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Neutral Buoyancy, Mini Metal and Boiling Pools

Issue: September 2015

Ron Haws on a successful family fishing trip to Oregon’s lower Columbia River. This year chinook started piling up in the lower river early in the season.

In Bill Herzog’s article titled Mini Metal for Summer Steelhead the idea of using a tiny spoon with a fly rod is addressed. This is something that my father used to do once in a while many years ago. I remember using some of these tiny spoons in Kellog Creek to entice trout to bite. Trout loved their size and small profile.

Another place I’ve used these spoons successfully is Alaska. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of salmon or trout stacked in clear-water pools. Often you’ll cast flies or lures to them and have success hooking many fish. But at some point, especially if new ones aren’t coming in that day, they will go off the bite. One of the best ways to start catching fish again is to go to tiny spoons. This is also a great way to catch fish from good water that has been unmercifully beaten by other anglers during the day.

Finally, I learned long ago that if you find a school or small pod of summer steelhead during the heat of summer a small spoon can be just the ticket. Of course (around here) this year the water got a little too hot and many of the salmon and steelhead died. In the past I’ve found stale summers that would not take bait, jigs or anything else but a well-presented tiny spoon.

Veronica and her brother Jason has good luck too.

Adaptation and Intricacy for Fall Salmon Success by Steve Hanson is about experimenting. Of course it’s not a bad idea to experiment with items that have a proven track record. Unless, of course, you have the time and means for major experimentation. Somebody had to figure things out. I often wonder who was the first person to catch a fish with a hook, paint a spinner blade half red, half white… I digress.

There is no question that you can become a better angler by reading books and studying. Steve’s article is about chinook salmon but learning from other people’s angling successes will allow your rod tip to signal more bites. The other day I was hiking the river early in the morning and noticed a summer steelhead holding in shallow water in the tailout of a boiling pool. I tossed inline spinners at it with zero interest. The next day two fish were in the exact same place. Same results. No interest. A few days later I tricked one into biting a dark-colored jig… Might be time to try a tiny spoon.

Fishing Tributary Mouths on the Columbia by Scout Haugen is about some popular and productive salmon and steelhead fisheries. These fisheries produce thousands of fish for sport anglers every season. There are reasons why fish stage in these areas. The two big ones are lower water temperatures and fish holding before migrating up the river. The lower tributary temperatures give fish that are migrating further up the Columbia a chance to cool off and rest. In some cases they are going to migrate directly up the tributary and are waiting for optimum conditions, or in some cases nothing more than the “date” to be right.

It’s always a good idea to explore tributary mouths on any river system at any time of the year. You might also want to explore the holes above and below the tributary too.

Unlocking the Secret to Lucky Flies and Salmon Eggs? by Jed Davis reveals a huge secret. The article tells you but I’m going to summarize it right now. This pointer will 100% guaranteed catch you many more fish this season and I’ll explain why.

It’s been said over and over that the key to becoming a successful angler comes down to presentation. What exactly does that mean? The dictionary says: “to offer to view.” Yes, not very helpful.

Jed’s secret is the understanding and implementation of “neutral buoyancy.” I immediately understood where he was coming from. For example, it took me forever to understand how to make the perfect presentation while drift fishing or indicator fishing a fly. The trick is making a natural dead-drift at (or just above) eye level.

What really makes a difference when drift fishing is to pull back a little bit immediately after casting to straighten out the leader. Then keep just a little bit of tension on the line to keep everything lined up. This takes a tremendous amount of practice because everything changes depending on rod length, current speed, sinker weight and style, line diameter, drift bobber size and style, etc. The trick is to practice a lot.

Fly-line mending is even more complicated, but it’s fun to learn. Remember the whole idea is to make a natural presentation that is angled so that you can detect the bite.

Morning Magic

Issue: August 2015

Angler fishing a pool on Eagle Creek during the early morning hours.

Early morning light took its time revealing one of my favorite fishing scenes. Amazing, untouched water. And just like almost every other visit, I had it all to myself.

There are many advantages to arriving early and being first on the water. Let’s go down the list, and I hope just the discussion of this topic will fill your mind with memories of trips long past.

First of all, during the heat of summer, fishing is more often than not best early in the morning. Water temperatures are cool and the fish unspooked by anglers, rafters or bright sunlight. Some species, like spring and summer chinook, will just about only bite during the first few hours of daylight, depending on the conditions of course.

I’m still not fond of getting up really early, but if I think about it many of my all-time best trips started out very early in the morning.

This author caught this pair of chromers just after daylight.

