Steelhead fishing is in full swing on the North Umpqua river, pardon the pun, and Stew at Stillwater has been pretty much living on this mythic Oregon Steelhead river lately. Winter steelheading with a fly rod requires patience, iron will and the proper gear. Stew was kind enough to put together a list of the gear that he is currently using to stay warm and upright. Spey fishing in the foul weather, high water environment that epitomizes Winter steelhead fishing means that quality gear matters. So without giving away any secret spots or flies, this is what gear Stew is using.
Primarily I have been using a Sage Method 9119-4. If the side of the river allows and I am swinging a wider run I will use my R.B. Meiser 1389MKS-4. Both of these rods are 9wts to allow for casting the heavier sink tips and heavy flies that the river demands to be successful this time of year.
My reels are probably one of the most important pieces of gear that I use. Both of the reels that I use have high line capacities with smooth drags. Conditions dictate that a reel must be extremely durable because of the weather and terrain. The reel that I use most is the Bauer Rogue Classic #6 that has a custom color scheme of orange and black. My other two reels are a Tibor Signature 9-10 and a Galvan Torque #10. Both of these reels are tough with great drags that have slow start up torque, just like my Rogue Classic. None of these reels have ever failed me or caused me to lose a fish, which is super frustrating to have happen when it takes several hours just to hook a steelhead.
As important as the rods and reels that I fish are to hooking a fish in the deep, cold runs of the North Umpqua, the fly lines and sink tips I use are probably the most important piece of the trio. Personally I like bright backing that I can see in low-light conditions. That is why I have Cortland 30lbs Dacron Braided backing on my reels. I can see it well in the dim early morning and dusk light conditions, as well as in the water.
Rio Spey ConnectCore & Gripshooter 50lbs running lines shoot easily when integrated with the Airflo Skagit Compact Intermediate Fly Line. I use lines from 570gr to 600gr depending on the weight of the sink tip I am using. This time of year I use a T-11 sink tip quite often and the ConnectCore and Gripshooter match up well the weight of this tip. The key to two-handed casting is to make sure your line grainage matches your rod action and your own personal casting style, I can’t underemphasize the later more.
Waders and Boots
Waders to stay warm and dry. Boots to stay upright. My boots are Simms G3 Guide Boots with a liberal dose of Harbite studs and Alumibite Star Cleats sprinkled across the Vibram soles. This gives me not only a super grip on the legendary slick N. Umpqua slabs of rock but helps me climb up and down the steep banks and trails easily. My Simms G3 Guide Waders are continually tested by the blackberries and brambles that are endlessly trying to puncture them. Leaks are so rare that when I have had one that I usually don’t have a patch kit around because leaky waders are an afterthought.
Staying warm is difficult in the all too common drizzle that plaques the river canyon. The base layer is the most important part of the equation. I start with great Merino wool socks. Merino wool is expensive and under-appreciated and has become integral in keeping my feet warm.
The Simms Guide Bibs are the key to my overall comfort though. Maligned as ugly by those who have never worn them, these ultra-warm one piece base layers have kept me in the water on the worst of days when others have sat in the truck.
I have two jackets that I like. The Sitka Coldfront Jacket is worn if it is so cold that there is ice in my rod’s guides or it is snowing. My Coldfront can’t be worn if the temperature is over 40°, it is just too hot. That is when I go to my other jacket.
The Simms Kinetic Jacket allows for easy freedom of movement while keeping me warm in all types of weather. It is amazingly wind proof for such a light insulated shell. I wear this coat far more than any other jackets or shells I own combined.
There are so many factors that can’t be controlled when chasing steelhead in the winter time. Weather, water levels and the size of the runs are in the hands of the gods. Controlling factors like your comfort, casting and line retrieval (with or without a fish on your fly) will directly contribute to your success and enjoyment when winter steelhead fishing.