Kaye – Canadian Techniques for Steelhead

Written by: Steve Kaye
Published in BC Outdoors Magazine/OP Publishing

As December descends upon us most normal people are thinking about Christmas and the impending holiday season, but for a few of us our thoughts are elsewhere dreaming of winter chrome. December is the start of the winter Steelheading season, as Christmas approaches the winter Steelhead start to enter their rivers and streams and as they do the anglers that are called Steelheaders start to search for the fish that dreams are made of, the winter Steelhead.

Of all the many different types of fish that swim in the waters of British Columbia, Canada none are thought of or revered like the Steelhead. This is a fish that draws anglers from all over the world to come here and try to make their angling dreams come true. There are two different types or classifications of Steelhead in British Columbia, Canada: the summer run Steelhead and the winter run Steelhead. This obviously refers to the approximate time that these fish return from the ocean to begin their spawning run up to there home rivers. While summer run and winter run fish can be caught using basically the same techniques there are differences that can and should be considered for consistent success, the words and suggestions that follow are geared towards the ever-elusive and challenging winter Steelhead.

Now that we have divided Steelhead into two distinct categories we will again divide the winter run fish into two sub categories, early run Steelhead (December, January and February) and late run Steelhead (March, April and May) While both early and late run Steelhead are classified as winter fish they definitely have a different personality and disposition towards an anglers bait.

Early run winter Steelhead arrive back at their home rivers bright silver and strong from their life out at sea. When a early run winter Steelhead returns they are in the best shape of their life. Most winter fish will not spawn for at least two to four months after they have entered there home river or stream. Winter Steelhead are not in the river to feed, they will however eat selectively on perceived food items that come their way that do not require excessive amounts of energy to intercept. This willingness to feed selectively is one of the weaknesses that consistently successful Steelheaders have learned to exploit in their continuing quest to capture the mighty Steelhead.

There are few things that can increase your success like time spent on the river. Anglers who catch Steelhead consistently spend many hours wandering up and down their favorite rivers. As the season progresses a river and the Steelhead that reside in it go through changes. Water levels, water clarity and water temperature play a major role in a steelheaders success and the approach or strategy that they will try to employ. Early season Steelhead are much more passive or laid back than late season fish. Typically the water temperature in December, January and February is on the chilly side and with steelhead being cold-blooded creatures they tend to be a little less likely to chase down or move of the bottom for any bait. Early season winter steelhead can however be caught quite readily using the right approach. The real key to enticing a fish that is not willing to move very far for bait is to make his decision an easy one and to take your bait as close as possible to him. To catch winter steelhead your bait must be fished in the bottom six inches of the river.

With out a doubt one of the most important keys to becoming a consistent steelheader is to learn how and why to cover water. Many anglers have very good success in the fall fishing for salmon and then wonder why that the have very little success fishing for winter steelhead in the winter. The fall salmon runs can be looked at as a giant conveyor belt, once you have found a good piece of holding water you can pretty much sit there all day as the conveyor belt consistently moves by you with a fresh supply of salmon. You just have to realize that it is a numbers game. Salmon can be in the rivers buy the thousands on a daily basis; steelhead however may only have run of a few hundred to few thousand over the entire season. So while a “let them come to me” approach works just fine for the fall salmon fishery the winter steelhead season requires a more proactive plan of attack. When most winter steelhead enter their home rivers the fall salmon have pretty much completed there spawning and have died off, the steelhead has the run of the river and can decide exactly where he or she feels most comfortable. Some steelhead will sit in one spot for days if undisturbed while others will move around daily. Steelheaders who catch a lot of steelhead in a season do so because they know their river well and have developed what I call a steelhead circuit. To develop a steelhead circuit requires two things, an understanding of the type of water that steelhead prefer and the time to explore your river regularly to find the spots that hold steelhead consistently. In the fall large portions of runs will produce fish because there are so many fish available, but during steelhead season you need to narrow it down to the “spot within a spot”. This is the exact location where fish prefer to hold in a given run or pool on a river. These spots will regularly produce fish as long as the water conditions remain favorable. So once you have located six to ten of these “spots within a spot” you have now created a steelhead circuit. To utilize this circuit effectively you must cover all of these spots every trip. This means that you have to do some serious hiking, I never promised that this would be easy but if you want to catch winter steelhead consistently you have to put the miles on.

