September 29, 2010
If boating a wild steelhead of 20+ pounds is your dream, it's time to visit the Skagit River system, where guide Rob Endsley has made a name for himself.
by Mike Schoby
The Skagit River system is to steelheaders what the north shore of Oahu is to surfers or Breckenridge is to snowboarders. At a certain time of the year for a certain type of person, it is the epicenter of their world.
As with the snowboarding or surfing communities, there is always a faction of participants that take the sport a little too seriously for their own good. They can be found living in a bus, eating Hormel from a can (cold, of course) and wearing a shirt that say "Will surf (or ski or snowboard or . . . ) for food." Except for the absence of blue hair, baggy pants and earrings stuck in odd places, steelhead anglers are not all that different from the snowboarding set.
If born anywhere other than the Pacific Northwest, Rob Endsley could easily have been one of the angling world's lost soles. Fortunately he has turned his passion to good use and today is a respected steelhead guide. And just like anyone who is obsessed with a sport, Endsley spends as much time on the water as possible pursuing trophy steelhead. When winter arrives, he can be found on his home water, the Skagit River.
For Washington residents, there is no better place to land a chrome bright steelhead over the elusive 20-pound mark than the Skagit River system, and there is no better time than late February through March, when the large native fish move in.
There is no question the fish are there; it just takes a dedicated angler to know how to catch them. As the owner and head guide for Kulshan River Excursions and host of the popular Northwest fishing show, Fisherman's Heaven, Endsley gets to fish the Skagit a lot. Since he has caught and helped clients catch scores of fish over the 20-pound mark and has even boated three fish breaking an estimated 30 pounds, one is hard-pressed to find a better source of information about trophy steelhead in Washington.
With Whitehorse Mountain as his backdrop, angler Mark Vandehey shows off his buck steelhead from the Sauk River. Photo by Rob Endsley
I recently caught up with Rob to pick his brain on targeting large steelhead.
You and your clients have been catching large steelhead pretty consistently for quite awhile. What are some of the techniques you use that are different than the next guy on the water?
"I believe the key is to fish hard and cover all of the water available. All too often fishermen get in the habit of fishing known holding areas. This is fine, but truly large fish often surprise you and hold in less than textbook lies. The true key is being flexible and hitting every piece of conceivable water."
When is the best time to fish and where do you go to target trophies?
"The Skagit system is the ultimate for large fish in Washington. It usually sees its first shot of wild steelhead around Jan. 20, but the main run will usually start around the first week of February. The big bucks typically enter the river system through the months of February and March, with the biggest hens usually arriving in April.
"The entire Skagit River system is open through the end of February. During the catch-and-release season in March and April there is roughly 40 miles of river to fish between the Skagit and Sauk rivers. Both switch over to selective regulations at this time, meaning no bait or scents are allowed, and single, barbless hooks are required. There are seven drifts to do, all with outstanding water for both gear and flyfishermen."
You have landed some huge fish while guiding, tell me about some of the more notable ones.
"When I first started guiding, all I really knew how to do well was pulling plugs, but I was young enough and strong enough to pull them through every piece of water on that river system, so I'd fish it all. On a particularly rainy day quite a few years back, I had Chuck Chatham and his brother Ray along, and we had only touched a couple of fish all day. As we grew closer to the takeout, my stomach was starting to tie itself up like a pretzel. I knew I needed to scratch something up in a hurry. After pulling the plugs through one of the best runs on the river without a bump, I told the guys to just leave the plugs in the water and not even bother pulling them in. Between the run we were in and the next run was a rapid roughly 75 yards long with a rock the size of a grand piano right in the middle of it. I knew if I got the rpm's up high enough on the oars I could get those plugs in behind that rock just long enough to at least prove to myself that I could do it. Little did I know what else was in store!
|A Formula For Catch-and-Release|
Rob Endsley is a founding member of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, a group seeking the permanent protection and preservation of wild steelhead in Washington.
Since he practices catch-and-release of wild fish, Endsley uses a formula to estimate each fish's weight: girth squared (in inches) multiplied by its length and divided by 775. (A steelhead with a 20-inch girth and 32 inches long would weigh about 16.5 pounds: 20x20 = 400; 400x32 = 12,800; 12,800/775 = 16.5.)
For information on the Wild Steelhead Coalition, go online to www.wildsteelheadcoalition.com. -- Mike Schoby
"Our boat must have looked like a Chinook helicopter going into that rapid, but by God I got the boat slowed down just enough to get one of the plugs in behind that rock and - WHAMO!
"At first I thought Chuck's rod was snagged, but then I looked downriver and saw something that looked like a king salmon cart-wheeling through the whitewater. Chuck lay back hard on the rod to set the hook.
"It was suddenly chaos as Ray and I cleared the other lines in the middle of the whitewater and tried to get things situated in
the boat. In a matter of seconds the fish had us into the next run, where it was going completely psycho on the surface. Thirty minutes later, after a serious session of tug-of-war, we got the behemoth steelhead to the beach, where we took some measurements and snapped a couple of photos. I didn't even know a formula existed for getting the weight of a released steelhead until that night when Chuck called me to say that the beast taped out at just under 32 pounds.
"My clients for the next day had previously told me that, without a doubt, they would absolutely not be getting up early to fish. At 10:30 a.m. I arrived at our predetermined meeting spot to pick up Chuck Robinson and his wife for a leisurely, 'If we catch a fish it's just a bonus,' steelhead trip. On the way to the launch I told them about Chuck Chatham's monster steelhead from the day before and how 'I'd probably never see another fish like that again in my lifetime.'
