High Water Steelhead
Jason Brooks, February 08, 2020
When it comes to winter steelhead fishing it seems that just when the run of fish show up so do the winter rains. Storms pushing in from the Pacific ocean and flooding our favorite rivers and streams. The fish don’t mind the wet weather as it allows them to navigate easier so the angler shouldn’t mind the rain either. But high water tends to make for difficult fishing unless you know where the steelhead will be and how they use the flooded river to navigate.
Rivers can be very complex to learn how to fish but if you take a few minutes to learn how a river flows, changes, and drains the excess water after a hard rain then you will increase your catch ratio as well as expand the days you spent afield. The first thing an angler should learn is how to “read” a river when it is low and clear. This will allow you to remember where certain structures are when the water becomes murky and high.
Hydraulics of water are a very powerful force and can chance the course of a river in one winter. When there is a major shift in the river you need to learn this new stretch. The first thing to look for in high water conditions are any hazards. If you are in a boat then look for back eddy’s, boils, and rapids. Each of these are created by water flowing either over a large structure such as a boulder, around a tight corner, or down a steep gradient. Look at the top water and how it is flowing. A few years ago on one of my favorite rivers had a corner blow out and where once a long sweeping wraparound of water became a literal 90-degree corner where the fast water pushed you right into a cut-bank. If hitting the wall of rocks didn’t flip your boat, then the inside seam where a large boil formed from a boulder would surely spin your boat and catch an edge and fill it with water. You needed to line up just right and then stroke the oars or get on the throttle at just the right time. High water in no joke and must be respected.
For the bank angler high water often means swift and fast stretches. Where you could once wade out and cast to a far seam now is off limits due to the current. Water in winter is cold and with rain falling if you decide to bank it then be sure to dress accordingly. A wading belt and a life jacket are a must, with the latter often overlooked by those standing on the bank.
Steelhead fishing has two major factors that affect our catching. The first being the turbidity of the water; otherwise known as clarity. Low and clear water tends to make for difficult fishing conditions because the fish can see you as easily as the can see your bait. The low water conditions also means fish are leery of predators. When the waters rise the color changes due to silt and sediment being kicked up with the force of the increased volume of water. A river’s substrate, or what makes up the bottom of the river, will affect the turbidity. If your favorite river has a lot of clay banks and shelves, then know that it probably will have low visibility after a hard rain. Pick a river that has cobble and large boulders, both that will keep the river clear and provide a current break, known as a “laminar” flow which is the slowing of the rivers current as it drags at the bottom structures.
The second factor that affects winter steelhead and their bite is the temperature. Because they can’t regulate their body temperatures their metabolism and activity level is affected by water temperature. On cold clear days the water temperature drops just like the air temperatures. Winter rain storms provide a cloud cover that increases air temperature as well as the rain itself will warm the river as it collects and drains. This is another reason why the fish will be more active in high water as the water temperature is warmer than when it is low and clear on a cold winters day.
High water usually means faster currents and if the water is turbid, or “off color” the fishing can be difficult, but only because the angler often targets the same part of the river as they do in low and clear conditions. Knowing where current breaks are, such as boulders, points, and eddy’s means that fish will be resting and even traveling along these sections of the river. The most overlooked places to fish are along the stream or river bank itself. We are habitual, meaning that we stand at the water’s edge and cast out into the middle of the river over and over again and expect to catch a fish during the drift. When in reality the river’s currents are slower at the edge of the river as the water catches brush, cut-banks, rocky beaches and so forth. If you are fishing from a boat then a good place to cast is right up against the bank. Years ago we were fishing the Wynoochee from a jet sled using bait divers. The rod near the bank was mere inches from the grass lined shore and it was the rod that caught the most fish.
River flows are affected by many things including bottom structure, flow rate, drop or “grade” of the river, and even how many curves and turns it has. Knowing which rivers will remain clear when others turn off color during a rain narrows down where to go after a winter storm. Also knowing which rivers will come back “into shape” after a storm will help you decide on where to go. Once you head to your favorite river that has the right conditions it’s time to go fishing. You can check this by learning how to read a river graph. NOAA has good information on various rivers but some of the waterways don’t have gauges on them. If this is the case, then look to nearby rivers that have gauges and use that as a way to determine if your river is ready to fish. Keep in mind that some rivers are controlled by a dam and that means they can rise a day or two after the rainstorm but also stay in shape longer than when other rivers fill the banks and overflow.
