Simms Ambassador, Marty Sheppard Talks About the Challenges and Rewards of Winter Steelheading.
There’s not much appeal to standing in a river in the midst of freezing temps, rain, snow and/or sleet. Unless of course you’re a steelhead junkie and you happen to be standing next to Simms Ambassador, Marty Sheppard of Little Creek Outfitters. Despite having the ability to catch steelhead during the comfort of the summer months, Marty prefers the winter. Why? Because with winter fish comes the hope of bigger and brighter chrome and of course, the potential gratification of catching one of the world’s most challenging fish during the most challenging time of year.
Simms: Little Creek Outfitters is based in Maupin, Oregon, right? Tell us a little bit about your fishery.
Sheppard: Yep. I guide in Oregon year round. Basically, in the winter, I fish west of the Cascade Mountains and in the summer, I fish east of the Cascade Mountains.
Simms: What is your favorite time of year to chase steelhead? And just because this is a winter steelhead interview, don’t feel like you have to say winter is your favorite time.
Sheppard: Ha! Well, believe it or not, winter really is my favorite time of the year to chase steelhead.
Simms: And why is that?
Sheppard: You know, I’d equate it to snow skiing. When you start, you start on a bunny slope. Then you graduate to the blue hill and then to the black diamond. Ultimately, if you’re lucky, you end up doing the hardest stuff on the mountain — backcountry, heli-skiing — whatever. In my mind winter steelheading is the most challenging type of fishing there is but the rewards are the greatest.
Simms: What is the biggest challenge to overcome this time of year?
Sheppard: Honestly, the biggest challenge is usually the weather. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s snowy, etc, etc. Conditions like that really make it tough. But, thanks to companies like Simms, we are not only able to cope with these conditions, we are able to stay comfortable in these conditions.
Simms: In your area, what is cold?
Sheppard: For us, cold is usually above freezing. Now, that might not sound so bad but trust me, when you have a 40 degree day and mix it in with a little wind, snow and/or torrential downpours, it can be brutal if you aren’t prepared.
Simms: For those cold, wet days, what gear are you never without?
Sheppard: First things first, hands down — Simms G3 Guide™ Bootfoot Waders. When I’m in those, I’m comfortable all day long and don’t even have to be concerned about getting cold feet. The next thing is the ExStream™ Jacket. When it’s really cold, if I forget that jacket, I’m in serious trouble. It just cuts out any cold whatsoever especially when you wear it with good layering. And then of course, when it’s dumping rain, there’s nothing that can come close to performing like the G4 Pro™ Jacket.
Simms: Talk a little bit about why you feel the rewards of winter steelheading are the greatest.
Sheppard: Remember, any time you catch a fish that’s hard to come by — a big, strong bad-ass fish, that’s the pinnacle. When you take on a challenge or something that’s hard and you’re not successful, and you try again and you’re not successful, and you try again and you’re not successful, and then you try again — but this time you are successful, it means a lot more. Not only have you conquered the challenge of landing a winter fish but also, in the winter, steelhead tend to be bigger and are often much brighter fish, which is what we all want.
Simms: In your area, what are you looking for in terms of bites? In other words, how many bites constitutes a solid day?
Sheppard: Let me put it this way. If I fish an entire day and don’t get a fish, I’m not surprised. If I fish a day and get four fish to the beach, I’m not surprised. With that said, my expectations every day aren’t anything — but of course, my goal is to catch one. And so, if we catch one, well, then my goal is to catch two. Steelheaders are full of hope, if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be out there. Our hope is that we have a chance and our chance is when we get a grab. Any time of year, it’s the anticipation that fuels us but that’s especially the case during the winter.
Simms: What do you think is your biggest job is during the winter as a steelhead guide?
Sheppard: Really, our main job as a guide is three-fold: To instill confidence; to make sure we are having fun together; and to put our clients is situations where the odds are in their favor. If we can do all three, we are doing something right and we will eventually get one.
Simms: How does confidence effect success in winter steelheading?
Sheppard: I’ve never met somebody who caught a steelhead that thought they weren’t going to catch one. What I mean by that is; every time I see somebody catch a steelhead, they felt like they were going to catch a steelhead.
Simms: Can you tell a little about the tactics you use during the winter months?
Sheppard: In the winter, the fish are not as aggressive to move laterally in the water line. So that means, we have to get the fly down a little ways. But what I’ve noticed in recent years in targeting steelhead on the swing is that my presentation doesn’t have to be quite as deep as I thought and that’s really been working well for me. My theory is that by going too deep, you end up missing some of that sweet, soft water.
Simms: What kind of conditions are you looking for in the winter? Clean water? Water with a little color? A rising river? A falling river? What makes you think “today’s going to be a good day”?
Sheppard: In an ideal world, the rivers would blow out once a week. I know that sounds odd but when the rivers stay clear for any period of time, say longer than a week or so, the water begins to drop and the steelhead end up hiding in the deepest, darkest holes of the river. So to answer your question, what I want is a fluctuation of storms that come in, raise the river, get it brown, get it dirty and get it warm. When it drops back into shape, there’s a very small window say 24 to 48 hours when fishing can get pretty awesome.
Simms: What does that mean for the fish? What is it about that scenario that leads you to believe it’s going to be a productive day?
Sheppard: First, it’s because with the higher water, fish can now come into the river. It’s also because those fish like to hang on those three to four foot edges which is the perfect depth for us to swing our flies. The USGS water level report is my stock market. When the river goes up, I’m on full alert and I’m ready to go. When the river is up, I’m looking at my schedule for the week and looking at what appointments I can cancel so I can make sure to be on the water. If I have clients scheduled, I’m calling them with excitement and I’m telling them, it’s going to be great when it starts to drop back down. In my opinion, prime time to be there is when the river barely has any visibility, three to six inches. Once that vis gets back around three feet or so, that magic window is kind of done. Now, how long that special window stays open depends on how high the water came up.