Mixed Bag Spring Steelhead

Good weather and large numbers of willing steelhead make March and April prime time for catching them. Here's how to make the most of it.

Craig Latanzi with a huge early summer steelhead taken on a silver and green spinner. Photo by Dave Kilhefner

By Dave Kilhefner

"I just love steelhead fishing this time of year!" says fishing guide David Johnson. "I love to play the odds, and right now the odds are in favor of multiple-fish days for steelhead."

While many anglers believe steelhead fishing is winding down for the year, March and April are two of the best months to chase steelhead. There are large numbers of hatchery winter steelhead present, big native steelhead runs peak during this time, and liquid chrome early summer-run steelhead can produce exciting fishing.

HATCHERY WINTER STEELHEAD
It was a "spring fever" day. The sun was out, the breeze was warm and the riverside trees were showing some green. Snowmelt had the water up a little, spreading the fish out.

Fortunately we were well equipped, fishing out of a jet sled with a full tank of gas and plenty of roe fresh from a Borax bathing. Running to the top of a favorite piece of water, we'd cut the engine to side-drift through a run, feeling the familiar tap-tap-tap of our weights lightly skimming the bottom. We worked hard, and the work paid off with three limits of steelhead in four hours of fishing.

"I always add up my averages," Johnson said. "We had an average of three steelhead per day during the (January and February) 'peak,' and we had an average of eight per day later into the season."

Spring is a great time to fish for hatchery winter steelhead because they've been stacking up all winter. There's more of these 8- to 12-pound steelhead in the springtime.

If you are concerned with the condition of the steelhead - won't they be dark? - your state game department will have the answer, and usually online. If your favorite river has a broodstock program, you're in luck. Broodstock programs use native winter steelhead to produce their hatchery stock. The result is steelhead that arrive late and don't ripen as quickly as earlier runs, making for a longer fishing season.

Two things I always look forward to in the spring are longer days and warmer water temperatures. Why? Longer daylight hours mean I can fish after work! With water temperatures rising into the mid to high 40s, the steelhead fight harder and jump higher! Spring snowmelt has rivers running a little on the high side, but water conditions remain stable. Spring chinook fever siphons off much of the fishing pressure in Oregon and Washington.

With the rising water temperatures of spring, steelhead move around a lot. I used to assume steelhead would only move upstream, but telemetry studies indicate they will move both up and downstream. For this reason, covering water is important. You have to find the steelhead before you can catch them. While every river is different, generally speaking, steelhead will be present in the middle and upper sections of a river system.

Much has been written about reading water. When steelhead are on the move, reading water can be summed up in two words: current edges. Always look for an edge where fast and slow water meet. Sometimes this fast/slow current edge is obvious, sometimes subtle. Either way, you should always look for it and cast to it.

When fishing from a boat, the best ways to efficiently cover water are drift fishing and side drifting. When fishing from the bank, suspending your bait under a float often works best. It's all about being efficient. Bait that is moving slowly through the strike zone will catch the most.

In the ocean, steelhead feed mostly on shrimp and squid. In the early season, jigs and sand shrimp tails mimic these food items best and trigger the most strikes. In the spring season, the bite preference definitely shifts to eggs. A thumbnail-sized gob of eggs drift fished on a No. 2 or No. 4 hook with a No. 12 sized Corky or cheater in pink pearl, flame red or peach orange is top bait. If the water is up, a little crawfish/anise Smelly Jelly dabbed on the drift bobber doesn't hurt.

Using a light weight to gently skip your bait along the bottom will produce much better results than dredging with a heavy weight. With a light weight, you'll hang up far less, plus it's easier to detect a steelhead mouthing the bait. Spinning rods cast light offerings farther and more accurately than baitcasters. I prefer a light-action spinning outfit with quality 8- to 10-pound monofilament.

GEAR UP FOR STEELHEAD


"It's all a matter of flexibility. A person has to change as the conditions change -- the fish do!" says Oregon fishing guide David Johnson. Here's a guide for selecting the right gear and matching it to your needs.

 

Medium-Light Spinning -- Rods 9 to 10 1/2 feet long, rated for 6- to 10-pound line are ideal. For years, I've used a 2000-size spinning reel. However, the new 3000-size reels are very good. Spool up with 120 to 200 yards of quality 8- or 10-pound monofilament.

