Randall Bonner, with tips and techniques for fishing for winter steelhead
As salmon season winds down to an end, anglers patiently await the return of winter steelhead. These large, robust sea-run rainbow trout are well known for their incredible speed as well as acrobatic leaps and jumps once they’ve been hooked.
Early fish show up in December following increases in water levels from rainfall, but the highest numbers arrive in January and February. When waters are high and muddy or murky, bobber rigged leadhead marabou jigs or drifting pink worms will get down deeper and faster, and provide a more visible target.
When water levels recede to low and clear, adjusting to a more realistic presentation can help fool fish into biting. Stick with bright but realistic colors.
Winter Steelhead Harvest
Photo by the Author
Much like salmon, steelhead tend to bite on an instinctive reaction to competitive breeding. Salmonids view foreign eggs floating along in the river as opposition to the survival of their own young. Color and scent are the two key factors to triggering bites, and while salmon react mostly to scent, steelhead react mostly to color and sight. There are many different presentations, but drifting corkie and yarn or a bead will give the illusion of a single egg that has wiggled free from a redd, floating downstream with the current. Adding some scent to the yarn can turn on the bite, or make your presentation more noticeable. Finding the right holes to fish takes some guesswork, but look for tailouts, areas of receding depth that end just above falls or riffles.
Fish moving through faster areas of current will sit at the top of the falls and rest at these tailouts. The choppy current and deeper water at the bottom of the falls also provides cover for the fish from predators above the surface (with the exception of fishermen). Fish will often stage in these holes, preparing to move upstream. As a good rule of thumb, when fishing bobber rigs, you want the bobber to drift upright at about the speed of a walking or fast-walking pace. When fishing drift rigs, you want to find the bottom and bounce along, rather than dragging and snagging.
Release of a wild winter steelhead (Photo by Brandon Esparza)
Only the adipose-fin-clipped hatchery steelhead can be retained, so if you notice that you’ve hooked a native fish, take extra precaution not to cause it any harm. Studies have shown that using a soft-thread net, or tailing the fish underwater are the best landing techniques to ensure survival of the released fish. In spite of the “chrome-dome” reputation, steelhead actually have very sensitive skull structure.
Because they swim side-to-side, beaching a native steelhead puts the fish at risk of harming itself from banging it’s head against the ground. If possible, keep native fish upright or in the water for their own safety. Don’t lay them on the bank for a picture, or keep them out of water for very long. If you are retaining a adipose-fin-clipped hatchery fish, you can use this weakness to your advantage by using the force of a blunt object to the head to immobilize the fish so you can remove the hook safely. After your catch is secured, cut or rip the gills. This is not only the best way to ensure a humanely killed harvest, but it increases the quality of meat by removing the excess blood from the flesh, which can spoil much faster than the meat itself.
Steelhead are known as “the fish of a thousand casts.” They are a challenge for even the most experienced anglers.
If you put in the time and effort to catch one, you’ll soon find yourself counting, “998…999…”
Photo Credits: Cover:Mark Ervig of Ervig Outfitters. Remainder, as noted.