‘Wall of death’ yields fantastic Umpqua steelhead results

This season’s run of winter steelhead has been one that reminds many of us seasoned anglers of the runs from three and four decades ag –from my many friends and associates in the river-guide industry and from my own early season fishing trips that have all been on the Umpqua River.

As I prepared this report it was hard to find a river or stream along the length of the Oregon coast, where the steelheading this season has been at least “good,” and on a few rivers it has been exceptional. 

On the south coast the fish are in but there, the rivers are dropping but getting a bit low and clear; they could use more rain. On the central coast, the Umpqua, Siuslaw, Alsea and Siletz rivers have for now held up and conditions are good. A period of low water could suppress the bite and slow the fishing this weekend. But rain comes back into the forecast for next week and should recharge the coastal creeks, streams and rivers without a blowout.  

What I’ve personally experienced has been nothing short of phenomenal this season. Wild fish outnumbering hatchery by about five to one. Double-digit days of catching and several of the wild fish I’ve hooked and landed were in the upper teens. 

On one recent day our party of four, fishing from a jet boat, hooked 20 chrome bright steelhead and landed 16. We harvested four hatchery fish for meals and a couple of the filets went on my smoker. The following day was equally successful, although we only caught one hatchery that day, we hooked another dozen steelhead and landed about 10 of them. All 10 were wild and after being rested were released, as were all the other wild steelhead we caught over a couple of days of fishing. Most impressively all the steelhead were caught on the main Umpqua River about 15 miles up river from Elkton, Ore., or about 65 miles from the Pacific Ocean, where our river jet boat was anchored over a single gravel bar, the entire day. 

Photo FRANK ARMENDARIZ A dime bright winter steelhead hooked on a Mag Lip diving plug with a single siwash hook on a swivel. The combination is the key to an increased capture rate and fewer lost fish. A dime bright winter steelhead hooked on a Mag Lip diving plug with a single siwash hook on a swivel. The combination is the key to an increased capture rate and fewer lost fish.

On those two days the fishing conditions were ideal, partly cloudy, chilly to start, but rose to the 50-degree range by midday. Water temperature was in the mid-40s and the river level was nine feet and falling on the NOAA river gage site at Elkton. River color, cloudy mud but clearing, with about a foot and a half of visibility on the first day. The next day was better, the river was clearing, had two or more feet of visibility and had dropped a few inches. 

The preferred technique employed by the most successful local guides on the Umpqua River – and the one we used – is an advanced style of plunking, commonly called “the wall of death.” Which is an array of Mag Lip or other style-diving plugs, scented with a dab of Pro Cure shrimp paste. When properly set, the array of plugs creates about a 20-foot spread and when set in the correct locations cuts off the fish’s migration path.  

Fishing the wall of death, in two days we landed about 26 of the 32 fish we caught, which is an exceptional success rate, and it was not by luck, it was entirely by design.

Critical to that impressive capture rate was every plug we used had both the hooks changed out. From the tribble hooks provided by the manufacturer and that come attached to the lure, to a single #1/0 siwash hook attached to the back of the plug. Additionally, a small swivel was placed between the hook and the plug body. 

Every steelheader knows that steelhead are famous for their acrobatics, body rolls and other evasive behaviors that often allow them to throw the hook – often from what was thought to be a very solidly hooked catch.

The hook-and-inline swivel combination lets that fish leap, spin, and twist, and minimizes the fish’s ability to leverage the hook out of its jaw. Also by design, while fishing on a river where 80% of the steelhead are wild and native to the river. 

The single hook is much easier to pull from those big natives, shortens the time you might need to handle them, and other than a sore lip decreases the possibility of further injuring the fish before you can release it.

Also important to the technique are matched rods and line-counter reels are essential to setting an effective diving plug array. Our reels were loaded with 12-pound “hi vis” monofilament with a four-foot bumper of clear 14-pound monofilament leader. In big rivers, winter steelhead are seldom “leader shy.” 

Also important to an effective diving plug array is a mixture of rod lengths. We set nine-foot rods on both the port and starboard sides of the sled at 45 degrees to the hull and about two feet from the stern. Over the stern we set eight-foot rods in line with the hull.

Line counters on the outside rods were set at 36 feet and the inside rods at 32 feet.

One last point on rods: every rod was a “plug rod.” All designed specifically to fish diving plugs and to impart the same action to every plug. Although the rods varied in length, they were identical in action and were all “fast action” rods in the 8-14 pound line class. The idea is to create a virtual wall and setting your plugs out equally creates that effect. It closes off the fish’s escape routes and often triggers a steelhead’s ample strike response.

From my drift boat or from the sled, I never mix plug styles. I want all my plugs to have the exact same action, doing all the same things underwater and creating a wall that is sound and stable. 

One final point: In the main Umpqua, steelhead are still close enough to the ocean that they come in small pods of a dozen (give or take) at a time. From the anchored sled about every 20-30 minutes, we would see steelhead roll at the tail end of our run and seven or eight minutes later a rod would go down.

A steelhead would leap, sometimes it was a double, frantic to throw our hook but more times that not were brought to the net to be released.

As I wrote earlier, all our steelhead came while anchored over a single gravel bar and the water was off colored. Also a challenge, the Main Umpqua River in the winter is a giant river, at 9 feet. It cares over 13,000 cubic feet of water per second. Add that to the fact that rivers are dynamic, constantly changing … finding the gravel, learning the perfect place to anchor on the drift; all that comes from experience behind years of exploration.

In closing, the best advice I can leave you all with is that it’s a good season to build on what every amount of winter steelheading experience you have. On whatever your favorite winter steelhead river might be.



View this profile on Instagram


The Chronicle (@thechronicle1909) • Instagram photos and videos