The Dog Days Of Winter Steelheading

What's a guy to do? The early hatchery runs have tapered off, and the big wild fish of spring have yet to arrive. Do your homework, change your tactics and you'll find February action aplenty. (February 2006)

The father-son team of Glenn (right) and Terry Jarmain are happy with the results of a February trip on a balmy day.
Photo by Terry Rudnick

Steelhead fishing in winter is never easy, not even during the good times. But when the mid-season doldrums set in around February, things can get downright tough. The big runs of hatchery steelhead that provided such good fishing in December and January have tapered off to a trickle in most rivers. And the large wild fish that will cause so much excitement at the end of the season haven't yet arrived. On a coast-wide average, there simply aren't nearly as many steelhead in our rivers and creeks during February as during the rest of the season.

The fish may be fewer and farther between, but not the fishermen. A steady stream of boat anglers casts to every inch of likely looking holding water, and the shores of popular rivers are crisscrossed by the muddy trails of bank anglers. The fish available in most streams get pounded hard on a daily basis. And it doesn't help when prolonged cold weather results in cool, clear water and spooky, sluggish steelhead.

Those are just a few of the reasons why many steelhead anglers refer to February as the "mid-season break" in fishing, and others call it the "dog days of winter."

February fishing may be difficult, but not impossible. Wherever there lurk a few steelhead to be caught, there's hope. Anglers willing to do their homework, explore a little and adjust their fishing tactics can go right on hooking fish through mid-winter.

The first prerequisite to catching steelhead? Fish places where there are steelhead to catch. Yes, that sounds obvious, but thousands of anglers stubbornly visit one or two favorite streams all winter, ignoring the fact that most West Coast steelhead rivers and creeks produce best during only a few weeks of the season. Some rivers are full of steelhead in December, for example, and receive virtually no new fish the rest of the winter. Others remain fishless until March or even April. While there's some year-to-year fluctuation, the timing for runs on most coastal steelhead streams is quite consistent over the long haul. So a river or creek that provides good February fishing one year is likely to be a good February bet, year-in and year-out.

How to find the streams with the strongest February steelhead runs? Your state fish and wildlife agency has already done the homework for you; all you need do is get your hands on it. For decades, state fishery managers have been collecting, compiling and publishing annual steelhead-catch statistics. They make this information available as hard copy and, in most cases, online. Calling the agency headquarters or logging on to its Web site should put you on the right track.

I've been collecting this steelhead- catch information from my state for nearly 40 years, and use it to determine steelhead trends for my favorite local streams, as well as for researching trips to other rivers and creeks. Compare the catch information for three or four years in a row, and you'll quickly discover where your best odds lie throughout the season. This information, compiled from the catch-report cards that steelhead anglers are required to fill out and return each year, provides very useful information on the steelhead catches, river-by-river and month-by-month.

Study the steelhead-catch information for your state, and it won't take long to find several rivers and creeks that provide their best steelhead fishing during the month of February.

Once you compile a list of likely prospects, consider fishing those that might be lesser known and a little farther off the beaten path. I like avoiding the worst of the crowds by fishing smaller creeks and upriver forks off the main rivers in February. Fewer anglers means lighter competition, so I can take more time and fish the good waters more thoroughly without worrying about who's around the next bend. Waters bordered by footpaths, rather than major highways, always offer more elbow room, and may just hold as many steelhead as the more popular, more heavily fished streams.

The old adage about timing being everything applies especially to February steelheading. Just showing up on the banks of a stream that's a traditional February producer can't ensure success. But if you can hit it right after a mid-winter rainstorm, your odds will improve considerably. Most steelheaders know that a good rain warms the water, raises stream levels and prompts a fresh run of fish to move into the rivers. Following a rainstorm, a stream that's gotten low and clear from a prolonged February cold snap may come alive with fresh winter-runs, and you'll want to be there when it happens. What's more, a good February freshet may bring the first bunch of big, burly wild fish into the stream, providing the opportunity to beach your biggest and brightest winter-run of the season. (Be sure to know the regulations about where and when you can keep such fish -- and where and when you must release them.)

Since anglers can't always drop everything and go fishing if it happens to rain, you just might have to do all your February steelheading under "normal" water conditions for fish that have been in the river for days, weeks or even months. This makes for some of the most difficult steelhead fishing of the season, but all is not lost. Adjust your tactics a little, and you still can catch your share.

One way to get an edge on other anglers this time of year is to get sneaky. February steelhead in cool, clear streams become extremely wary. Every angler who stomps out into the river and begins flogging the water sends the already-spooky fish scurrying for cover. They won't venture back out into the open until long after the danger is gone.

That's time to take a lesson from anglers trying out small streams, who will dress in muted colors (even camouflage) and keep a low profile to avoid throwing shadows on the water. Other anglers, watching you sneak up to the water on your hands and knees and cast from a crouching position, might think you've lost it. But you'll have the last laugh if you land the very fish that they've spooked. Stay low, keep back as far as possible from the water's edge, and try to avoid wading anywhere near where you plan to cast.

February fish may be spooky, so don't confine your fishing efforts to the usual slow pools and medium-depth drifts. Visibility is high when the water is clear, and wary steelhead may move into smaller pockets and slots that offer them better cover. Be sure to try fast-water current breaks, overhanging banks, small pockets around boulders, deep slots along high cliffs, and the extreme upper and lower end

s of traditional drifts, where faster current and white water may provide cover. Also pay more than usual attention to shaded areas where the visibility may be just a little lower than where sun hits the water.

This may also be a time to tone down your tackle, and fish a little lighter than you do when the water is higher and more heavily colored. There may be about as many opinions as there are steelhead anglers concerning how "smart" steelhead are about what they perceive in the water. But when water visibility is measured in yards rather than inches, there's no sense in bombarding the fish with huge baits and lures, heavy sinkers and large-diameter lines and leaders. Smaller offerings and lighter lines may fool fish that wouldn't hit anything bigger and bolder. Certainly they allow a more subtle presentation, giving you a better chance of detecting the usually softer strikes of wary fish in skinny water.

Being the first angler of the day in a particular stretch of holding water isn't always that big a deal, under typical fishing conditions. But this is one time of year when waking up early and getting a jump on other anglers can pay dividends. Fish that have been in the river for several weeks and/or those holding in low, clear water are likely to bite best for the morning's first angler, because they've had all night to calm down from whatever excitement they witnessed the day before. But after one or two people have cast over them and sloshed along the river bank a few feet away, they're likely to disappear into the heaviest cover they can find and stay there for the rest of the day.

So, your choices are really pretty simple: Either sit around and complain about slow fishing all month and wait for March rains to draw the wild fish home, or take advantage of what February has to offer by adjusting your strategy a little. I know what I'm going to do!

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