Steelhead - Sometimes Less is More

by Tyler Hicks, January 05, 2018
One of the few bright spot of our long Pacific Northwest winters are Steelhead. Coastal anglers pass the short days chasing winter chrome while inland anglers brighten their day with cherry red and vibrant green fish that spent their summer making their way up the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Few fisheries are so deeply rooted in our culture and catching a Steelhead is almost certainly a rite of passage for the Pacific Northwest angler.

My first Steelie was caught on a spinner on the Sandy River many years ago. To this day my favorite way to catch Steelhead is on spinners and spoons. The savage strikes that these lures entice is an elixir too sweet for this junky to resist. Yet over the years I’ve taken far more fish float fishing than any other method. It begs the question why?

For me the answer is simple. Float fishing allows me to easily and effectively fish very small presentations better than any other technique. My Steelhead fishing strategy is best described as schizophrenic. I am either lobbing big gaudy chunks of metal or I am fishing small….really small presentations.

We’ve recently seen bead fishing explode in popularity in the Pacific Northwest after making its way down from Alaska. The popularity of bead fishing isn’t difficult to understand. Its deadly effective. I can’t count the number of Steelhead I’ve pulled out of a run after pounding it with a spoon and on the first drift with a float and bead I hook up.

Long before beads arrived on the scene I discovered the propensity for Steelhead to take smaller presentations. Drought dominated my early Steelhead fishing years. Chasing summers in low and clear water conditions pushed me towards smaller presentations. I quickly found that 1/32 oz jigs were easily out-fishing the typical 1/4 oz jig. By the end of that first summer, 1/8th oz jigs felt big and my jig wallet quickly filled with jigs 1/16th oz and under.

My wife’s first Steelhead was a slab summer hatchery buck caught on 1/64th black and purple jig. She never turned away from micro-jigs after that. When the winter rains came I thought the dirty high water would level the playing field but I still found the smaller jigs performing better than heavier jigs. Although I did on occasion need to add a few split shot along the leader to push that jig down into the strike zone.

When beads first arrived on the scene I admit I was skeptical but it’s hard to argue with results. In hindsight, I am not sure why I thought they wouldn’t be effective. Years of prior experience had already taught me that small presentations were effective. Why do Steelhead love small presentations? One hypothesis I have is that smaller presentations express a more natural drift behavior in the river than larger heavier presentation. Additionally, beads and microjigs swirl or pulse more dramatically in the subtle currents of a river and perhaps that draws the bite. Perhaps it’s that a less hungry fish is more likely to take a smaller presentation than a bigger one thereby you are simply just upping the odds by targeting a larger number of fish. A definite explanation eludes me but the end result is more fish on the end of my line and that is all that matters.

It is important to recognize that “small” presentation extends beyond the size of the lure and includes color. The nightmare color pattern of black, red, and white is among the most popular color patterns for Steelhead fishing. A major reason I believe this pattern has proven to be so successful is that it’s a naturally subtle presentation. We know from experience that brighter objects appear larger than dark patterned ones. While I will still fish a bright pink or orange 6 or 8 mm bead nearly all of my micro-jigs are black, blue, purple, or some combination of the above. A small “hotspot” of pink or chartreuse doesn’t hurt but I prefer dark colors. Dark colors are far more versatile than bright colors. In low clear conditions, they are less likely to spook a fish and in dirty or off-colored water, they provide a strong profile or silhouette.

Being a good Steelhead angler requires the ability to employ a variety of tactics to match the conditions you are fishing. If you are reluctant to try beads then give small dark colored jigs under a float next time you hit the river. In the world of sea-run Rainbows big lures or baits do not always equate to bigger or more fish, sometimes less is more.

"Tyler Hicks is a passionate angler who spends most of his free time pursuing fish from a kayak. He is especially interested in the recruitment and education of new anglers to the sport of kayak fishing." Check out his YouTube channel for helpful videos: Spiltmilt Productions

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1/6/2018 10:55 AM
As usual Tyler, a great read. Thanks, Andy