While any steelhead encounter while steelhead fishing is a memorable experience, this one will go down for me as one of my favorite and surprising.
Anytime you endeavor to make a steelhead fishing trip, especially in the winter time, it’s quite helpful to start with the USGS site to understand water flows. In fact, if you don’t have that site bookmarked and leverage it often in trip planning…I don’t know what to tell you. I try to keep very good notes to help me understand, with each years slight variance, the conditions I’m looking for, to more reliably get into fish. Keeping good notes on past trips is a whole topic itself, but I will spare you that for now.
You can checkout a more complete guide to winter steelhead fishing here.
We were the 3rd vehicle on the river and given the limited number of fishing spots available, this was not optimal. In fact, the spot we wanted was already occupied by a group of 4 different anglers pounding the drift with all the standard steelhead fishing rigs you would use in the winter: Jigs, eggs, drift gear, etc. One of my favorite techniques is a jig underneath a float tipped with a bit of prawn. Recently, I’ve also found success with soft beads. Especially, the great stuff being put out by BnR Tackle.
As luck would have it, the party fishing our preferred spot decided to pack up and try another spot. Now, after watching them fish for an hour and with our own attempts not resulting in any action, fishing was clearly not red hot. In fact, based on the water graph and the fish carcasses 2 ft above the current water line, being on the river a day prior would have been more optimal. There’s no way I was getting a hall pass to fish Christmas morning though. As the other group packed up, we moved in and pounded the same water, trusting that we would hit it just a little bit better and have some success, confident as we were, that there must be a few more fish in this drift.
Almost every fishing trip, I bring along a spinner rod. I have no issue admitting I have an addiction to spinner fishing. The violent takes, the feel of the spinner pulsating through the drift, hooking a fish on a spinner (or any lure) for me is the ultimate experience. There are certain conditions that also make it the optimal presentation to hook fish, so you will rarely see me on a river without a spinner rod in tow. One thing about spinner fishing is that it only takes a few casts (if performed expertly) to “cover” a small area. So you kind of know right away what you’re dealing with. I made my first pass and didn’t quite get it as deep as I wanted it. The “art” of the spinner presentation is that you want the blade spinning as slowly as possible, but in the bottom of the water column, sometimes even right near the bottom.
The second cast in the same area, I could “feel” that I was getting the right presentation and I felt a sudden whack to the lure as it swept slowly through the area in front of me. While sometimes, this feel can be deceiving, I was about 90% confident a fish had hit it and not gotten hooked. As the spinner swung into my view in the gin clear water within 10 ft of my position, I continued the slow presentation. Years of doing this has taught me not to just reel in and give up on the cast. Another lesson I’ve learned is that when you are watching your spinner come in, in clear enough water to see what’s going on, look a few feet behind your spinner, not directly at your spinner.
My excitement peeked, as I gazed just beyond my lure to see a large grey shape tracking it a few feet behind. I somehow kept my cool and just continued the slow retrieve of the spinner to the surface. Just then, the large grey shape lunged forward, all in my clear view and absolutely annihilated it, sending my rod into that great crescent shape revealing the strength of the fish as the rod absorbed the pressure from the now hooked steelhead.
After a brief, but intense battle, the fish was on the bank and being taken care of. Hooking this steelhead in complete clear view and watching it track my spinner from behind before lunging forward to take the lure was such a cool experience and one I likely won’t soon repeat.
I could fill many pages, sharing my thoughts on spinner fishing. The best book on the topic is the one written by Jed Davis however it’s out of print. Another good book on the topic is:
What I will share is that the technique can be a simple as a cast and semi-fast retrieve that an angry Coho decides to destroy in slack water or the artful manipulation of the spinner through a drift to activate a fish holding in the scooped out bottom of the river. Most people who pickup spinner fishing, have had some success in a perfect conditions scenario, but when faced with more normal conditions, give up on the technique rather quickly when success is harder to come by.
I like to run the above spinners in chartreuse as pictured above or flame tipped as you can see below.
I also like to replace the treble hooks with a Siwash hook or Sickle Siwash and put a pink hoochie on the hook.
In almost every case, people reel in their spinners waaay too fast. You have to slow it down and in some cases stop reeling altogether. There’s also multiple techniques and styles of spinners that go with those techniques. When I hooked this steelhead in water which had been thoroughly pounded on by other techniques, I was using a light body large size 5 Vibrax spinner. I tossed it upstream, at about 2 o’clock, let it sink a bit to have a chance of making it to the lower-mid part of the water column in the scooped out drift of walking speed water and then reeled fast enough to feel the blade spin, and then slowed it down as it fluttered through the drift about 1 o’clock (still upstream of me). The fish hit right around that 12 o’clock position.
There’s also a technique of swinging spinners much more how fly fisherman present a wet fly. This requires heavier bodied spinners in most currents/depths, which also produces fish quite well. I will cover that in a later blog post. Overall, spinners should be a part of your steelhead fishing gear. Next time you are out on a river chasing your favorite species, bring a spinner setup and give some of this a try, if you have success, you will likely be hooked!