September 29, 2010
At the mouth of the Methow River sits the tiny hamlet of Pateros, whose population swells to boomtown proportions every December because of all the steelhead anglers who go there. (December 2005)
Author Dave Graybill is all smiles after catching this hatchery-run steelhead in the Pateros area. Because of increased hatchery clipping, even more steelhead are expected in the area this season.
Photo by Rick Graybill
Those who have traveled through Central Washington and have passed through the tiny town of Pateros in December must have surely wondered, "What the heck is going on here?" December usually heralds the end of just about everything outdoors, but in Pateros it's the height of steelhead season. Anglers line the shores of the Columbia River, and boats are seen virtually everywhere in pursuit of one of the world's most highly prized sportfish.
Pateros is a destination that has been known by many devoted steelhead anglers for decades. The little burg sits right at the mouth of the Methow River. Back in the mid-1980s, the Methow became famous when huge numbers of steelhead returned to the stream and Pateros became Steelhead Central in Eastern Washington. The town continued to draw anglers from far and wide until the steelhead numbers declined to a discouraging few, and then the fishery was even closed when Endangered Species Act provisions were used to protect the fish.
Recent years have seen the steelhead counts climb. Near-record returns are back, and Pateros is once again a boomtown when many small Eastern Washington villages roll up the sidewalks for the winter. The month of December can be the peak of steelhead fishing, and the action can even continue through March.
This season should be the most outstanding in years. The number of hatchery steelhead is anticipated to be much -- and I mean much -- higher than the past two seasons. An increase in the number of clipped fish at the hatchery will mean a lot more anglers will be taking home fish this season.
I had the chance to fish at Pateros in the heydays of the mid-1980s, and what impressed me about the steelhead fishing the most wasn't the number of anglers present or the number of fish that were being caught. What impressed me the most was the way anglers were going about the business of fishing for steelhead. They used a technique that caught me by surprise and that I hadn't seen employed anywhere else. It was bobber fishing.
I didn't notice just a few anglers using this technique. Everybody was doing it! Bank anglers, boaters, even people in the RV park along the river would mount rod holders on picnic tables and toss out bobbers while they ate breakfast. I had never seen anything like it.
I did a little research about bobber fishing, but it wasn't easy. The Internet wasn't in existence back then, but I found some written reports of how the technique got started. From what I was able to learn, the idea came about in British Columbia. Anglers were frustrated trying to fish for steelhead in fast-moving streams. Drifting for fish resulted in constant hang-ups and lost gear. The idea of suspending baits just above the rocks and in the strike zone of holding steelhead evolved from fixed bobber drifting to slip-bobber fishing. Using a slip-bobber easily allows anglers to change the depth of their jig or bait as needed. How the technique migrated south of the border and to Pateros is a mystery to me, but it took hold and remains the favored way to fish for metalheads along this stretch of the Columbia.
I never really understood the basics of bobber fishing or why it was applied to the fishery here on the Columbia at Pateros until I met and fished with local guide Vern Westerdahl. He took me out one afternoon and demonstrated how deadly bobber fishing can be and introduced me to the rigging of the slip-bobber, the presentation of the jig and some of the water steelhead prefer here.
This is pretty much a spin-casting show. A medium-weight spinning rod of at least 8 1/2 feet is recommended. For the most part, 6- to 8-pound steelhead are plentiful in the Columbia at Pateros.
The basic rigging of a slip-bobber rig consists of four elements: the knot, the bead, the bobber and the jig. Each serves a purpose and function in connection with the others. One doesn't work without the other, and they all come together to do just one thing: present bait to waiting steelhead.
This is how the setup goes: Take your main line, usually 6- to 10-pound-test, and tie on a knot. The slip or sliding knot can be difficult to master; it resembles a nail knot used by fly anglers to attach leaders to fly lines. Fortunately, pre-packaged knots, complete with a small tube to run your line through, are available at most sporting goods stores in the area.
This takes all the "trick" out of tying a knot above your bead. If there is a trick, it's learning just how tight to make the knot on your line. It can't be too tight to adjust, but not so loose that it will slide up your line and change the depth of your bobber. This will take some practice and experience. The benefit is that it takes just a minute to replace a knot that's too loose.
Next, string on a bead. The bead must be of a size that won't pass through the tip guide of your rod, and the hole in the bead can't be large enough to allow the knot to pass into it. Let the bead slide up the line and see it's the right size. If it sticks to the knot while fishing, it's pretty frustrating.
The bobber goes below the bead. Bobbers come in a variety of sizes and colors. Most are 3 to 6 inches in length, with a plastic "straw" extending a couple of inches from the top and the bottom. Some are nearly round, and others are straight sided. People have their preferences, but the idea is to be able to cast this a reasonable distance and be able to see it clearly. Some anglers even place a Corky below the knot so it rests on top of the bobber to increase visibility. It is important to use a bobber of enough buoyancy to keep afloat when the weight of the jig and bait are added below it.
The last item to add to this setup is the jig. There are nearly as many styles, sizes and colors of jigs as there are plastic baits for bass fishing. I have often found anglers staring with glazed eyes at the selection of jigs hanging on the wall of a sporting goods store, wondering which one will be the answer. Most experienced anglers know that there is a purpose for the different styles and colors, and they carry a selection of jigs in their tackle boxes. The answer can change from day to day.
Jigs come in two basic materials: marabou and deer hair. There are advantages to both and reasons why certain anglers choose one over the other.
action of marabou makes this material appealing to steelhead. Even the slightest current or twitch of the line will make marabou undulate in the water. However, if you like to apply scent to your bait, forget marabou. Once scent is applied to marabou, it's history. It loses its breathing ability and becomes stiff, and you cannot get the scent off of the jig. It's toast.
