Successful steelhead fishing is more about developing a good strategy for finding fish than about fussing over gear, techniques and colors. (Although pink worms really do work!)
When it comes to winter steelhead, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of rod types, lure sizes, best colors and latest techniques. But according to Robert Bradley, ODFW district fish biologist in Tillamook, the most important skill to master is knowing where to find fish. (Hint: it’s always near the bottom.)
Here are his 10 tips for catching more steelhead by developing a successful fishing strategy and selecting the right gear for current conditions.
You can learn a lot about a river, its steelhead runs and current fishing conditions before you even leave home.
Spend time doing this before you go and you’ll be less stressed once you’re on the water, and have more time for actual fishing. Besides, do you really like tying leaders while standing in 40 degree water during a rainstorm?
Organizations like the Association of Northwest Steelheaders have several local chapters, and offer a chance to Interact with veteran anglers, see speakers and participate in workshops.
You might also consider hiring a guide for a trip on your new home water. A guided trip can be a one-day lesson on how and where to fish a stretch of river. Be sure to let your guide know what you want from the trip -- it may be about more than just catching a fish.
Spend time learning the water on one river, or even one stretch of a river, rather than jumping from place to place chasing the bite.
And we mean really learn the water – explore every nook and cranny with a spinner or bobber/jig to figure out where the fish hold. Also, pay close attention to where other anglers are catching fish. Think about catching more fish in less water.
These are transferrable skills once mastered, can be used on other rivers or streams.
One of Robert’s best seasons was when he fished just a single two-mile stretch of river again and again, and where he soon learned every rock that had a fish hiding behind it.
When water levels rise after a rain, rivers reaches and streams higher in the basin will drop faster and clear first. In the same vein, smaller basins tend to get back in shape faster than larger basins.
Just remember the old adage “Water high, fish high. Water low, fish low.”
But don’t get too complicated. If you’re new to steelhead fishing start with spinner and/or bobber/jig techniques. This gear has some advantages:
Drift fishing can be very effective, especially in higher water, but you can lose a lot of gear and spend more time re-rigging than fishing. Be prepared to mix things up based on water or other conditions.
Regardless of the water level, fish will be holding just off the bottom of the river. So no matter what gear you’re using, it’s going to be most effective when it’s near the bottom. Where the fish are.
That means you’ll want to adjust your tactics for different water levels so you’re fishing near the bottom without getting hung up all the time. Water levels also will influence where to look for fish and what lines/lures to consider.
So, in higher water:
In lower water:
*In general, use a heavier main line and just adjust your leader size for different water conditions.
As you get to know your “home waters” keep notes on recent rains, water levels and temperatures, current weather and conditions, what gear/techniques you used and where/when you caught fish. You may think you’ll remember where you caught a fish, but you probably won’t. You can even take photos of certain hot spots to revisit later.
Also, note those places you might want to revisit in the summer, when low summer flows often reveal deeper pools, submerged rocks and other fish holding spots that are harder to see during high winter flows.
Be prepared to care for the fish you catch and want to keep. Do you know how to properly gill and clean it? Do you have a cooler to keep it in for the drive home? If you’re going harvest the eggs for bait, are you prepared to deal with them when you get home?
If you’re going to release a fish, do it in a way that gives it the greatest chance of surviving.
Robert Bradley is the ODFW district fish biologist in Tillamook and can be reached at 503-842-2741, ext. 253 or email@example.com.
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