Once an angler has identified several good runs or pools to fish they also need to know how to systematically cover these spots to find the potentially willing fish hidden within. Winter steelhead get their name because they are in the rivers in the winter time and this means that the water temp will be on the chilly side. Because Steelhead are cold blooded cold water can make them less likely to move very far to intercept a bait. Always remember to have your float adjusted so that your weight makes contact with the river bottom every three to six feet of drift. Another important point to note is that river conditions will also affect where fish will hold, for example when the river is running high, fish will tend to hold lower in a pool or run and will slowly move up as the water levels fall. When a rivers clarity is poor Steelhead can sit very close to the shore and when rivers run gin clear Steelhead will hold in the deeper water farther out.

To properly cover water, especially new water, you should start fishing from the top of the run or pool and work your way down. You will want to dissect the run in front of you in a grid like fashion. Basically you will want to make a short cast followed by longer cast then still a farther cast until the water in front of you has been completely covered also don’t hesitate to pay special attention to spots that look extra fishy. Next take a step or two down river and repeat the whole process over. Each time you make a move down river you give your bait a new chance at a Steelhead. By fishing different runs or pools in this fashion you will find the preferred spots that Steelhead like to be in, and the river conditions that each spot fishes best at, hence you will find the “spot within a spot”. The most common question asked by anglers who want to catch a steelhead or just catch more steelhead is undoubtedly, what is the best bait? My answer to this is that they pretty much all work. Ask 10 different successful Steelheaders this question and you will probably get 10 different answers. The one constant between good anglers is that their approach or game plan is the same. How you fish is as or even more important than what you fish. Don’t get me wrong your bait, be it organic or artificial does matter, but where you fish and how you present this bait is crucial!

Understanding bait presentation is extremely important but this seems to be the least understood component about steelhead fishing by most anglers. Fly fisherman use the term presentation all the time, drift or float fisherman should consider this more often. The presentation of your bait quite simply is how the fish sees you offering and does he or she find it appealing?

To properly present various baits to winter Steelhead you first must have the appropriate gear. The most effective way to catch winter Steelhead is to float fish for them. While there is some personal preference that goes into gear selection for float fishing, it is generally accepted that 10ft to 13ft medium action rods equipped with level wind or single action center pin style reels are the rods of choice. Reel selection be it level wind or center pin is an anglers preference they both do the job well but the longer rods are a must to properly float fish. You need the length to keep your line off the water to properly make your drifts. If your line is in the water the current will pull it dragging the float downstream this causes a very unnatural presentation and is not very effective.

Once you have your rod and reel set up you then have to concentrate on the terminal tackle or rigging. The main line, or the line on your reel, should be 15lb to 20lb test of quality monofilament. The next step is the float, not all floats are created equal. Steelhead floats come in several forms the most common and least expensive are the foam “dink floats” these floats work o.k. and don’t cost much so they are the most popular. The next floats to consider are the balsa wood and cork floats. These floats are hand made and fish much better than the foam models. For the angler that has to have the best, there are the European clear plastic models these are the best money can buy, no steelhead float on the market can match their sensitivity and superior fishing characteristics. Winter Steelhead live on the bottom of the river so to get to them takes some weight; a piece of pencil lead attached to your line is all that is required. The lead should be large enough to sink your float so that only the top quarter is visible above the surface of the water. Below the pencil lead is a swivel, size 10 to 14 will do just fine. Below that is the leader to your bait. Leaders will vary in length and strength depending on water conditions; low and clear water requires longer lighter leaders in the 8lb and 36 inch range. Higher dirty water means to go heavier and shorter, 20 inches and 12lb test would get the job done here. On the business end of things is the bait and hook. Steelhead style hooks are available from several different manufactures remember that as with line you get what you pay for, there is no substitute for quality hooks. Hook size depends on couple of different factors, bait size and water clarity. In low clear water conditions small baits with smaller sized hooks in the size 4 to size1 will work well, where as in colored high water conditions larger baits and hook sizes in the 1/0 to 3/0 range will be more appropriate.