Anglers who like to add scent to their baits choose deer hair jigs. Scent has no impact at all on the performance of a deer hair jig. Deer hair jigs maintain their profile and offer a tantalizing silhouette to steelhead. Some anglers say deer hair jigs are arguably as effective as marabou, with the added advantage of holding scent.
I'm not taking chances. A peek into my tackle box will reveal a selection of marabou and deer hair jigs in sizes ranging from 1/16- to 3/8-ounce. The weight range is determined by the current and just how subtle the angler wants to be.
CASTING THE JIG
When you cast, the jig will hit the water first and begin to sink. The line then slips through the bobber, and the knot pushes the bead to the bobber. When the bead hits the straw at the top of the bobber, the bobber sits upright. You can typically hear a "click" as the bead hits the bobber.
Now you're fishing. Or are you? Let's be sure.
If the bobber doesn't sit straight up, a couple of things may be going on. One is that the jig isn't heavy enough to keep it upright. You can test this next to the boat or close to shore. You want the bobber upright. The bobber is your beacon to what's going on below. Make sure the jig is of the right weight. The other thing that may be happening is that your jig is sitting on the bottom. That's the beauty of the slip-bobber rig. All you need to do is slide the knot on your line so that the jig stops sooner. You want your jig close to the bottom but not grazing it. When your bobber goes down, you want it in the jaws of a steelhead, not the rocks or weeds! With a rod rigged this way, an angler can fish shallow water or as deep as 30 feet.
Casting is a breeze as the whole setup reels right up to the rod tip. Some anglers (like my friend Vern Westerdahl) will run their line through the bobber and then through a small egg sinker and then attach a swivel and a leader of a lighter test than their main line to tie onto their jig. The main line may be 10- or 12-pound-test, but the leader may be 6-pound. The sinker helps get the jig down to the zone and helps keep it drifting properly.
Wow, I almost forgot bait! What most anglers put on the jig hook is the tail section of canal shrimp. You can find it at most tackle stores and even at gas stations in the area. It may be dyed or natural in color. The main thing is that you remove the head from the shrimp and thread it on the hook so a hungry steelie can get it in his mouth.
Now that you know how to rig your slip-bobber and jig, let's talk about where to toss it.
Some of the places anglers will want to toss their jigs will be pretty obvious when arriving in Pateros. Steelheaders can be spotted along the shoreline and on the docks along the waterfront. There will be boats just off the shore here, too, with many of those anglers fishing under and around the bridge where the Methow meets the Columbia.
Many anglers will "stake a claim" to one of the several docks along the shoreline, and plenty of steelhead are landed from them. There is plenty of open shoreline between them, though, so there's lots of elbowroom for a fair number of anglers here.
The Columbia River here is sort of a cross between a river and a lake. This stretch is referred to as "Lake Pateros," and as an impoundment behind Wells Dam, there often is little or no current. When bobber fishing this area, don't be reluctant to try water that you would never consider on other rivers.
If you are traveling from the west on the highway into town, you may notice a cluster of boats on the river just before you reach Pateros. They will be fishing the area known as "The Rocks." The river narrows slightly here, and anglers will start drifting their bobbers along the shore above here and quit when the current starts sweeping them downstream, which also makes it difficult to control their bobbers.
Boaters have other options here. Across the river and down from the mouth of the Methow are several small bays. The number of steelhead that hide in these tiny bays always surprises me. Some of these bays are areas in which you will be fishing way below your bobber; you couldn't really fish this water any other way.
One of the most popular fishing areas for those who are bound for Pateros is just above Wells Dam. There are two fish ladders here, and on the west side of the dam a large riprap-lined bay provides a great fishing area for the bobber-and-jig crowd.
Boaters will also run down from Pateros or use a launch about two miles upriver from the dam to fish at Wells. There is a buoy line above the dam, and boaters will fish near here (out of range of the casts from shore anglers), and they will cast in all directions to find cruising fish.
Speaking of launches, there are two of them in the town of Pateros. One is just above the bridge over the Methow, with good parking, a small dock and even a fish-cleaning station. The other is just down the street from the Lake Pateros Inn. This ramp is steep; take extreme caution using this ramp when snow and ice are present. Having a bag of sand could save the day at this one. It is often necessary to use this ramp, as the one above the bridge can freeze in extremely cold temperatures.
Although I have dedicated this article to bobber fishing, I would not rule out plug fishing completely. There are those who troll the Columbia here with success. It's kind of like trolling for rainbow trout in a lake. Backtrolling, however, is not possible because of the lack of current.
Try the bobber fishing. You'll be amazed at how easy it is to use this setup, and when you get a big steelhead on the line, you'll know why so many anglers use this technique. It's just part of the appeal of fishing for Pateros metalheads in December.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Another nice aspect of steelhead fishing at Pateros is that everything is close at hand. You'll find everything you need to enjoy your time here within a couple of blocks. There are some good restaurants, a sporting goods store, an RV park and a good hotel.
The Pateros Super Stop is one of Pateros' landmarks. This Chevron station has been situated at the mouth of the Methow River for years and truly has something for everyone, including fuel, snacks, bait, a great restaurant and RV spaces right on the river. To check for RV space, you can call the Pateros Super Stop at (509) 923-2200, ext. 181. For more information, you can e-mail questions to email@example.com, or you can check out their Web site at
Also right on the Columbia River is a great
motel: the Lake Pateros Motor Inn. This has nice, comfortable rooms at very reasonable rates and a place to dock your boat. You can call the Lake Pateros Motor Inn toll free at 1-866-444-1985. You can get in touch via e-mail by typing in firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out their Web site at