STEELHEADERS: GIVE YARN A TRY
By Terry Rudnick
Winter steelhead fishing might be the best-ever example of the old adage about 10 percent of the anglers catching 90 percent of the fish. The steelhead is one of angling's hardest-earned trophies. The majority of steelheaders go days, weeks, even months at a time without hooking a fish. Some put up with the frustration for years before their enthusiasm wanes and they finally give up trying. Others learn from their mistakes, make adjustments and start to get the hang of it, sometimes working their way into that elite 10 percent.
There's really no secret to steelhead fishing success; it's a matter of learning the fish's habits, reading the water to figure out where they stop to rest on their upstream migration, and fishing the right bait or lure through that holding water until you draw a response. The right bait or lure might be a wobbling spoon, weighted spinner, one of the many brightly painted drift-bobbers, a leadhead jig below a float, a fresh ghost shrimp or cluster of salmon roe.
To some successful Steelheaders, though, the lure of choice might be nothing more elaborate than a tuft of nylon yarn on a hook. If your steelheading arsenal doesn't include yarn, you might not be hooking as many as you could be.
Spools, strips and packets of nylon fishing yarn are available in a wide range of colors, including the fluorescent oranges, reds, pinks, purples and greens that most steelhead anglers prefer. Some of it is tightly braided into cords of various diameters, some packaged in unbraided lengths that can be pulled from the package and cut to size.
All these variations in color and texture help to give yarn nearly limitless versatility. You may choose to add a big ball of bright-red yarn behind a large steelhead bobber for added visibility when the water is high and dirty, or to use only two or three strands of pale-pink yarn on a hook all by itself for a subtle approach when looking for spooky fishy in low, clear water. Yarn can be-and often is-used with roe, shrimp and other baits to give them a little more color and visibility.
Fishing yarn isn't treated with anything to make it water-resistant, so it quickly absorbs water and is neutrally buoyant. The various steelhead bobbers made of plastic, cork or foam float well up in the water column, so if you fish them on a long leader they may be ignored by bottom-hugging winter steelies. Spoons and spinners, on the other hand, sink quickly to the bottom, where they hang in the rocks if fished too slowly along the bottom. A neutrally buoyant tuft of yarn, though, stays down near where the sinker takes it as it drifts through the water. Fished on an 18- to 24-inch leader below a sinker of the appropriate weight for the river conditions, yarn drifts along just off the bottom, right in the strike zone.
Yarn also has the natural texture and feel of bait, so biting fish tend to hold it longer than other artificials. Cautious steelhead often reject a plastic lure or metal spinner quickly upon sensing that it's a fake, but inhale a small wad of yarn as if it were a full-meal deal. A fish that holds a bait or lure in its mouth a second longer is a fish that's more likely to be hooked.
Yarn also has something going for it that no other steelhead offering-bait or lure-has. First, you have to understand that each tooth in a steelhead's mouth has a barb at the end of it so tiny that most anglers aren't even aware of it, but it's big enough to catch the hundreds of fine filaments comprising a tuft of yarn. What happens is the yarn actually gets tangled in a steelhead's teeth, making it difficult for the fish to expel the lure once it's in the mouth. Even if a wary fish feels the line tension or otherwise suspects a fraud, it may not be able to spit out a yarn-covered hook as fast as it wants to.
There's even an economic benefit to using yarn for steelhead. For five dollars a steelheader might be able to afford one good diving plug, a couple of weighted spinners or a three-pack of bobber rigs, all of which may catch their share of fish if they're not lost to the bottom of some snag-filled river the first morning they're used. Five dollars' worth of yarn may get you through an entire season of hard fishing. The hook to which it's attached and the sinker holding it near the bottom will cost much more than the actual lure.
So what's keeping every steelhead angler along the Pacific coast from doing all of his or her fishing with yarn? Two things: a lack of know-how when it comes to rigging it, and a shortage of information on where, when and how to use it.
The rigging part is easy, because you can incorporate yarn into your terminal tackle in several ways. One way is simply to tie two or three short lengths of the stuff to your line or leader with an overhand knot. It doesn't get much easier than that. The knots will slide down to the top of the hook eye, and the strands of yarn will then hang down to partially cover the hook. Trim the strands so that they hang just past the hook's bend. Some anglers use a slight variation, knotting the yarn around the hook shank rather than around the line or leader, but with this method the yarn tends to slide down the hook, so that after a few minutes' fishing the yarn hangs behind the hook instead of covering it.
Most successful yarn fishermen prefer a third method of securing steelhead yarn to a hook; jamming it into a sliding loop knot that's used to tied the line or leader to the hook. This loop knot is commonly referred to as an egg loop because bait fishermen use it to hold roe clusters and shrimp on their hooks. You can use roe, yarn and roe or just plain yarn in the loop and catch steelhead on all three variations.
There are several ways to tie an egg-loop knot that will work well for holding yarn, but to save time and avoid repetition I suggest that you check out the diagram used to illustrate the article on fishing roe on the Steelhead University website. Click on "Eggs Catch More Steelhead" in the left-hand menu and scroll down to find the illustration and simple directions for tying a version of the egg-loop that also happens to be a preferred knot for tying tandem-hook mooching leaders.
When using yarn in an egg loop, I pre-cut short lengths of yarn in various colors, cinch a knot of sewing thread around the middle of each to keep them in tidy little tufts, and insert a tuft of yarn into the loop knot. Then I just slide the knot up toward the hook eye to secure the yarn in place. I can open the loop and change yarn colors or add a fresh cluster of roe in seconds.
The most effective way to fish yarn for steelhead is to drift it through slow- to medium-speed holding water as though you were fishing bait. Use a standard drift-fishing rig with a short length of lead wire attached to the line about 20 inches above the hook and yarn. You can use an in-line swivel with a dropper for the lead if you like, but I just slide a short piece of rubber tubing up the main line and jam the lead wire into the tubing at the appropriate distance above the hook. The rig is simple, inexpensive and effective.
Winter steelhead are notorious for their light strikes and for spitting out a lure before an angler even knows he has an interested customer, so you have to be on your toes when fishing yarn just as you do with another bait or lure. Keep as much slack out of the line as possible while allowing the sinker to tiptoe along the bottom. Pay special attention whenever the sinker seems to stop bouncing for a second or two, and be on your toes for that soft tug or apparent change in sinker movement that may indicate a pick-up. That "sticky" yarn hanging in their teeth may give you additional time to take up the slack and set the hook, but you won't have all day.