As mentioned before bait selection is always a hot topic. Steelhead baits can basically be divided into two categories organic and artificial. Personally I feel that the way a bait is fished is just as important as to the type of bait that an angler chooses. Two or three different well-presented baits that match the river conditions will be successful if willing fish are present. Anglers have to be aware of the river conditions and be willing to try several baits in each spot to see what the fish seem to want on a given day. Organic baits are very productive, winter Steelhead will often fall for a well-presented piece of roe or a good-looking ghost shrimp. Single eggs tied in spawn sacks as well as prawn tails can also work well. Artificial baits are as varied as the colors in the rainbow, gooey bobs, spin n glows, Jensen eggs, Colorado blades, yarn ties and pink worms are few of the regular bits and pieces you will find in any good steelheaders arsenal. Keep in mind that the color and size selection of these items is almost unlimited. How then can any angler make a choice on what bait to fish on any given day? The approach that I have found productive is to pick three or four different baits usually consisting of one organic bait and two or three artificial baits and systemically working each one through each run or pool that I fish all day. Changing up your bait is worth the time and efforts; this can make a major difference in you success rate no question about it!

Recently there has been some debate about weather or not to allow the use of organic baits for winter Steelhead. There is speculation that this encourages higher mortalities because it is thought that winter steelhead will take organic baits deeply and be more likely to expire if released. There are justified concerns where summer run steelhead are present because at times they will take a organic baits deeply but to suggest that the same is true for winter steelhead leads me to believe that the people who suggest this have either not caught many winter steelhead or they are following a private agenda. Winter steelhead, at least in my experience are very seldom hooked deeply with any bait be it organic or artificial. This may vary from area to area somewhat, but overall the overwhelming majority of fish are lip hooked and can easily be released unharmed if properly handled. Personally I feel we should work together to promote good catch and release habits among anglers and not bicker and try to add more regulations to an already confusing and over regulated fishery.

As you walk up and down the rivers these days you will see more and more anglers using higher quality floats, these floats are made from balsa wood, cork and there are even high-tech clear plastic models available. Many anglers scoff at paying the six to seven dollar price tag that goes with these flashy floats. But consider this, these floats definitely have superior fishing characteristics, they make better drifts, they cast better and they even retrieve better but most of all they are way more sensitive. These floats can detect even the most subtitle take. When you consider what you have paid out for the rest of your gear and what your time is worth it just makes sense to invest a little more into the one piece of tackle that actually tells you that the steelhead you have been searching for all day is finally biting.

There are many pieces to the puzzle that makes for successful winter Steelhead fishing. Rods and reels, lines, floats, weights, bait selection, water conditions and location are all very important but the one characteristic that all good steelheaders have in common is that they all have the ability to interpret all the different variables and make the right decisions on how, what and where to fish effectively. The bottom line is to be a good Steelheader you have to have the right attitude; you must have a game plan and be willing to put in the time, be aware of what the river and the fish are trying to tell you. Winter Steelhead fishing may not be easy but this is one of the most rewarding fisheries in British Columbia for a truly spectacular sport fish.

 For many anglers the perception of winter steelheading is that of winter weather, cold snowy, slushy and rainy days spent endlessly trudging up and down endless miles of riverbanks. Boy does that ever sound like a lot of fun. Winter steelheading for many is a December, January and February pastime. Dealing with inclement weather is a given and is an accepted part of this winter fishery, it certainly weeds out the men from the boys. Anglers who are consistently successful at catching winter Steelhead all share a common commitment, they all put in there time, learn the water and pay attention to the small details that can make big differences.

