FRANK ARMENDARIZ/THE CHRONICLE
I was a freshman at San Jose State University when, on a three-day weekend, I went on what was my very first steelhead fishing trip on the Klamath River in northern California. It was 1973. I had heard about this hard-fighting fish since I was a kid and now I was within a reasonable range.
After driving all night, I found a place to camp on a gravel bar a few miles upriver from the Ishi Pishi rapid. As luck would have it (because believe me I had no clue), I had arrived at the gravel bar by the river on a prime September day, with magnificent water conditions and found a river that was teeming with migrating steelhead.
Also by luck, my little box of trout spinners, my medium action 7.5-foot rod and spinning reel with 6-pound line, were also perfect for the half-pound steelhead that were holding by the dozens in the river directly in front of my camp.
A “half-pounder” is an immature steelhead, and they return in droves to the lower Klamath and Rogue rivers every fall. Half-pounders can actually run in size from a half-pound to over two pounds.
Some half-pounders will swim far upriver and spawn. But most, after a few weeks in freshwater, will drop back to the ocean and many come back as adults the following year.
The stars aligned for me on that weekend so long ago and over the next two and a half days of fishing, I caught forty-seven half-pounders. I also caught two adult steelheads that were about six pounds each and broke off a third that swam away with my best spinner. The adult steelhead took me to limits of my tackle’s capabilities and eventually the fish won out. But talk about “getting a big head,” I thought any guy (or gal) with a stick and a string could catch a steelhead … but it would be six full seasons before I would feel “the tug” again. But when the tug finally came, in a moment of success I was no longer just a fisherman. I had reached a turning point and I had become a steelheader.
FRANK ARMENDARIZ/THE CHRONICLE
The pride was deserved, I had caught my very first “winter steelhead.” After a half a dozen years of trying, I had finally gathered the skills. Including a broader understanding of the fish, the habitat it favored in a fluctuating river, I held the rod and reel that matched the conditions and it finally paid off. It was like a light switch turned on for me and I have never again thought of my ability to catch a steelhead as only a matter of luck.
Over the last couple of editions of the Anglers Log, I have shared with you some information about the nature, the resilience, the range of Pacific steelhead, the habitat they favor and that there are both summer and winter run fish. For this series of articles winter steelhead is the primary topic. I’ve also shared information about developing a strategy to catch a fish that comes to the rivers in what is meteorologically the most unstable time of the year. By utilizing resources (www.rivertrailoutfitters.com) and NOAA river predictions that you can find online. Finally, a major point is that there are very few conditions that develop even in winter that would prevent you from catching a steelhead on almost any given day. By learning to match your gear to successfully fish the water where winter steelhead hold in changing river levels and weather conditions common to Oregon winters.
When the river is in perfect shape: on the Siletz River the perfect river level is 4.5 to 5.8 feet. At these perfect flows a lot of different lures and baits will work very well. Such as spinners, steelhead jigs, diving plugs and drifted baits. In ideal conditions, a winter steelhead rod that is 8.5 to 9.5 ft. long, built for 8-12 pound line, is perfect. A rod in this class typically casts a 3/8 to 3/4 ounce lure which covers the size of steelhead lures that are most effective in ideal conditions. I personally prefer level wind reels but they take a little getting used to. Modern spinning reels that allow you to back reel to extend your drift are about as good and the learning curve to become proficient is low gradient. Keep in mind that tackle and lure manufacturers design their equipment to fish within a window of “ideal conditions” but the gear can become less efficient outside of that window of perfect conditions. Remembering that a steelhead is essentially a trout, in good condition you will find them in many of the same places you would find resident trout. Which would be in the riffles at the head of the pool, through the middle of the run and all the way down to the tail out.
When the river is high: On Siletz River, once the river gage goes over 5.8 ft., conditions begin to deteriorate. The river starts to color up, the increased flow washes over the riffles, the holes and drifts that were easy to see at lower river levels seem to disappear. The gear that worked when everything was perfect, now just can’t get your lure into the “zone” anymore and the drift that was so productive just two days ago now appears to be devoid of fish. These are the conditions that I “plunk.”
FRANK ARMENDARIZ/ THE CHRONICLE This chromer fell to a back trolled diving plug from a popular Oregon central coast river. The conditions were ideal and other techniques would have likely been as successful.
Plunking is about as basic as any technique there is, it was innovated decades ago to catch steelhead in high water and is a time-tested technique. In high water steelhead move out of the heavy flow and to the edges of the river right along the bank. I’ve plunked steelheads that were only two feet from the bank and were holding in foot-and-a-half of water. I leave my steelhead rod and reel home on days I plan to plunk and instead pack my salmon rod reel. I also pack a selection of one- to two-ounce pyramid sinkers, large spin and glows and a few chain swivels. Once on the river I look for small eddies along the bank, the edges of small rapids and the inside edge of riffles. When I cast I want my spin glow with the aid of a heavy pyramid sinker to anchor no more than 10 feet from the bank. I put my rod in a holder, kick back with a cup of coffee and wait. If the steelhead are in you won’t have to wait long. … Several of my most productive days of steelheading have been days spent plucking.
When the river is low: Low water is by far the most challenging winter condition you will encounter and here again lures and tackle that worked great at ideal river levels now feel awkward and oversized when fished in the receding river. Time to downsize, smaller baits, smaller lures and moving with stealth become essential to your success. In low water I generally opt for a spinning rod and reel. Spinning rods are excellent at tossing smaller and lighter lures. For convenience I spool most of my steelhead fishing reels with 50-pound braided spectra line. Then I attach a 20 to 30 yard “top shot” using a “uni to uni knot,” of six to twelve pound monofilament that I can change to match the conditions on any day. In low water I am always looking for places on the river that offer an 8- to 10-pound fish to spot hide. Riffles, the deeper runs, pockets behind root wads, in the low water steelhead always relate to structure, so fish where they live and keep moving.