Winter Steelhead Fishing Prep
Well, it’s been another great fishing season on the Fraser river and it’s tributaries in the Fraser Valley. The request for Fraser river charters drops off the map when it’s later November. Guides like us certainly enjoy some much needed relaxation and family time that was put on hold during the frenzy of work that happens from June to November. So fishing would seem like the last thing on our minds. Yeah right. Fishing is never absent from the perspective of a river addict. Uhm… lake and ocean addict too!
The rivers are seemingly lifeless creatures, even graveyards as the most prominent sight is strewn salmon carcasses and the occasional intrusive stench of rotting fish. Even though the lure of hittin the river is dwindled for a few weeks, it’s not dormant. Nor shall it ever be. It’s only on pause until the winter chrome bullets arrive in December! Steelhead fishing is a drug that cannot be kicked. For those BC river addicts there’s nothing more satisfying than hookin up with a metal-head! Oncorhynchus mykiss, Steelhead, Hardhead, and perhaps a few more nicknames.
Why the hunger for such a fish? I believe that for us it’s the chase and certainly the game of hide and seek. They’re hiding, we’re seeking. When we find, and we do, it’s an explosion of adrenaline that either leads to heartbreak or victory. Racing heart beats and a seemingly accute perception of surroundings brings one to a elevated sense of living! I’ve caught a lot of Steelhead over the past 25 yrs and I cannot escape this spell they cast. The pursuit of something so beautiful and legendary with added uncertainty is the never ending lure. Even the best Steelheaders out there have no guarantee of hooking up every day on the river. Who would bother with sport fishing in the absense of challenge? So we must prepare for success. I believe the preparation for successful Steelhead fishing IS part of the fun!
With all the regular season gear put away our thoughts are on chrome river rockets and preparing for success. What does that entail? Let’s go over the basics first.
- Proper equipment
- quality terminal tackle
- quality lures and bait
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Steelhead rod and reel
As with most Salmon and Steelhead fishing on our rivers you will need a rod length of 10-11 feet that is rated for line weight 15-20 lbs. There’s a multitude of good rods out there in the $100 range. Most are pretty good. Make sure it’s a rod designed for use with a bait caster reel, also known as a level wind reel. A well recognized reel for this would be a Abu Garcia 6500. Nice and reliable and won’t break the bank. Goin cheap on Steelhead gear will most certainly backfire on you. Do it right the first time and you’ll never regret it.
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Steelhead line and terminal tackle
Terminal tackle quite simply means line, floats, swivels, hooks and just about anything else that is used to present your offering with exception of rod and reel. As with the above mentioned having quality terminal tackle will allow you to have greater success in landing that prized Steely! I have encountered many occasions where anglers complained of losing a fish because one link in the chain of their arsenal failed. It’s happened to me also. It’s crushing. The difference of even $1 can spell the fate of the day.
We make sure all our Steelhead reels are frshly lined with either 15 or 20 lb high quality main line. We have tried many brands but always come back to either Maxima UltraGreenor Berkley Trilene. Time tested and rock solid performers. Do not go with cheap imitations. The fish will win. Steelhead fight hard and will put even the best of lines to the test.
Picking the right float is more about size and colour than anything else. We like tapered floats as they offer superior presentation and sensitivity. DNE foam floats are a solid choice or there are many tapered balsa wood or clear floats out there. You always want your float to sit about 75% under water and to achieve this the amount of weight you use dictates how deep the float will sit. For average conditions where water flow is average and visibility is coloured to almost clear a 25-35 gram float in green, grey or natural colour works best. If you are using ‘pencil lead’ for weight you will need to use lengths of 2 – 2.75″ to achieve the ideal float berth. When river conditions are gin clear it helps to go with a clear float and certainly smaller is best.
We use Kodiak brand swivels for Steelhead and Salmon fishing in the rivers. For Steelhead we find sizes #7 – 10 are best. Too big will spook in some cases and too small will break or not perform under the high stress load that happens when doig battle with Winter Chrome.
While I was on a friends boat earlier this year he bragged to me about finding a great deal on fishing hooks. We lost 2 big Chinooks that day to broken hooks. GRRRRR. Total savings was about $5 but we lost $200 in fish. Hmmm. I will only use Owner or Gamakatsu fishing hooks. I prefer Owner these days, they just out perform and have a failure rate near ZERO. But both are excellent choices for Steelhead fishing and they are sticky sharp. Typically your sizes will be from #2/0 on the big end all the way to #4 on the small end. Keep a good assortment in your arsenal.
Steelhead Bait and Lures
If it shines, wiggles, pulses or smells good it’s gonna get bit at some point. Provided it’s presented properly. Steelhead just eat stuff. They certainly have favorites however. Color is also key. Think Pink. Also think Orange, Red and all the different hues and intensities of these colours will entice a strike. These colours can be added to baits such as roe or prawns in a process called ‘curing’. Many different products are available at your local tackle shop that will do the job just fine. If you’re just starting to fish Steelhead it’s best to stick to one or 2 bait or artificial offerings. For example you might just want to have cured roe and rubber worms as your arsenal. Others might choose artificial single eggs and jigs. Keeping it simple works. If you’re not hooking up it’s more to do with presentation than anything else. When I was younger I remember certain years I would only fish with roe. I caught lots of fish because I got it in front of their yaps. Common Steelhead fishing baits are as follows:
- cured salmon/steelhead roe
- pink rubber worms
- artificial single eggs or clusters
- wool ties
- spinners/colorado blades
- cured prawn
When you tie up your setup make sure to have just enough weight to make your float sit about 1/2 to 2/3 underwater. Also make sure that leader lengths stay in the 12-30″ range. Shorter leaders for tight pocket water and longer leaders for big deeper runs. Hopefully that helps you out some. But there’s one more ingredient that is the most importand.
Steelhead Fishing success requires proper presentation!
This is critical for successful Steelhead fishing. And this is why so many anglers fall into the 90% category of that famous anecdote: “10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish”.
Quite simply put you need to know where Steelhead will hold and how deep to fish. Steelhead won’t hold anywhere. Neither would you. Steelhead need cover and comfort. I always look for areas of the river that offer both. Cover means just that. Is there a ripple or disturbance on the surface? Good. Can you see the bottom of the river? Not so good. Is there structure such as a tree or log jam? Good. Is the water flowing flat and not downhill? Good. Current speed can be anywhere from really slow to a brisk walking speed. Surface speeds of rivers are often faster than the bottom. Structure such as large rocks and boulders create ‘soft spots’ where fish can easily hold with little or no effort. I like boulder runs with pockets or depressions. Steelhead will look for this and often hold there. If you hook a fish in a specific piece of water, chances are you’ll hook one there another day. Provided the river doesn’t change. Top 3 places you’ll find holding Steelhead are:
- the head of a run where it deepens
- the gut of a run or deeper slots & pockets
- tailouts with structure
One last thing is where to fish your offering. This is critical. The bait must not drag the bottom, nor should your weight. Adust so that hook is about 12-16″ from the bottom. That means that if the run is 5 feet deep you will need to have a 4 foot difference from the midway point of your float to the hook. This puts the offering at eye level or slightly above. Steelhead, like many other fish see better sideways and above. So if your weight is tickling the bottom you should shorten up a bit.
Now get out there and hit the river. Have fun and remember it’s a place to connect to nature and not a contest. Be patient and learn to know your surroundings, to think like a fish, and it will happen. When your float dips or disappears HIT IT!
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