January Steelhead Techniques

by Jason Brooks, January 05, 2018
January can be a tough month for the angler. The daylight is still short and the weather can be everything from freezing rain, snow, ice, or sunny and even a bit warm towards the end of the month. Our rivers run full and this can make it both easy and hard to catch steelhead. Let’s look at some of the ways that we can catch one of our most revered winter fish.

High water is more of a norm than an anomaly. Knowing the river conditions before you hit the water allows you to prepare for the day as well as lead you to more success on the water. Learn to read river graphs as the NOAA or USGS websites as this will not only let you know if the river is fishable but also prepare for the right conditions. The Northwest River Forecast Center even offers a “best guess” on river levels for a day or two out from the current flows given the weather forecasts.

For high water look to the soft edges, boulder fields, and tailouts. The soft edges of the river are often lined with weeds, grasses, and brush that are flooded. So this means you need to get your gear as close the the bank cover as you can. Finding small pockets instead of long runs. Target areas where steelhead will stop and rest using the edge cover that breaks up the current and slows the water. It is these “pockets” that you cast into and let your drift gear sit for as long as you can and then gently pull it out of the pocket and into the current. Fish will often follow and grab it just as it started to take off in the swifter water. Don’t be afraid to cast right up into the grass-lined bank.

Boulder fields hold soft water and current breaks for resting steelhead. The best way to fish this type of water is from above. Here float fishing jigs is a top producer. A Yakima Bait Company Maxi-Jig or a Glo-Getter from Macks lure, both in peach, orange or nightmare (red, white and black) are popular but don’t overlook purple or cerise. If bait is allowed them tip the jig with a piece of prawn that has been soaked in Pro-Cure’s shrimp cure or your favorite egg cure. The idea of jig fishing with a float allows you to adjust the depth so the bait and jig go over the top of the boulders to resting fish, which look upwards and see your offering. There is no tangling or hanging-up and losing gear. This is one of the most efficient ways to target steelhead.

Tailouts offer the first place for fish to rest after climbing up through rushing water. Swinging a spoon or a spinner is not only effective but it leaves the angler no doubt when the fish strikes. Big steelhead have been known to rip a spoon violently and hook themselves with a single siwash hook burying deep into their kype as they leap out of the water. But if you are in a boat think about backing plugs down to holding fish that don’t want to be forced back over the chutes. If there is a fish in a tailout and a “wall of plugs” comes down upon them, it’s almost certain you will get a strike.

High water is almost a given and it helps to know how to fish in these conditions, but once in a while January can have an extended freezing spell with no moisture. This happened a few years ago as we were set to film a television show. For three weeks it didn’t rain and all of the ground moisture was solid in a state of ice. The rivers dropped to summertime lows making it impossible for us to use the jet sleds on the section of the river we wanted to film. So, that winter the “show didn’t go on” but when I did hit the river for my own entertainment I fished like it was summertime. Switching to dark or subtle colors like black, brown, and peach. The egg clusters were downsized to just a few berries and my “go to” bait became sand shrimp tails. Look to riffles that provide cover from eagles and other predators.

Bobberdogging is one technique that works well in most water conditions. The idea is to drag along your gear that is on a “self-adjusting rig” so that the weight lightly drags over the river bottom and keeps your bait or bead in the strike zone. To rig the bobberdogging set-up you need a fairly long rod to help mend line, just like in float fishing. Mainline needs to float so spectra, braid or coated floating line is a must. At the end of the mainline use a surgeon’s knot or blood knot to join a fifteen-foot section of monofilament, usually fifteen-pound test. An adjustable bobber stop knot, small plastic bead to keep the float from sticking in the knot, and a 3 to 5-ounce foam float cut in half, another small plastic bead, swivel and leader to your favorite steelhead drift offering. I prefer to run yarnies with a small pinch of eggs and then a dropper about twenty-four inches behind the yarnie to a bead, which doubles your chance of the fish grabbing your gear as it goes by. The float needs to have a flat surface, which is why it should be cut in half or use a specialized “bobberdoggin’” float. The flat part of the float is pushed by the top current which is often faster than the current that runs along the bottom of the river, known as a “substrate” current. Cast behind the boat and drift down, keeping the float about 45 degrees from the boat and match the speed. Since the bobber is not being used to suspend the drift gear but instead pull it along the monofilament shocker adjust to the water depth so you are fishing at all times. For weights, its best to snap in a slinky or a stick weight as they won’t stick to rocks or the bottom of the river.

One thing to remember about January steelheading, especially as the month wanes towards February is to keep your terminal gear as stout as you can. This is because there is always a chance of hooking a fish of a lifetime and you don’t want to lose it because you grabbed your lightweight rod that works in July for five-pound summer brats. January steelhead often means faster water and the “brats” are from eight to twelve pounds with a three salt-fish nearing the upper teens and a four-salt fish tipping past that magical twenty-pound mark. Keep your rods in the medium-heavy weight and a mainline of fifteen-pound test or more. Personally, I like to fish a 9 ½ foot medium-heavy spinning rod with twenty-pound Platinum Izorline to a twelve-pound XXX leader when drift fishing. For float fishing I’ll bump it up to a 10 ½ foot casting rod and a floating braided line to a fifteen-pound leader. One of the main reasons why I have made the switch to a casting rod for float fishing is because as February nears I will rig a pink worm “wacky” style, which is simply in reverse using a painted bullet weight and the hook at the head of the worm. Big steelhead love eating nightcrawlers and the pink worm imitates a washed out worm. The longer rod allows me to mend my line and the casting reel makes it easier to let out line without too much belly in it. Plus, the reel had almost twice the drag as a spinning reel.

When it comes to winter steelhead I prepare for big fish in turbulent water. I learned this trick one day while fishing a coastal river known for huge wild steelhead. I was using the standard medium action 8 ½ foot rod and my friend was using a long and stout rod. Float fishing isn’t finesse fishing so you don’t need to “feel the bite”. I lost two fish that day because the fish out-powered me and there was nothing I could do to tire them. My friend landed a nice buck in the upper teens after a fierce battle. The fish was released quickly as it wasn’t tired to exhaustion. Winter steelhead is one of our most revered fish and January can be a hard month depending on the water conditions, weather patterns and tough fish. Make sure you prepare for the day’s outing and you will be more successful.

Jason Brooks hails from North-Central Washington. The son of a fishing guide, Jason is an avid hunter, angler, outdoor photographer and published writer. He resides in Puyallup with his wife and two boys.

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1/6/2018 3:39 PM
Thank you. Very informative. I chase the steel ghosts every year, it’s always nice to have a little more insight every year.