives everyone the opportunity to experience a broader set of locations than are documented in books, websites, or whispered about at Trout Unlimited meetings; spreading the pressure.
Visit the Kayak Hacks Fishing channel on YouTube for fly fishing and kayaking hacks (tips and tricks). For stream specific guidance on trout fishing Virginia, visit catchguide.com or check out Steve’s books available on Amazon:
- Wade Fishing the Rapidan River of Virginia
- Wade Fishing the Rappahannock River of Virginia
- Wade and Shoreline Fishing the Potomac River for Smallmouth Bass
- Wade Fishing the North Branch of the Potomac: Including the Casselman, Savage, Youghiogheny and Trout Streams
- Maryland Trout Fishing: The Stocked and Wild Rivers, Streams, Lakes and Ponds
- Hacking Fly Fishing
Originally published in Southern Trout Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
ANGLR Expert Jon Dietz started fly fishing about 10 years ago, but being originally from Northeast Pennsylvania he didn’t really have a lot of access to trout waters. What he could find were ponds full of bass, bluegill and other panfish. That’s how he grew up practicing, fly fishing for bluegill and other panfish!
So tune in as Dietz gives you the full breakdown on how to get started!
Getting Started Fly Fishing for Bluegill
I’ve been fly fishing all-in-all for around 10 or 11 years. My mother got me a fly tying kit for Christmas one year. I started fly tying before I started actually fly fishing. I used them on conventional gear. The real driving factor was that I chase steelhead a lot, being from Erie. When I would go, all the guys that were using flies and fly rods were catching way more fish than I was, so I wanted to figure out how to do this thing.
So I got myself a fly rod, and my buddy got one at the same time. We were using live bait on fly rods because we thought we were cool. Then I finally broke my fly tying kit out and started taking fly tying lessons.
It grew into an obsession from there.
Why Fly Fishing for Bluegill?
You can catch panfish literally everywhere. It’s the most overlooked fish, I think.
Ice fishermen target them a lot because they’re plentiful and they fight really well on light tackle, but they’re forgotten about for the majority of the year. As soon as the ice is gone, no one thinks about them. But they’re everywhere. You can catch them in farm ponds, lakes; pretty much any lake in Pennsylvania is going to be home to one of the eight species of bluegill that reside in PA.
There are actually quite a few anglers that enjoy fly fishing for bluegill. They’re extremely fun fish to fight. As bad of a rap as bluegill have for not being any fun to catch, they really do put up a fight!
I use a five or six-weight fly rod, which is what you’d use to catch trout or smaller bass, and those bluegill put up a really good fight, especially when you find them in the 10” to 12” range. They can really pull pretty hard. They use their flat body when they swim to sort of parallel you. That large body disperses a lot of water and makes them feel a lot bigger than they are.
They’re actually one of my favorite fish to go catch in the spring. I have another buddy who feels the same way, so every spring we get super amped about it because they spawn in the bays of Presque Isle and we’ll take our kayaks out and head out bluegill fishing. Everyone looks at us like we’re crazy! We actually like to consider bluegills the “gateway drug” to the rest of the fishing world.
They’re great for smaller children and people that are just getting into fishing because they’re so aggressive and so prolific. Generally you can have a great day and not have to sit forever before you catch one. Their action is generally fast and furious, they fight really well, especially on smaller rods and lighter tackle. You can keep catching them all day long. It’s a great introduction into fishing.
Where to Look When Fly Fishing for Bluegill
In the spring and fall bluegills are pretty easily accessible because they stay really close to shore. In the spring and early summer, they spawn way up shallow, in the same places largemouth bass do. They rely on the areas that don’t have a lot of vegetation, so a lot of times they’ll be right up along a boat launch or access areas.
That makes them really easy to access for everyone.
But as the water gets warmer, they push out deeper in the bigger lakes so it’s hard to target them in the summer with fly fishing gear. But if you have access to a pond, they don’t really have that many places to travel to, so they’re usually always within casting distance.
By using my ANGLR App with the Bullseye, I can keep track of where my catches are, along with all the pertinent information like time of day and weather and water conditions, so I know right when and where to come back on my next trip.
Fly Fishing for Bluegill: Flies and Gear
You’re using basically the same motions for everything- the hooksets are the same, the same flies, same rod and reel. I just got the practice I needed for trout on bluegills! The lines you use for fly fishing vary in weight, to give different sinking times, depending on what you’re looking to do.
