High-Water Steelhead

Winter steelheading conditions can be temperamental, but don't let that keep you from fishing -- or catching fish! When the water is high and turbid, use these simple guidelines to increase your chances for success.

by Scott Haugen

Pulling up to the boat ramp, I was surprised to see very few anglers. A gentleman whipped in behind me, got out of his rig, shrugged his shoulders and commented, "Looks like it will be a few days before this river is in."

Granted, the water was high - about 3 feet higher than I like to fish it - and the limited visibility was not too appealing either. But the rains that put this river out of shape had fallen a few days prior, and the coastal stream was now on the fall.

Based on experience, Dad and I decided to give it a shot. Feeling confident we could find fish, we launched. By day's end, four bright winter steelhead had been brought to the boat, despite less than ideal conditions.

When winter storms knock coastal steelhead streams out of whack, there are tactics that can be employed to produce fish. Anglers can swing the odds of success in their favor by capitalizing on steelhead travel routes and their visual and olfactory senses, even in poor conditions.

When winter streams swell, steelhead often adopt different travel routes. Knowing where fish move in high waters is perhaps the most important element to consistently catching steelhead.

On the wake of a storm, trying your luck on steelhead is typically fruitless. Rising rivers and increased turbidity may encourage fish to move through a system rather quickly, but catching them is another story. Not only are rivers dangerous to navigate when on the rise, but the fish simply don't bite.

Jerry Haugen worked his bait close to the bank, where he found this steelhead in high water. Photo by Scott Haugen

However, once that river starts to drop, opportunities for catching fish increase. Don't think that the river you plan on fishing has to reach a precise degree of clarity before you can get your oars wet.

With rivers running high, steelhead will often shift their routes of travel from the middle of the stream to the banks. Granted, the exact path of travel will be partially determined by the type of river bottom, brush lines and rate of current flow, but don't be afraid to work close to shore. Search for any bit of current moving over rocks and between clumps of grass close to shore.

Fish moving in high waters can shift so far from their traditional travel routes, you'll often draw funny looks from other anglers when they see where you're casting. Recall the times you've fished high waters, and the number of strikes that have come at the very end of your drift as your bait moved close to shore. It's not likely the steelhead followed your bait any great distance in the poor conditions, rather the bait slipped in front of its nose at the last minute.

Brown Sugar Egg Cure

Winter steelhead eggs are some of the most sought after in the fishing world. Following is a recipe given to me by Doug Coplin, one of the best egg fishermen I know. He's been using this recipe since 1965.


Combine one cup brown sugar and one teaspoon sodium sulfite. Mix the two ingredients into a container.


In a medium-size glass jar, layer the bottom with bait-size chunks of eggs. Sprinkle a generous layer of the powder mixture over the eggs. Apply enough powder to lightly cover the eggs. Add another layer of eggs and apply the cure, repeating until all eggs have been used.


Tightly secure the lid and let sit 12 hours. Invert the jar and let sit another 12 hours. Invert the jar again and let stand 12 hours.


This standing time is necessary to allow juices to seep down through the eggs and into the cells. These eggs don't freeze well, but will keep in the refrigerator for up to three months. -- Scott Haugen


I know of one guide whose clients landed more than 160 steelhead one February, and nearly all were taken in 2 1/2 to 4 feet of water. He anchored where everyone else did, but rather than fish the main current, he worked jigs back against the shore. By hitting the slots near the bank in which the fish were moving, he out-fished his counterparts just about every day.

Steelhead opt for calmer sections in high rivers, something that won't physically exhaust them. By working bait, jigs and even plugs close to shore, you'll be surprised at how near the bank these fish can be routinely caught in high waters.

For a steelhead to strike your bait or lure in high streams, he must first be able to find it. This means a visually appealing attractant must be introduced that will cause a fish to strike. In rivers flowing full and with limited visibility, increasing the size of your attractant and the amount of water you cover is critical to success.

Perhaps your traditional steelhead setup consists of a size 10 Lil' Corky atop a size 1 hook. In unfavorable waters, where attracting a steelhead's attention is challenging, consider increasing the size of your terminal gear, to a size 6 Corky atop a 2/0 hook. This one alteration alone has noticeably increased the number of fish I catch in poor water conditions.

Maybe a Cheater is your drift bobber of choice. Try changing to a Flashing and Spinning Cheater a size or two larger than what you'd normally use. The added action and color of the fluttering Mylar wings may be all that's needed to entice a bite. Last season I shifted to Flashing and Spinning Cheaters, and even cut the wing off one side. This creates a wobbling action on the drift bobber that actually allows it to spin off center, thus covering more water and capturing the attention of fish.

If you're a plugging fan, try upsizing. Rather tha

n running that 30 or 40 series Hot Shot, try slapping on a 25 or 35 series plug. The larger plugs, complete with built-in rattles, may be just the ticket for attracting fish. Above all else, don't be afraid to work these plugs tight to shore, where fish are moving in high waters. Move the plugs amid rocks, off logs and submerged root wads. You might even be able to fish one side of the river, row back upstream and fish the other side on your way down.

In addition to capturing a fish's sight, appealing to its olfactory senses in high water can be an important factor. The use of scents on winter steelhead is not as common as on summer steelhead or salmon, but winter fish rely on a heightened sense of smell to find their natal waters, and detecting odors is of vital importance in their everyday life.

The three super-giant scent producers - Atlas-Mike's, Pro-Cure and Smelly Jelly - have built their businesses around what fish like to eat. Be it through taste or smell, it's the scent held within baits that often makes the difference when it comes to getting a fish to bite.

Of all the varieties of scents produced by these companies, narrowing the choice can be difficult. That's why I'm a firm believer in varying your arsenal. When hitting the river, equip yourself with a number of scents, and use them all.

While many anglers carry the latest scents, using them on a regular basis is another issue. Experimenting with different scents may be all it takes to draw that bite.

Consider the angler who pulls in behind you, drops his bait in the hole you'd been fishing all morning, and then pulls out a fish. While his tactics were likely similar to yours, something he did enticed a nibble; either it was his egg cure or the scent he used, or perhaps, a combination of the two. Regardless, there was a change the fish found appealing.

Whether you cure your eggs with a variety of scents, or apply the scents on the river, don't be afraid to experiment with many combinations. Often the slightest degree of change is all that's needed to convince a fish to strike.

By diversifying your approach, reasonably high waters should no longer keep you at home. As winter rains can blow any river out of condition, the key is timing it so that you're on the water the moment they become fishable. By applying the tactics described here, not only will your time on the water be increased, but the number of fish you catch should also rise. (Editor's Note: To order a signed copy of Scott Haugen's latest book, Egg Cures: Proven Recipes and Techniques, send $15 plus $3 S&H to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. The 104-page, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 book is packed with valuable information, nearly 100 color photos and more than two dozen recipes.)

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