10 Ways to Catch More Steelhead
The last time I came up with a top 10 list was at my retirement party. The list was titled “Top 10 things I won’t miss about work.” My ex-boss left in a huff before I elaborated on number five but friends loved the candor.
As for steelhead, I’ve chased them ever since I was 12 years old and my brother brought one home to show off. No matter what your age, there’s a special thrill about a big sea-going rainbow on the end of your line: violent tug, head-shaking action, screaming drag, spectacular jumps. If you’re like me, when the feeling subsides, you want to feel it again. And again.
With that objective in mind, here’s a suite of ideas to help you this season.
Adopt a Home Stream
A home stream is your favorite stream, the one you fish when you need to catch a steelhead– if for no other reason than to raise your self-esteem. My home stream is the one where I caught my first steelhead and the one closest to my heart. Concentrating on your home stream is first on my list because the more time you spend in one location, the more likely you are to figure out key relationships among local conditions such as stream flow, weather, angler use and your catch rate.
Whether you spend an hour or a day, each trip to a familiar stream provides new information about its nuances and reinforces the obvious. I can say this with assurance because I’ve kept a journal that documents a 30-year history of time spent fishing my home stream. Reviewing passages for facts and figures before I arrive on the water reminds of forgotten details and focuses my efforts.
The life history of steelhead is intricately linked with stream flow. During their upstream migration phase, adult steelhead enter their natal stream following a rainfall or snowmelt event. As winter progresses into spring and base flow increases, steelhead move to upstream spawning areas. It’s important to know how your home stream responds to rain or snowmelt and how quickly it clears to the color of “steelhead green.”
The first step in your quest for more steelhead is to bookmark the US Geological Survey (http://waterdata.usgs.gov) website for streams in your area. Pay close attention to the relationship between stream discharge and water surface elevation. Which streams clear soonest after a high water event? What flows trigger steelhead entry? When is it safe to wade? Knowing stream conditions in advance of each trip will improve your odds.
Experienced steelhead anglers focus their efforts on a declining hydrograph that follows a peak flow event. Depending on flow and time of season, steelhead behavior can range from “on the move” to a “holding” mode. What’s consistent is their need to conserve energy until they spawn. You will find that steelhead favor structure, such as logjams and boulders, and deep holes during low flow periods whereas they may use the entire width of a stream at high flow. When steelhead are on the move, focus on migration slots, current edges and mid-channel stopping points. These locations should be memorized relative to the hydrograph.
Apply New Technique
Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks? If you are a fly fisher who routinely swings flies, then learn how to nymph. Swinging flies typically works best in long runs described as having “walking speed” current. In contrast, nymphing will place your presentation with more precision to steelhead residing in pocket water.
If you like to drift bait, mix up your arsenal with shrimp, nightcrawlers and roe. Yup. All three. Sometimes one type or color of bait works better than the others, depending on stream condition and time of the year. And it’s not all about smell. Your bait’s action is a factor in enticing a strike in addition to the speed and depth of presentation.
I was once a spinner aficionado. My arsenal included an assortment of Mepps, Vibrax and Metric spinners—each brand having different blade action and sink-rate. I used Mepps when I wanted something that fluttered on the swing. Vibrax worked best when I needed to run deep. Metrics were the lightest and least expensive spinner so I tied them on to fish boulder-laden water because they could be bounced off rocks. My point is spinner type and size should be varied according to current, depth and bottom characteristics of the stream. Beef up your spinner and spoon arsenal and cover every square inch of water within casting distance.
Last but not least, become skilled at knots. I learned the surgeon’s knot after relying on a loop-to-loop connection for way too many years. The surgeon’s knot is less visible and stronger which leads to more fish hooked and landed. A great website for knots is animatedknots.com.
Upgrade Your Equipment
I recently bought a 10-foot medium-light spinning rod that allowed for longer casts from bank side willows. The purchase provided an opportunity to upgrade with a matching reel and reminded me to donate my c. 1960 reel to the Goodwill. The difference between the old reel and the new was impressive. Smoother drag and easier to cast comes to mind. Has Valentine’s Day passed you by? If so, demonstrate love for yourself with a new rod and reel.
New line can also help put more marks on your catch card. Some lines are stronger for a given diameter, some less visible, some cast easier without backlash. For example, braided line works well with a level wind when trolling but may challenge casting from the bank. The best time to try out different line is when you swap out old line. Which by the way, you should do each season. There is no excuse for breaking off a hard-earned steelhead due to “rotten” line.
