Spring Steelhead Outside-the-Box Tactics
April 03, 2019
Catching these finicky fish often means turning to unconventional tactics.
A change is coming. The birds, the bees, every living thing — including steelhead — can sense it.
The ground may still be covered in snow in some places, and boat launches are slick with early morning frost, but there’s no denying that spring fishing is arriving.
In response, steelhead by the thousands swim miles from the Great Lakes into one of dozens of tributaries to spawn.
Before they can reach their spawning grounds, they must run a gauntlet of thousands of anglers who await them. The suddenly accessible steelhead face tremendous fishing pressure, which can make them skittish and wary. Catching these finicky fish often means turning to unconventional tactics.
Fly-fishing for spring steelhead is more than just a finesse technique for purists — it’s a great approach for pressured fish.
Guide Chris Raines has spent a lifetime chasing steelhead on Lake Michigan tributaries and has come to learn that subtle refinements to standard fly-fishing rigging can dramatically improve success.
Raines’ rigs have three primary sections, each made from different types of line to suit their specific function. Added together, the three sections match the length of his rod — an 11-foot-long switch rod, a cross between a single-handed fly rod and a two-handed Spey rod.
The first section — attached to a floating fly line — is a 2-foot long section of 30-pound-test monofilament.
Next is a 6-foot long section of 8- to 12-pound-test tough monofilament line he calls the “shot line.” Shot of varying size is evenly spaced along this section; enough to pull the flies — large, colorful streamers in dirty water; small nymphs and egg-pattern flies in clear water — near bottom.
The last section, the tippet, is a 3-foot length of 6- or 8-pound-test fluorocarbon attached to the first streamer. Raines then attaches a second fly — usually an egg/nymph pattern — to the streamer with an 18-inch section of fluorocarbon tied to the bend in the hook of the streamer.
Except for low, clear water, Raines uses a stripping presentation from a boat drifting with the current. Roll casts are made to moderately deep, fast runs and retrieved with an aggressive, stripping motion to imitate the action of a fleeing baitfish.
In low, clear water, he uses a swing presentation from an anchored boat (or standing position, if wading). He casts downstream and across current and allows the flies to “swing” on a tight line to a position directly downstream.
CENTER PIN REELS
Although known mostly for his fly-fishing prowess, Raines became convinced of the effectiveness of centerpin reels for extremely finicky steelhead after being humbled by a fellow angler several years ago.
“He was making these monster casts and mile-long drifts,” laughs Raines.
Although the simplistic design of centerpin reels dates back centuries, modern centerpin reels feature spools and bushings machined to tight tolerances, which allows the spool to spin freely with minimal effort. Most have no drag, relying on the angler to palm the spool to slow blistering runs. There are no gears to help the angler retrieve line faster — one turn of the handle equals one revolution of the spool — and unlike baitcast reels, there are no magnetic or centrifugal brakes to slow the rotation of the spool during a cast.
Reels are paired with 13- to 17-foot rods, which make casting easier, give the angler more control over the line during the drift and help fight large, powerful fish on relatively light line.
Once anglers master casting, which can be tricky, the advantages of centerpin reels become obvious. The ultra-sensitive spool allows the float and lure to be pulled downstream with virtually no resistance, providing control over the speed of the drift. On a free spool, the float and lure travel at the same speed as the current. But thumbing the spool slightly slows or stops the float over specific areas to trigger bites from neutral or negative fish.
The ability to cover lots of water from a single position also reduces the chances of spooking fish. If properly positioned at the top of a run, an angler can fish an entire run without moving.
Ultimately, it’s what’s under the float that makes the float go under, and while options are nearly endless, Raines tends to rely on a couple of classic steelhead presentations.
“For me it’s usually beads or bags,” says Raines, referring to either a single egg-colored glass bead pegged about 3 inches above the hook or a spawn bag.
CRANKBAITS FOR CHROMERS
Steelhead anglers have been heaving hardware — mostly spinners and spoons — at river steelhead for decades. However, both are limited by their narrow range of effective retrieve speeds and the fact that they sink like a rock when stopped. Crankbaits on the other hand, float at rest and dive when retrieved.
Accurate casts and crankbaits have been a staple of bass fishing since the 1960s, and it was inevitable that some innovative steelhead anglers would try them on river steelhead. One such innovator is guide Doug Samsal, who successfully adapted the crankbait techniques he uses for muskies and bass in the summer to steelhead in winter and spring.
Casting crankbaits for steelhead in tight quarters requires good boat control and accurate casts. Samsal uses a bow-mounted electric motor to maneuver his jet-outdrive boat into position as he slips downstream in a controlled drift. This enables him to make short, quartering casts to current breaks formed by submerged trees, stumps or other debris.
Casting beneath overhanging branches or around partially submerged trees requires pinpoint accuracy and low trajectories, skills bass anglers are seemingly born with but historically not a high priority for steelhead anglers.
Most of Samsal’s steelhead tackle comes directly from the rod locker of his bass boat — 7-foot medium-action spinning rods and reels spooled with 15- to 20-pound-test braided line and a fluorocarbon leader.
To the business end of the leader Samsal attaches a medium-diving crankbait. He has found crankbaits that feature a shad profile to be among the most productive for river steelhead. Color preferences can vary day to day, based on the elements, so it pays to experiment, but generally, variations of chrome or gold work best.
The extra sensitivity provided by the braided line enables anglers to detect subtle changes in the lure’s vibration as it approaches — but before it hits — an underwater obstruction. Knowing when the lure is approaching a snag allows the angler to slow or crawl the lure up and over the obstacle.
“You quickly learn to pay attention to the lure’s heartbeat,” says Samsal, referring to the transmission of the lure’s vibration to the rod tip.
As sure as winter turns to spring, conventional steelhead tactics will become less effective over time. To continue to catch fish, anglers will need to adapt by showing them something a little different.
THE ETHICS OF FISHING FOR SPAWNING STEELHEAD
Guide Chris Raines doesn’t target actively spawning fish. The simplest and most practical reason is that spawning fish are difficult to get to strike. Spawning takes priority over eating, and even the best-placed cast of the perfect streamer is ignored.
However, actively spawning steelhead are a good indication that more fish are nearby — typically in the hole directly downstream — and these fish are much easier to catch.
“The fish you see is the hardest one to catch,” says Raines.
Actively spawning steelhead are still caught on flies; or at least that is how it sometimes appears. When a weighted streamer quarters down-current in relation to a stationary fish, the leader may slide through a fish’s teeth until the hook meets up with flesh. At first glance the hooked fish appears to have struck the streamer but upon closer inspection, the hook is usually found on the outside of the fish’s mouth. The “technique” — dubiously called “flossing” by non-practitioners — can be very effective, if ethically questionable.
Raines feels strongly that spawning steelhead, especially those in rivers where the fishery is dependent upon natural reproduction, should be left alone.