As far as panfish go, they’re pretty easy to catch if you can find them. They’re opportunistic, which is what really makes them so prolific.
They can feed on a variety of different things. As far as flies go, you want to throw pretty small flies in the 12-14 size range. Look for anything that appears “buggy” like a small aquatic insect. They’re going to eat it; they’re pretty aggressive when it comes to that.
Generally when I’m fishing for bluegill, I’ll fish a lot of wet flies and small streamers, or dry flies. Because they have small mouths, it limits what you can throw and get away with. They’ll hit at anything, but when it comes to hook-up percentage, I think the size 12-14 little wet flies work best. You can fish them just under the surface.
Whatever you do, make sure that you’re using flies that have been finished well. You need them to be indestructible because the bluegill have very small, fine, sharp teeth that can really tear fine thread apart pretty quickly. I like to tie my own because I’ll really put a good finish on it that won’t be destroyed very easily.
Fly Fishing for Bluegill: Locations and Movement
Early in the summer when they first start spawning, they can gather in huge colonies of 60 to 100 fish. You’ll pull up and it’ll look like someone threw a dozen dinner plates on the bottom because they make those big nests. They get incredibly aggressive at that time, so you can catch them on dry flies or anything. I’ll put three flies on at a time and space them out about five feet, and I can catch three at a time. That makes for a really fun time.
The real key with bluegills is that they like movement.
You’ve always got to keep something moving in front of them to really keep their attention. If it stops and sits for too long, generally they lose interest and back out. If I’m fishing a dry fly on top, I’ll fan cast in an area where I think the fish are, then I’ll give it an 8 to 10 second count before I twitch it and leave it sit again for another few seconds before I twitch it again. If I’m fishing a wet fly just under the surface I won’t generally give them more than a one or two second pause. The size makes them really easy for fish to eat, and that movement just drives them crazy.
Generally the only time I’ll stop something is if there’s a bluegill that’s sitting on a nest. He’ll want to keep that nest clean of all debris, so he’ll pick it up to move it. If I put it on the nest and let it rest, he’ll either think that something is eating the eggs, or he’ll want to clean it off because he wants the females to think he has a really nice looking nest.
These are just a great fish to go after, all around. You can find them just about anywhere, you won’t get bored waiting for them to show up, and they’ll give you one good fight. What more could you ask for?
While everyone has a few crazy fishing tales to tell, steelhead fishing in the tributaries of Lake Erie in the fall seems to really draw an interesting crowd. So much so, that these anglers wind up a sort of combat, fishing shoulder to shoulder. ANGLR Expert, Nolan Minor had a few fun tales to tell when we chatted with him the other day. He was getting ready to head up to the Great Lake with his buddies and was reminiscing on some of their experiences up there.
Steelhead Fishing: A Whole Different Experience
I like Steelhead fishing in the tributaries of Erie, even though sometimes it’s sort of like going to Walmart. The fish are still there, but the environment is a little different from what you would find elsewhere. The creeks are smaller, and you’re sort of surrounded by colorful, yet rough characters. We chalk all of that up to being a part of the experience. Not only do we get to catch a bunch of awesome fish, but we get in some quality people watching during the process.
In Erie, fishing for steelhead is what they call “combat fishing.” There are so many people out there fishing. It’s not uncommon to be fishing a pool with 25 other people around you, making it pretty close quarters. It’s never pretty, and there are usually guys shoulder to shoulder, but everyone is usually pretty cool about it. When someone hooks a fish, people are pretty respectful and bring their lines in to let the person land their fish before going back to what they were doing. Some people are less talkative than others, but it’s usually a pretty good time.
My buddy has a video he took of this ‘character’ while we were fishing under a bridge. He had hooked a fish and took off running. He wasn’t only following the fish, but he was being kind of a nut. His boots were full of water, so he was squeaking as he went running through this crowd of people under the bridge. We still refer to him as “Squeaky Boots.”
I usually like to observe what people are doing for a few minutes to see what casts they’re making to make sure I don’t interfere before I step in. On another trip up there, we had found a pool with about 30 fish under an overhanging tree. No one was fishing right under that tree, so I slid in there. I had about six different fish come and chase my bait on the first cast, which told me those fish hadn’t seen a bait in a while.
