OFF THE HOOK: Figuring out the mysteries of steelhead
Steelhead are a very unpredictable fish to target. A day on the river with wide-open action will be followed with one with not a single bite.
As Phil Desautels of Phil's Smiling Salmon Guide Service, who guides for steelhead on the Smith, Chetco, Klamath and other rivers, says, "One day you are a hero, the next day you go home scratching your head."
That principle seems to apply wherever you fish for steelhead in California and the Pacific Northwest. I've fished many times for steelhead on the Feather, Sacramento, Klamath, Trinity and Eel Rivers, but have spent most of the time targeting the American because it is just several miles away from my home in Sacramento.
The steelhead can be finicky at times — and other times they can be more aggressive than just about any fish, becoming willing to hit just about anything in their path. They are one of the few fish that I have seen hooked and/or caught twice in one day, for whatever reason.
One strange example that comes to mind was in February 1999 when local steelhead enthusiast Don Carlson and I were bank fishing on the American below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Rancho Cordova. I had just retied a swivel onto my line and clipped a 2⁄5-ounce, battle-hardened silver/blue Little Cleo to it. Just moments after I cast out, I hooked up a big steelhead.
The fish made a couple of hard runs and after about a minute came flying out of the water. The line suddenly went slack — the fish had just broken my line.
"Did you see that fish I just lost?" I told Carlson, who had seen the fish jump. "It was a 121⁄2-pounder."
"I don't think it was that big," he commented.
About 5 minutes later he hooked a quality steelhead and got it up to shore fairly quickly. "I think it has your Cleo in its mouth," he stated.
Sure enough, I walked over to him and confirmed that it was indeed my lure in the fish's mouth. He weighed the fish on his scale and it weighed exactly 121⁄2 pounds, as I had said it was!
Steelhead are one of the most exciting fish to catch, since they make long runs and many leaps. But other times, you will hook a fish that doesn't want to fight until it gets right up to the boat — or decides to slide right into the net after a brief battle.
Every steelhead I've hooked on the American this year except for two have put up spectacular, memorable fights. The fish, ranging from 8 to 12 pounds, have gone absolutely berserk in a series of leaps and runs.
While steelhead are unpredictable, there are some general principles I've observed that help even up your odds of hooking these exciting and mysterious fish.
First, I've found putting scent, Pautzke Bait's Liquid Krill and Gel Krill in particular, on my bait and lures greatly help my hook-up success.
Before I let out a Wee Wart on a recent trip on the American, Rodney Fagundes reminded me to put lots of Krill on before putting my lure out again. In the next couple of hours, I hooked three adult steelhead, landing two beautiful fish in the 8- to 9-pound range while using Hot Shots, each time making sure I "freshened" up the lure with Krill before sending it out again.
Second, I've found that steelhead, being opportunistic feeders, will hit just about anything at the right time. Besides the usual roe/puffball combos, nightcrawlers, Little Cleos, Blue Fox spinners and flies that are most popular with anglers in California, anglers hook them on Rat-L-Traps, bubble gum plastic worms, Power Eggs, marabou jigs, small trout spinners, cocktail shrimp, live ghost shrimp and crawdads.
The most successful anglers are the ones who are willing to use different baits, lures and flies, in a variety of colors, until they find the one that works that day.
Third, the "early bird doesn't necessarily get the worm" in steelhead fishing. When the water is cold, below 50 degrees, the fish may not bite until 10 a.m. — or maybe in the late afternoon just before dark.
This was the case when I caught and released a beautiful, bright 9-pound steelhead on a plug while fishing from a drift boat right before dark this January.
I remember one angler who used to come down to the American and take the water temperature with a thermometer before fishing — and wouldn't fish until the conditions were prime. He said that the best time to fish was when the air and water temperature reached the closest point to parity.
For an unpredictable fish like a steelhead, not only is the willingness to change your bait, lures and presentation necessary to success, but fishing each cast with the confidence that is the one that will produce a huge fish is essential to productive steelhead fishing.