Noodle Rod Fishing Tips
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Advanced Float Fishing Tips
Learn more about Ohio's Lake Erie steelhead fishing
Noodle Rod Fishing and Fishing Tips for Ohio Steelhead
By Phil Hillman, District Fish Management Supervisor
Division of Wildlife District 3
“Noodle” rods have been the mainstay of steelhead trout fishing in Ohio for close to 30 years. A noodle rod is basically an elongated spinning rod that comes in different actions, such as light, medium, or heavy action. Light action rods allow for better sensitivity and a better fight. A heavier action rod allows for better hook-setting ability. Choice of rod actions is an individual matter. The length of these rods generally ranges from 7’ to 12’. Noodle rods can be purchased at many tackle stores that supply steelhead trout tackle or they can be custom made. Young anglers will likely be able to perform better using shorter, rather than longer rods. Long rods are more sensitive and certainly more flexible to use in a variety of fishing scenarios. The fish really “plays” the rod rather than the fishing line, which would more be the case with an ultra-light spinning rod that might only be 5.5’ or 6’ long. Thus, the longer rod allows the angler to use much lighter line, which is a key to effective steelhead fishing. A 3-5 foot section of fluorocarbon leader (4-7 pound test) increases success since it is virtually invisible to steelhead trout.
It is important not only to have a quality noodle rod, but also a very sturdy and dependable spinning reel for steelhead trout fishing. Spinning reels are “taxed” to the maximum with the normal scorching runs of the steelhead trout. It is worth the extra money to purchase a mid-range to high-end priced spinning reel with a dependable reputation and a good drag system. The typical spinning reel is loaded with approximately 150 yards of 7-8 pound high-quality monofilament fishing line. Other important stream accessories are a pair of polarized sunglasses and a ball cap. A good landing net is also helpful but not an absolute necessity.
Noodle rods are most often used for steelhead trout in stream fishing settings. However, noodle rods can also be used for pier or breakwall fishing. Noodle rods can be used to fish bait, lures, or flies. The normal casting technique on streams is to make an upstream cast of about 45 degrees. The line is reeled enough so that it “telescopes” down to the water from the rod tip resulting in the line having a slight “belly”, rather than laying flat on the water. It is important that once the cast has been made the rod tip moves with the line downstream so that there is no line drag. Also, this allows a quick strike to be made, which can be indicated by the line twitching, bobber submersing, etc. The line is retrieved once the rod reaches a point about 45 degrees downstream of a “dead” center position.
The most important aspect of stream steelhead trout fishing is staying in contact with the stream bottom, where these fish generally reside. It is oftentimes necessary, when using flies or bait, to use some minimum amount of weight (e.g. split shot or micro split shot) to keep the bait or fly close to the stream bottom. Always assume that when the line twitches or the bobber starts to submerge that a steelhead trout is on the end of the hook. It is important to make a quick wrist strike and hold the noodle rod arched high while fighting the steelhead trout. There are only a few instances where the rod tip should be dropped while fighting a fish. One example is when a steelhead trout or other fish clears the water. Drop the rod tip only until the fish hits the water’s surface, so that the fish doesn’t fall on a tight line, potentially risking a broken line. The second instance is when the fish swims under a log, into debris, etc. and there is no other way to control the fish.
It is actually a valuable technique to allow the fish to have slack line under these circumstances. The fish thinks that it is free of any resistance and oftentimes swims back in the same manner that it entered. Another trick is when a steelhead trout is holding in fast water and won’t budge. Hold the noodle rod steady and gently start taking small steps backwards until the fish is no longer in fast water. At this point, it will be much easier to fight the fish.
Whether the angler uses a noodle rod or fly rod there are certain areas to search for steelhead trout. When the trout start making fall upstream migrations, it is important to realize that these fish have spent the summer in deep, poorly illuminated water. So, the first thing that the steelhead trout searches for as it enters a stream is the deepest areas that it can find, where there usually is a singular current moving through, which insures a satisfactory flow of oxygenated water. These lake-run rainbow trout can be found in the streams from September through mid-May and these deep pools should never be overlooked, since pre-spawn and post-spawn fish will utilize these sites. From December through May it is also important to search out gravelly shallow areas where there are oftentimes multiple water currents evident. These are potential spawning areas. Once a few fish have been spotted in these reaches, it becomes relatively easy to spot spawning steelhead trout if polarized sunglasses and a ball cap are utilized. Flies or lures are the most effective choices for catching spawning fish. These fish will react positively in one of two ways or not at all. Instinctively, certain flies, e.g. stone flies, may be sucked in since trout are accustomed to seeing them. The second response is attacking a large fly, streamer, or lure, which the fish view as a threat or annoyance to their spawning activities. These spawning fish are not actively feeding and will not do so until they have completed their spawning activities.
