July 31, 2020
By M.D. Johnson
The first year I ever fished for steelhead, I spent dozens of hours over the course of countless days trying to catch my first chromer. "You’ll get one," local anglers assured me. "It isn’t easy, but you’ll get one."
I didn’t get one that year. But I did the next. And the year after that. And I learned something very important about steelhead fishing along the way: It’s insanely addictive.
"I am absolutely addicted to steelhead fishing," says Jarod Higginbotham, assistant national sales manager for the Washington-based Yakima Bait Company (yakimabait.com). "They call steelhead the ‘gray ghost’ for a reason. Everyone’s always looking for a ghost, right? And it doesn’t matter if you catch one or 20 in a day, that addiction never goes away. When you hook one of those things and it goes cartwheeling off in front of you peeling 40 yards of line, you’ll be hooked, too."
Steelhead fishing can be technical and complicated, but putting together an arsenal of tactics is not impossible.
"It used to be that steelhead fishing was all drift fishing, but float (bobber) fishing has come so far, it truly gives the beginner an edge they didn’t have before," Higginbotham says. "It’s much easier than many people think. Still, you can’t catch them from the couch. You need to get out there and put in the time."
BOBBERS AND BAIT
Steelhead fishing with a float, be it with bait or a jig, operates under the same general principle as one of the simplest forms of fishing—the bobber-and-bait rig used by many bluegill anglers. As you might imagine, there are some differences, starting with rod, reel and line employed.
"I fish bobbers and bait with the exact same rig I use when fishing a bobber and jig," says Higginbotham. "Spinning rods are ideal for this type of fishing because they’re super easy to use. Something in the 9- to 10 1/2-foot range with a (monofilament) line rating of 6- to 12- or 8- to 14-pound test, matched to a 3000-series reel spooled with 20- to 30-pound-test braided mainline."
Higginbotham, who’s 6 feet 10 inches tall, prefers a longer rod when working a bobber. "With the longer rod, I can really get that line up off the water and give myself a drag-free drift presentation," he says. "It’s important for your bobber to be straight up and down, with your gear directly below it."
The mainline is braid, but otherwise this is a finesse tactic, Higginbotham says. "I almost always use a fluorocarbon leader, though the pound test depends on water clarity. The clearer the water, the lighter my line."
Higginbotham’s gear from the bobber stopper to the hook is simple. "You have your stop and your bobber-stop bead, but then I do something a little different," he says. "I put a No. 4 Corkie below the bead but above the bobber, which does two things. First, it provides an additional visual aid, so I can see the bobber better. Second, if I cast and the gear tangles, that Corkie won’t sit on top of the bobber, which tells me I’m not fishing."
As for the bobbers themselves, Higginbotham is partial to Aero-Floats by Hawken Fishing.
"Below the bobber is a bead, followed by either a half- or quarter-ounce sinker depending on the float I’m using, a fluorocarbon leader and a single No. 1/0 or No. 1 snelled hook with an egg loop."
The choice of baits for bobber fishing will vary from angler to angler, as will the methods for preparing and presenting that bait.
"I’m very picky when it comes to bait," Higginbotham says. "I cure all my own. One thing I can’t stress enough is if you don’t start with good bait, you’re not going to end up with good bait.
"I use all Pro-Cure products to cure my baits," he continues. "I like my coon shrimp to be a certain size. They need to have their antennae intact. And I put steelhead-specific scents in them, like krill powders, sugars, salts and dyes. I’ll always have pink, and usually a red and a purple. For roe, I don’t like chemical cures, but rather sugars, salts, Borax, and Pro-Cure Bad Azz bait dye."
There is a bewildering number of steelhead jigs on the market, and the selection of sizes and colors can be overwhelming.
"Size and color do make a huge difference, and being able to find the right combination is largely a product of time on the water and learning," Higginbotham says. "My favorite pattern is what’s called the ‘Nightmare,’ which is a white head, red throat and black hackle. It’s the fishiest thing I’ve ever thrown for steelhead, and I’ve thrown it from Washington to the Great Lakes."
As for the size of the jig, start with a 1/4-ounce head in heavier flows and darker water. In medium flows and mid-colored water, go with an 1/8-ounce jig. Switch to a 1/16-ounce or even a 1/32-ounce size in gin-clear, low-flow water.
Scent is your friend in all of the above situations, and tipping your jig with some sort of bait can never hurt. The only time Higginbotham doesn’t tip his jig with something is when he’s fishing waters with "no bait/no scent" regulations.
"Spinner fishing for steelhead is fun," says Higginbotham. "It’s so low maintenance. All you need is a box of spinners and an 8 1/2-foot, medium-action spinning rod. I prefer braid here, as I can cast it a lot farther than mono."
The braided mainline, he says, is knotted to a quality crane swivel to prevent line twist. Next comes a 3-inch 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon leader followed by a small snap swivel. Spinners can range from 1/8 ounce all the way up to 5/8 ounce.
"My go-to spinner in most situations is half an ounce," he says. "As far as colors go, nickel, pinks and metallic blue are all really good colors for steelhead. If the water’s dirty, I fish chartreuse."
Higginbotham has a method when it comes to throwing a spinner. "I line up on a hole, let’s say, and I know I have 3 to 5 feet of visibility, so I’m using a 3/8-ounce spinner," he says. "I start at the head of the hole, where the choppy water is below the riffle. The aggressive fish are generally going to be at the head of the hole. I’ll cast into this riffle and burn that spinner back to me. I’m looking for that reactive strike.
"Once I get to the belly [of the hole], I’ll start fan-casting in order to cover that water thoroughly," he explains. "When I get to the bottom of the hole, I’ll fish it as if I were spoon fishing. Cast slightly downriver and bring it back, keeping it just off the bottom. I’ll let the river do the work and let that spinner swing through that tail-out."
In other words, Higginbotham reacts to each part of the hole he is fishing, changing tactics to match where the fish are and the retrieve they want. If you do the same on any water with steelhead in it, you’ll soon be bringing more fish to hand. Steelhead can certainly be challenging, but these gray ghosts aren’t impossible.
THE RIVER’S OPEN! OR IS IT?
While there’s undeniably excellent steelhead fishing to be found in the Pacific Northwest and points slightly south, steelhead runs aren’t what they were at the turn of the twenty-first century. Ocean conditions have been less than optimal, to put it mildly, and both steelhead and salmon populations have exhibited downturns in recent years, with some runs all but disappearing. Combine the oceanic situation with ever-increasing predation by seals, sea lions and avian foes, and the fact that fish-and-game departments are closing hatcheries left and right, and it becomes clear why some steelhead stocks are experiencing difficulties.
This brings us to emergency river closures. Traditionally, steelhead seasons have been open between two set dates per regulations decided upon by the state wildlife agency and other entities. Occasionally, however, runs are so poor that an agency finds it necessary to institute an emergency closure, either on a section of river or tributary or on the whole of the system. In Washington, information regarding emergency closures can be obtained by calling the agency’s hotline (360-902-2500), contacting customer service (360-902-2700). Oregon (dfw.state.or.us), Idaho (idfg.idaho.gov) and California (wildlife.ca.gov) have similar systems in place, all of which can be researched on the states’ wildlife agency websites.