Triple Threat For Spring Steelhead
Author: Mike Gnatkowski
One of the most valuable attributes an accomplished steelhead fisherman can have is versatility. The steelheader who relies on one technique to fool spring steelhead is severely limiting his chances. His chosen technique might be dynamite for that particular day or particular river- or it might fail miserably. By mastering the art of bottom-bouncing, casting in-line spinners and using plugs or crankbaits, the savvy steelheader can hit the river with a triple threat for spring steelheads.
The most common technique used for steelhead is bottom-bouncing or drift fishing. The tactic involves using weight to take your offering to the bottom, where it is rolling along by the current. The weight must be adjusted so your bait or lure tumbles along just slightly slower then the current, depending on the depth and speed of the water. Too little weight, and the bait will sweep by too quickly and will not be in contact with the bottom and out of the strike zone. Too much weight, and the bait will hang on the bottom and not tumble naturally.
The baits used for drifting may take the form of spawn or roe- either in chunks or tied into bags- wigglers or mayfly larva, other aquatic nymphs, night crawlers, wax worms, flies, yarn, sponge or cheese and a host of other items. There are local and personal favorites, and the best is whatever you have success with and confidence in. Regardless of your choice, it is imperative that your offering be within inches of the bottom. Steelhead hug the bottom 99% of the time and your offering must drift within inches of the nose to induce a strike. Sometimes you must drift by the same fish repeatedly to induce a strike.
Bottom-bouncing is an ideal technique when sight-fishing for steelhead. A good way to locate active fish is to walk the banks wearing polarized glasses looking for the telltale white depressions in the gravel that indicate an active redd or bed. Actively spawning female steelheads can be seen flashing on the redd as they dig the nest. Males can be seen porpoising behind the redd or darting back and forth behind the bed jockeying for position.
Repeatedly drifting your bait across the bed is a deadly technique and if you play your cards right you can snake several of the male fish off the bed without disturbing the female. Catch or hook the female and the gig is up. When you spot several active fish near a redd take a moment to observe them before fishing. Designing an intelligent plan of attack can increase your chances for success.
Female steelheads are more silvery than their darker, male counterparts. The female can be seen flashing her sides as she digs a depression to cradle the eggs once they are deposited. Normally, the female will be accompanied by one large, dominant male and several subordinate males that will be jockeying back and forth for position just downstream of the bed. Target your drift so that it swings in front of the smaller males. They are usually more aggressive fish and taking them out of the pecking order won't disturb the bed. Fight the hooked fish downstream away from the others to avoid spooking the pod.
A friend uses this technique while fishing for bedding spring steelhead using nothing more than a piece of yarn. He says that males cavorting downstream of an active redd expect to see spawn drifting downstream. The yarn imitates the drifting spawn. He cuts the yarn into small, half-inch pieces in a variety of colors and puts them in a plastic box. He then uses a snell knot to attach one or two contrasting colors of yarn onto his hook. Sometime she'll add a tiny two- or three-egg spawn bag to the offering. That way he has both the scent and sight factor covered. It's a deadly combination for spring steelies.
Bottom-bouncing is also effective on steelhead that are holding in deeper runs prior to spawning or post-spawn fish that are headed back downstream. Look for the pre-spawn fish in runs and pools just downstream from spawning gravel areas. Drop-back fish can be found in the same locations. Usually, the post-spawn fish are very aggressive once they recuperate from the rigors of spawning. The lake-run rainbows usually begin spawning when the water temperature reaches 40 to 44 degrees.
Old-time steelheaders used a three-way swivel with split shot to get their offering near bottom. A better option is to tie a dropper off of a barrel swivel and attach split shot to the dropper and then slide the barrel swivel up the line and attach a second barrel swivel to act as a stop. A leader is then tied to the second swivel. Rigging in this fashion has two distinct advantages. Because the weight is not fixed on the line as when using a three-way swivel or simply crimping split shot on the line, a steelhead won't feel the weight when it picks up the bait as the line slides through the barrel swivel. The barrel swivel tends get hung up less frequently too than the three-way rig and when it does you normally only loose the leader or a hook. With the three-way rig you usually loose the entire rig. You can also have the barrel rigs pre-tied so if you loose a rig you can be back in business in short order. Use No. 10 or 12 black barrel swivels.
A variation of the barrel swivel set-up involves something called a slinky. A slinky is nylon cord with lead shot inside that is sealed on each end. Insert a snap swivel in one end and slide the slinky up the line the same way you would with a barrel swivel/dropper rig. The advantage of the slinky is that it is nearly snagless, quick to rig and allows a great sense of feel. Unlike split shot that tumbles along the bottom producing a "tick-tick-tick" sensation that is difficult to discern from the light bite of a fish, the slinky stays in contact with the bottom. When you feel a "tick" it's usually a fish picking up your bait. Pencil lead can be used in the same way by using a pair of Leadmaster pliers to punch a hole in the lead, which can then be hung from a snap swivel and fished the same way as a slinky.
