Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Accidental Steelhead (originally published, partially, in Cal Fly Fisher)

I caught my first ever steelhead on the Columbia River just above The Dalles Dam. I know that sounds odd, considering it’s the second largest river in the continental United States. I was bass fishing with my childhood friend, Keith Griswold. The Griswold’s were a huntin’ and fishin’ family. If it swam, ran, or flew, the Griswolds chased them down.

Keith and I fished together a lot. We had a few spinning outfits that we’d equiped to catch bass, trout, or anything that would eat a worm, spinner, or plastic bait. The day we encountered that steelhead we were throwing white plastic jigs for smallmouth. As we landed it, Keith looked at me and said, “It’s a steelhead. We’d better get home quick!” So we bonked it, ran up to the truck, and jammed home. Then he informed me that it was out of season and therefore illegal. Some how that just made it more fun.

Trout season is the hard on the steelheader. Transitioning from winter steelhead to trout season is a difficult adjustment. I get somewhat of a steelhead hangover. I find myself thinking of ways to steelhead fish for trout. I love streamer fishing for trout and will often do it with a two-handed rod, a skagit line, and a sink-tip. In certain rivers, steelhead are present during the peak of trout season. The Deschutes and McKenzie in Oregon and the Lower Sacramento and Klamath are good examples. There are also rivers in our area that get lake run rainbows and browns. They’re a migratory fish, like the ones that live in Lake Shasta that run up the Pit, McCleod, and Upper Sacramento. That almost counts. It somehow does in the Great Lakes. The point is, for the steelheader who needs that fix, there are ways to get it, easier ways than the “steelhead while bass fishing approach”.

First of all, select a river that has migratory fish. The Pit, having countless damns and reservoirs, offers a number of opportunities. I have had success fishing the Pit above certain “lakes” using steelhead streamer tactics. The Upper Sac above Lake Shasta is a player. I floated the Upper Sac a few years ago with some buddies. They suggested I set up a nymph rig to fish from the boat. Instead I rigged a 10ft 7wt with a Teeny 200 and stripped 4 inch bunny leeches from the back of the raft. They were fighting me for the rod by lunch. We hooked several large rainbows that appeared to come out of the lake recently.


Trout that live in lakes migrate up rivers for different reasons. The two main reasons are spawning and seeking out cooler water. Figuring out when that occurs is key. We know that rainbows, steelhead included, spawn in the spring. Sometime between late winter and early summer, depending on the river and its water conditions. We know that brown trout spawn in the fall. Anglers target browns on the McCloud at that time. Of course that’s actually during steelhead season, so it’s almost a mute point. Also, as lakes warm up, trout will migrate up inlets seeking out cooler water. The Williamson in Oregon is a classic example. Williamson fish leave the warm shallows of Klamath Lake seeking the spring fed waters of the Williamson and it’s tributaries. Of course timing is everything. Because there are a number of factors that influence fish to move, figuring out when and where is key and may take time.

Next, use the proper equipment. When targeting migratory trout, sea-run or lake run, you have to be prepared for them. Most migratory fish are more aggressive meat eaters than their resident brothers. The fish we hooked that day on the Upper Sac ate large brown bunny leaches tied to a short heavy leader and sinking line. Trout that spend a lot of time in a lake are used to eating baitfish, leeches and crayfish. So, your streamer box and some 8lb Maxima are all you need. For a rod, a 6wt single hander, a light spey, or switch rod will work great. There are a number of light two-handers available today in 4 and 5wt. Depending on the water type, you may want a versa-tip line, a shooting head or clear intermediate. That’s it. Pick a fly and fish it. Within reason, it doesn’t matter. Close your eyes, reach into your streamer box, and grab one. As one of my guide friends said, “they know what to do with it”.

As far as fishing tactics, in steelhead type water, a traditional down and across swing can be effective. An extra mend or two or twitch while it’s swinging can entice a strike. Fishing a retrieve is necessary in slower water or from a boat. Like steelhead fishing, when you get grabbed, let them take it. If you strike, most likely you’ll pull it out of their mouth or break them off. Wait for the weight, they say, than lift the rod. Also, cover water. They‘ve got to be there, and they’ve got to be in the mood. When streamer fishing, we are targeting aggressive fish. If they want it, they’ll eat it. They can see your fly coming from a mile away. You’ll have more success covering water than camping out in one spot.

Last, you need to look like a steelheader. This is important. You want to look tough, utilitarian, confident, and somewhat carefree, all at once. Here’s what you do. Don’t wear your pink Tarpon Wear shirt. A concert shirt, a hoody, or western shirt is best. I learned that from Griswold. Leave your vest in the truck. Just take one fly box, a spool of tippet and your scissor/forceps and shove them down the front of your waders. I am always impressed at the sheer weight of the vests guys bring. Is the area we are fishing so remote that you need enough equipment to set up a spike camp and open a fly shop? Less is more. Definitely leave the trout net. We are targeting big fish here, Lee. (I blame Lee Perkins for any Barney-like habits or behavior including but not limited to the automatic upstream mend, the overstuffed fishing vest and undersized trout net. I can only assume these habits were taught in some Orvis trout school in the mid 80’s.) Also, leave the Indiana Jones hat in the truck. You should have retired it with The Last Crusade. Try a trucker style hat. They offer great ventilation and accommodate a large head. If you really want to look hard-core, you’ll need some kind of tobacco product on hand. Cigars are pretty cool. The short, conical shaped ones (Backwood’s brand) are perfect. They make you look sophisticated yet rugged, kind of like Clint Eastwood. Or try a dip. A big chew in your bottom lip says, “don’t mess with me I’m fishing”. That works for some. The Marboro man look is also an option. Chain-smoking cigarettes won’t impress your wife but the bait guys might accept you as their friend. Often they know where the fish are.

So, as we begin trout season, remember, there are ways to get your steelhead fix. You can target migratory rainbows in our local waters using steelhead tactics. Or, while trout fishing on rivers like the Lower Sacramento or Klamath, you might actually encounter the accidental steelhead.

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