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Too Many Steelhead!

Too Many Steelhead!

An army of hatchery steelhead -- 250 percent more than fish managers want -- is invading the Grande Ronde River in western Washington right now. Get in on this historic opportunity. (February 2010)

Record numbers of steelhead are getting grabby this time of year on eastern Washington's Grande Ronde River. Anglers in the know will be there to greet them.

The Grande Ronde, seen from Rattlesnake Grade, flows through Washington's southeast corner near the town of Asotin and empties into the Snake River. Photo by Travis DeBoer.

The Grande Ronde flows out of Oregon and through Washington's southeast corner near the town of Asotin where it empties into the Snake River. This river cuts its way through some of the roughest and foreboding country in the state. Its spectacular desert canyons are host to some of the most diverse and interesting wildlife.

This spring, the biggest draw will be the returned hatchery steelhead. The steelhead in this river average about 4 to 8 pounds with the occasional bigger fish mixed in. Despite the great distance these summer-run fish have traveled to be here, they are aggressive, and always provide excellent sport.

This year, these hatchery fish have returned numbering somewhere around 250 percent of the desired quantities. There is concern that this many hatchery fish give too much competition to the native fish.

This conflict is a huge concern for the state. But for now it's a bonanza for anglers.

With February's rising water temperatures, the Grande Ronde comes alive. These fish begin to wake up after doing little more than surviving through the cold winter. The fishing generally continues to be quite good well into April with the hottest time being mid-February and March.


Almost any traditional steelhead tactics will work on these cooperative, aggressive fish. Fly-fishing, jig-and-bobber, as well as drift-fishing tactics, can all give you double-digit days when the conditions are right.

The Right Conditions
The conditions that add up to good fishing on the Grande Ronde are easy to identify: surface water temps climbing above the high 30s, and water that is anything chocolate-milk colored.

"Water clarity is not a huge issue, as long as it is not in a state of negative visibility," said guide Rick Hedding.

"Negative visibility" is when the water is so filled with debris that there is a reflection of your bait or lure inside the water.

When the water levels are dropping, the fishing is best.

When the water levels are rising, fish are moving and less likely to bite, said Hedding. Fish are staging and are more apt to bite when water levels are dropping.

The Grande Ronde is famous for its fall dry-fly fishery. But this time of year, it's a wet-fly game.

Perhaps the most deadly tactic is nymphing with a strike indicator and various egg patterns or beads rigged tandem. These rigs are simple and effective.

Balloons blown up to the size of a thumb work great as an indicator. Attach the indicator near your floating fly line. Tie the egg patterns to the business end of your tippet. The total length from indicator to hooks should be two to three times the depth of the water being fished.

Control the rate of sink and the depth of the offering with a small split shot or better yet, lead-free tungsten putty. Simply add or subtract weight as needed to get your egg patterns in the strike zone and avoid snagging in shallower water.

If your indicator is going under every couple of feet, subtract weight. If it isn't ticking bottom occasionally, add weight.

Always fish these rigs with a drag-free drift. Mend upstream as much as needed.

Nymphing techniques allow you to cover water a little more quickly than traditional down-and-across methods. You can easily rule out unproductive water.

These techniques consistently out-produce every other method on the river this time of year and can be responsible for very high double-digit days.

If throwing string at the water is your passion, then the other methods will fill a day nicely as well and might even produce a fish or two. But if you really want to stay busy, use these nymphing techniques.

It's hard to beat the jig-and-bobber approach on the Grande Ronde. This is a very easy and inexpensive way to fish. Plus, you'll cut down on frustration because you won't snag up as much compared with drift-fishing.

A small fixed bobber, a couple of split shot and a jig fished on a long rod are all that's needed on this smaller river, though scaled-down versions of slip-float rigs will work great as well.

You can use tandem baits also. In deeper holes it pays to fish multiple levels in the water column.

Your starting depth should be just below the middle of the water column. Cover the hole methodically. Cast across the water in increments of a couple of feet. Make sure to pay extra attention to likely spots, such as seams, eddies and tailouts.

Then adjust your bait a few feet lower and fish closer to the bottom.

This method for covering a hole helps to rule out unproductive water and snags less.

Hooking Up
To hook these fish, stay focused and poised. Set the hook aggressively. And as everyone knows, hooking a steelhead is only half the battle. You still need to get the fish in the net and safely landed.

This is where a silky smooth drag comes into play. Also, use a knotless net so you don't damage any natives that may be hooked. Release the natives right away. You might also hook into bull trout, which should also be released immediately.

Use good ethics and etiquette on the Grande Ronde. There will be crowding this time of year.

It's popular for two reasons.

First, the fishing really is that good!

Second, the fish are concentrated in one particular stretch of water this time of year. The water st

arting at Boggan's Oasis and heading upstream a few miles toward Oregon's line is always the most productive water this time of year.

Hedding calls this a "terminal fishery," meaning these hatchery fish end their journey on or near this segment of river. That's why there are so many.

Bankers and float-anglers alike find this stretch of water very hospitable. There are numerous pullouts and good boat launches. Again, good etiquette is a must because the Grande Ronde's narrow confines make manners and boat control a necessity.

Any of the classic water types will house steelhead on this river. The main concern is always to cover water methodically to find where fish are staging. Like most far-inland fisheries, pay attention to tailouts above water that is hard to navigate, such as bigger, longer, hard-to-skirt rapids and stretches of faster water.

Perhaps the best way to accelerate the learning curve for the newcomer is to hire one of the area's very knowledgeable guides. Their experience on this river and expertise is well worth the price. You'll understand this river better and hone your steelheading skills in general.

You'll find many camping options on the river, as well as lodging options. There is also a beautiful Washington state park with showers just off the road at the top of Rattlesnake Grade, a winding and treacherous stretch of Highway 129 on the way to the Grande Ronde from Asotin.

By the way, this road is not for the squeamish. There are no trees to hide the very long and steep descent into the canyonlands that house this portion of the Grande Ronde. Drive safe and try to enjoy the breathtaking views this road provides.

The next closest lodging is in the town of Clarkston, Wash., which has numerous places to stay. It's about a 45-minute drive south on Highway 129, a perfect amount of time for coffee and donuts.

Just across the river is the town of Lewiston, Idaho, home to the nearest airport with regular flights to Seattle and Portland. Lewiston is an angler's last chance to stock up on any gear before heading up to the Ronde.

Conservation is always an important concern on the Grande Ronde. Check the Washington regulations at Special concerns and rules apply to this river.

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