Catching steelhead in cold requires patience, luck — TJ Lenz was on his way home to Canandaigua from a business meeting in Buffalo when he stopped off at the Oak Orchard River on a recent weekday.
Never mind that he only had 30 minutes to fish. Or that it was pouring rain and the river was muddy.
A fly fisherman’s got to do what a fly fisherman’s got to do.
“I got my rod together and ran down to the water,” the 34-year-old Lenz recalled. “On my third cast, I caught an eight-pound steelhead. The guys next to me were from Virginia. They were looking at me like, ‘What does he know that we don’t know?'”
The out-of-state anglers approached the man who frequents that Orleans County river. Turned out he was using the same fly pattern they were using.
“I told them, ‘Hey, it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes I’ll cast 100 times and not catch a thing,'” Lenz admitted. “I was just lucky.”
Welcome to winter steelhead season.
“If one or two steelhead are hooked on the fly during our winter months, then the steelheader should be content,” claimed Craig Dennison, who is something of an authority on steelies with the Canandaigua Lake Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Dennison, 38, of Honeoye Falls, is a regular on the Genesee River, though he also gets around to the Salmon River, Oswego River, Irondequoit Creek, Cattaraugus Creek and Oak Orchard. Other hot winter fishing spots include Slater Creek in Greece and the Niagara River.
The fall salmon run recently ended as the water temperatures dropped below 40 degrees, Dennison reported. That means it is time to target the winter steelhead.
Lenz, who often fishes with his father, Ted, said steelhead are “the most fun to catch. They’re probably harder to catch (than salmon or brown trout). They hit hard. You know you have a hit. They really strike it; not like the salmon or brown, which is just mouthing it.
“Then (after striking) they’re jumping.”
Even in the colder waters, when activity and aggressiveness decline, Lenz said, the steelhead will still let you know its there. “They’ll slow down a little bit, but they’re used to cold water and they’re in there to feed.”
Still, Dennison suggested fishing during the warmest part of the day.
If that warm part of the day happens to come after a cold spell, all the better for you. That’s when the best fishing is most likely to occur.
“The challenge is trying to determine what the ‘fly du jour’ is,” said Jean Philip Chaintreuil of Pittsford.
Reading the water is another key.
“The main thing fly fishing in Oak Orchard is getting the fly down to the fish,” explained Lenz, a Merrill Lynch executive. “If it’s really low water, you sight-fish for the steelheads. That’s like hunting for the fish.
“This year, it’s been high (water). You have to find the parts of the river where the fish will congregate. They’ll usually be in holes.”
Finding fish behind rocks and at drop-offs in the river or stream is a very likely location, according to Chaintreuil.
With colder water, Dennison said, “They will start seeking deeper holes, slower water, and still prefer seams in front of and behind rocks. They are less likely to travel more than a few inches to take a fly.”
That means the angler needs to drop his fly (“egg patterns are still highly effective”) to or near the bottom.
Colder water also means anglers better come prepared.
“Dressing warm is key,” Dennison said. “Drinking hot fluids when you are standing in 38-degree water, covering water (moving around), and patience are helpful.
“If nothing else, steelheading takes you outside and to a beautiful environment.”
Lenz, who also enjoys deer hunting (he took eight-point bucks during bow and gun seasons), took up fly fishing as a student at Colorado State University. He was given a fly rod as a high school graduation present and he ended up rooming with a fishery biology major.
“He showed me the ropes,” Lenz said. “He knew every little creek in Colorado. That’s what got me hooked.”
When he moved back East, though, he thought his glorious fly fishing days were behind him.
He made a comment to some local fly fishermen that there wasn’t much fly fishing around the area. “Oh, yeah,” they said to him. “Why don’t you come to Oak Orchard with us?”
“I was used to catching one-, two- and three-pound browns in Colorado,” Lenz said. “Here, I was catching 20-to-30-pound salmon on the Salmon River and 10-pound browns on the Oak Orchard.
“It’s unbelievable what we have so close to Rochester.”
In some cases, it’s right in Rochester.
The Seth Green area of the Genesee River below the Lower Falls is a promising steelhead producer.
Just don’t go to any fishing holes expecting to hook steelhead in great numbers. Not when winter conditions prevail.
“With cold-water temperatures and more lethargic fish, it is much tougher to hook up several fish per day,” Dennison said.
Just ask the Virginia anglers who were amazed when Lenz dropped in and brought a nice steelie to the surface. A little luck never hurts.