September 24, 2010
While early spring serves as a downtime for some anglers, serious steelheaders know it can be tops when it comes to sight-fishing for both winter and summer steelhead. (March 2006)
Drifting a small sand shrimp tail through a shallow run, Jim Martin coaxed this late-season, low-water steelhead into biting.
Photo by Scott Haugen
It was early March, and we had the river virtually to ourselves. Low water and warm days had convinced many anglers that winter steelhead simply weren't going to show. Despite the expected 75-degree temperature -- far from the classic perception of winter steelhead-fishing conditions -- and warming waters, the fish were in, and they were biting. By the end of the day, we'd landed 11 chrome-bright fish, all on bobber and jig rigs.
Moving to another river, the following day found us side-drifting through shallow, fast-moving funnels, with good success. By the end of five days of fishing, we'd covered multiple streams, applied an array of techniques, and landed more than three dozen steelhead.
Some anglers may question whether fishing in March can be productive, but serious steelheaders know that it is prime for both winter and summer fish. Depending on the stream and run timings, anglers can catch fish from both runs in one day. The key is reading the water, locating fish visually, and then finding the terminal gear that turns them on.
Fishing in low water can be a bit overwhelming, but if you break down the water, learning where to fish becomes fairly simple. Start by eliminating water where you know fish are not present. Shallow, slower-moving main currents, where steelhead may hold during normal flow levels, are often abandoned in low conditions. These zones may not offer the protection they do when more water is moving, which is why fish move away from them.
If water temperatures remain fairly cool during the day, look for fish to hold on the sides of main riffles, where broken water surface adds further protection. Side channels can be good holding zones, and it doesn't take much water for fish to gather in them.
Search for habitats close to ledges, cut banks, brushlines and near big boulders, where slight depressions offer fish a place to lay up. These depressions may only be a foot or so below the normal river bottom, but that's all it takes to offer relaxed holding water, while faster currents move above them. At the same time, these micro-holding zones are often shadowed, offering added attraction to the fish.
Keep in mind that winter steelhead have a slower metabolism than freshly-arriving summer steelhead, so they may not occupy the same water. In low, cool water, summer steelhead can be found in heavier, faster flowing stretches. As water levels drop and temperatures rise -- the change may be only a degree or two -- the summer steelhead bite can be triggered. A slight warming of the water can also put summer fish on the move, meaning covering water in search of fish can be your best ploy.
As for winter steelhead in low water, don't overlook deep, slow-moving holes. Temperatures at the bottom of these holes can be a couple of degrees below that of other sections in the river, which is one reason fish will congregate there. I've seen schools of more than 200 fish kegged into such pools, and the fishing there can be outstanding.
The key to steelhead fishing success can come down to vision. With the use of polarized sunglasses, spotting the fish is your best way to learn where they're holding. The trick is finding frames that fit snugly without pinching your temples, yet allow ample airflow to prevent fogging.
At the same time, you want a lens that cuts the glare of steelhead rivers, and sees into the depths of western rivers. Glasses popular among tarpon and bonefish anglers may look cool, but they can be less than functional in steelhead streams. Copper, amber, light brown and soft gray lenses have proven very consistent for me over the years. I'll even carry multiple pairs of glasses, so as to properly match lens color to sky and water conditions. For me, it's worth the extra few dollars to invest in multiple pairs.
Once you find fish, take a minute to evaluate the surrounding conditions then ask yourself why they are there. Is it water flow, water temperature, air temperature, angler pressure, shadows or something else that caused fish to be there? Perhaps it's a broken surface, offering the protection and higher oxygen flows that lure fish in. Whatever the reasons, take note of them for the next time you encounter that same type of situation.
On some rivers, angler pressure can greatly influence where fish hold. The presence of imposing anglers, be they from a boat or off the bank, can force fish to move into nontraditional holding zones. Some fantastic fishing can be discovered by taking time to explore these off-the-beaten-path areas, especially in low water.
Once you locate fish, there are several ways to go about catching them, even in low water. Summer steelhead arriving early in the season are typically full of energy and very aggressive. Even if water conditions are below normal and temperatures still fairly low, anglers can go after summer steelhead with vigor.
Because water temperatures during the course of the spring and summer months are likely as low as they're going to be, summer steelhead won't hesitate migrating through a great deal of water rather quickly. Thanks to this fact, anglers can target summer steelhead on the move. Back-trolling plugs can be very effective, as can back-trolling divers with bait. Both presentations put the angler in control of where and how fast baits are moving. Running a bobber and jig setup can also be effective early in the year, as can rolling sand shrimp along the bottom.
Taking the time to thoroughly fish water through which summer steelhead move can be very effective. Conversely, winter steelhead can be targeted in holding water. Low water offers the perfect situation to team up on both fish, and this is the time of year to do it. Due to the same water conditions that can put summer steelhead on the move, winter steelhead may be forced to hold.
For winter steelhead, subtle approaches can be the key. Side-drifting very small clusters of eggs can be one of the most effective presentations. Using only three or four berries on the cluster, and slipping a medium-sized Puff Ball just past the barb of a size 2 hook, you can deliver a very realistic, smooth presentation. The small bait experiences less drag, and the Puff Ball keeps the bait off the bottom and the hook from getting snagged; it also adds color for visual appeal.
When it comes to
targeting winter steelhead holding in low water, working a jig into deep holes and small slots is very effective. In deep, dead holes, get that jig within a foot of the bottom: Timid fish aren't as likely to travel up to the bait as they will in higher water. Because the water can be very clear when running low, spotting fish at the bottom of deep holes is easy. You just have to look.
On the contrary, physically seeing fish in shallow, broken water can be more challenging. Winter steelhead have typically dark, nearly black backs, which are easier to decipher than summer steelhead, whose dorsal coloration can range from green to brown to gray, even light blue. In broken, shallow chutes, look for winter steelhead to be holding to the sides. Once you locate them, slipping a jig in front of them may be the ticket.
If jigs don't produce, try side-drifting eggs through the slot. Even a short drift of less than 20 feet is worth making. More often than not, this zone goes overlooked by your fellow anglers, yet it's some of the best holding water on the river. Plugs can also be maneuvered into these slots, though it's often tough slipping the boat into an ideal position.
The key to tagging a winter and summer steelhead double lies in timing and preparation. If the fish are in, it's up to the angler to make it happen. Have multiple rods rigged and ready to fish for every given situation that arises. The last thing you want to do is waste time switching rigs from side-drifting to plugging to jigging to diver gear as you move downstream.
Don't let low, clear water keep you cooped up this time of year. Instead, grab your glasses and gear and hit the river.
(Editor's Note: Scott Haugen is the host of Wolf Creek Production's Classic Outdoor Stories, appearing on the Men's Channel. To buy signed copies of his latest books, including Summer Steelhead Fishing Techniques, visit www.scotthaugen.com.)