While you’re at it, consider an upgrade to your leaky waders and make sure dated raingear protects the backside. It’s difficult to perform at your best when punished by the elements.
Everyone needs a helping hand or a gentle nudge in the right direction. Especially when new territory is entered or different technique is required. If you are new to a particular area, want to learn more about the sport or have need to tell fishing stories, then I suggest you join a club. Conservation organizations such as Tri-State Steelheaders, local chapters of Trout Unlimited and fly caster groups meet regularly to discuss techniques and locations to fish. Most clubs sponsor outings to streams where you can glean valuable tips.
When all else fails, hire a guide. But check websites first and seek recommendations from friends because not all guides are equal. While there’s no shame in hiring a guide, your day on the water should yield more than a pile of fish. It should be about learning to get a fish on your own. Ask questions. Pay attention to gear and technique. Fill in empty moments between fish by gleaning facts and figures. You paid for the trip. There’s more ways to get your money’s worth than reeling in fish.
Avoid Weekends and Holidays
I know, easy for me to say since I am retired. However, consider that competition for good water can be fierce from early Saturday morning until late Sunday evening. And with more and more workers going to four 10s and flexible schedules, Fridays can be as bad.
There are ways to squeeze in weekday trips if you are creative. For example, I have a friend who fishes from first light until morning check-in time during the peak of the season. I used to sneak off during the middle of the day. My coworkers figured I was either at a meeting or on a long lunch break. This is where a close-lipped secretary is helpful. Although short winter days make it challenging to fish after work, you might skip dinner. Hung up on a fixed work schedule? A prisoner to your job? If so, I recommend you save up vacation days or call in sick.
Mix up Venues
Expanding your options will put more steelhead on the card. If you’re a diehard bank angler, consider partnering on a drift boat or a motor craft. In my case, I fill in the gaps between my 20-foot Hewescraft and bank fishing venues with a pontoon boat. They are easy to transport, quick to setup and allow you to fish places you can’t get to from the bank. Like the other side of the river.
Fishing for steelhead from a moving vessel is not always effective. If you are a die-hard boater, look for places to anchor. Casting from an anchored boat often produces more fish than trying to “hit a spot” while on the move. Where conditions warrant, you might try “boon-dogging” or “hover fishing,” techniques that involve a slow downstream drift to keep your bait near the bottom.
Sometimes two is a crowd. I’ll never forget the day I gave up a favorite honey hole to a friend because it was his birthday. He bonked two steelhead while I watched and pretended to be happy. My point is would you rather net your fish or someone else’s? Being self-centered is not necessarily a bad thing.
Other advantages to fishing alone include a fishing schedule that suits your personal biorhythm, no requirement to share beverages and the opportunity to get lost in solitude. My favorite reason though is that screw-ups are unlikely to get recorded for posterity. And, assuming you learn from your screw-ups, you’ll catch more steelhead.
Fish More Often
My wife once reminded me that if I wanted to shoot a better score, I would have to play golf more often than once a month. The same holds true for steelhead fishing. The more you fish the more you learn. The more you learn the smarter you get. The smarter you get the more steelhead you catch.
An element of fishing more often is braving bad weather. On days when sleet blows sideways, I park the boat and head for my favorite stream. Those “ice on rod guide” days, managed with an extra layer of clothing, more often than not lead to a reward.
Fish Near Hatcheries.
I know. Fishing near a hatchery is lame. That’s why I brought the topic up last. However, sometimes you want to come home with a fish if for no other reason to prove you can. Like salmon, steelhead home to their natal stream. For hatchery fish, this stream is often an outfall pipe next to a rearing facility. The end result is congregations of fish waiting to be caught.
Most hatcheries maintain records on the number and timing of adult steelhead returns, in addition to the number of “turn backs” or unneeded broodstock returned to the wild. This information is readily available via state and federal fisheries agency websites. Track the data, make friends with the fish checker and plan your trips accordingly.
There’s more of course. This article could just as easily been titled “bakers dozen” and included tips on the best time of day, proper casting technique and secret scent–but it wasn’t. The main point is there are a variety of ways to catch more steelhead. So don’t get in a rut by using the same old method or fishing in the same old river. This advice has more meaning in an era of closed waters and increased gear restrictions. Expand your fishing arsenal, increase your acumen and go forth with renewed confidence.
Dennis Dauble is the author of the award-winning “Fishes of the Columbia Basin” and “The Barbless Hook”.