Regardless of what fishing gear is used, the success of a stream steelhead trout trip is strongly associated with existing stream conditions. The best stream conditions are when the water is greenish in color, with 8”-12” of visibility, and is close to normal or slightly above normal. If the water is high, fast, and muddy, there are two choices to consider. Find a smaller stream or tributary that has cleared sooner. A muddy stream can also oftentimes be fished but it is important to find slower moving water along the bank or in side channels. Expect that the time between bites will be much greater than under normal conditions.
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Fly Fishing for Ohio Steelhead
By Vince LaConte, District Fish Management Supervisor (Retired)
Division of Wildlife District 3
Fly fishing has become a very popular and effective way to catch Ohio steelhead trout. Over the last 30 years, Buckeye fly fishers have come to know the excitement that of hooking and landing one of these large and beautiful fish on gaudy bits of steel, fur, and feather.
The typical Ohio steelhead fly fisherman uses a 6-9 weight, medium to fast action fly rod of 8-10 feet in length. A rod with an extended fighting butt will help fight and land these headstrong fish. The longer the rod, the better the line control. The fly reel should have a good adjustable drag and an exposed rim. The angler can use the exposed rim as a secondary drag by palming it. One of the new large arbor reels would be an excellent choice. Steelhead are large and strong fighters so it is a good rule of thumb to get the best rod and reel you can afford. “Fish Ohio” class steelhead (28 inches or larger) have the ability to simply destroy light weight equipment. A weight forward floating fly line is the most versatile and therefore the most generally used fly line. It should be backed up with an appropriate amount of 20 pound test dacron backing, as sooner or later a good steelhead will take out all of your fly line along with a great deal of your backing. Fluorocarbon leaders, flies, and terminal set-up all depend upon the fishing technique that the angler chooses to use.
The two most commonly used fly fishing techniques for steelhead are Dead Drift Nymphing and the Wet Fly Swing. Each has its advocates and detractors; its advantages and disadvantages.
Dead-drift nymphing is without question the most productive method used to catch steelhead in Ohio while fly fishing. This method can be used under the greatest variety of river conditions on both large and small rivers, and at all seasons while the fish are in stream. The technique allows the fly fisher to methodically cover all the water and place the fly to within inches of any fish there. It will catch aggressive fish in warm water conditions and it will catch sedentary fish in frigid water conditions. It is, however, an active fishing technique that does require a lot of casting with constant attention to line control. With this method, strikes from the fish are often difficult to detect and fish are often lost due to inattention. The set-up consists of a floating fly line and a long (8-12 feet) leader with a relatively light fluorocarbon tippet (4-8 pound test). Attached to the leader is a strike indicator (a small light weight bobber), split shot, and one or two flies. The strike indicator is set such that the bottom fly will be suspended within a whisker of the river bottom. It is preferable that the distance between the strike indicator and the bottom fly be too great rather than too short. The split shot are added just above the fly or flies and should only be heavy enough to sink the flies but not so heavy as to sink the strike indicator. Some favorite flies used with this method are size 6-10 glo bugs, egg flies, and sucker spawn in a wide variety of bright colors including, but not limited to, orange, yellow, red, pink, chartreuse, cream, and white. Also productive are a variety of traditional nymph patterns such as the gold-ribbed hare’s ear, prince nymph, black stonefly nymph, pheasant tail nymph, caddis larvae, and small wooly buggers in sizes 8-14.
