By Terry Rudnick
Believe it or not, there are places in the Pacific Northwest where a winter steelhead angler still has a reasonable chance of hooking fish while not having to deal with a steady parade of other anglers rowing through or stomping around in the water he’s trying to fish. The list of those streams where you can find both steelhead and solitude doesn’t include places like the world-famous Cowlitz, the heavily-fished Skykomish, the close-to-home-Green or the nearly-dead Puyallup; the places I’m talking about don’t get as much fishing pressure all season as the Cowlitz, Sky, Green or Puyallup get in one weekend.
The subjects of this discourse are those little, often out-of-the-way steelhead streams with names like Abernathy, Cloquallum, Goodman, Hoko and Pysht. If they all sound alien to you, welcome to the world of small-stream steelheading! These little creeks and rivers aren’t famous, but they’ll treat you right if you’re willing to do some exploring and don’t mind changing your fishing tactics just a little.
My definition of a small winter steelhead stream is one where I can easily cast from one side to the other with a little flick of the wrist. Water flow may be only a few hundred feet per second, and it’s shallow enough to be waded safely, even in hip boots, under normal conditions. Skinny water and a lack of road access mean that boating is limited or nonexistent, and even foot access may be tough because of private property issues, mean dogs, thick patches of wild blackberry or any number of other things that might keep all but the most adventurous anglers at bay.
Another reality of small-stream steelheading is that most of these small rivers and creeks have small returns of adult steelhead! Some are stocked with hatchery fish, many are not, and while you may have the entire river system to yourself on any given day, the total run size for that entire system may be only a couple dozen fish, perhaps all wild.
The good news is that those two dozen winter steelhead may all show up at the same time, and if you’re the only angler to time it right, you just might have yourself one hell of a day of fishing. The most likely time to get in on such a bonanza is right after a good flood, when most steelheaders are sitting around the house waiting for their favorite river to drop back into shape. The smaller rivers and creeks tend to get punched quicker than bigger streams, but they also come back in quicker, and the hottest fishing is likely to occur within 24 to 36 hours after it stops raining. If you remember that about these smaller waters, you have a great jump on most of the steelheading fraternity. By the time the big rivers have dropped back into shape, the fishing on the little streams may have been dead for days, and probably won’t come back to life until the next high water. Here, more than anywhere else, timing can be everything.
If your timing isn’t so good, though, you just might get one more chance, especially on the really small streams. On more than one occasion I’ve stumbled into real “honey hole” fishing when I located what seemed to be the one place where fish were stacked up. Holding water with adequate cover may be very limited on some of these rivers and creeks, and as the water drops and clears, every steelhead around may congregate in the one or two spots that offer real cover. It may be a deep pool, a stretch of dark water against an undercut bank, or a little hideaway beneath some partially submerged trees, but if you can find it, a real hidey hole can pay off big. Several years ago, after fishing more than a mile along a small, brushy, Alaska stream without a bump, I and three fishing buddies arrived at the side of a deep, slow run perhaps 50 feet long, and in the next hour each of us hooked at least two steelhead from that one pool that seemed to hold every fish in the entire river.
As a rule, a good deal of small-stream steelhead fishing is pocket-water fishing. You may not find many of the classic runs and drifts you’ll find on bigger rivers, so you fish the current breaks around stumps and boulders, the deep slots against high banks or beneath undercuts, the narrow seams where currents converge, and any little pocket that might be big enough and deep enough to hide a fish. It’s usually short-line fishing, a matter of lobbing your bait or lure 15 or 20 feet rather than making 100-foot casts from one side of a stream to the other, as is often the case on our bigger steelhead rivers.
This kind of close-quarters fishing calls for a subtle, careful approach. The steelhead you’ll find in shallow, clear water with limited cover are going to be spooky, so move slowly and quietly, keeping splashing and stomping to a minimum. Stay low and as far back from the water as possible, especially on clear, sunny days. Since steelhead rest with their noses upstream, it might pay off to approach holding water from below and make upstream casts to your fish, and try to make accurate, subtle casts so that your bait or lure doesn’t hit the water like a pelican diving on a herring ball.
Some of our smaller steelhead streams may have selective fishing regulations that require the use of artificial lures only, but where that’s not the case I prefer bait to artificials. You can fish a cluster of eggs or a fresh ghost shrimp in those tight pockets and small pools as though you were fishing a worm or salmon egg for summertime trout, except there’s a lot more weight on the other end when you set the hook. I like small baits for this kind of fishing, and if I add yarn or a bobber to the mix I keep it small and subtle, as in pale pink or white rather than fluorescent orange or red.
Bobber-and-jig rigs work as well on small streams as they do on big rivers but, again, I’d go with smaller jigs in subtle colors and even down-size a little on the float to reduce the chance of spooking fish.
I find that I have an easier time on some of the smaller, brushier streams if I use a shorter rod, too. You’ll have a little less trouble with overhanging limbs and other tip-snappers, and you really don’t need a lot of rod to handle the short casts you’ll be making on most of these rivers and creeks. My two favorite small-stream rods are an eight-footer and one that measures seven feet, nine inches. Both are medium-heavy action, and sometimes I wish they were a little heavier, especially when trying to coax a fish away from a big tangle of shoreline brush or keeping one from disappearing around a bend in the river where I can’t follow.
Which brings us to the topic of selecting a line for this kind of fishing. There’s no doubt that stronger is better when it comes to choosing a line that will help you land fish in tight quarters on a small, fast, snaggy creek. The problem is that before you get a chance to land ’em you have to hook ’em, and spooky fish in clear, shallow water may be hard to coax into biting if your line looks to them like a length of quarter-inch clothesline. I usually don’t give fish much credit for being line-shy, but small-stream steelhead are an exception, because I’ve seen too many of them ignore a bait or lure at the end of 12-pound mono and then pounce on the first offering dangling from a six-pound line. You may have to do some experimenting and match your line to the conditions on the stream you’re fishing and the day you’re fishing it. One option, though, might be to go with something like Berkley’s FireLine Crystal. Fourteen-pound FireLine is about the diameter of six-pound monofilament, and 20-pound FireLine is the size of eight-pound mono. The stuff ain’t cheap, but it’s tough and telegraphs the subtle strike of winter steelhead very well.
So, you think you might want to try your hand at this small-stream steelheading but aren’t sure where to start? Here’s a short list of places where you might want to begin: Abernathy Creek, Canyon Creek, Cloquallum Creek, Dickey River, Germany Creek, Goodman Creek, Mosquito Creek, Hoko River, Kennedy Creek, Lyre River, Morse Creek, Nemah River (all forks), Newaukum River, Pilchuck Creek, Pilchuck River, Pysht River, Raging River, Salmon River (Queets tributary), Smith Creek, Tolt River. Be sure to check the current fishing regulations pamphlet for seasons and special regulations that may be in effect on some of these streams.