It all started when I was a little kid. Dad would tell me that if I got up in the morning I could go fishing with him. He wouldn’t ask twice after he woke me up. I either got up and got ready on my own, or stayed home. This was the program from third grade on. I must have really loved going fishing, because Dad liked to get up early and be first on the water. That often meant leaving the house at three or four in the morning.

The funny thing is I don’t really remember the early morning bite panning out for winter steelhead, but it certainly was, and still can be crucial for fly-fishing for summer steelhead during the heat of summer.

Part of the reason for getting to the river early can also be to give you more time to fish during the day. I know that many times I’ve hit the water well before I needed to just because I wanted to fish. Getting there early didn’t really matter. Like before a good tide change, steelhead water too cold or on a rainy day.

It’s also very possible to catch what I like to call “early morning fever.” This happens when you know that if you arrive first to a hole or stretch of river you will almost certainly catch a fish. If you are late either someone will catch your fish or worse yet take your spot. This situation can make it hard to sleep. Symptoms can include a turned stomach (fear of being beaten to the hole), quivering chest (from excitement) and lack of sleep (overactive mind replaying strategies and potential fantasy scenarios). For example, three bank guys and a drift boat beat you to the hole. The hand of god comes down and lets you squeeze in even though you overslept by 20 minutes. The bite is dead until you try your secret scent concoction, or a new fly pattern. It works and multiple fish are hooked...

Competition is definitely a factor in getting up early. When I go on fish-related camping trips, no mater how much liquor gets washed down the night before, most group members will get up early even when they don’t have to.

Boat racing is another reason anglers start fishing early. To this day, on just about any drift-boat float, some boats will put in early and race down the river to hit as much “first water” as possible. When I was a kid we used to laugh about the boat that was always just in front of us. Back then we would anchor and drift fish. As soon as we would float into a hole “the boat” would quickly pull anchor and zoom out the tailout.

Those who fish on anchor from powerboats also like to be set-up well before daylight in many, if not most situations. This can be very important if you know the travel lanes. If you don’t get on the right spot early your odds can go way down.

As I’ve grown older waking up early comes easier, and I find myself fishing the first few hours of daylight often—whether I think there is a fish around or not. I find walking along the river predawn a soothing experience. Creatures of all types are stirring and there is something magical about how loudly birds chirp just before and after sunrise.

And once in a while the fishing is pretty good too…

First Summer

Issue: June 2015

The author’s first hatchery summer steelhead of the season.

In Mentoring On The River, Jim Bedford shares his many years of appreciation and passion for our sport with students and friends. I’ve found that when taking out novice anglers the best way to get them hooked is to spend plenty of time not catching fish. The progression of learning about tackle, respect for nature and the understanding that catching is not the only reason to go fishing are the real lessons.

Last week I spent many hours improving my center-pin casting skills. Now I can consistently cast all the way across the Clackamas River without getting a backlash on every cast. It took me back to my childhood when I spent hours tugging on line loops in my level-wind reel. Catching nothing and fighting with my tackle was a big part of what ignited a burning desire to become proficient with my tackle.

Often I look back and fondly remember different angling hurdles. The challenges are never-ending.

Fishing With Legends: Clancy Holt by Trey Carskadon. I started fishing with Clancy in the 1990s and can say without doubt that he changed my angling life. He and Gary Loomis taught me how to fish with a 9 1/2-foot spinning rod, light(ish) line and a spinning reel for steelhead. Clancy was also the first guide to use wrapped Flatfish and Kwikfish in the Northwest. In my opinion he single-handedly changed the way a lot of anglers fish for both salmon and steelhead.

Back in those days, I’d get a magical feeling when I’d step into his boat. He taught me a lot and I’m thankful every day.

You’ll find many other great articles in this issue too.

This makes me think of Skamania-strain hatchery summer steelhead and it’s that time of year. Of all the different types of summer steelhead these fish hold a special place with me for a variety of reasons. They return in large numbers to many streams in the Northwest and beyond. They can grow to over 20 pounds and are incredible fighters. Best of all they make fine table fare.

I forgot to mention that you can fish effectively with a variety of methods—the weather is usually pretty nice too. Catching the first summer steelhead of the season is definitely one of the highlights of any angler’s fishing season.

It usually happens during the end of winter steelhead season. Sometimes a few ghosts will show up in late February and some lucky angler will hook one. By the end of March and into April you stand a real chance of hooking into one while winter steelhead or spring chinook fishing. In most streams the run usually peaks from late May into July. Because they don’t spawn until winter they are available to anglers all summer and fall.

I used to spend a lot of time fishing around acclimation points or near hatcheries. But now I find myself trying to intercept summer steelhead before they pile up where they were released. You won’t necessarily catch as many, but you’ll typically avoid crowds. When you do hook one it will be all the more special.