 

Medium-Heavy Casting -- Rods 8 1/2 to 10 1/2 feet long, rated for 12- to 20-pound line do the job. Quality casting reels are a must for all-day casting. Spool up with 150 yards or more of quality 12-pound monofilament.

 

All-Purpose Spinning -- Rods 9 to 10 1/2 feet long rated for 8- to 17-pound line. A 4000-size spinning reel spooled with quality 10-pound monofilament is the perfect compromise.

 

Drift Fishing -- 8- to 10-pound leaders 18 to 24 inches long with No. 10 or No. 12 drift bobbers in reds and oranges. Rig with a No. 4 octopus-style hook and secure a dime-sized cluster of fresh Borax-cured eggs under the egg loop. For side drifting, extend your leader length to 4 or 5 feet. Use a light weight that gently drifts along the bottom.

 

Jig Fishing --1 /8-ounce jigs in cerise, orange and red. Use a sensitive float for best results.

 

Spoons -- 2/5-ounce oval-style spoons (a Little Cleo, for example) in metallic schemes. Replace the treble hook with a single.

 

Spinners -- No. 4 and 5 sizes with a touch of green are best.

 

Plugs -- Every river has a local favorite. Pirates, metallic blue, metallic green, gold and silver with a black back are always good. -- Dave Kilhefner

 

EARLY-SUMMER STEELHEAD
I was stuck in the office one day about 9 a.m. when a familiar voice on the other end of the phone asked, "Hey, you wanna go fishing?"

"Sure" I replied, "but I can't go until two o'clock."

"Excellent!" said Nick. "But I'm going now. Call me on my cell phone when you get to the river."

It's nice to have something to look forward to when you're working!

Arriving that afternoon, there was no need to call. My friend had beached his boat and the morning crew was cleaning their catch. Leaving them to their work, we fired up the motor and headed to our favorite spot, a large pool that just happens to be close to a fish hatchery. Summer steelhead had been stacking up. We anchored and began casting 1/8-ounce marabou jigs suspended 6 feet below sensitive floats. It didn't take long for a float to go down and a chrome bullet to leap for freedom.

Spring-run summer steelhead are the hardest fighting fish in the river. Liquid chrome silver bullets, they typically run 6 to 8 pounds, with rare specimens into the high teens. While there are few river systems hosting native runs of spring steelhead, extensive stocking programs have made them widely available.

Summer steelhead are programmed to ascend to cool upriver holding pools where they will wait out the heat of summer. The lower sections of many Western rivers warm to lethal levels during the summer. Somehow the fish know this and literally race upstream, spending little time in the lower river. While you can have success fishing down low, you'll do much better if you learn where these fish stack up.

Most summer steelhead are of hatchery origin, and contacting the local game department to find out where the steelhead were planted in your local river will yield results.

When summer steelhead are on the move, you'll find them in the same kinds of water as hatchery winter steelhead: along edges where fast and slow currents meet. As steelhead get farther upstream, they'll begin to slow down and hold. When the water has good flow and color, which is common in the spring, deep tail-outs at the ends of big pools are prime locations.

One of the great things about spring-run summer steelhead, both from the standpoint of catching and eating, is they are fresh from the ocean. Given this, offerings that mimic ocean foods produce best. Bottom-drifted sand shrimp tails and jigs fished under a sensitive float are the best tactics. In the waters that you fish, the method that most efficiently covers the most water will be best.

When these steelhead stack up in big pools, nothing beats jigs fished drag-free under a sensitive float. Fished this way, jigs imitate squid.

At the grocery store, packaged squid are grayish-white; I've tried them on jigs but with poor success. In slow water the "real thing" doesn't look good. When squid are alive, they are able to change color, opening up the entire color spectrum to the angler. In the spring, a blood red jig has been my best producer by far. I usually carry about 15 jigs: eight of them are red, five orange and two cerise. It's good to have a few change-of-pace colors. You can thread on a sand shrimp tail.

Don't apply scents to marabou jigs; it ruins them. Scents can be applied to feather jigs.

Experimenting with scents and baits on your jigs is fun, but nothing beats a good drag-free presentation for results. Drag-free presentation is critical when fishing jigs! When your float is pointing straight up and down, your drift is perfectly drag-free. Keep the float vertical and experiment with different depths for best success.

