February 03, 2021
A few years back, I was wrapping up a winter steelhead seminar when one of the audience members asked a good question. "Would you rather master one technique, or be good at several?"
I replied without hesitation, just as I have when asked that question on multiple occasions before and since: Be good at several.
I've been fishing for winter steelhead for more than 50 years and I’m a firm believer in tackle diversification. When I talk about "covering water,” I'm talking about fishing a single hole or stretch of water as thoroughly as I can, not hole-hopping and using just one or two techniques. Presenting fish with an assortment of offerings can be the difference between catching fish and not catching fish.
You could be the world's best bead fisherman, but if the steelhead don't like beads on a given day, there’s nothing you can do. If you limit yourself to pulling plugs, you might not get a bite on some days. If you only drift eggs or plunk, you'll miss suspended fish.
On one recent outing, I was drifting eggs through a classic chute. After a half-dozen casts, I put that rod down and grabbed my bobber rod equipped with a rag and eggs. On the first cast a 13-pound hen nailed it; two casts later, a buck was in the boat. Those fish had been there the whole time—they just didn't want eggs on the bottom that morning.
It's common for steelhead anglers to first drift-fish a hole, then cover the same water with beads, spinners, twitching jigs and jigs dangled beneath floats. Anglers fishing from a boat might back-troll a diver and bait or plugs before pushing downstream. This is a great way to cover all parts of the water column, bank to bank, top to bottom, in one place.
This season, stay flexible in your approach and use a variety of techniques to get fish to hit. If at first you don't succeed, try different things until you do.
Reading the Water
The best steelhead anglers I've ever known have one thing in common: They can read water. Reading the water means looking at the flow of a river and noting where currents, seams, boils, chutes, riffles, bowls, tailouts and other features are. After that, you must deduce where the steelhead may be lying, then figure out how best to fish them. Seasoned anglers can process all this information in a matter of seconds and adjust their tactics accordingly.
Reading water each time you fish is important, even on streams you are familiar with, because the anatomy of a winter steelhead hole can change dramatically as river levels fluctuate. Over time, noting where fish move and hold in these changing conditions is the key to consistently catching them.
You might have to cycle through some tactics until the fish tell you where they are holding on any given day. Matching that information with careful observation of water conditions not only gives you the information you need to read the water and catch fish that day, but it's a long-term benefit as well.
Becoming familiar with where fish hold at different water levels can pay dividends for years. As long as the bottom structure remains the same, steelhead will return to the same places season after season. There are many holes I catch steelhead in today where my dad and granddad caught them more than 70 years ago.
River clarity, water volume, direct sunlight, turbidity and fishing pressure are just some of the elements that dictate where a steelhead will hold and travel in any given section of water. Fish can also move to different parts of a hole throughout the day depending on water flow changes and light conditions, and those movements are why using multiple techniques can pay off.
Backtrolling plugs or a diver and bait can be very effective in main currents, along seams and into tailouts, especially in high, murky water. In clear conditions, downsizing the presentation can be the ticket. For example, if the river is high and dirty, a 3 1/2-inch Mag Lip might be the best choice. If the water is low and clear, downsizing to a less intrusive 3-inch diver could do the job.
When you backtroll into a pool of clear water, winter steelhead will often spook and drop downstream, holding on the tailout. This means you should run your presentation all the way to the end of the tailout, just above the breaking point into the rapids.
Changing plug colors and baits is a good idea, too. I like to have at least three colors of cured eggs handy. Orange, red and pink eggs, along with a sand shrimp or dyed prawn tail, are good baits to run behind a diver. Cerise, silver, blue, red and black are solid plug color choices.
Whether from shore or boat, drift fishing is a very effective way to catch steelhead. The goal is to cast upstream and let your terminal gear drift downstream while occasionally ticking the bottom. Using the right amount of weight is key here, as too much lead will hang you up and too little will cause your bait to drift too quickly over the fish.
Pencil sinkers, slinky sinkers, split shot, bank sinkers and cannon ball sinkers are all good choices for drift fishing. Many anglers like rubber-coated sinkers since they don't stick to rocks. Experiment with different weights, keeping in mind the amount you use will vary even within a hole. At the head end of a riffle you might use a quarter-ounce of lead, but as that hole deepens you may need three-quarters or a full ounce of weight.
Hook and bait size depend largely on water clarity. The clearer and shallower the river, the more likely it is that the fish will be skittish, so a small presentation is ideal. A size 2 octopus-style hook is good in low water; upsizing to a 2/0 hook is not overkill in high-water settings. If you’re using a drift bobber like a Lil’ Corky or Spin-N-Glo, make sure it’s small enough so it doesn’t cover the point of the hook.
There's no better way to cover large amounts of water than with a float. If fishing from shore or an anchored boat, suspending a jig or bait below a float is the norm. A long 10-foot, 6-inch float rod is ideal as it allows the floating mainline to be mended, which keeps the float and terminal gear in the ideal position and moving at the speed of the river. A drag-free presentation is a big advantage.
I like a 30-pound high-vis braided mainline because it floats and is easy to see and mend. Start by slipping a bobber stop onto the mainline, followed by a 3mm bead, then your float. Tie the mainline to a size-7 barrel swivel and attach a 12- to 30-inch leader to the other end. The bobber stop is your depth regulator.
Match the float and jig weight. If you use a 1/4-ounce float, fish a 1/4-ounce jig beneath it. Eggs, sand shrimp, crawdad tails and pink rubber worms can also be fished beneath a float. To get your terminal gear down and to slow its travel, adding a bit of weight to the swivel or above it on the mainline will help.
If you’re fishing from a boat (or a long section of shoreline that you can walk along easily), try bobber dogging. This is where the angler travels downstream with the terminal gear. The goal is to achieve a long, unbroken drift that’s natural and consistent with the river flow.
When it comes to winter steelhead, I’d rather be good at several methods than limited to specializing in just one or two. Today's quality gear allows a range of techniques to be applied, and the time has never been better to diversify you fishing approaches.
Add some lift to your presentations.
Drift bobbers are a key element of winter steelhead fishing. These little gems add buoyancy to your terminal gear to prevent hang-ups and increase a bait’s visibility, which makes it easier for fish to find it.
Scent can be added to these rigs as well, giving you a chance to appeal to a steelhead’s sense of smell as well as its eyesight.
Drift bobbers can be fished alone or with bait. A common plunking drift bobber is the Spin-N-Glo. This winged drift bobber offers lift and a lot of movement to a presentation.
Drift bobbers come in a range of designs, sizes and colors. Experimenting with these under different water conditions can take your steelhead fishing to a new level.
Editor's Note: Scott Haugen's book, Bank Fishing For Steelhead & Salmon, is available at scotthaugen.com.