Steelhead Fishing from the Riverbank
Jason Brooks, January 10, 2021
With WDFW’s recent emergency rule change for coastal rivers where anglers cannot fish out of a floating device those that prefer to use a drift boat or jet sled have been sent back to the gravel bar. Before this rule change and in my early steelheading years I stood on the banks, hiked along the trails and perched atop boulders just knowing that I could catch more fish if I just had a boat. Finally, after getting a drift boat and learning how to navigate rivers I was the one who now floated by, trying to be polite, and not fishing the waters where the bankies were “stuck”. A few years went by and then one day a fishing buddy gave me a call. He wanted to tell me about his day steelheading one of our favorite rivers. He hooked several fish and was able to keep a couple of bright fish to take home. I began asking which float he did and that is when I learned he left his drift boat at home and spent the day hiking into some holes and bank fished.
At first I couldn’t believe how a person who owns a nice drift boat would rather drive to the coast and bank fish and now on some of our favorite coastal rivers we have to get out of the boat to fish. But maybe going “back” the the bank isn’t all bad. Explaining how he fished like this all the time to take advantage of a quick trip to the river. Whenever he had a free morning to go fishing and instead of trying to find a buddy to go with or pay for a shuttle service, as well as commit to an entire day on the river, he opted to hike along the banks. There are some merits to his way of thinking and bank bound anglers can be very successful. Here are a few things to consider if you are bank bound and want to become more successful.
Know the waters. Don’t fall into the trap of going to the same place, same river or hole where all of the bank anglers go. The Cowlitz river for example is notorious for this, especially places like Blue Creek and barrier dam boat access areas. I have fished Blue Creek access several times and all of the bankies line up at the same places. One day, while out on a jet sled, we took off upriver and found a nice slot, as well as a lone angler swinging spoons. We watched him hook a fish and play it to the bank while no other anglers were around. Go downstream a mile or two and it was shoulder to shoulder, wait your turn to cast, and lots of arguments over who’s rock belonged to who.
Along with knowing where holes or runs are on the river, find rivers and even lakes that have public access. One of my most favorite rivers on the Olympic Coast runs almost entirely in the National Park and National Forest. A road parallels one side of the river with several access points and the other side is a bit of a hike but offers long gravel bars and a few braids where the road side doesn’t. It is worth hiking the mile from the far side to the river’s edge and after that you can hike the entire bank, spend hours on the river and never fish next to another person. Plus, this river tends to put out large steelhead.
Study the drainage of the river. Use on-line aerial maps such as Google Earth. You can find access points and gravel bars by doing this before you even leave the comfort of your home. Scouting a river starts with doing your homework before you leave for your trip. The WDFW website shows access points and county websites often show public parks. Then there are state parks as well. The Green River in King County for example has a couple of city parks on the lower stretches, a few county parks, like Metzler’s and then Flaming Geyser State Park on the upper stretches.
After finding waters and places to fish it comes down to using the right gear at the right time. The right time comes down to water conditions. Look up the river graph before driving to the river as this can tell you a lot. For example, if it recently rained and the river is still high but stable then it will probably be a bit off color as well. Use contrasting colors such as dark colored spoons or spinners and a lot of scent. With the higher and swifter water you can even switch out which types of scents you bring along, like take a bottle of Pro-Cure Super Sauce which is sticky. When the water is low or on the drop it will be a bit clearer and so you want to downsize gear and even use a bait oil or Pro-Cure’s water soluble scents.
Check the weather report and if it is a sunny day then know that the fish will be in riffles and deeper slots to hide from predators and stay out of the sunlight. On cloudy or overcast days the fish will be in the flats or along the edge of seams. Rainy days turns the water off color and on the rise which means fish will be on the move. If fish are on the move then you don’t have to be. Find a good run and stay all day as the fish will come to you. Back to low and clear water with a sunny day and pack your hiking boots as the fish will stage. After you hook a fish or two at one spot you will find more success by letting the water rest and find another hole.
Now that you have done your homework, looked over the maps, river graphs, and weather reports its time to pack your gear. A backpack is a must. Break down your gear to how you want to fish, and then pack only what you need. Floating jigs, bobberdogging (yes, you can do this from the bank too, just on a shorter scale), and drift fishing can all be done with one rod but packing a second rod has several advantages. A 9 ½ foot spinning rod rated for 6 to 10-pound line is a good “all around” rod. Spool the reel with 30-pound braid and you can fish using a float or drift gear. Pack a second rod, one that is 8 ½ feet and rated for 8 to 15-pound line, as this rod allows you to swing spoons or spinners and can be used in a pinch for float and drift fishing if you need to. Plus, having two rods means you can have two riggings already tied up to switch out techniques in an instant.
Plano 3700 series plastic tackle boxes fit the flat leader boards by FishEng products. These leader boards keep pink worms straight, spoons ready, and jigs clean and organized. You can pre-pack all your gear in just a couple of the Plano boxes which are clear and easy to pick out which one is needed. Everything fits into the backpack, along with my small Stryker Stove by Camp Chef and a few bottles of water and some cup of soup and coffee. Nothing beats a hot lunch on the edge of the river to keep your energy up. Waders can be tied on top or use a pack that will hold them and your wading shoes. I like to hike to the water’s edge in my hiking boots and then change into my waders so not to put a hole in them or get too hot hiking in. If you find yourself fishing with a chance of catching fish to take home be sure to pack a plastic garbage bag so not to get all of your gear and backpack slimed by the fish.
Safety should not be forgotten when bank fishing a river. It is almost impossible to think about floating down a river in a boat and not wear a life jacket, yet standing waist deep in rushing water and hardly anyone wears a life jacket. With inflatable jackets being affordable and lightweight there is no reason why you shouldn’t wear one while wading in the river. Most anglers don’t like to let anyone know where they are going but when exploring a riverbank it is a good idea to let someone back home know which river you are fishing that day and even which stretch of river that you will be at. This way if you do get into trouble those that are coming to help will have a better starting point to come get you.
By preparing ahead of time, planning your trip, and packing the right gear you will be ready to head to the river or lake. Being bank bound doesn’t mean being stuck. Instead find the freedom to get away from people, find your own special spot and enjoy the day. Then head for the truck and drive home without having to wash and put away the boat. Jason Brooks is an outdoor writer based in Washington and the Editor of The Tailout, an online magazine dedicated to all things Salmon & Steelhead related.