One secret to successful steelheading is to keep your line in the water. If you break off ten times during the day and it takes you six minutes to re-rig each time that's an hour that you've spent rigging instead of fishing. Having rigs pre-tied will save you time and maximize your fishing time. A great tool for increasing your fishing time is called a Pip's Hook and Leader Dispenser. The dispenser holds up to three-dozen leaders that can be quickly and easily retrieved. With pre-tied leaders and droppers you can be re-rigged and back in business in less than thirty seconds- even with numb fingers. Use a leader that is approximately four pounds lighter than your mainline to limit breaking off your entire rig. A 10-pound test mainline and a six-pound test leader is a good combination. Fluorocarbon can be a good choice for leader material. A highly abrasion-resistant line is desirable for mainlines.
Your rod is a critical link between you and your bait when bottom-bouncing. The sensitivity of graphite is a big advantage for feeling the bottom, snags and the delicate take of a rainbow. The price of high-modulus graphite rods has come way down in recent years and some are now designed specifically for steelhead fishing. Look for a rod that has a Michigan-style handle for drift fishing. Spend as much as you can afford. These days you can get a good quality steelhead for between $50 and $100.
Reels for drifting need to be spinning models that are smooth operating with a quality drag system and capable of holding 150 to 200 yards of 8- to 12-pound test line. Some steelheaders advocate the use of spin-cast reels, but they lack line capacity, a smooth drag system and have a lower retrieve ratio.
While bottom-bouncing appeals mainly to active steelhead any steelheader worth his salt will tell you that there are plenty of days when fish are in a neutral or negative mood. Such conditions dictate another approach. In-line spinners can be an ace-in-the-hole when conditions demand a more active or aggressive technique.
The beauty of in-line spinners is that you can fish them in places where you wouldn't consider bottom-bouncing. Places where the current is too slow or where snags and obstructions make it too difficult to drift. These are also areas other anglers normally pass up. Pressured steelheads seek out these kinds of lies. Spinners are just the ticket here.
Spinners work great where steelheads are holding near undercut banks and tangles of logs where drifting would be suicide. With spinners, you can retrieve just fast enough to skim the lure over the snags. You can also get away with heavier line when using spinners which helps retrieve snagged lures and improves your landing ratio.
You don't need spinners to get within inches of a steelhead's nose to elicit a response. A steelhead sees a spinner as an intruder or threat and will travel some distance to smack it. Because spinners seem to provoke a reflex reaction from steelhead there's no need to cast repeatedly to the same location. Steelhead will usually hit or not in a few casts. Try a couple of different angles or speeds and move along.
One of the big advantages of spinners is that you can cover a lot of water very thoroughly and quickly. A shotgun approach works best. On smaller streams you'll need to use stealth and accurate casts, but spinners can be deadly on these diminutive steelhead haunts too.
Match the spinners to the conditions and the body of water you're fishing. Small, clear streams demand smaller blades. Bigger, darker flows favor larger No. 4 or 5 blades that give off lots of flash and vibration. By making your own spinners you can customize them with different tapes and blades and it's cost-effective. Several commercially-made brands work well including Double Loon, Mepps and Panther Martin.
The best technique with spinners is to cast across current with the rod tip held low and allow the spinner to swing on a steady, slow retrieve. A slow retrieve allows the spinner to get deep in front of holding steelheads. Most times the fish will follow the spinner a good distance before engulfing it. A key trigger point is where the spinner changes direction and begins to rise and come back upstream. This change often triggers a strike; so don't give up on your retrieve until the spinner is at the end of your rod.
On medium- to large-sized streams anglers can take advantage of the animated action of plugs to induce steelies into whacking them. Anglers can use planing devices like Luhr Jensen's Hot Shot Side Planer, Storm's Side Shuttle or Big Jon's Mini Otter to spot trailing plugs in productive runs and holes without the benefit of a boat. Deep-diving crankbaits and plugs are run 20 to 60 feet behind the planers and anglers can cover water by adjusting the amount of line they have out. At the strike, the planer releases and the anglers is free to battle the fish. Plugs often trigger strikes from recalcitrant rainbows when all else fails.
Steelheaders might not consider plugs as an option on smaller streams, but they can be equally effective on confined waters. Small lures like Wee Warts, Hot Shots, Fire Plugs and Tadpollies work great on small-stream steelies. Stealth, camouflage clothing, a long rod and a hands-and-knees approach will often reward anglers with surprising results.
Next time you head to the river be sure to include some spinners and plugs in your steelhead arsenal. With more weapons at your disposal, you'll increase your chances for springtime success.