"Since we had to be off the river early, I decided to hit a couple of productive drifts first thing, and then drift all the way to the end of the 8-mile run, where we could hopefully latch onto a couple more steelhead before hauling the boat out. The plan was coming together perfectly, as Chuck hooked two feisty wild fish in the first two runs and was more than happy to just float for a while and enjoy the scenery. About a mile into our leisurely float we approached a short piece of whitewater that I had been through a hundred times, and each time I'd noticed a rock the size of a Datsun B-210 parked smack dab in the middle of the whitewater, with a little slick behind it. 'So much for the leisurely drift,' I thought, remembering the previous day.
"This piece of whitewater was very similar to the trough that we'd pulled the behemoth out of the day before, only this one was a bit steeper and I knew the plug would only sit in that slick behind the Datsun rock for a second at most. I instructed Chuck and Kathy to let their plugs out into the tailout just above the fast water, and then I'd row like the dickens to see if I could get them in by the big rock. Slowly backing the boat down through the tail out, the plugs spilled over and started chattering around in the riffle above the fast water. The closer to the riffle we got the more the boat picked up speed, until the boat also spilled over the riffle and into the heavy water.
"I was rowing as hard and as fast as is humanly possible, but the boat hadn't slowed down for a second, when suddenly the bow surfed up on a big wave and I was able to grab one big stroke that momentarily slowed the boat down just enough to dig the plugs in. Glancing up from my rowing fury, I saw that the left rod was completely buried, with line peeling off the reel. Two thoughts ran through my head at this point: 'No way!' and 'No way!'
Chuck launched out of his seat to grab the rod and the silhouette of a massive steelhead was wildly leaping from the waves in the whitewater, as if it were using them as a springboard. There was nothing I could do from this point on to slow the boat. We simply floated along through the rapid until the first calm spot at the bottom, where I promptly pulled the boat over and dropped the anchor. Bad move! The monster steelhead was roughly 50 yards below us when Chuck's line went slack, and the fish was headed back toward us, cart-wheeling out of the water the entire way. I can still vividly remember it jumping about oars-length off the side of the boat as it passed us, headed upriver into the hurdling rapid. But instead of heading straight into the rapid, it made a bee-line for the anchor rope, like it knew what it was doing. It crossed the anchor rope and headed back into the fast water, jumping all the while and intent to head up the rapid.
I ripped the rod from Chuck's hands and dove to the back of the boat, quickly freeing the 12-pound line from the anchor rope, but when I turned around to hand him the rod the line was slack. The fish had once again turned and was now cart-wheeling back down through the whitewater. Although reeling madly, Chuck wasn't able to get the line tight until the monster decided to park behind a large boulder in the middle of the river.
By now we were all in sensory overload. The entire inside of the boat was covered with coffee, doughnuts, and a pocketful of change ejected from Chuck's Levi's. We were all shaking violently. It looked as if my boat and its occupants had been abducted by an Unidentified Flying Espresso stand, and it wasn't over yet.
"The classic trophy steelhead tug of war was now in full swing. Chuck would gain five yards, only to lose 10, and this see-saw battle went on for nearly 20 minutes when I decided we'd better do something quick to land the fish, or risk critically tiring the fish beyond revival. I pulled straight into the middle of the river and stopped the boat right on top of the steelhead, which was now hunkered down behind yet another large rock. Being a savvy fisherman, Chuck knew just how much pressure to apply to the rod and its matching line, and he slowly lifted the fish out of its lair to within a few feet of the surface. In now-or-never mode, I took a wild stab at the steelhead with my catch-and-release net, and when I pulled back, it was heavy - real heavy. We taped the massive steelhead out and it was 41.5 inches long, with an astounding 25-inch girth, which measures out in the neighborhood of 33 pounds."
Fish like that is what makes steelheaders return again and again to a specific place and time. The Skagit River from February until March is the Shangri-la of the steelheading world, and it should not be missed by anyone who yearns for the pull of a strong, chrome-bright native fish.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Rob Endsley can be contact at (306) 676-1321, or visit www.kulshanexcursions.com.
10 Tips For Trophy Steelhead
Steelhead guide and outdoor television host Rob Endsley shares these secrets for catching some of steelheading's largest fish.
- Fish structure! Logjams, boulder gardens, heavy water -- fish it all! Places that get overlooked sometimes produce the biggest fish.
- Fish lures with a large profile, such as spoons, plugs and 6-inch or longer pink rubber worms. The old adage of "big fish like big baits" holds true for steelhead.
- Don't overlook the heads of riffles, drop-offs or deep pools with structure, especially in low water conditions.
- If you are fly-fishing, use enough sink tip to get down in the run and then swing the fly across as slowly as possible. This slower presentation allows the steelhead a full profile shot of the fly.
- When hooked up with a big fish from the boat, stay close to the fish. Your odds of landing it go up significantly, and you'll have a better chance to react to its every move.
- Use a good quality line and check your knots often.
- If you are fly-fishing, use large flies with a big silhouette and plenty of movement. For taking big fish in heavy water, the larger the fly the better.
- If bank fishing, use 17-pound-test as a minimum for your main line. It is hard to move with the fish, and extrapressure is sometimes needed to keep them clear of blowdowns and other obstructions in the water.
- Use a fly reel with a proven drag system that can carry a minimum of 200 yards of backing. A large steelhead will peel off li
ne when hooked.
- Work hard and fish water that you might not normally fish. Don't fall into the trap of only fishing known waters; steelhead can be unpredictable.
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