Show-Stopper Steelhead

If you think all winter steelhead are created equal, you haven't tried fishing the late season -- when big, bad wild fish come back home.

Photo by Geremachek Johnson

It was one of those warm, sunny, late-March afternoons, perfect for any outdoor activity you might want to name, but especially good for fishing. Although it was midweek, my longtime fishing partner and I both had the afternoon off, and having two or three hours to fish, we headed for the nearest steelhead river.

My favorite steelhead drift-fishing outfit at the time was a 9-foot fly rod and dual-action fly reel loaded with 12-pound monofilament. Casting distance with that rig was limited, but it seemed that every time I used it I managed to hook a big steelhead, usually one that was too big and way too nasty for the rod and reel to handle without extreme exertion on my part and at least some help from whomever else happened to be around at the time.

My fishing partner cringed as I pulled that old fly rod out of the trunk, stuck the two pieces together and began threading line through its many eyes.

His worst fears were quickly realized, as my third or fourth sidearm "cast" laid my offering of fresh steelhead roe and a brightly colored little ball of plastic just behind a concrete bridge piling near the other side of the river. The sinker bounced once or twice along the rocky bottom and seemed to lift off into the current, and I felt that soft, tapping tug that always means good news to a steelheader.

I set the hook and almost instantly lost control of the situation, as something much bigger and badder than I was used to came cartwheeling out of the water, turned downstream and peeled 50 yards of line off the reel before changing direction and heading for a huge stump that lay partially submerged near the far shore. By the time I had cranked all the slack line back onto my reel, the fish had barricaded itself within the tangle of roots, and it appeared the battle was over as quickly as it had begun.

I tugged. I cussed. I walked up and down the riverbank to change my line's angle. When all of that failed to coax the fish out of the root wad, I tried one last resort: I stripped several feet of line off the reel, dropped the rod tip and gave the fish slack line in hopes that it would swim out of the maze on its own.

It worked! Ten minutes later and 100 yards downstream, my fishing partner waded into calf-deep water and scooped just over 18 pounds of chrome-bright late-season winter steelhead into the shallows, where we could admire it at close range.

The moral of the story is simple: If you're looking for a 6-pound hatchery steelhead, join the riverbank crowds in December and January; if you want a crack at something in the 12- to 20-pound range, or maybe bigger, flex your fishing muscles during the late season. That's when the showstoppers of the winter steelhead world come out to play!

Hatchery steelhead tend to return to their home rivers early, most of them entering fresh water from November through January or early February. A majority of these hatchery-produced clones -- fish the experts refer to as "two-salts" -- return after only two years in the ocean. Because they're less than 3 years old, they typically weigh in at 5 to 7 pounds. If you're looking for quantity rather than quality, they're the fish you want, and early in the season is the time to do your steelheading. But you won't be alone! Everyone else knows that these hatchery returnees come back early in the season, too, so the fishing pressure often is extreme early in the season.

Weather conditions during the heart of winter send river levels up and down like a yo-yo, often resulting in feast-or-famine angling action. If you hit it right, immediately after a good rain, you can be a hero, but prolonged periods of wet or dry weather can produce prolonged periods of fishless days.

Wild-stock steelhead, on the other hand, are much more likely to stay in the Pacific three, four or even five years -- perhaps more -- before returning to fresh water, so they come back as full-grown adults, the kind of big bruisers that provide steelheading memories. A three-salt steelhead will weigh in at 9 to 12 pounds or more and a four-salt at 12 to, maybe, 19 pounds; a five-salt steelie may reach the mid-20s.

Late-season steelhead are not only bigger but also tougher, thanks to warmer water temperatures. Steelhead can be somewhat sluggish and fight accordingly in the dead of winter, when water temperatures may hover only a few degrees above freezing. In March and April, though, the spring sun warms the water and supercharges the fish that live in it. These big spring steelies are the high-performance sports cars of the salmonid world, and they'll test your strength and stamina.

Weather and water conditions are often much more predictable and generally more pleasant than the conditions of December or January. River levels tend to remain stable and visibility usually is good, so in many ways the fishing is easier than it is earlier in the winter. And, with stable river levels, the fish trickle in at a slow but steady rate, so you might find one at almost any time, almost anywhere.

Stable river levels and higher visibility mean you may have to use a subtle approach to catch late-season steelies consistently. The big, gaudy offerings needed to lure fish in high, dirty water may scare the daylights out of wary late-season fish, so go smaller and more subtle. A tiny tuft of nylon yarn or a small steelhead bobber with or without a small cluster of roe or other bait often works just fine. Pink, white, yellow, peach and other such "pale" shades often work better than bright reds and fluorescent oranges late in the season.

Another worthwhile "trick" for big, late-season steelhead is to be just a little less obvious in your own presence on the river. Staying low, stepping back a few feet from the water, even wearing muted colors can make a difference when you're fishing clear water for wary fish. On a bright, sunny day, it's even more important to do what you can to keep announcing your presence.

Keep in mind, also, that when the water is a little low and clear, these rather secretive fish known as steelhead may seek out more cover as they make their way upriver. You'll still want to fish the classic, slow-moving drifts that produce strikes earlier in the year, but also take the time to fish the faster slots where roily surface water provides cover, or undercut banks where the relative darkness gives fish a better sense of security on a sunny day.

These little pockets of cover often produce big surprises for late-season, trophy-hunting anglers. Although some anglers look back on the '60s and '70s as the good old days of winter steelheading, your odds of h

ooking a late-season trophy fish are probably as good now as they ever were, thanks in part to the efforts of state fish managers along much of the West Coast.

Catch-and-release seasons, selective tackle regulations, restrictive limits such as one wild fish per day or only a few per season have helped to prolong the late-season fishing possibilities and give anglers an ongoing opportunity to hook these husky wild steelhead that are in relatively short supply in many river systems.

That makes it especially important for anglers to study the fishing regulations before hitting a river in search of these late-season wild steelies. Some rivers or parts of rivers are closed to fishing as early as the end of January or the end of February to protect wild steelhead stocks, so these areas, obviously, are off-limits. On other West Coast streams, the regulations change late in the winter, with wild-fish-release, catch-and-release-only, limit reductions or other rules going into effect in February or March. Some streams, on the other hand, have larger runs of wild fish, and there may be pretty much wide-open fishing through March, April, or perhaps even all year. The bottom line is, it's up to you to know where, when and under what rules you can catch these magnificent fish.

And, just because the law may allow you to keep a wild steelhead during the late season certainly doesn't mean you have to. Each run of wild West Coast steelhead is unique, and every one of these fish a gorgeous work of nature. Many late-season anglers release them all, even though the rules might allow keeping one, simply because these fish are so much more valuable in the river than they ever could be on the dinner table. You have to hook only one to understand why some anglers treat these fish so reverently and often release them to thrill again.

Go find out for yourself; you'll become hooked on late-season steelheading.

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