One of the first rules of any type of fishing is to fish where and when the fish are in. You simply cannot catch Steelhead if they are not there. It is widely understood that winter steelhead are available in the winter months of December, January and February but what many anglers fail to realize is that many river systems throughout British Columbia, Canada continue to fish well or even better in the spring months of March, April and even May! It never fails to amaze me how many anglers pack it in during the month of February figuring that the season is over when some of the best fishing of the year maybe just around the corner! One of the best benefits of fishing for late Steelhead is the weather. Springtime is one of my favorite times of year to be outside. The spring can at times be a little soggy but it is much warmer than the winter weather and some times it can be very sunny and warm. A warm spring day spent Steelheading is for me about as good as it gets; every thing is new and fresh and it is a pleasure to be out side. Another big benefit to spring Steelheading is that the pressure from other anglers is way down. I guess some of these guys have yard work or other chores to get done at home during the spring. Some people just have to get their priorities straight.

The best benefit to late winter or spring Steelhead fishing has to be the fishing, as far as I am concerned it is the best of the season because the conditions that make the fishing better for us above the water are also are good for the fish in the water. Warmer water temperatures are responsible for more aggressive and more active fish, less pressure from anglers (the guys now at home doing yard work) means that the Steelhead are less weary (thanks guys, your lawn will look fantastic) and the best part about spring fishing is that there are more fish! You just can’t beat it; better weather, less people, more aggressive fish and just plain more fish, it’s my favorite time on the river.

During the months of March, April and May the numbers of steelhead that are in the river are at there peak, early winter run, middle winter run and spring run fish are all present and all are in different stages of there spawning cycle. It is very possible to catch Steelhead that are fully colored, spawned out and recovering as well as fish that are chrome bright and fresh from the ocean all in the same day. Personally my best days numbers wise have always been during the springtime season.

Springtime is also a time that the Steelhead will become far more aggressive and quite frankly much easier to catch. Early in the winter when water temperatures are freezing Steelhead will not move very far to intercept a bait and can be much more finicky but as the spring time approaches Steelhead do however go through a distinct attitude change, no question about it. Whether it’s the warmer water or the stress and changes of their impending spawning duties these fish definitely become way more aggressive and will frequently chase down and attack baits that only a few weeks earlier they would barely even notice. Spring run fish also tend to stick together more so when you find one you will usually find others in the same location. Many of the techniques that work for early run winter fish will work for late run or spring run steelhead as well. Lets face it, the fish are the same, only the time of year has changed and the weather has become warmer.

Angling for late winter or spring run Steelhead also requires the angler to go through an attitude change as well. Granted to be a consistently successful Steelheader you must be aggressive in your angling to start with but when the spring rolls around a change in approach will further improve your success on the river.

Early winter Steelhead fishing requires a methodical and almost painstaking approach to covering water, you need to get to the bottom and pretty well cover every inch of fish-holding water several times and present several baits to make sure that no fish are passed over. When fishing early season Steelhead most anglers will float fish using pencil lead as there means to fish deep and keep their baits down and keep in constant contact with the bottom of the river. By fishing in this manner you keep your bait at eye level and sooner or later you will present your bait in front of a fish. This is crucial because during early season when the water is cold Steelhead will rarely chase down or move far to intercept your bait. Many of the basics do stay the same when fishing for late winter or spring run. With steelhead, as a matter of fact you could change nothing about your approach and still do well, however the springtime offers some unique opportunities to anglers and we might as well take advantage of them. The biggest factor in the spring is that the Steelhead themselves are more willing to bite, in fact in many cases Steelhead will go out of there way to eat a bait. It is still important to cover the water efficiently and carefully but less time is required before moving on. Probably the one most over looked area of springtime, steelheading is the terminal rigging that an angler uses. Early wintertime requires angler to crash the bottom of the river. In springtime however this is no longer necessary. A natural drag free drift with your bait suspended between 1 and 2 feet of the bottom of the river is deadly at this time of the year. The best way to obtain this is by substituting split shot over pencil lead for a weight system. When fishing split shot it is important to make sure that the shot is spaced evenly along the line every four to six inches starting at the swivel and working on up to the float. Make sure to use enough split shot to properly load the float, no more than 1.5 inches of your float should be visible while it is drifting down the river. This allows for proper strike detection because during this manner of float fishing the bait is suspended well off, or short of, the bottom of the river. I refer to this technique as “short floating.” Note when using split shot make sure you are off the bottom because if you are not this stuff snags like crazy and you will be retying often.

