Bobber Down Hot Spots for Mid-Columbia Steelhead

My adolescent fishing career began with a 10 ft long cane pole and a plastic bobber. With practice, I could swing a baited hook 20 feet from shore. However, it wasn’t until recently that I revisited the sport of bobber-fishing as applied to slack-water steelhead. Turns out I was missing out on a good thing.

Tossing a shrimp-and-bobber rig from the bank is all about location, location and location. Certain features in a mile-wide reservoir attract steelhead to within casting distance: abrupt changes in bottom profile, hydraulic “kick-points”, proximity to engineered structure (for example, bridge pilings and dams), river mouths. Then there are hatcheries.

Let’s start at McNary Dam and work up the lower Snake River.

Bank Fishing Hotspots

Shrimp and bobber rigs work so well at McNary Dam that half a dozen boats might anchor up alongside the basalt rip-rap between the cyclone fence barrier and the north shore fish ladder exit. Another bank access spot is approximately mile further upstream on the Washington side of the dam where a small rectangular point of land juts out. From here it’s only a short cast to steelhead trying to get their bearings. Oregon license-holders fish from the south shore near the boat launch and upstream near the OR-WA border.

Twenty miles upstream of McNary Dam, anglers line up along the steep basalt bank near Port Wallula. This mile-wide swirl pool, flavored with a mix of the Walla Walla River, Snake River and Boise Cascade effluent, attracts steelhead to within easy casting distance. Look for parking off Highway 730 near the entrance to the Northwest Grain Growers and cross the railroad tracks to get there.

The lower 3 miles of the Walla Walla River upstream of Madame Dorian Memorial Park is another place to try. In early fall, steelhead move from McNary Pool backwater into a narrow channel made deeper from reservoir operations. Steelhead mill about the snag-filled lower river, Steelhead mill about, stymied by low river flow, until fall rains encourage their upstream movement.

A combination of convenient access and good catch rates leads to an eclectic crowd of anglers gathering along the south shore road upstream of Ice Harbor Dam. A party atmosphere exists rain or shine, workday or weekend near the public restroom facility. Catch rates improve when water temperatures drop below 68 F.

A smaller group of anglers is attracted to the Charbonneau Park levee, where I caught my first steelhead on a shrimp-bobber rig, although my fishing buddy tried to take credit since I used his spare rod. Upstream breezes can challenge casting. Fishhook Park, 7 miles upstream off Highway 124, is also on the rotation list of bank fishermen from the region.

The highest catch rates for Snake River steelhead typically occur in Lower Monumental Pool. Although small fishery exists near the dam forebay, Lyons Ferry is where most of the action occurs due to large numbers of steelhead returning to the hatchery. Several openings in bank-side willows provides casting stations.

Four miles upstream, along Highway 261, you find the mouth of the Tucannon River. Bank anglers mix it up with anchored boats while tossing bobbers and shrimp at steelhead attracted to this small side channel.

Lack of shoreline access limits bank-fishing opportunities in the upper two reservoirs. However, both the north shore and the south shore upstream of the Little Goose Dam wing wall attract a fraternity of anglers hoping for bobber-down.

Rigging up for Shrimp-and-Bobber

Rigging a slip bobber requires some attention to detail. As was once patiently explained to me, ““Tie on the bobber stop first, then add a plastic bead, corkie, slip bobber, plastic bead, then a swivel.”

Follow that setup by attaching a 1/0 barbless egg hook on 4 ft of leader to the terminal swivel. Thread the hook through the body of your bait shrimp and snug its tail to the shaft with the egg loop.

After committing basics to memory come variations designed to maximize the odds of a steelhead mouthing your shrimp. For example, some anglers add a ½ to 1 oz egg sinker between the slip bobber and swivel to keep the bobber upright. Others clamp split shot a foot or so above the hook to create the same effect. Impaling a shrimp on a pink, red/white or purple marabou-dressed Rock Dancer is another way to attract a steelhead in the “teener” weight category. Some bobbers come weighted on the bottom to keep them upright but they make a mighty big splash!

It takes time on the water to figure out the amount and placement of weight required to keep a bobber neutrally buoyant, a requirement for detecting subtle bites. Bobber type and size are important factors. For instance, bigger is not always better. As for depth, steelhead do not hug the bottom in reservoirs. The standard bobber stop is set at 6 to 8 ft depth. You might also add a light stick to fish at night.

My favorite shrimp-and-bobber rig is a 9½-foot medium-light Okuma spinning rod and a Pfleuger “President” reel loaded with 150 yards of braided “rag” line. In contrast, monofilament tends to sink which produces slack line and compromises hook sets. I won’t get into detail on bait shrimp other than to mention that aficionados have more variations on color and scent than Betty Crocker has cookie recipes.

Shrimp-and-bobber fishing is an easy way to get started to the sport of steelheading. It can also be a social occasion. I bobber-fish because it’s a low-stress diversion from trolling and an alternative to staying home when my favorite streams are blown out from snowmelt or rain. Whether due to the torpedo-like strike of a 15 lb B-run steelie or the gentle nudge of a 6 lb 1-salt fish, may your bobber go down!