I hooked one and lost one, then I caught one. I called my buddy over and he caught one. Two older men fishing up stream from us decided to leave and were obviously furious with us, expressing their concerns verbally. They told us that we were fishing too closely, and that we didn’t ask to come fish near them. I tried not to really engage with them. Really, what it was about was that those guys weren’t catching anything and us young guys walked in and started catching fish right away. It hurt their feelings and their pride, so they felt like they had to say something. Everyone around us commented the same sentiments after they left. That’s really the only verbal confrontation that I’ve ever seen on the creek, which is amazing, considering all the combat fishing that’s going on.
Things like that happen at least once every trip up there. In addition to the fish themselves, things like that are part of what make the trip.
Nolan’s Very First Steelhead
When I caught my first steel, we were fishing at the “tubes;” two large culverts that tunnel underneath a set of train tracks. There are usually a bunch of steelhead under there because it’s cool, dark, and protected. There were some pretty large logs in the water under the tunnels and I could see some fish hanging around them. We had already spent three hours looking for fish and I hadn’t caught one yet ‘till we came upon this pool.
Well, I hooked this fish, but was using 6 pound test line, so there wasn’t really much I could do to steer it away from snags. It decided it was going to head into these downed trees and ran around one branch before taking off in the opposite direction. The fish wound up 30” from the tree, but my line was going around the tree. Then it got caught up on something, so I couldn’t pull him back around the tree. I’m shocked my line didn’t break off because it became so stuck in there.
The fish must have decided that he wasn’t hooked anymore, so he just swam over to the tree and was sort of just hanging out. At first we thought he wasn’t hooked anymore, but then I could still see my hook with the line hanging out of his mouth with my bait.
We had to take a different rod and snag the line to get it closer to us. We managed to get him about halfway to us, but the line got hung up again so we couldn’t get him any closer. We had to take a third line to snag the second line to pull him close enough to us to net him. By that point we had a crowd around us watching these shenanigans, but we got that fish! He was average size, which is around 21-22 inches; about a three pound fish.
That was my first steelhead, and it’s kind of a fitting way to have caught one in Erie, PA. There’s nothing bright and flashy. You just have to do what you have to do.
In the corner of northwest Pennsylvania lies the next best thing to a vast ocean: one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie. With its almost tidal surf and vast, dark, deep waters, it’s an angler’s dream. From roaming schools of smallmouth, giant walleye, and the hard fighting steelhead, Lake Erie has a species for any angler!
We caught up with ANGLR Expert, Nolan Minor just as he was returning home from a trip to the outfitters. The Virginia native was gearing up for a trek from his home in Morgantown, West Virginia to travel three hours to Erie. He and his buddies were heading out fishing for steelhead.
What Makes Fishing for Steelhead in Erie so Unique?
Steelhead is a rainbow trout, but what makes it unique is that it’s migratory, similar to salmon. They live out in the ocean, or Great Lakes in this case, for the first two to three years of their lives before they make their first trip back in the streams to spawn. Unlike trout, they don’t meet their demise in the rivers, but are able to return to the lake in the spring.
They live their lives out in the vast lake, only concerned about food, but then one day something clicks in their brain and they decide they need to go spawn, so they begin to head to the creeks sometime around the end of September, early October. They keep flooding up the creeks until December. That’s where they’ll remain until the spring, when they return back to the open waters. Their life cycle is similar to their cousins’ out in the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, where the biggest difference is that those steelhead live most of their lives out in the open ocean.
There are two main creeks that harbor the majority of steelhead as they make their spawn run: Walnut Creek and Elk Creek.
An average Erie steelhead is usually around 21-22 inches and about three pounds, maybe a little less. Most of the fish we catch there are around that size. The largest one I’ve caught so far was 28 inches. That’s not that large of a fish, but it was really fat and weighed about seven and a half pounds. The smaller jacks are usually around 17-18 inches, but they’re less common.
When I Got That First Bite… I Was Hooked
I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip. I had done a lot of trout fishing in rivers and streams down in Virginia. My skills transferred over pretty smoothly. Fishing for trout and steelhead is closely related. The two fish’s behaviors are very similar, the baits they each take are almost the same, so tackle is similar as well.
This is a huge fish that’s a very aggressive fighter. It’s sort of one of the coveted freshwater fish to pursue. Growing up in Virginia, I hadn’t had an opportunity to go fishing for steelhead before my college years. With Erie being so close [at three hours away], I had to try. My buddy goes regularly, so he took me up there for my first time during my freshman year. Three or four of us still get together and head up to Erie for a long weekend as often as we can. Being college students and members of the West Virginia Fishing Bass Team, it’s difficult but we still manage to make it up two to three times a year.
