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4 Steelhead Hotspots

4 Steelhead Hotspots

Vary your techniques with the changes in winter weather, and you'll hook into strong steelies on these four great Pacific Northwest rivers.

(December 2006)

Whenever the temperature rises suddenly, you should fish hard for as long as it continues to warm. Some anglers fish exclusively by this cool trick because it works.
Photo by Terry Jarmain.

This time of year, steelhead fishing is all about timing how fast rivers clear up, watching for rising temperatures and noting driving distance.

Check weather patterns often, with a focus on mountain passes where snow runoff can affect the movement of fish. If the temperature rises quickly, the fish will soon go on the bite. Make sure you are on the water when that happens.

Bank-fishing for winter steelheads is much easier than fishing from a boat. But the additional hassle of putting in and navigating a river from a vessel usually pays off.

A boat gives you better chance to find the holds that get little fishing pressure, and that means more fish on the hook. It's probably the most productive way to fish for steelheads and trout this time of year.

When drifting, give yourself an extra two hours before heading out, and you'll find yourself on the water as the sun comes up.




Regarded by some as the center of the universe for steelhead fishing, the Puyallup River produces whether it runs clear or turbid.

Mt. Rainier feeds the system. You can watch the freezing levels anywhere along the entire tributary system of the Puyallup. Most of the time, this river runs silty, with near zero visibility. But in the winter, conditions can clear the river overnight.

Saltwater fisherman Ron Sullivan loves to fish the Puyallup River so much that he'd rather fish it than anywhere else. The Kirkland, Wash., angler said the river is so consistent that it's worth fishing, regardless of what the water looks like.

"So long as you know where to look," he said, "there are so many fish it's hard not to find them."

During the day, temperatures rise and the volume of the river increases, but it doesn't color up until dusk. The best way to fish any given part of the river is either to drift the faster currents with drift-fishing gear, or fish eddies and tail-outs with spinners that have hooks no larger than No. 2s.

Do your fishing above each tail-out and eddy so that there is a significant swing in the drift of the spinners as they get closer to the hold. Drift spinners the same way you would leaders and terminal gear associated with drift-fishing. After you're fishing the clear water for a few minutes, winter steelies will let you know how good each presentation is.

If you end up fishing the river when it's turbid, take the time to cast out at 1-foot intervals, and then make subsequent casts the width of the river before moving on to the next hold.

These techniques are effective for all of the rivers in this article.

Directions to Puyallup River: Take Interstate 5 to exit 127, which is State Route 512. Head east towards Puyallup for about 10 miles. Take S.R. 410 east to Highway 162.

The public access points lie on the left side of 162, with well-known fishing trails around 116th Street. There are many places to fish along the river with the better put-ins just east of Sumner.



In summer, fall and spring, there is very little movement on the Salmon River. Not so in winter.

The river, which borders the Olympic National Park and the Quinault Indian Reservation, may be one of the state's shortest rivers that produce these fish. But the consistently growing numbers of native fish and hatchery fish keep anglers coming back each year. Commonly, they arrive in droves. Although the area is out of the way, expect to fish the best spots shoulder-to-shoulder.

Bank-fishing is the best way to fish both sides of the Salmon, a tributary of the Queets River. Since the Salmon is shallow, short, and hard to get to most seasons, there seem to be few put-ins. But in winter, the river gets wider and deeper.

Most of the trails parallel the river, and the best holds often run deep against fallen logs and branches that hang over the water. The higher the river, the more structure you'll have to contend with.

The levels of the Queets directly influence the Salmon. Before heading out, log onto the U.S. Geological Survey site to find out what the river conditions are. They can be classified as high, low, rising, falling or stable.

Weather patterns are a very important factor on the Salmon. It takes only a few hours for a sudden cold front to move in. Conversely, this river shapes up fast. It can blow out quick, so fishing can improve within a day of a deluge.

When the river runs turbid, the best tackle is Hot Shots and spinners for eddies and pools, and drift-fishing gear for faster water.

Fly fishermen find many holes along this short system. With a sinking leader and tippet, you can easily get down to holding fish.

For most of the winter, the river runs brown. That means that you can fish both sides without the threat of putting fish off the bite. As short as the river is, there are more trails than large systems. Flyfishermen, drift-fishermen, spinners, bobber-jig, and bait fishermen can fish almost side by side and not interfere with each other.

Directions to Salmon River: On the west side of the Olympic Mountains, take Highway 101 to Queets River Road near the north end of the Quinault Indian Reservation. The road is identified with National Park signs on the west side of the highway near the Gray's Harbor and Jefferson County lines.

Drive down the gravel road until you see a small bridge. You can park on either side. The park boundary is approximately a half-mile to the east. Bank-fishermen can get to the river at many points.



