Flood Stage Steelheads
Author: Mike Gnatkowski
It's the steelhead fisherman's worst nightmare. You arrive at your favorite stream only to find it roaring, out of its banks and the color of strong capo chino. Faced with such a predicament the angler has three options 1) go home, 2) head to a different river that might be in better shape or 3) deal with it. Steelhead can be caught under flood stage conditions, but to be successful you need to change tactics and learn to think outside the box.
Steelheads don't like high water anymore than you do. Fighting strong currents saps the strength from migrating steelheads that they know that they'll need to complete their real calling. They can't breath; they can't see. So steelheads take the path of least resistance when moving and resting under flood stage conditions. To intercept them, anglers need to think about where migrating fish might take up residence and fish slower, slack water areas, current breaks and the insides of bends, places you might associate more with suckers or walleyes than with spring steelheads. Steelheads under flood conditions are often hundreds of yards from typical lies or in completely different locations than they would be under normal conditions. In fact, many times they might be right under your feet and you'd never know it.
That's exactly what I discovered on Michigan's Big Manistee River one spring. The Big M was roaring after a freak early spring thunderstorm suddenly melted the remaining snow in the woods overnight. The river went sky high and turned the color of a mud puddle. Knowing that the sudden flush of water would undoubtedly bring a wave of fresh steelies, I elected to intercept them in the lower portion of the river. But where would they be in the rushing torrent? That was the million-dollar question.
With visibility less than one foot, plugs were our best bet I reasoned. Plugs have the flash, vibration, and noise to call up steelheads under adverse conditions. Not just any plugs, but really big plugs; oversized, noisy, rattling, flashy, obnoxiously annoying plugs. Off came the traditional Wiggle Warts and ¼ ounce Hot-N-Tots. On went the Magnum Wiggle Warts, ½-ounce Hot-N-Tots and even a rare Magnum Hot-N-Tot or two. The weapons featured slashes of orange, red, gold, silver and chartreuse so the rainbows could not ignore them.
Two prime runs produced nothing. The third run was a so-so spot, but in the high water I reasoned it might have some potential. Under normal conditions the run is shallow, but today was different. There was four feet of water where there were normally two. We fished through the run to the normal tail out, but I decided to take it a little farther, and a little farther, 50 then 75 yards past the end of the run. "There can't be any fish this far down," I said to myself. "Hell, in normal water it's only about two feet deep here and nothing but sand. Sucker water." I was just about ready to give the "Pull 'em!" command when the rod on the shallow side bent double and a chrome jumper came skittering across the surface with the Magnum Wiggle Wart rattling in his jaw. Fishing the "sucker water" in the next few runs produce three more steelies.
Flood stage steelies are where you find 'em. They might be tucked up in behind a logjam using the debris to break the current. You might find them on the inside of a bend nearly at the feet of shore anglers where the current slackens or on the flats long after a run has petered out. Or they might be nose-tight to a midstream boulder. You can bet though that they won't be where you'd find them under normal conditions. Steelheads move into much slower, slack water when rivers are roaring for two reasons- visibility and comfort. Steelheads don't like the debris and suspended particles in the water they have to breath so they position where the water is clearer and where they can see better.
Because visibility is limited, anglers need to slow down their presentations regardless of the technique they're using to give steelheads more time to find, see and strike their offerings. Anchoring above a likely steelhead lie and then methodically, meticulously, inching plugs towards the fish presents lures to steelheads where they can see, feel and hear them, gives them plenty of time to strike and takes advantage of a plug's maximum flash, attraction and vibration. The key is to slow down and give rainbows time to react. The fish will often take advantage of the murky water to move through the shallows throughout the day and anglers can sit in one location and intercept them. Instead of going to the fish, the fish will come too you.
Many anglers don't realize it but spinners can be deadly high-water lures. The thumping blade, flash and vibration can help steelies home in. Spinners can be fished very effectively in the slack water areas that flood stage steelheads will be found in. Many spots that can be fished with spinners can't be fished any other way. You can flip spinners in behind logjams, in shallow tail outs and under overhanging bushes. The best spinners are big thumpers with number five or even number six blades in gold, silver, and black highlighted with shades of hot colored tape.