Short floating for spring run steelhead does require a few favorable conditions first the water clarity must be good at least 5 to 6 foot of visibility. Also, water temperature must be appropriate; usually by early to mid March winter run fish will sense the warmer water and really wake up. I don’t feel that these fish are looking to feed but they certainly react differently to bait. I have watched Steelhead in the springtime come from across the pool and chase down a bait that was fished using the short float method on several occasions. It is really exciting watching your float drift down the river because with your bait suspended off the bottom when the float drops it is a fish. No false alarms and because the Steelhead has usually aggressively attacked you bait as opposed to a gentle take you do tend to get a better hook set and therefore land more fish.

Fishing the short float system is not much different than fishing with pencil lead, just remember to cast slightly farther up stream to allow your gear to sink and set up as this takes slightly longer than with pencil lead. Also do no apply quite as much tension to the reel spool while drifting down river, a smooth, natural, drag-free drift is what we are trying to achieve, overly slowing down the bait is not necessary

To this point I have not mentioned a lick about the many different and varied types of baits an angler may fish for Steelhead. For the most part I feel that too much emphasis is placed on what type of bait to fish and not enough on how to fish properly. Steelhead can be caught on many different baits be it organic or artificial. How and where you fish is as important as what bait you fish! Now having gone of on my little bait rant I will admit that certain baits do lend themselves to certain techniques better than others. The Baits that do tend to fish well while using the short float method are baits that lack buoyancy or at least have neutral buoyancy. Because we are purposely fishing off the bottom, we will want a bait that will sink somewhat on its own we don’t want our bait floating up amongst out split shot. Bait selection is also dictated somewhat by water conditions. If the river is low and clear then go small conversely if water clarity is limited then fish with a larger bait. I have found that having an open mind to bait selection has improved my success over the years. Every time you fish a new run or pool you should take the time to fish several different baits. No one bait will appeal to all Steelhead on any given day, so sticking to a single bait is just like not fishing all the water in the pool or run in front of you, you are passing up available fish!

Some of the more productive baits that I have found for the short float technique include Jenson egg and yarn combos. This is a very versatile bait color and sizes are almost unlimited, these baits fish very well under medium to good visibility. Organic baits such as ghost shrimp, fresh boraxed Steelhead roe and single eggs tied in spawn sacks can be deadly in all water conditions. Adding a corky or a spin and glow can also be a good added attraction to any organic bait. Rubber worms are an excellent bait they come in a variety of colors and sizes, pink, peach, white and orange are all productive colors. Many anglers think that rubber worms are only a good bait in colored water or when the rivers are running high and this is true that they do work well at these times, however personally I never hesitate to fish worms especially in the spring. Rubber worms usually attract aggressive strikes and since spring run Steelhead are already in an aggressive mood this bait can have a real impact regardless of river water levels or clarity. Colorado blades are another impact bait. These simple spinners are also deadly fished under a float. Steelhead will attack blades with a vengeance. Blades fish well in water levels that are at medium-to-medium high and with visibility beyond 4 feet. Rubber worms and Colorado blades usually create a response in short order so I recommend fishing them as the final bait through a run or pool.

Steelhead fishing in British Columbia, Canada is second to none, as anglers we are blessed to live here and take this wonderful fishery for granted. After several years working in the sport fishing industry I have constantly been amazed at many anglers willingness to accept mediocre or even poor angling success simply because they are either stuck in their ways or just unwilling to accept some new ideas that may improve there success. Anglers who are consistently successful are always willing to be innovative and are constantly looking for a new edge. Good Steeelheaders will put in their time perfecting their techniques and will always be looking for new water. To be a successful Steelhead angler you must be willing to take into consideration all the variables, time of year, water conditions, location, terminal gear and last but not least bait selection. Steelhead fishing more than anything requires the right attitude, be willing to put in you time keep your eyes, ears and mind open and above all pay attention to the little details. Fishing for Steelhead is a lot like building a puzzle except this puzzle changes every day, those anglers who can adapt will do well those who can’t or won’t just leave more fish available for those of us who can.