It’s fun to catch summers on any type of gear. They are large and strong enough to tax even they heaviest tackle. For me light-tackle is the way to go. I like to use 8- to 12-pound test and a rod and reel system as light as possible. These summer steelhead make spectacular runs and leaps.

You can find them holding almost anywhere, especially when they are on the move. From very shallow riffles all the way to the depths of deep holes. It’s always a good idea to cover lots of water. Because they travel in schools be sure to keep fishing the same area if you hook one—the same riffle or pool and the holes above and below where the action occurred.

My typical strategy during June and July is something like this. I’ll fly-fish or spinner-fish long riffles that are not deeper than five feet to cover water. In pools that hold stale fish I’ll fish the pockets and heads of pools in the early morning or evening and try to find moving fish that are aggressive. Early in the morning is also a great time to fish anyway, especially on a really sunny day. When it’s sunny or I know exactly where fish should be holding I’ll use either a jig and float or bait and float. Darker spinners will also work in the riffles. Sometime drift fishing becomes a necessity to cover deep, fast pockets.

Finding the fish is usually the hardest part because these summers are great biters. And don’t be surprised if you accidentally hook a spring salmon while you’re at it.

Because Skamania summer steelhead return in large numbers to many tributaries of the lower Columbia River they provide great angler opportunity for more than half of the year. With so many options it is easy to find a wonderful place to fish all season long.

May 2015

Issue: May 2015

Jason Haws, my brother-in-law, with a limit of bank-caught Clackamas River spring chinook.

Where do the days go? It’s already time to pursue some of my favorite and local(ish) species. Spring chinook, summer steelhead and redside rainbow trout. You’ll find plenty of stories and information in this issue to get you excited to hit the water.

Multi Rods + Multi Fish (Scott Haugen’s column) is so true. I find myself collecting and rigging more and more rods each season. The main reason is so that friends and family have pre-rigged rods. For either boat or bank fishing. Of course for the traveling bank angler this program might not be the best. In future issues we are going to run features on fishing for everything with just one rod. The way most of us started.

Fine-Tuning Your Steelhead Game by Phil Wildman has some basic pointers that should be very helpful to any angler. Just the other day I hooked a beautiful, chrome steelhead. It made three spectacular jumps before spitting the hook. At once I was elated and frustrated. What had I done wrong? This could have been an early summer (it was late March) or a super-fresh winter steelhead.

Sometimes fish just come off. In this case I was slow on the hookset and had my drag set way too loose. The fish started jumping as soon as I made a half-hearted set. So I didn’t get the hook pegged. Either way I won’t soon forget the experience.

Finding Pressured Springers by Scott Haugen makes a lot of sense to me. I fish for river springers a fair bit and know just how difficult they can be to hook. In fact I consider them to be the most unpredictable salmon in the book. The rewards are great and that’s why so many anglers try to unlock the secret to making them bite. The other day my neighbor asked what the secret is to catching springers in the Willamette River. I responded, “When you figure it out please let me know.” I finally said that I try to get information on depth and daily numbers being caught at any given area. And also use information from years past that includes timing and water conditions. The bottom line is that Willamette River springs are very unpredictable and difficult to catch. Some anglers go years without hooking up. It’s the only fish that makes my entire body shake when I finally hook one.

Scott’s information is spot on. When fishing a salmon hole in a “smaller” river for spingers the first thing to figure out is if the fish are suspended or on the bottom. This can change during the day. Then, is there a bite period? Usually at first light, last light or mid-morning. Are fish migrating through the hole or staged up?

Besides asking every angler in sight, “What’s happening?” my basic strategy, from either the bank or boat, is this. Find the deep part of the hole and fish the top end and bottom end of it (on the bottom). Basically the entrance and tailout of the bucket. That is always a good bet if you don’t know how deep the salmon are suspending. Of course if they are on the bottom of the bucket try there.

Unlocking the Secret to Lucky Plugs by Jed Davis gets you thinking. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been fishing and someone had a hot plug. You could put it out on any rod and it was going to get bit first. You can debate what makes a plug a hot fish-catcher for eternity, but I’m going to look at things from a different angle.

Without getting into the specifics too much I’ll tell you how to ensure catching more fish every time out with plugs. Beside the obvious (use the sharpest hooks possible) make sure your plug is working. We have all done it and I’ve seen it happen a million times. Someone fishes a plug that is not working right for extended periods of time. For example, a drift boater working plugs makes a pass through a run and you see what looks like a plug-cut herring just under the surface. The latest technique you might ask? No, the plug has line wrapped around one of the hooks. It is critical to keep all plugs tuned and performing perfectly for consistent success. Taking the time to tune and then monitor average plugs will make a giant difference when fish are tallied at the end of the day.