Dead-drift nymphing is a short line technique that starts with a short upstream cast. The strike indicator, shot, and flies are pushed back toward the angler by the flow of the current and at the same speed as the current. It is key at this point that the angler follows the strike indicator with the rod tip while keeping as much of the fly line as possible off the surface of the water by slowly raising the tip of the fly rod. As the strike indicator approaches and passes downstream of the angler, he or she should continue to follow the strike indicator while lowering the rod tip in order to extend line to the strike indicator and thereby extending the length of the drift. Failure to do this will result in a current-induced pull on the fly line and the strike indicator which speeds up the drift of the flies and pulls them up and away from the bottom. This will result in considerably fewer strikes. It is an advantage to have a long fly rod in this situation. The optimal fishing pattern is to cast to all potential fish holding locations shore to shore while slowly moving upstream.
The strike, when it comes, can be difficult to detect. It most often manifests itself as a subtle stop in the downstream movement of the strike indicator. It may begin to slowly sink under the surface. This can also happen if the flies become snagged on the bottom of the river. These actions are indistinguishable, therefore the angler must strike at every stoppage of movement (or any other unusual movement) of the strike indicator. Most of the time it will be nothing more than a hangup on the bottom, but every so often..........!! This technique is the most effective method of catching steelhead, regardless of the conditions, with a fly rod in Ohio. It does, however, require constant attention to detail.
The wet fly swing is a technique that allows the fly fisher to cover a great deal of water in a short period of time. This is an ideal method to use when exploring new or unfamiliar water. It is a most relaxed method of fishing. The terminal set-up is designed to get a large fly to the river bottom as fast as possible while allowing it to swing in the current in an arc downstream of the angler. The intention is to aggravate a fish into a strike. This is akin to slowly dragging a toy mouse in front of a cat – hopefully with the same result. To accomplish this, the fly fisher must add weight to either the floating fly line or to the leader. This can be done in one of two ways: add a section of sinking fly line to the main floating portion of the fly line, or just add split shot to the leader several inches above the fly.
Some fly lines are sold with a sink-tip already built into them but these lack the versatility one would need to fish in Ohio’s steelhead streams. It is better to either purchase or build detachable sink-tips of various weights and lengths. In this way the angler will be prepared for whatever river conditions he or she may find at any particular time. These sink-tips come with (or should be built with) braided loops on both ends to facilitate quick and easy attachment to and removal from the main fly line via a loop to loop connection. The exact length and weight of each tip and which one is best suited to use under specific river conditions is something that each angler must discover for himself through the process of trial and error. Leaders used with these sink-tips are usually short (3-4 feet long), relatively heavy (8-10 pound test), and made of fluorocarbon tippet material. The second set up method is the simplest and most cost effective. The angler need only add an appropriate number of split shot to the leader about 12-18 inches above the fly. The angler would add just enough weight to get the fly to the river bottom but not so much that it is constantly snagging on the bottom. The leader in this case must be longer (8-12 feet long) and is attached directly to the main fly line. This set-up is often referred to as a “poor man’s sink-tip”. The wet fly swing technique allows for use of large colorful flies, like the wooly bugger, egg-sucking leech, marabou streamer, rabbit strip zonker, rabbit strip leech, and clouser minnow in black, white, olive, brown, purple, yellow, and orange in sizes 4 to 8.
The wet fly swing starts with a cast directly across the river. The fly line is held tight as the fly is carried to the bottom and begins to swing downstream in the current in an arc. At the end of the swing the fly will be hanging in the current directly downstream of the angler. A steelhead may strike at the fly at any point during the swing but most strikes occur in the last half of the swing and are often quite violent. At the completion of the swing, the angler should take one step downstream and repeat the cast and swing, methodically covering all potential fish holding water. This action will be reproduced while moving downstream one step and one cast at a time. Since this technique is designed to draw strikes from aggressive fish, it is the most successful when used during the early fall and late spring when water temperatures are warmer and the steelhead more aggressive. The appeal of this technique is in its relaxed nature, the ability to cover large areas of water, and the savage strikes it induces.
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Advanced Float Fishing for Steelhead
By Mike Durkalec, Biologist
Float fishing with specialty gear is nothing new; this technique has been practiced in Europe for over a century. The method was imported from Europe to the Canadian steelhead trout waters of the Great Lakes (Ontario) and Pacific Northwest (British Columbia) as early as the late 1960s. Yet, only within the past ten years has this method exploded on the Ohio steelhead scene.