Because I’m still in school, I’m really only able to get up there about two to three times a year. I’d love to go more often if I was close enough to take a day trip through the weekdays. Fishing pressure is a big factor to your success. When it’s busy, for every 40 fish you see, you may catch one.
Usually about 90% of the fish are being caught by about 10% of the anglers.
Gearing up when Fishing for Steelhead
Most anglers up in Erie fish with noodle rods. I’ve never used one because I was used to trout fishing on creeks in Virginia. I use a shorter 6’6″ light action rod, pretty light tackle. When we’re up there, we’re catching more fish than most people, so we must be doing something right. In the larger rivers like in the Pacific Northwest, a longer rod is necessary to keep your line off of the water, but these creeks are so little, so you don’t need that length. It’s such tight quarters in the trees and under bridges. The trees are actually covered in hooks, line, and bobbers. This is similar to fishing for stream trout; you have to cater your gear to the environment you’re fishing in.
We fish our baits underneath a small split-shot float. We’ll use single eggs, and we’ll use spawn bags, it really depends on what the fish are telling us. Some people use minnows or worms. We use a light line and an 8-14 hook, depending on the bait and conditions. Typically, the clearer the water, the smaller the equipment. We’ll use small jigs, and will grab a trout magnet a lot. Another staple of ours is a three inch pink trout worm. It’s the ‘Wacky Senko’ of trout fishing. Since the water is so small, we typically use smaller stuff.
Some people tend to overcomplicate things, but fishing for steelhead is pretty simple. Unlike bass fishing, you only have a handful of different baits and 3 or 4 color choices for most situations.
The fishing changes from day to day, based on the conditions. That’ll determine the bait or technique that works best for the day. There’s no bait that’ll be any better day in and day out.
You’ve got to have a drag-free drift under your float. That’s the key to being successful. You need that bait to be floating in a natural way. That’s the biggest fundamental, and once you have that mastered, you’ve got it. You’ll have your bait underneath your float, then use small split-shot weights to balance things out. Starting with a larger one, tapering off to a smaller weight closest to your bait since you want your bait to drift a little in front of the bobber to get that drag-free drift; a more natural drift, which is the key to getting a bite.
Steelhead sit up off of the bottom a little bit, and you want that bait to be drifting so they don’t have to move very far to eat it. You almost want it to hit them on the nose, since food is not their main priority when they come into the creek. While you can typically see 30-40 fish in the water at a time, they’re not always taking the bait, so you have to be patient, and present it to them in such a way that they can’t say no.
While landing these fish is exciting, it’s the time spent in the crowds of people that flock to Erie during this time that really makes the outing unique. I will be talking about my experiences fishing off of Lake Erie in our next Steelhead Edition. Make sure to catch it!
Don’t let the frigid water temperatures deter you from hitting the rivers and streams this winter. There’s still plenty of fish out there looking to be hooked.
Ohio State University Senior and ANGLR Expert, Jacob Jesionek, talks to us about his excursions winter fly fishing. He’s always been an avid outdoorsman and remembers trying to net minnows in the surf during his family’s beach trips during his younger years.
He convinced his family to try some guided trips and found the fun in working with a rod and reel. He was turned on to bass fishing during his high school years and hasn’t turned back. While a member of OSU’s bass team this past year, he made the National Championships which he fished during the ANGLR Tour.
Getting Started Into the Fly Fishing World
Jesionek was in Gander Mountain one day and saw a sale on fly rods. “I had seen some YouTube videos and decided I needed another thing to spend money on,” he joked.
“It’s more of an artform and a challenging way to fish. It’s fun to fly fish for just about any species.”
He got on the Orvis YouTube channel to educate himself before spending a few days out in his backyard casting, learning to lay down the line.
He eventually started going to the pond across the street from his house, working on getting his false casts down. “Before that, I wasn’t really into trout fishing, but by now, I’ve caught so many trout on the fly rod, I couldn’t imagine not having that as a tool for fishing.”
The Buzz on Winter Fly Fishing
“When it comes to trout, utilizing a fly and fly fishing tactics to target them works incredibly well because of how finicky the fish could be,” Jesionek says. “But you need to be spot-on with your fly selection.” That’s especially true in the winter.
When you’re trout fishing in the wintertime, it’s all about your fly selection. Trout don’t tend to mind the cold water much.