Jigs of 1/8 and 1/4 ounces are the most popular sizes. I prefer the lighter jigs, which seem to swim better. I've caught most of my fish using them.

Floats can be rigged either fixed or sliding. Sliding floats, which slide up the line and stop with the aid of a bobber stop, are the easiest to cast. Fixed floats, as their name implies, are fixed on the line and are harder to cast due to the 3 to 10 feet length of line between the jig and the float. However, as a steelhead's eyes are on the top of its head, everything on the line between the jig and the float is within the steelhead's cone of vision. With nothing visible between the jig and the float, fixed-float rigs produce more takedowns.

I use the same light-action spinning outfit for summer steelhead as hatchery winter steelhead because it's much easier to cast light offerings. A longer 9 to 10-foot rod length makes it easier to cast the long leaders jig fishing demands.

BIG NATIVE WINTER STEELHEAD
It had been a good day, with sunny weather and willing steelhead. I sat down on a gravel bar to munch on a candy bar but could not stay down long. The water in front of me looked too good!

Wading into position at the top of the pool, I cast a 2/5-ounce Little Cleo spoon down and across the current, letting it swing into a seam below. It was a perfect spot and the current held the spoon just where it needed to be, but nothing happened.

I had let my mind wander and could vaguely feel the spoon in the current when I was jolted back to the present by a hard strike. Setting the hook, I could feel the unyielding weight and heavy headshakes of a big steelhead.

"I love natives. They would pull a hatchery fish inside out if you were to tie one of each tail to tail," Johnson said.

Native steelhead are a different animal. First, they can power upstream in short order. Because they can make their upstream migration quickly, they run upstream close to spawning time, putting them in rivers later in the season than hatchery stocks.

While in stream, big steelhead occupy well-protected holding lies, which are often difficult to fish effectively. Finally, there just aren't that many of them. Put these three factors together and you realize why a 20-pound steelhead is the fish of the lifetime.

While catching a big native can be tough, reading the water is easy. Look for the choppy water toward the head of a pool. Choppy water is created when the fast riffled water runs into slower deep water. In this transition zone, the waves are compressed to form "chop." It has the depth and flow big steelhead like.

Look for big pools with choppy water and go to work, covering these choppy areas and the deep water downstream. If you want a trophy, find five big pools and work the "chop" in late March and April. Be sure to check the fishing regulations, as some rivers close March 31.

All popular steelhead methods have taken big steelhead. If you fish long enough, you'll get a big one. However, the serious trophy hunter carries spoons, spinners and plugs. Hardware has the ability to get right in Mr. Big Steelhead's face and anger him into striking. Also, hardware can be skillfully presented with heavy tackle, an important consideration when you finally sink the hook into a charging monster.

The best presentation is slow, slow, slow! You want your lure to dangle in the strike zone as long as possible. Given this, if you can get directly above that sweet-looking choppy spot, use a plug. If a down-and-across presentation is called for, use a spoon. If the only way to reach the water is to cast straight across the current, use a spinner.

My trophy lure box contains No. 5 spinners, 2/5-ounce "oval" spoons (Little Cleo's) and large diving plugs. I carry several spoons, all rigged with single hooks, which hang up on the bottom less than trebles but hang on to big steelhead better than treble hooks.

Spoons and plugs are best fished with a casting rod. A medium-heavy action stick with a quality reel spooled with 150 or more yards of 10- or 12-pound monofilament is ideal. Spinners fish best with a spinning rod.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Check these sources for more information about spring steelhead opportunities.

Oregon
Department of Fish and Wildlife - http://www.dfw.state.or.us/index.html

Ifish: http://www.ifish.net/.

Portland-area reports and photos, www.davidjohnsonfishing.com, click "Current Fishing Reports." For fishing guide services, contact David Johnson's Guided Sportfishing, (503) 201-4292, or email him at fishermand@aol.com.

Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife - http://www.wa.gov/wdfw/.

Piscatorial Pursuits - http://www.piscatorialpursuits.com/.

Idaho
Department of Fish and Game - http://www2.state.id.us/fishgame/fishgame.html.

California
Department of Fish and Game - http://www.dfg.ca.gov/.



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