At the heart of this technique is the center pin reel. As the name implies, the reel is seated on a central spindle. The reel itself essentially looks like a giant fly reel between four and a half and six inches in diameter, consisting of a spool and a back plate (to which the spindle is attached). The spool spins effortlessly on the spindle, assisted by high quality bearings or bushings. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of Great Lakes anglers tend to prefer bearing over bushing models. This smoothly spinning spool is essential to the function of the reel; even the slightest flows will cause line to evenly peel from the reel, affording an exceptionally natural drift. This effortless and smooth free spooling function is the primary advantage of using a center pin reel for drifting over a spinning reel. Most center pin models have no functional drag, but most have a clicker style drag for use when transporting the rig. The angler’s own hand serves as the drag when a fish is hooked. Although this may sound a bit intimidating to anglers new to the method, this method of fighting a fish is quickly learned and, in fact, affords more fine-tuned control in spool tension as needed. Reels were historically manufactured in Europe and Canada, but a growing number of manufacturers in the U.S. now are realizing the interest in this type of gear and are producing some high quality domestic offerings also. It is not the purpose of this introduction to outline specific models of available reels, but a simple web search or call to the local tackle shop that caters to steelhead trout anglers will lead to all the necessary information.
The rod used for this center pinning technique is also a specialized tool. The hallmark of a good float rod is that it is very long, even more so than the whippy noodle rods that many steelhead anglers use. The standard rod tends to be in the 13-foot range, although models from 11-15 feet are also common (11 to 13 foot is well suited to Ohio tributaries). In addition to the extra length, these rods also have a bit more backbone than a noodle rod, yet have more of a light action than ultra-light rods. The benefits of the extra length and a bit more stiffness are several. First, the length allows the angler to keep the line off the water more effectively, giving a more direct connection to the float instead of dragging in the water. The extra length also assists with quick hook sets, especially from a distance, as well as giving more leverage for fighting large, strong fish while still protecting lighter leaders. As with specifics on rods and reels, information is available with a quick web search or a visit to the steelhead trout specialty tackle shop.
Part of the allure of center pinning is watching the tip of a well-balanced float sink beneath the river surface when a steelhead trout takes the offering. So, what about the floats? One can keep it simple or complex, but specialized floats definitely have merits under varying conditions. Many anglers started out fishing simple Carlisle-style floats with spinning gear, and this method still accounts for plenty of steelhead trout each year in Ohio. For those who want to take it a step further, float design is a very specialized part of this technique. First off, we’ll start with a bit of float terminology. The “body” of the float refers to the buoyant central section; typically comprised of balsa, cork, foam, or other such buoyant materials. The “stem” is essentially the rudder of the float and can extend from about one to five inches below the bottom. The “antennae” is the top portion and is generally very short to avoid causing the float to blow off track excessively in the wind. The top and bottom of the float (and many anglers also prefer in the middle) are affixed to the line via rubble or silicone tubing called “float caps”. This allows the float to be held in place sufficiently with friction, but does not damage the line and allows the float to be easily moved up or down the line as needed.
Float shape and design can make a big difference under varying conditions. As a general rule, a slimmer bodied float is used in slower or slack water, such as deep pools or river mouth areas, and a round bodied float is used in more turbulent water during elevated flow conditions. The trade off is sensitivity versus stability. As most anglers want to maximize their time fishing rather than changing floats, and since they can fish varying water types as they wade a stretch of river, there is a happy medium between the two float types: a float with an elongated oval or teardrop shaped body. This float type is generally stable enough for faster flows of riffle areas, but is still sensitive enough for use in slow pools with soft-hitting winter fish. This float type works perfectly fine for at least 90% of the situations that an Ohio tributary angler will encounter (see photos). In very slow, calm flows with light-biting fish, anglers often find a slim body stick-style float, which is very sensitive, to be favorable.
As for terminal tackle, any high-quality monofilament will serve sufficiently as a main line on the reel, with different anglers having varying brand preferences. Qualities to look for are low memory, fairly hard, abrasion resistant lines. Do not use fluorocarbon as the main line on the reel! This line is denser than standard mono and will sink more quickly if it hits the water between your rod tip and float, defeating the purpose of float fishing. Some anglers favor use of the coated floating monofilaments now available or may add a silicone dry fly float lubricant to the first 100 feet or so of their main line, as well. I should note that fluorocarbon is a favored leader material, though, due to its’ low visibility properties, density, and abrasion resistance. A leader of one to three feet is typical, and should be at least two pounds breaking strength less than the main line to minimize loss of the float when snagged. Leaders can be attached with a very small swivel, or simply with a blood knot or surgeon’s knot.
