Learning from the old-school members of Steelhead Nation

By Bill Herzog

The winter steelhead season, so far, can only be categorized as very good. But not everywhere.

Southwest Washington, average. Our North End rivers mediocre bordering on dismal ... so dismal that the Sauk and Skagit are now closed. Steelhead just don’t wanna be comin’ ’round, you dig? Hatchery steelhead on the coast, however, have returned in numbers I have to look back to 1985 journal notes to match.

The only problem has been mercurial water conditions. The rains have been spaced to tease, even with our genie-out-of-the-bottle, up-to-the-minute, computer-generated river level technology telling us exactly when to go. Many have been the days since Thanksgiving where a matter of hours being the difference between a long drive to stare angrily at brown rising water and banner mornings of nearly a dozen hookups.

I have been privileged to be a part of those multi-fish mornings. Matter of fact, out of six coastal trips from November 27 through early January, our worst day had been six hookups, mostly gorgeous newly minted hatchery fish and several early natives.

The reason? I have someone at my fingertips who lives along one of the best rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. I can call him the night before I leave, he gives me up-to-the-minute reports from the water: where the fish are, which river(s) are happening, which techniques, exact water conditions, etc. Zero guesswork translates to ridiculously high odds for success.

I have my own personal J.D. Love. I would recommend one of these talented fellows for all winter steelhead fishermen.

J.D. is one of, and as far as this guy is concerned, THE best guide on the OP. He fishes every day - either for money or for the sheer fun of it all - he is out on the rivers. Besides just reaping the great fortune of fishing with him, being able to watch and learn from one of the most talented steelheaders doing what he does best, he saves me thousands of dollars in gas and like numbers of hours of guesswork on where to go, and when.

More on JD in my next blog.

High-tech hotness, no biters

What I want to discuss now is what happened to us in early January on a small river on the north coast. You see, J.D. and I were on the small stuff because the larger OP hatchery steelhead laden cricks - the Bogachiel, the Calawah, the Hoh - just will not cooperate with my schedule and have been too high to fish for the greater portion of last month.

As usual, due to my up-to-the-second connection, J.D. told me to be there in the morning as the one of our favorite smaller rivers would be dialed. We found a river just a bit higher than expected; dropping fast but color wise not quite there. Slightly over a foot of visibility, but getting better by the hour.

Mr. Love and I have been brutalizing the hatchery fish this early winter by employing primarily two techniques, both difficult to beat when targeting smaller, cold water (39 to 43 degree water) hatchery steelhead.

J.D. favors dead-drifting Glo Bugs (yarn flies) with an 11-foot 7-weight switch rod, basically a condensed version of spey casting with short (22-foot) heavy heads that pick up, turn over and present #7 split shot and dual fuzzy balls in tight quarters effectively. I have been using small jigs, primarily 1/16- ounce heads painted light pink, a single orange jig bead behind the head and married white/pink 1-inch marabou tail. Both our chosen techniques have put nearly 50 steelhead on the bank this season.

Fish were present, but so far ignoring our offerings. Other anglers were there as well, all using state-of-the-art rods, artfully tied jigs, small baits. Every new "gotta-have-better-best!" steelhead magnet, becuase, you know only the latest and greatest will do.

One problem: All techniques the new-day anglers are so enamored with (side drifting, jigs longer leaders, etc.) require somewhat clearer water. Most of today’s steelheaders, the younger ones in particular, stick with these techniques come what may with water conditions.

Techniques that need a bit more visibility than we had this morning. As deadly as these techniques are, there must be a minimum degree of visibility when presenting at current speed. Noone on the water could coax a bite.

We were all about to served a valuable lesson on never forgetting the past along with a big dose of flexibility if we want to be successful in the future.

Lessons from the Pleistocene Era

Out of the woodland trail pop two older gents clad straight out of the early 70s. Old rubber hip boots standing in the middle of the guys in breathable Simms Gore-Tex. Eight-and-a-half-foot glass rods next to the gents with 10½-foot, $400 composites. Red post-Vietnam era Ambassadeur reels full of 20 pound Chameleon sharing water with next years Shimano Ultra-Expensivo spinning reel filed with new a-e floating spectra.

The Pleistocene-Era rod and reel was the normal portion of this program. When I looked at their terminals tackle, it transported me back to my early 20s. Luckily they were standing next to me, for if they would have been near enough for the younger anglers to see, they would better believed a tale of alien abduction rather than a story relating to what these cats were tossing in the restricted visibility.

Let me direct the following to all of those who look at any angler using leaders under 4 feet as un-enlightened: These "Old-Schoolies" were using 16 INCHES OF LEADER! S-I-X-T-E-E-N.

On the end of this “short” leader was a 2-inch fluorescent red Ray Bobber (a Cheater-shaped hollow two-part plastic drift bobber popular in the late 60s and 70s), two 2/0 nickle hooks tied tandem, sporting a bit of boraxed salmon roe.

Weighting system? Five inches of ¼-inch pencil lead. By the way, you whippersnappers, this was the way it was done in the 50s, 60s and 70s on the coast. From the bank. From anchored drift boats. These good ol’ boys live in Clallam Bay, completely isolated from the more-faster-now brave new world.

Watch and learn kiddies, watch and learn

Remember the limited visibility? I stopped fishing to watch. The angler cast slightly downstream from his position, allowing the heavy lead to enter with a great sploosh. The large, bright-profile drift bobber was walked slowly down and across the holding water, the slow presentation allowing steelhead to locate - and most importantly follow - the lure to strike.

In the same runs we fished for hours with jigs, yarn flies and small baits at current speed, these guys hooked five steelhead, landing four ocean-fresh fish in a half hour.

I told these fellows how refreshing it was to see them, a common sight on Peninsula rivers decades ago. J.D. and I discussed this, as this was the way we learned to drift fish, with the short leaders, stout tackle, big, bright drift bobbers fished slowly down and across.

Hell, we WISHED for rivers to have limited visibility for this technique.

So as I sit and watch this display, I'm loving every second of this blast from the past. The look of sheer disbelief on the younger anglers? Priceless.

After this show, we still had nothing to show for our morning's water thrashing. What the steelhead wanted in the limited (1½-foot) visibility was a large-profile lure, something that increases attraction radius presented at half-current speed. Armed to the teeth with jigs and yarn flies - ironically, the guy who preaches these old-school techniques had none with him - I did have something that could be fished slowly, something with a large profile.

Something very bright. Something old school.

Positioning myself slightly above the target water, I presented a 2/3-ounce gold-plated oval BC Steel on a slow down-and-across swing. The slowly traveling, thumping, 90-percent-reflective gold plate allowed holding steelhead to find the lure easily, unlike the faster techniques we were using earlier. By using a slightly heavier spoon than normal (2/5 ounce) allowed me to keep the lure down in the strike zone, negating the push that would occur with a lighter blade held back against the current.

Four ripping strikes in 20 minutes, a fine mix of early natives and hatchery fish, all just hours from the salt.

And in closing ...

What have we learned, Dorothy? Under limited visibility conditions, we must increase the profile of our lures and slow them down. Be flexible in your techniques, don’t get locked into one or two methods, no matter how successful they may have been for you in recent trips. Remember, there is always a technique that out produces others under a given condition. Most important we have to study all techniques, no matter the era, to help us catch fish in the future.

Metal To The End.


Originally Posted on the Zog Blog - Northwest Wild Country Radio