Just a stone's throw from metropolitan areas, Sandy River is an amazing place to fish for winter steelhead. It has the ability to ferret out those who "can" fish, as opposed to those who "want" to fish in a bucket. Those who stay can experience pristine beauty.

You can fish for steelhead year 'round in the Sandy River, w

hich is part of the Willamette Region. You can actually leave the heart of Portland and in less than an hour, find yourself on the banks of the river. If you live on the outskirts of the city, the river is practically at your feet.

Bank-fishermen find access trails along the length of the river. When the fishing is hot, expect like-minded fishermen in the same spot. This is commonly called "combat fishing."

In many cases, when one fishing technique works, none of the others do. That's why it's important not to take only baits or only lures. Steelhead on the Sandy can be put off the moment the temperature changes. That can make fishing tricky.

Tumultuous weather changes the height and the flow of the river almost every day. That also changes where the steelhead will be. Before heading out, check the weather forecast and river-flow conditions for at least three days to get an idea of what to expect.

If and when the river blows out, don't hang up your rod. Especially on the Sandy, steelhead are caught in turbid waters where eddies are formed along the banks and tributaries. Jigs with large profiles will get strikes from lethargic steelhead, no matter how turbid or clear the water is. Jigs should first be drifted with no scent and no modifications.

If you get no strikes, put eyes on the sides of the head with a felt tip marker and cast out again. This trick has worked many times, and the little modification can out-fish many other techniques. I've seen it happen so many times that I don't head out the door without a marker pen.

Sooner or later, other anglers see you putting on the eyes, and that's when you add scent to the head of the jig. It's critical that you don't put any on the feather, hackles or fur. Scents are very hard to get off any of these kinds of tails. The best scents to use are gels because they stick fast but come off easily with warm water and soap.

Directions to Sandy River: From Portland, take Interstate 84, also known as Highway 30. Take Exit 17 to SW 257th Drive to West Historic Columbia River Highway and turn left. Follow it to SE Jackson Park Road. Fish from the park, or where there are access points on the west side of the river. Before you cross onto private property, make sure you have permission. People in the area take fishing very seriously, and residents will call state fisheries enforcement if you don't obey the law.

There is a put-in on the west side of the river across from the Lewis and Clark Recreation Site. If you want to get away from the crowds, head south.

To fish the upper systems of the river, start from Interstate 5 in Portland and take State Route 26 east. Drive to Gresham, Ore., bear southeast with the highway and drive towards the town of Sandy. Drive for about six miles. At SE Bluff Road, turn left. When the road forks, bear left and drive to SE Lusted Road, which eventually turns into SE Ten Eyck Road. Turn left onto SE Bull Run Road and follow it to the Oxbow Park. Just about every mile between Sandy and the city, the entire river has points where you'll find great fishing on both sides.



The McKenzie River flows out of the Willamette National Forest and the Cougar Reservoir in the northwest region of the state. Meandering to the west to the confluence of the Willamette River, the McKenzie has one of the best runs of steelhead and trout the area has to offer. Often, however, it's not easy to get to.

The McKenzie has year-round fishing. Bait can be used for part of the winter season, but artificial flies produce just about anytime of the year. Flyfishermen who enjoy the challenge of nature will love drifting this system. The river is not known for fishermen who like to use gear, but it does produce when back-trolling with hotshots and Wiggle Warts for larger fish.

The river's width and speed often change. That makes drift-fishing the most versatile way to fish the entire system. Rafters have access to every part of the river that drift boats do.

While fishing can be spectacular, the trip downriver offers scenery not found anywhere else. It makes the trip worth the effort. Most outdoorsmen who travel along the river are serious about their craft. The terrain offers hikers the challenge of fishing the south side of the river.

More conventional fishermen fish the north side, which is highly recommended if you are interested in ease and comfort.

The popularity of the area provides opportunities to hook into the fish of a lifetime. But more than that, the adventure of fishing this outstanding system keeps anglers coming back for more every year. Trout abound here, and the river is heavily favored to flyfishermen. If fly-fishing is your game, then this river is for you.

The single best way to fish is to drift it or get a guide. Local guides cater to more than just fishing this pristine area. Clients have a choice of rafting, drift-boating or camping.

Of course, all of the areas available to camping and hiking are open to the public. Guides often take clients to other systems in the area as well and provide options to visit southern Oregon and Idaho.

Directions to McKenzie River: Starting from Springfield, Ore., head east on Highway 126, which parallels the McKenzie for miles. Most put-ins lie on the north side of the river. There are access points to drift, canoe and camp. This terrain is for outdoorsmen of all kinds, and trekkers must have an affinity for nature, since that's what you'll see more of than anything else.

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