While they don’t tend to hunker down in really deep holes like bass, they still find deeper areas. You’ll be looking for heavier-weighted nymphs; something along the lines of tungsten head Prince Nymphs, Hare’s Ear, or Pheasant Tail. In warmer months, you wouldn’t typically be fishing with such a heavy nymph, but in the winter you need to get a little lower, so the extra weight is going to be your best bet. You definitely wouldn’t have any need for dry flies, as there are no hatches going on this time of year.
Jesionek recommends trying your hand at fly tying.
“It’s a really cool way to tune your fly fishing skills because the more you work on tying these flies, the better you get with names, and the better you get with matching the hatch. I definitely recommend it as a way to improve your skills if you’re stuck inside or you’re unsure of what you can do better.”
Cabela’s offers inexpensive kits you can pick up. Trout patterns for nymphs are normally fairly simple, so there’s no need to worry about trying to learn the intricate dry fly patterns.
Rainbow trout can be counted on to always eat either an egg imitation or the pink squirmy wormy. “It’s absolutely the best fly to catch a rainbow trout on,” he begins. “A lot of people say it’s cheating, but it’s still a fly that you can tie, and if you’re catching fish on it, you can’t really complain.”
In the wintertime, you’ll be seeking trout towards the deeper side of outside bends in the channel. While not as affected by the change in temperature as bass, they will still prefer sitting in deeper water. That’s why the heavier-beaded tungsten nymphs come in handy. You can also use a split shot rig. Jesionek uses two nymphs to a rig and ties them 12-18” apart from each other. Above that, he adjusts the height of his indicator as high as he needs to go. You could choose either a bobber-style or the more finessed New Zealand indicator, an almost feather-weight clump of hairs that barely floats on the surface. Staying stealthy is important when fly fishing.
With the deeper floating nymphs, you’ll notice more subtle takes because you’re typically trying to find bottom. As your fly is tapping bottom, your indicator will be ticking. When the indicator shoots under, you know for sure it’s a fish, but you really need to pay attention and learn the tick from the take.
“I’ve heard that all over the country, coming from seasoned fishermen. I heard it when I was out west fishing in Yellowstone, and I heard it when I was in Tennessee fishing the South Holston with the ANGLR tour.
Winter Fly Fishing Gear
Jesionek uses an assortment of rods. Right now, his preference is among three rods. The first is a 3-weight Cabela’s three-fork rod with the wind-river reel.
“That’s my super light-weight set-up for those super small streams since there’s no room for back casts or false casting.”
It’s a shorter 7’6” rod. “My favorite is the Orvis Recon.” It’s a 5-weight nine-footer. The third is the Orvis Clearwater. It’s an 8-weight nine-footer. He reserves that one mainly for steelhead and saltwater. There’s not really a whole lot of difference between the 5-weight and 8-weight, though it is easier to cast greater distances with the eight since there’s more strength in the rod.
He fishes a floating line with all three of his rods. With the 3-weight, Jesionek normally grabs ultralight 6x tippet, which is somewhere in the three pound breaking range. For the 5-weight, he uses 2x to 4x, depending on the water clarity. He’ll use 0x for the steelhead rod because he hasn’t really found those fish to be very line shy.
Keepin’ It Cool – But Not Too Cool
Always be prepared for the cold. It’s better to try to layer down as you go, rather than trying to figure out how to layer up. “Wading around in the water is a lot colder than you’d think.” he warns.
Jesionek confesses he’s not always as prepared for his adventures as he should be. Last year when steelhead fishing, he broke his cold-water waders, so he used his beach waders. “There was zero insulation in these wading boots. They were literally made for sand, so I was sliding everywhere.” He was also miserably cold.
I definitely recommend the proper attire when trying to fish in the winter. Since his uncomfortable mishap, he’s been relying on Compass 360 Gear. They’ve mastered the ability to add in a lot of insulation, while still keeping their waders lightweight. They’re also affordable, which is nice.
Seeking Trout When Winter Fly Fishing
Planning your trip beforehand by studying the stream you’ll be fishing to figure out where the best meanders are is key to success. You can utilize resources like local guides and tackle shops that can give you tips. Apps like ANGLR can be an incredible asset. You can start by researching your location ahead of time by using the Explore Feature, marking waypoints to try. From there, the local word of mouth can send you to those spots that can be the most successful, also giving you pointers on what sort of ties are working well for the area right now.
WildTroutStreams.com is a site recommended by Jesionek as a source that provides the most comprehensive maps and mapping data for locating wild trout streams throughout the continental U.S. You can view each creek in the state and see what sort of trout stream it’s classified as.