Steelhead Under Pressure
Author: Mike Gnatkowski
Crowds. I abhor them. Especially when I'm fishing. But it's a fact of life that that more and more people are jumping on the steelhead fishing bandwagon. Popular rivers look like the Thanksgiving Day parade on prime weekends. Anglers pack in elbow to elbow below dams when the spring run is peaking. Sometimes it's hard to just find a place to get your line wet. So how do you beat the crowds, find your own little piece of nirvana and still manage to keep a bend in your rod? Here are some tips that should help you battle your share of chromers this season.
Less Is More
Obviously, the best waters are the most popular waters. Rivers and streams that receive huge plants return lots of steelheads and attract lots of anglers. Rivers that have dams also concentrate fish and fishermen. As a general rule, the farther you get away from dams or obstructions that block fish passage the fewer anglers you're going to encounter. Every fish that ends up at the dam has to make it's way up the river first and if it doesn't get caught, make it's way back down again. You won't generally find huge concentrations of fish in the lower reaches of rivers, fish tend to be spread out, but you won't find as many anglers either. And the fish you do find you'll have mostly to yourself.
A good tactic for finding some water all to yourself is to locate lesser known waters that receive smaller plants or maybe none at all, and still get some fish from natural reproduction. They might be tributaries to more popular streams or more marginal steelhead streams and rivers, but they don't see as much pressure. Some streams only get fish when conditions are ideal. Hit these rivers when heavy fall rains or spring run-off triggers good runs of fish.
Check stocking records for streams that might have gotten a larger-than-usual plant a few years ago that might produce exceptional fishing this year and might not yet be discovered by the masses. Talk to biologists that might be able to share information on streams and rivers that have potential and fewer anglers. If you're willing to drive to more remote streams and rivers you can probably find some great fishing all to yourself.
Obviously, weekends and holidays are the busiest times on the river so avoid them at all costs if you can. Many anglers make a once-a-year pilgrimage to the rivers around the holidays or on prime weekends. If you can avoid fishing on Saturdays and Sundays, you're ahead of the game. In fact, if your schedule is flexible the absolute best times to fish are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Many anglers will take long weekends or stay an extra day to fish on Monday or Friday, but rivers will be nearly deserted (or at least seem like it) during the middle of the week. We jokingly refer to Wednesday as "professional day." Many professional types have Wednesdays off and are on the river those days. So when it comes down to the best days to fish, try Tuesdays and Thursdays to avoid the army of anglers.
Whenever you fish getting away from the public accesses, dam sites and bridges will go a long way towards improving your odds. Take off and walk for a half hour before fishing to reach some water that doesn't get pounded. Another alternative is to use a boat or canoe to float down and find some less crowded water. The extra effort will be worth it.
Pray For Nasty Weather
If you have no choice but to fish on the weekends pray for nasty weather. Most anglers are fair-weather fishermen. Add a little wind, sleet, rain or snow to the scenario and many anglers will give up or make a half-hearted try and head for home with their tail between their legs. The diehard steelheader who is prepared for fishing in nasty weather both mentally and physically can have great fishing when others are complaining about the bad weather.
I look forward to nasty weather, especially on the weekends, during the steelhead season. I know that other anglers fishing from shore or in open boats are not going to last long if it's snowing horizontally or pelting down rain. I can only smile from the comfort of the heated enclosure on my boat as they head in at mid-morning drenched, shivering and fishless.
You have to be mentally prepared to fish when the weather is nasty. Convince yourself that it's going to be cold and nasty, but the rewards will be worth it and competition will be less. Fortunately, some of the best steelhead fishing takes place when the weather is at its worst. Dark, dreary days finds steelhead active, aggressive, and out away from cover when not pounded or threatened by the neoprene armada. A hook up or two every once in a while and you forget all about the weather.
You need to dress for success. You can't concentrate on fishing if you're shivering and cold. Go armed with the best gear you can afford. A good, quality set of rain gear is a must if you're a serious steelheader. Bring extra gloves, a warm hat, wear heavy, 5mm neoprene waders that don't leak, make sure your tackle is in topnotch condition and convince yourself you're in it for the long haul. You never know just when the fish might turn on during any particular day, but you're not going to catch ‘em if you're in the truck huddled around the heater.
Early Bird (and Night Owl) Gets The Worm
If you're committed to fishing on weekends or when competition is peak there are still some things you can do to deals with the crowds. There's a lot of truth to the old adage, "The early bird gets the worm." Getting on the water at the crack of dawn can assure you of a prime drift and a shot at fish that haven't seen a bait for a few hours or ones that may have just moved in. Another option is to fish after everyone else goes home. Night fishing can be very productive for steelheads.
One of our favorite streams when I was growing up was small tributary to Lake Huron. The stream got a substantial run of steelheads, but because of its small size, clarity and fishing pressure the rainbows were ultra-spooky during daylight hours. After dark the fish would move out from cover, calm down and go on the bite. New fish would move into the holes we were fishing throughout the night when the steelhead were migrating. There was many a morning when we'd be headed off the river with a stringer full of steelies when others were just headed out. Most of us don't relish the idea of getting up in the dead of night or fishing bleary-eyed though the night, but it can make the difference between dreaming of battling cart-wheeling steelhead and actually doing it.
Go Against the Grain
Sometimes catching steelheads when competition is keen can be as simple as going against the grain. Steelheads get conditioned to watching spawn bag after spawn bag roll by if that's what everyone is using. Success might be a simple as using a micro-spawn bag containing only a couple of eggs if everyone else is using nickel-sized bags or trying a chunk of skein spawn. Maybe change spawn bag colors to something different like white or even blue mesh. If spawn is the bait of choice, try some offbeat baits like wigglers, wax worms, worms or shrimp to offer steelheads something different and possibly trigger a strike. Or if everyone is fishing bait, try using a small in-line planer to run a deep-diving crankbait. If other anglers are bouncing bottom, try drifting a bobber or vice versa. Sometimes the change in presentation will wake up apathetic steelheads.
Another alternative is to out finesse other anglers. There are times when going far and fine can be the ticket. Using ultra thin and clear monofilament might make the difference between strike and no strikes. Dropping down to 4-pound or even 2-pound test when everyone else is using heavier line might make the difference between hooking a few fish and going home skunked. Fish become increasingly line shy as fishing pressure increases, so going to lighter line will improve your chances. Usually, with gear used to fish light line you can cast a mile too so you can reach fish that others can't.
Fish The Whole River
Prime runs and lies are popular and get pounded by the masses, but they aren't the only places in the river that hold fish. In fact, after steelhead get bombarded by a few hundred sinkers or run over by a dozen boats, they move to places where they aren't harassed. They head for the "junk." These are the kind of places where conventional tactics don't generally work. You can't drift bottom or bobbers because they're too snaggy or they are small, obscure, out-of-the-way niches, which is why the steelheads collect there. They don't really look like good steelhead water, which is why most anglers don't fish them.
Such places are perfect spots for casting in-line spinners and a run-and-gun approach. Spinners trigger a territorial or aggressive reaction from steelheads that might not necessarily be hungry. With spinners, you can cast the hardware and allow it to swing past a log jam, downed tree or stump where a steelhead might have retreated to and provoke a strike without getting snagged up. By fishing this way you can target water that others pass by that holds lots of fish.
We all like to catch fish, but any day spent on the water is an enjoyable one. If we manage to catch a fish or two, it's an added bonus. And we all know that the absolute best time to go steelhead fishing is, when you can!