NAFC friend, Frank Scalish, is best known for his achievements as a professional bass fisherman, but when the weather cools, the tourneys are over and the last bass has been weighed, he dons waders, grabs his fly gear and prepares to spend the fall and winter months guiding steelhead fishermen on any number of rivers.
“We fish Lake Erie tributaries from Toledo, Ohio, to New York, says Scalish, who guides under the banner of Reel River Flyfishing Guide Service.
Prime time is typically from about the first week of October through mid-December—before water temps fall below 38 degrees. That’s when steelhead fill the rivers and readily attack streamers.
“The hardest part of this fishing is to make a drag-free drift,” he says. “If you can drift a streamer drag-free for four feet, you can get a bite.”
Once real winter sets in, however, and water temps drop below that 38-degree mark, things slow down. Fresh runs of steelhead continue to enter the rivers, but the fish are more lethargic—and predictable. Fly patterns go from active streamer types to eggs and nymphs.
“We focus on tailouts at the ends of riffles, and the slow water right in front of a riffle at that time of year,” he says. “You can usually see the fish, and you have to run the fly past their nose. We call it ‘plunk and dunk’ fishing. They won’t chase at all; it has to be right in that window, and when it is, you can watch them snap at it.”
The typical rig is a 10 to 10 ½-foot, 7- or 8-weight rod, with a double-fly rig on the end. Scalish attaches an egg fly to the tippet’s terminal end, then ties about 15 inches of tippet material to the hook bend and finishes with a green caddis. “In the pupa stage,” he adds, “no legs, no nothing, just a half-moon of green crap on a hook.”
The tippet itself is 8- to 10-pound Silver Thread fluorocarbon, with three to five size B or size BB split shot pinched onto the tag end of a barrel knot he’s tied about 18 inches in front of the first fly. As an alternative rig, he’ll sometimes spread the shot at 8-inch intervals starting about 14 inches above the first fly. The added weight from the split shot gives rise to the term “plunk and dunk.”
“Hold the rodtip high as you make the drift,” he recommends. “Keep the fly line out of the water; only the leader and tippet should be submerged.”
Scout The Waters
Extremely clear water makes things tough on winter fly fishermen. “It’s the worst,” he says, “when you can see the fish swim away as you approach.” When faced with this, he goes to translucent egg patterns and micro bugs on size 14 to 18 hooks, and approaches every fish with all the caution of a Homeland Security Agent at Threat Level Orange.
Not every river will be in the same condition, however, and Scalish strongly urges anglers to scout their rivers before they fish. “The best time to go is after a winter rainstorm when levels are dropping and the water is clearing,” he says. “Take into account the type of river, too. Does it run through farm country, or a tight, small valley? The first type may take days to begin to clear; the second could start clearing in a matter of hours.”
If the weather and water levels are stable, and you’ve got to choose, Scalish offers another rule of thumb: Fish the river that looks slightly greenish in color. You can figure it will offer a foot to 18 inches of visibility, and that’s what you want to fish.
Scalish is a diehard fly fisherman, but the general rules here regarding fish location, water clarity and bait size apply to egg drifters as well. Whichever camp you call home, use them to your advantage this winter.