By Randy Beck
Steelhead, the very word evokes images of cold frosty mornings and the excitement that lies ahead, as you dawn your waders, and proceed to the rivers edge in hopes of an encounter with British Columbia’s premier game fish. On B.C.’s South coast, die hard steelheaders are known to endure the most inclimate weather conditions for the chance of only a brief battle with the “grey ghost”. Successful steelheaders find themselves plying their favorite waters for uncountable hours in all river conditions and have solved the puzzle to consistently hooking steelhead.
These fish are surrounded with mystery and are known to be very elusive to the river angler,but once the Steelheader has spent many days in pursuit of these obscure fish he will be rewarded with a shimmering catch that will leave him wanting more. Winter Steelhead start their spawning migration to their natal rivers as early as November and will continue to migrate right into the spring, however the spawning ritual will begin in the warmer months of May and July. So let’s unravel the mystery behind the “Steelhead” and see what makes them tick.
Let’s start off with the gear you’ll need to target these majestic fish:
Most West Coast steelheaders will use a light to medium action drift rod in the 9’ – 11’ Lengths. These rods are generally constructed of graphite and have a medium action, however some steelheaders still insist on using the older style fiberglass rods which are known for their soft and slow casting action. The reels of choice are either a level wind reel (bait caster) with a smooth drag system to stop those enormous runs that steelhead are known to make. Some quality reel manufacturers are Abu Garcia, Shimano and Penn. Not to be overlooked are the more “traditional” single action reels more commonly known as Center pin reels that have no braking system but is slowed by “palming” the spool on the reel. Popular makers are Hardy Brothers, Islander, and Milner. Let’s not forget one of the most important items, the line.
I prefer to use Maxima 15lb. Ultragreen on all of my reels because it seems to stand up to the daily wear and tear and stress well, but there are many manufactures with quality lines on the market today. One more point about lines, it’s a good idea to have the line changed annually on your reels as it will deteriorate over the course of a year and you don’t want to loose that trophy fish to a broken main line.
Floats or “Bobbers” come in a variety of styles, shape and size, but they all perform the same job, they indicate the presents of a fish strike. Steelhead can sometimes take your presentation very softly, and those takes are indicated sometimes only by a slight pause in the drift. Sensitive floats such as the lightweight Drennan floats from the UK will telegraph those takes and give the angler a better chance at a good hook set. As mentioned, the types of floats are almost endless, cork, balsa wood and foam floats are commonly used by west coast steelheaders, experiment a little until you find one that fits your needs and stick with it.
Basically there are three types of swivels used in steelheading, the barrel swivel, snap swivel and the three way swivel. Finish and size of swivels is quite important. I like to use swivel that are black instead of the brass color as I want the fish’s attention to be on my bait and not the shiny brass swivel, and I like to keep them as small as possible say in the sizes #8-#10. The only swivels that I use are the roller type from Grizzly Cr. Lure and tackle as they seem very durable and actually spin to reduce line twist.
Just like fishing line try and purchase the best quality hooks that you can afford, I have a preference for the razor sharp Gamakatsu hooks with the red or black finish in sizes #2-#1/0 as they seem to keep a sharp point and are very strong, Other quality hook brands are Mustad, DNE and Eagle Claw. The bets tip on hooks is to KEEP THEM SHARP! Purchase a quality hook file and check the sharpness of the hook frequently through out the day and if it wont stick in your thumbnail, it definitely won’t stick in the tough jaw of a steelhead.
Now let’s weigh in on weights. By far the most popular weight to use is ¼” and 3/16” hollow core pencil lead. It is usually purchased in a coil, cut to length and attached to the mainline in several different ways. I prefer to slide the main line through the hollow center core, but many anglers attach the pencil lead to the main lines with surgical tubing. Split shot weights are very popular and the angler has the ability to alter his weights quickly by either adding or removing weights as needed. I find that when using the split shot weight system in fast moving water it has a tendency to become tangled easily so I tend to use split shot in slower moving water conditions.
Baits and Lures
There is a plethora of different baits and lures on the market today, many catch fish and many are meant to catch fishermen. I prefer to use cured clusters of roe (salmon or steelhead eggs) when targeting steelhead and there are just about as many ways to cure bait as there is bait to cure. I’m a firm believer in the KISS method (keep it simple stupid). Curing good quality roe begins with the careful handling and preparation of the roe right from the beginning. If I decide to retain a fish, I will remove the gills and hold the fish head down and until the blood stops running out (I know this sounds cruel) then I quickly dispatch the fish. I do this to remove any blood from the egg skeins. I then remove the egg skeins from the female fish and further clean them in the river water and place in a clean zip lock bag that I always carry in my vest. As soon as I arrive home I place the skeins on newspaper and pat dry with a paper towel. I usually like to dye most of my salmon roe and find a product called PRO-CURE to be the best. Now comes the part my wife loves the best, cutting the skeins into quarter sized pieces and placing them into one of her Tupperware bowls, then I sprinkle Pro-Cure onto the eggs and seal the bowl and turn gently for a couple of minutes and place bowl in the fridge for about an hour. After an hour I remove from the fridge and place the egg clusters on an old window screen over the sink and let drain for roughly 2-3 hours. At this point the egg clusters are ready to be packed in Borax. I like to pack my egg clusters in small plastic containers, they seem to be easy to use that way and hold enough roe for a day on the river.
My next bait of choice is either the pink rubber worm or the B.C. orange gooey bob. These baits are the “go to” baits for a lot of B.C. steelheaders as catch stats will show. I think the reason for their success is that once the steelhead has taken these baits the rubber texture imitates that of a real dew worm or egg cluster and seems to hang on for that extra second it takes the angler to make a good hook set. Many times I’ve walked into a run with heavy angling pressure and tied on a pink rubber worm and have be rewarded with a nice steelhead after only a few casts.
We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on steelheading, but I’m sure that once you have done battle with one on these magnificent fish you too will be bitten by the steelhead bug.