By Jason Brooks
The cold days of January creates clear waters on the drop and for the steelhead angler it is time to hit the rivers. This time of year brings in fresh fish that are nickel sided and black backed ready to bite. Mixed in the bag are hatchery brats and wild fish, both are a quarry anglers dream about and prepare for. It is this preparation that makes the difference from a day spent on the river hoping to hook a fish and a day on the river catching a lot of fish. Here are a few tips and pointers to rekindle the winter steelhead excitement and help you put more fish on the bank.
Steelhead fishing in the winter means fishing in extreme elements. (photo by Jason Brooks)
A guided trip is always worth the money. Not only do you get to use the industries top equipment but also learn from those that have already been out fishing the rivers. A prime example is Eli Liske of E&S Sportfishing (www.essportfishing.com or 253-332-1240) who’s been out fishing for several weeks now and lately has been catching steelhead on just about every coastal river he can get his drift boat down.
This brings up another point and that is with each rain the rivers change. Guides have a network of information on which rivers are fishable, which ones have hazards, and which ones are not worth your time. Eli had a day off this last weekend so he took his son, Aiden, out to yet another river known for big wild fish and they were rewarded with a few nice fish including one that took a plug. If you want to learn a new technique or just improve your fishing by learning advanced methods then hiring a guide will increase your knowledge in quick order.
Aiden Liske with a plug caught winter steelhead. (Photo by Eli Liske, E&S Guide Service)
The internet is friend and foe all in one stroke of the keypad. If you like to frequent fishing websites and chase internet reports then you might become a little frustrated. But if you use the internet for things such as river flows, google earth maps for access, and recipes on bait cures then you will be rewarded with more time to fish and success on the river. The thing to remember on using the internet is to use it as a tool to learn as well as for entertainment, such as YouTube videos, scenic photography, and post of other angler’s adventures. More than once I have had a hateful reply to a blog I wrote because it gave away someone’s “secret” fishing hole, yet if I wrote about it then it wasn’t a secret because obviously I found it. If you do have a true secret spot then don’t share it, not even the photos.
J.R. Hall with a southern Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead. (Photo by JR Hall)
Bank bound anglers are fairly restricted to both access to the river as well as techniques used. If you are a bankie then learn to fish smarter. Know the river by exploring it and all the access points and know which techniques will work and which ones won’t. This can be due to several limiting factors such as water conditions, bank conditions like overhangs or boulders to stand on, and even other anglers in the area. Reiter Ponds and Blue Creek are good examples. These areas are mostly fished by anglers floating jigs tipped with prawns, and a few drift fisherman. Don’t go there expecting to swing spoons or spey cast streamers.
Another friend, JR Hall of JR’s Steelheading Adventures (www.steelheadnwynoochee.com or 253-320-8806) on his days away from guiding is often found walking the banks of one my favorite rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. We both own drift boats and I asked him one day why he was bank fishing. He simply stated that sometimes he just likes to not worry about a shuttle and the hike along the river, spey rod in hand, allows him some solitude. This river has great bank access and he lands multiple big fish each trip with nobody even knowing he is fishing as his rig doesn’t have a trailer and there are day hikers in the area accessing the National Park.
To truly be successful as a steelhead angler you must understand that winter steelheading is more than just filling the freezer. Yes, there are terminal and hatchery fisheries like those on the Wynoochee and Humptulips (both are doing well since the New Year began by the way) where you can catch a few steelhead and more than likely take home a limit for the smoker or barbecue.
But as our winter starts to warm into spring and the big wild steelhead enter the waters take a time to reflect back on this fish’s life. A journey full of challenges that it must overcome to make it back to the spawning grounds. If you are honored to land such a fish then take care of it with proper handling and releasing of the fish. It will return yet another year and reward the successful steelheader once again.
Northwest Outdoor Writer