Winter Steelhead Fishing In Ontario: Guide Tactics For Cold Water

An angler winter steelhead fishing
This is one of my clients fishing for winter steelhead on a guide trip.

Winter steelhead fishing around the Great Lakes region requires some different tactics. I discuss my best guide tactics and the baits that are required to keep my clients catching more winter steelhead.

During the winter, everything is cold, and so are the steelhead, which is why winter steelhead fishing will be different than fall and spring steelhead fishing. When winter steelhead fishing, the steelhead will hold in different areas, feed at different times, and even eat different things.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Can Be Excellent

An angler fishing for winter steelhead
This client of mine was lucky enough to catch 72 steelhead and hooked over 100 on a two-day trip in the middle of the winter.

Fishing for winter steelhead can be tough but it can also be the best fishing of the year.

There is often lots of fish in the river and very few anglers around.

I have had many days where I hooked over five fish a day and I have some of my most successful guide trips in the winter.

The guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company offer guided trips for steelhead during warm spells in the winter and guide steady right up until the end of December.

Where The Steelhead Hold In The Winter

I see things that other anglers never get to see because I am often on the water every day from October 1st until the river freezes in late December or January, with the exception of the days when the rivers are flooded.

Being on the water so much I get to see where in the pool I catch them both at different times of the day and throughout the fall and winter.

When fishing for steelhead in the winter, it helps if you know where they are more likely to hold, so I like to teach anglers about holding spots as we fish each spot.

I will often say to them in the early fall I will catch all the steelhead closer to the top of the pool and some in the middle of the pool and almost none at the back of the pool. They are also more at the head or top of the pool if it’s early morning or just before dark and they are ready to move to the next pool.

I will also fish a lot more shallower fast water and pockets during the early fall when the river temps are still not too cold.

As the season progresses and the river starts to get colder, I will often start catching fewer steelhead at the head of the pool and I will start catching them more in the middle with a few more steelhead getting caught near the back of the pool.

When the river temps start getting closer to the freezing point most of the steelhead I catch will be in the deepest spots of the pool or near the back.

When the river is ice cold, I will also find fewer fish in the rapids and pockets, and instead, the bigger, slower, and deeper pools will be the most productive.

When winter steelhead fishing, I stick to the deeper slower pools.

Best Method For Winter Steelhead Fishing

The best method for winter steelhead fishing is to float fish.

Because the steelhead are in the deeper slower pools the best method for winter steelhead fishing is float fishing. Float fishing is when you suspend your bait below a float and it can be deadly effective at any time.

To learn more about float fishing with spinning reels or with Centerpin reels check out the Float Fishing page

Slow moving lures like a french blade spinner or a Kwikfish can also be productive at times. If you want to know more about lure fishing for steelhead check out my newest blog website page 4 Best Lures For Steelhead – A Pro Guides Recommendations – See at

Best Baits For Winter Steelhead Fishing

During the winter I like to go a little smaller with my baits. I will use spawn bags with only three salmon eggs, also known as dime-size bags.

I will also catch a lot of my steelhead on 6mm and 8mm beads, but with beads you need to set the hook fast before the steelhead spit out the hard bead.

For some reason, the 3-inch trout worms still work all winter and I do very well with pink and red plastic worms. Live trout worms or dew worms can also be good.

A hot winter bait that most anglers ignore is the black stonefly, which is sometimes the best bait when other baits don’t work well.

Some anglers also use skein chunks, and if I do, I tend to make them smaller than I would fish in spring and early fall.

Rotate Baits When Fishing For Winter Steelhead

Often, the steelhead will be stacked up in the deeper pools, and lots of other parts of the river won’t have any fish.

Because the steelhead are holding in the same pool for days, weeks and even months I think they see a lot of the most common baits and colors, and some will stop feeding on popular baits like spawn bags.

I know the fish are there but they can often be picky and lethargic so you need to get their attention and entice them or just figure out what they want.

I think a lot of steelhead anglers are narrow minding, and they think that’s because they always catch fish on the same bait.

I will often start will my confidence bait, that’s the bait I was having the most luck with the last time I fishes and if it’s not working i will switch colors, switch sizes and then start working through other baits, like flies, beads, plastic grubs or gulp maggots.

Sometimes, I will find one bait that just seems to work well when all other baits won’t work.

Get To The Bottom When Winter Steelhead Fishing

In the winter, the steelhead are practically glued to the bottom. This is where they rest and hold and it’s where they feed to.

Make sure you have the right leader setup and that you are using the right baits to get down to the fish.

Check out my steelhead leader set up.

Best Time Of Day When Fishing Winter Steelhead

When fishing for winter steelhead I like to sleep in. Most guide trips start at 9am in the winter for the simple reason that the water temperatures drop a lot at night time and that often makes the fish go lethargic.

It’s not usually until around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. that the air and water start to warm as the sun hits them.

Once the water stabilizes or starts to get warmer by even 1 degree, I find that the steelhead will start to get active again.

On the colder days of the winter, I often fish later in the morning. My most effective time to fish in the winter is between 11am and 3pm after the sun warms the water a degree or two or when the water temperature is finally stabile.

Best Days For Winter Steelhead Fishing

Sunny days are often best when winter steelhead fishing

When winter fishing for steelhead I will often prefer to go on sunny dry days because the sun will start to warm the water and that will get the fish biting again.

At this time of year, rising temperatures are good and decreasing temperatures are not-so-good.

Dress Right For Winter Steelhead Fishing With These Tips

Fishing for winter steelhead can be cold on you. Your hands freeze, your feet freeze and you can get really cold.

I fish day after day in freezing cold water, and I discuss all my best tips for staying warm on my blog page Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Summary

If you stay warm and you use some of these tips winter steelhead fishing can be very good. I hope some of these tips help you on your quest for winter steelhead.

Good Luck,


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