Another aspect to consider for center pinning (also known as float fishing) is the “shotting” pattern. This is the manner in which split shot are placed on the line. Most practitioners of this technique prefer hard-cut round lead shot as opposed to softer molded shot with “wings” to the pinch on/off since the hard-cut variety stays in place much better on the line. A variety of shot from sizes of BB and 1 down to tiny sizes 6 and 8 are used commonly on the Ohio tributaries. The most useful shot pattern is the tapering staggered (or “shirt button”) configuration; essentially spacing out shot equidistant between the float and offering with the larger shot near the float and smaller ones near the offering. This offers a very direct connection between float and offering and therefore gets the offering down quickly, keeps it there, and telegraphs strikes effectively to the float. The larger shot balance out the float well, and the smaller shot near the offering are less visible to the fish and, importantly, are less likely to snag and offer a more natural drift. This is the one method that will be used in the most situations. One special shot pattern is the bulk-shot configuration, which is basically clustering heavier shot about a foot from the offering. This works great to punch down a larger offering and keeping it down during heavier, deeper flows and can also work wonders in getting the offering through ice floes on those tough winter mornings. The opposite technique is to bulk shot near the float, with little or none near the offering. This can work great under low, clear conditions with spooky fish and/or in slow water conditions. Favored areas for this technique are estuary areas or when fishing a heavier jig under the float. Variations of these three shot patterns will cover almost any situation the Great Lakes float angler will come across.
Anglers new to specialized float fishing commonly ask “what offering should I use with this technique?” To make a long story short, anything that can be drifted for steelhead trout with other gear will also work with this method. For a long time it seemed the center pin method was stereotyped as a “bait” method. It does works great for drifting bait, ranging from large gobs of skein or nightcrawlers, all the way down to a single salmon egg or wax worm. But, it also works great for drifting artificial lures ranging from fly patterns to rubber baits and jigs. In fact, it seems that the largest growing contingent of center pin anglers are fly anglers who want to round out their skills with a new fun and effective method.
The technique of drifting your offering in a natural manner in flowing water is called “trotting” by the Europeans. Essentially, it is a way of offering a drag free drift at the point of the offering. This is an important distinction to make as the visible currents on the surface of a river are often not representative of what’s going on down below, with surface currents usually being faster than the bottom currents. The main reason for this is due to drag and turbulence as the water moves over varying obstructions and substrate on the river bottom. As a rule, the slower the currents and more uniform the stream bottom the more the current through the water column will be uniform. In this situation, drifting your float at approximately the speed of the surface currents is fine, and set at the exact vertical depth below the flow at which the fish are believed to be holding. In faster water, especially with a broken bottom structure (rocks) and some depth the angler will want to often “check” the float as the Europeans call it; or slow the feed of line off the spool to keep the float moving a bit slower than the surface currents and keep the offering moving at a speed more equal to the slower bottom currents. In this situation, the angler will also want to overset the depth of the float to be about approximately an extra 25% or so the actual water depth as the offering will sweep out downstream of the float if done properly. This all may sound complicated, but with some practice one gets a feel for it and it can pay huge dividends in terms of presenting a natural offering that the fish approve of!
Another question that may come to mind is “when is this particular technique most effective?” Float fishing can have advantages in any flowing water situation, but is especially productive in slow to moderate flows of three to six foot depths with a relatively even stream bottom. This situation describes most Lake Erie tributaries and therefore the technique is exceptionally well suited for Ohio steelheaders. The level of control over the drift that this method affords also makes it “shine” during winter conditions when fish are lethargic or just biting light.
Anglers who already own spinning or even fly fishing gear can simply continue using their current equipment and implement or adapt some of the facets of advanced float fishing previously described. However, a rapidly growing contingent of local steelheaders are discovering and adding specialized float rods and center pin reels to their arsenal. Savvy anglers realize that this method is yet one more tool that can be fun and extremely productive on the Ohio tributary streams.
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