Off colored water, or that “steelhead green” that we so much desire means it is time to entice the bite. This is when throwing spoons, spinners and pulling plugs really shines. Fish making their way up river will be holding any place you find softer water. Those that like to fish hardware know that the tail out, or where the water slows at the end of a pool or run, is a great place to swing a spoon. Fish make their way up the rapids and when they hit the tail out they stop and rest. A spoon fluttering in their face often leads to violent strikes. Same with fishing a seam or where you know boulders are strewn along the bottom and slowing the current below the surface.
If you prefer to drift or float fish then switch to larger lures such as a six-inch pink worm either drifting it or rigged “wacky” style to fish below a float. Jigs also work but most of the time I prefer to rig a worm on a jig head and fish it that way. Bobberdogging has become popular in the recent years and this is because it catches a lot of fish. By fishing just off of the bank you will pick up fish that are making their way upriver or resting. Upsizing the beads to 14mm and even up to 20mm increases the profile and the chance a steelhead will see it in the off-color high water.
Bait works in high water, especially behind a bait diver. But if you are on a river that has wild fish in it then you might want to reconsider. February is when the big native fish return and with lures and soft baits such as pink worms, beads, and imitation egg clusters on the market it might be a better idea to leave the real bait at home. For hatchery brats then coonstripe shrimp fished under a float or behind a diver is hard to beat any time of the year. Tipping jigs with a piece of prawn and float fishing not only keeps you above the gear grabbing boulders but can be very effective and less likely to mortally hook a native fish.
Rainy day’s make for some pretty miserable days during winter but the fish like it when the river is on the rise. If you float any of the coastal rivers you will notice small shacks along the banks, most are dilapidated and often covered with a tarp. Once in a while you will see the old cast iron pot belly stove billowing smoke and a few rods in holders at the river’s edge. Plunking shacks are a northwest mainstay synonymous with winter steelhead fishing.
But you don’t need a cedar shake sided shack to use this technique, just a rod and some time to spend out fishing. The basic set up is a fairly stout rod, nine or ten feet in length. Reels should be spooled with fifty to sixty-five-pound braid. A pyramid style lead sinker on a short sliding dropper of ten to fifteen-pound test. Leaders are usually twenty-four to thirty inches with a spin-n-glow and a 1/0 hook. A gob of cured eggs and a sand shrimp tail for bait in rivers with hatchery fish or a pink rubber worm when wild fish might be intercepted.
Pretty simple set-up but if you want to add another chance at hooking a fish you can use an additional leader or even a plug. Using a bobber stop knot about two or three feet up from the swivel on your mainline and a bead placed above the bobber stop knot. This become a “stop” for a second leader or plug. Using another snap swivel, snap it onto your mainline with a three-foot leader and a small diving plug. When the plug hits the water it will dive and slide down your line until it hits the bead and bobber stop. If you want to use a second bait then use a bait diver instead of a plug and run a leader off of the back of the diver.
Some of the best places to plunk are points that stick out into the river. These are natural current breaks and fish will have to go out and around the point. Another place to fish is at a tail out or along a deep run. If you are at the top of a cut-bank keep in mind the fish will be close and don’t cast out too far. When fishing with friends it is best to stagger the rods with the top rod casting short, the next rod casting a bit further and subsequent rods casting out further. The idea is that fish will be swimming upstream and by covering the river’s water at least one of the rods will offer a bait to the steelhead heading upriver. Plus, when a fish bites the angler can play the fish without worry of tangling lines and the other rods can stay out in the water fishing.
On rainy days it is nice to be able to cast out a line and then sit back in the truck or under an umbrella. A campfire surrounded by friends makes time pass by between bites and before you know it you might find yourself a small shack covered in a tarp with a cast iron stove. Plunking for winter steelhead is a time honored tradition that all anglers should give a try. It’s not the finesse of drift fishing or the excitement of a float sinking but it is a great way to spend a winter afternoon on the bank of a northwest river.
High water does not mean staying home during the height of the winter steelhead run. Learning how to stay safe, read the water and adjust your gear will allow you to fish during high water. Realizing the fish will be using the softer water along the edge or at current breaks will help you concentrate where the fish. Don’t sit at home when the rivers are high, instead go fishing and catch some winter steelhead. 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.