Steelhead in Little Waters

Hooking a big bright winter steelhead in a small stream is an experience you won't soon forget. Follow these tips for small stream steelhead success.

Angler David Johnson paused for a picture just before releasing this native winter steelhead. Photo by Dave Kilhefner

By Dave Kilhefner

As drops of moisture slid off evergreen boughs into the water, I glanced up to notice that the canopy of trees completely enclosed our perfect little pool. Bringing my attention back to the task at hand, I sighted in just behind a snag on the opposite clay bank and cast a float and jig sweetened with a little prawn meat. Plop, the jig landed in the water and sank to the desired depth of four feet, tilting the float up then drifting along the current seam like it was on rails. Then it was gently pulled beneath the dark water.

Setting the hook, I simultaneously saw a big flash and felt powerful headshakes. Fish on! A chrome-bright steelhead leaped for freedom, then tore up and down the small pool, repeatedly twisting and jumping in tight quarters.

After a few minutes, the steelhead tired out. Before the battle ended, we saw the adipose fin of a native steelhead, so without removing the fish from the water, we tailed it, removed the hook and released this beautiful specimen to complete its spawning journey.

Our day had begun with a two-hour drive from home in pre-dawn darkness. Arriving at the stream, we stashed a mountain bike out of sight deep in the brush and then chained it to a tree. Our shuttle vehicle secured, we drove upstream a few miles to a small bridge that would serve as the put-in, then pumped up our small inflatable boats.

With life jackets adjusted and gear loaded, we dragged the boats down the bank to the water's edge and floated to the first pool, beached the boats and started fishing. Floating is the best way to cover water, but parking and hiking works well too. If you're hiking, plan on covering about five prime pools per float.

The day started out well as I hooked a small hatchery buck on the second cast using a 1/8-ounce pink-and-white Beau Mac jig fished about three feet under a 1/8-ounce Steelhead Stalker float. It was early January and this hatchery steelhead was already showing some color. Hatchery steelhead run earlier than their native cousins and begin showing between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For a good presentation, it's crucial your jig weight and float weight match, as this allows you to "read" the float. If the float is pointing straight up and down, it's floating drag-free, and drag-free is what the steelhead want. If the float is pointed at you, give more slack as you're dragging it and the steelhead will not bite a dragging jig. If the float is pointed away from you, the jig is dragging on the bottom and you'll soon lose your jig. Reel in and shorten the leader. You want the jig to run one or two feet off the bottom.

Because you're often forced to flip casts from the streamside brush, spinning tackle is the way to go. A light-action 9- to 10-foot rod is preferred rated for 6- to 10-pound lines. A 2000- to 4000-size spinning reel loaded with 10-pound monofilament line is light enough to make subtle presentations and packs the muscle needed to land a big steelhead.

We quickly covered this pool, making two or three presentations down each current seam, then moved down to the next pool and repeated the process. The next pool looked fantastic, but no steelhead were home. It was temping to keep fishing this great-looking water, but experience has taught me that you need to keep moving for good things to happen.

A tree had fallen across the stream below the tailout. I stay well away from fallen trees, or "strainers," as we like to call them. Life jacket or not, strainers can trap you under the water and drown you. It was time to drag the boats through the brush and get to safe boating water.

One big advantage of one-person inflatable watercraft is the ability to easily portage them around dangerous water or other unsafe situations. Come prepared with some extra rope or bungee cords to secure things like oars, rod tubes, etc. so you don't lose them during the portage.

We continued floating and casting into little pockets until reaching the next good pool. When we stopped, David pointed upstream. The sun was just rising over the tree tops, illuminating the fog coming off the water. It was a beautiful sight; the kind that reminds you that fishing is about more than just catching fish.

And so the morning passed. We were wondering if that first small buck would be the only steelhead when my float went under. The second steelhead of the day had taken the same jig as the first. Then it was David's turn to work his magic. While I worked the tailout section, hooking and releasing steelhead number three, another early running hatchery steelhead, David pounded a perfect-looking seam at the top end of the pool. He kept working that deep seam, changing jig colors two or three times when suddenly I heard a cannonball splash and David whoop as his rod flexed from a heavy steelhead on the other end.

The steelhead jumped, its pure white belly and chrome sides glowing against the background of dark evergreens. Fighting doggedly, 13 pounds of native chrome finally came to hand, which we quickly photographed and released. Native steelhead arrive later, generally between Valentine's Day and Easter. However, advance scouts are always a possibility after New Year's Day.

This steelhead had ignored our two bread-and-butter jig colors: the pink-and-white and hot fuchsia, preferring a purple-and-cerise First Cast jig.

Whenever we encounter a pool holding a lot of steelhead, we fish hard in the marginal-looking pocket water below it. Steelhead often travel in schools and it's common to find more steelhead staggered in the pocket water downstream than in the pool itself.

Pocket-water steelhead, when present, will generally take the first good presentation. When the water is low to "steelhead green," floats and jigs are best. When the water is higher, No. 5 spinners work very well for quickly covering the pockets.

In the early afternoon, we reached a huge slow pool. It did not produce immediate action, but there was some dry borax on the bank, a sure sign another angler had been there a short time before us. We considered moving on, but this pool was so big and good-looking there just had to be a fish there!

Pooled steelhead react differently than pocket-water steelhead. After that first aggressive steelhead tears up the hole, additional steelhead often take some coaxing. One method that's worked exceptionally well in big slow pools is free-drifting bait under a float.

The best way to rig up is with no weight, just a No. 1 or No. 2 baited hook with an 8- to 12-inch leader and a fixed float. Casting can be a challenge, but the results are worth it. Cast to the slow side of the current seam and let the float slowly work its way downstream on a slack line. Strikes are usually light; the float just dips under. Reel in the tension and if you feel a head shake, set the hook.

I had two good strikes and one hookup on free-drifted eggs. My curiosity satisfied, it was time to move.

Free-drifting bait is a low, slow-water tactic. In higher water flows, traditional big water steelhead methods, such as drift-fishing bait or tossing spinners, work best.

Having hooked a few steelhead by spin-fishing, I decided it was time to try the fly rod. Small streams usually don't have the room needed to swing a fly, so indicator-nymph fishing produces best. Casting room is limited too, so you'll want to roll-cast.

Roll-casting is much easier with an "overlined" rod. I use an 11-weight saltwater taper floating fly line on an 8-weight rod. Heavy fly lines, such as 9-weight and above, are usually used in saltwater. Saltwater lines come in coldwater (striped bass) and warmwater (tarpon & bonefish) versions. You'll want the coldwater version for steelhead. Rigs with a yarn strike indicator liberally treated with floatant and a pink or orange Eggo fly tied with lead dumbbell eyes will allow for pleasant roll-casting and put you in the strike zone.

Fly-fishing is slower-paced than spin-fishing. You can't cover the water as quickly, so it's important to pick a prime stretch of water, get into a casting rhythm and methodically cover the water.

David's not a flyfisherman, so he ate lunch while I methodically placed easy roll-casts, one after the other, along a current seam. Just as I was beginning to go into a meditative state the indicator disappeared and I instinctively set the hook. Fish on! I quickly reeled in the slack line to get the steelhead on the reel and soon had a small buck in the shallows.

The takeout was just around the corner. While I rode the mountain bike back to the truck, David continued to fish and took another steelhead. As we drove home, we agreed it had been a great day chasing steelhead in little waters.

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