Back bouncing or walking spawn can be a good option when fishing with spawn under flood stage conditions. Rather than rolling or bottom bouncing with spawn positioning above the fish and slowly working a sizable chunk of skein spawn slowly downstream along the bottom presents steelheads with a sizable bait that they can see, creates a scent trail that the fish can use to locate your bait, and allows that super slow presentation that gives the fish plenty of time to strike.
If bottom bouncing is your only option, slow your drift down. Use plenty of weight to slow your drift. Rather than trying to achieve that rhythmic tap-tap-tap as the spawn rolls along the bottom, don't hesitate to let the spawn bag hang up or stop to give steelheads a chance to see it and bite. And let the spawn bag bounce completely through the drift and all the way below you into the slack water. Steelheads in murky water aren't nearly as spooky either so make short, controlled drifts and slow your presentation down. The ultimate controlled presentation might just be to attach a hunk of spawn to a pyramid sinker, plunk it into a likely location and wait. It's not glamorous, and definitely not very hands on, but it can be very effective when other tactics strike out.
Another way of positioning baits in slack water areas where steelheads might be resting is under a bobber. Bobbers are great for presenting baits at eye level for prolonged periods of time to give steelheads the maximum amount of time to see and find the bait under adverse conditions. Bobbers excel in slow pools, behind logjams and along current seams where the current is so slow that other presentations aren't practical.
Steelhead fishermen need to take advantage of the additional attraction of color and scent when conditions are tough. Plugs and crank baits offer the advantage of lots of flash and vibration, but lack the attraction of scent. You can add scent to your hard baits by placing a jar of Vaseline in a pan of boiling water and allowing it to liquefy. Pour the melted Vaseline into a film container filling it half full; add your favorite scent and stir. The concoction can be applied as a paste to your plugs to add the element of scent for attracting high-water steelies.
Baits, like spawn, already have the attraction of scent, but you need to make them more visible in high, dirty water. Dime-sized spawn bags are the norm when the water is clear. In murky conditions you might want to tie jumbo bags the size of a quarter. Use fluorescent colored netting too. A friend, who is an expert spawn fisherman, use to add a chunk of chartreuse- or cerise-colored yarn in his bags before he tied them. The yarn provided some additional attraction, but didn't float the spawn off the bottom and kept it at the fish's eye level. I watched him pluck many a steelhead from water that was the color of chocolate milk.
West Coast anglers are use to fishing murk, stained water. Great Lakes steelheaders usually don't have to deal with such conditions. Anglers who fish skein spawn can take a page form the West Coast steelheaders notebook and add some color. Use a commercial spawn cure that will make the spawn a bright fluorescent orange or hot pink to increase its attraction in high, murky water. You can add a piece of yarn or a Spin-N-Glow or Birdie Drifter ahead of the skein to draw attention too. A rig like that would normally scare the heck out of a Great Lakes steelhead, but under certain conditions it is just the ticket.
Because steelhead can't see as well under high water conditions you can bulk up your tackle and you'll need to if you plan on landing a good percentage of fish. Going from a four- or six- pound test leader to eight- or ten-pound test is a good idea and you won't get any fewer bites in the dirty water. The heavier leaders and line will come in handy too when it comes time to muscle a chromer in heavy current. Don't spare the rod either. Leave the six-weight outfit at home and come prepared with a stout eight-weight rig or plug rods with some real backbone.
Steelheads in high water are often on a mission. They take advantage of the higher flow and camouflage of murky water to blast upstream to the first dam or barrier. Intercepting them in between can be difficult. Your best chance is to catch them in resting lies as they move upriver. But it's a here-today-gone-tomorrow proposition. The only other alternative is to join the fray and head for the dam or below a barrier. Fishing pressure will often be intense in these areas when word gets out that the fish are in. If you can, get there early, fish on weekdays, or give it a try after dark.
Another location worth checking out when rivers are roaring is below feeder streams and creeks. Fresh steelies congregate below clearer, and often warmer, feeder streams and creeks. Such locations can be great spots to hit to intercept fish on their way upstream.
Catching steelhead under flood stage conditions can be difficult, but not impossible. And to tell you the truth, as long as I've got a line in the water I'm happy.