An interesting question came up on my Facebook page the other day that’s often talked about amongst us steelhead fanatics. What’s the most important factor in getting a winter steelhead to strike…sight or smell?
I would say without a doubt that sight, and more importantly presentation, is the biggest factor in getting a winter steelhead to take a swipe at a lure.
Lets talk about presentation first. Whether your chucking spoons, pitching drift gear, floatfishing jigs, flyfishing, backtrolling plugs, hucking pink worms, or slinging bait most winter steelhead are going to want your offering brought in low-and-slow. Flyfishing guide Dennis Dickson has been preaching about this for years and after catching a couple of thousand steelhead myself I fully agree with him.
Now that you’ve got the presentation down the next step in the process of hammering winter steelhead is sight. Winter runs are attracted to brighter colors like pink, orange, peach, cerise, and red to name a few. If you only had a few colors in your vest I’d start with a combination of these colors and go from there. In certain water conditions purples and blacks have their place too, especially for the fly guys.
I guided the spring catch and release fishery for steelhead on the Skagit River system for around 18 years and I can tell you first hand that you don’t need bait or scent to catch steelhead. Don’t get me wrong…bait works great but it isn’t always necessary.That was an incredible fishery in it’s day and it forced me to be adept at catching steelhead using only artificials. If Washington ever went artificials-only for steelhead I wouldn’t miss a beat.
Having said that I will tell you that bait and scents are a great closer though. Steelhead are attracted to baits like sandshrimp, eggs, and coon shrimp at first because of their color. They have a color in their natural or cured state that sucks’em right in.
Once they get a mouthful of any one of these baits we all know what usually happens next…they eat them. It’s the sight of the bait that attracts them at first though and adding a little yarn or a colorful Corkie or Cheater makes this offering even more attractive to a steelhead. Bring’em in with the color and then close the deal with the bait.
Adding scents like sandshrimp, shrimp/anise, or krill to jigs, drift gear, and even plugs can have the same effect. The scent closes the deal once a winter steelhead swings by for a closer look. If I’m adding a gel type scent to a jig I’ll add it to the head only so as not to hamper the jigs movement in the water. Pro Cure has a great line of water-soluble scents that work great on jigs and they don’t matte down the jigs feathers.
If I’m adding scent to a plug, which is rare, I’ll add it to the bill only and not the body of the plug. Part of the plugs attractiveness to a steelhead is it’s metallic shine and scent can definitely diminish that and make the plug less effective. A perfectly clean plug backtrolled at just the right speed, in the right location, will draw just as many strikes as one with scent, however.
If you’re swinging spoons or flyfishing stay away from the scents altogether. Spoons, like plugs, work because of the flash they create and they have a very large zone of attraction.
And, of course, adding scents to a fly isn’t cool at all…leave that one alone and pay your dues. Find the right water type and bring either one of these offerings in low-and-slow and you’ll catch steelhead.
There’s your order of importance for catching winter steelhead. Sight, presentation, and then scent, if need be, to close the dealio. At least that’s how I see it.
Thanks again for stopping by and don’t be afraid to share your steelheading stories over on the Outdoor Line forums. I fish for winter steelhead as much as I can over the course of the season, but on days I can’t fish I’m happy to live vicariously thru others. Good luck to you out there and I hope this was helpful!
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