Targeting Travel Lanes by Jason Brooks is a fun read. I’ve become more and more interested in determining the factors that make anadromous fish move on their return trip. Time of year, water temperature, river height and run size can all make a difference. Of course trying to time all of this and get these fish on the move to bite can be the ultimate challenge that pays out the ultimate prize.

Three fisheries that I can think of off the top of my head that offer consistent action include: 1. Columbia River salmon and steelhead plunking. If you go by the numbers this is the most productive salmon/steelhead fishery in the world. I love to let the kids play on the beach while catching summer steelhead only a few hours out of the ocean.

2. Tidewater coho in Alaska. I know, too easy, but you can learn a lot by watching what fish that have zero angling or predator pressure do. The coho pile on edges, corners and cut-banks to rest as they bolt upriver on high tides.

3. High-water steelhead. They come in closer to the bank than you would think. When you know there are good numbers migrating they can be found. Look for either pinch points (above, around or below) near heavy water or travel lanes along the river’s edge. If fishing new water you have to guess if the fish have any other choice to travel.

River Courtesy

Issue: April 2015

 It’s really easy to be courteous when no other anglers are around. Tony Dunnington with a Clackamas River wild winter steelhead.

Recently I spent some time at a winter steelhead fly-fishing camp with a group of buddies on a medium-sized Oregon coastal river. We stayed at a friend’s house, which is conveniently located on a stretch of river that is remote and mostly private. Each morning, at our convenience, we would wader-up and head to the first pool. The rules changed each day, but typically an angler would make a pass with a surface pattern, then another angler would follow with a subsurface swing. We had a huge selection of both standard Spey and switch fly rods. After the first pool was thoroughly covered, we’d take turns using indicator-style presentations.

When finished we’d pretty much stick together and cover the remaining pools. The person who had hooked the least amount of fish usually was gifted with first pass. This is the style of friendly, social and respectable angling that was taught to me by my father at a very young age.

Out of respect for each other no-one raced to the water early or used any spinning gear. Success was based on using hand-tied flies and attempting to move a fish a long distance to strike. Causing what many call “the big grab.” One of us raised a winter steelhead to a skating fly and that was the highlight of the trip. Fun was had by all.

I must admit at times I had the evil desire to grab a spinning or center-pin rod, drive to a different stretch of river, fish with beads or spawn bags, and come back with significant glory stories. Fun as that would have been, it would have stunk up the program. Because everyone shared, agreed and didn’t get greedy we all got along perfectly and left with glowing memories.

Lately I’m beginning to lose track of what’s courteous and what’s not. It would seem that more and more anglers have a pushy, winner-take-all attitude. What seems to justify this behavior is a combination of excessive angling knowledge and fishing pressure.

The last 10 times I’ve gear-fished with guides or serious private anglers I’ve been shocked at what happens on busy rivers during both salmon and steelhead season. It’s typical for anglers to just start fishing wherever and however they want. Side-drifters and bobber-doggers fishing through any water. Including through bank anglers, under other drifting boats, through pluggers and right over and under anchored boats. This is not to mention the turf wars that go on for river chinook. Anglers battle it out to claim a hole and then defend it with terror that can and has led to fist-fights.

When I go fishing, sure I want to catch fish, but I’m more interested in having a good time and relaxing than going into battle. I’m also going to admit that I know this game very well, and for the most part stay clear of it.

But when I don’t here are some tips that will help out. In some of these fisheries things are probably only going to get worse so here are some pointers for combat river fishing. I’m pretty sure that a large number of anglers really like to compete over hot salmon holes so if this is what you really enjoy then your best bet is to make friends with the “muscle” and crowd in. Believe it or not lots of these guys get a kick out of yelling at each other and keeping timid guys out (like me). Smile and talk a lot while fishing right through other’s water or while anchoring on top of them. I’ve truly been shocked at how well this works for some well-known fishing guides and serious anglers.

I have a hard time relaxing when I’m in a crowd, and especially if I’m the captain of the boat. Something about casting lines right into other people’s lines doesn’t sit well in my stomach. So again, unless I’m fishing with guys who do this all the time and have a program down I stay clear.

Sometimes it feels just fine to relax, fish and not catch much.

Mixing It Up

Issue: March 2015

Hatchery steelhead hooked in Oregon's Clackamas River.

Framed forever in my mind is the recent image of a catapulting steelhead. A sight I’ve seen many times, but this one truly stood out. Hundreds of fruitless casts had not paid dividends while the soothing sound of the long riffle held me captive. Carefully covering every square inch of potential holding water, I felt as though the pockets and slots had no fruit to bear. Almost as an after-thought I made one final pass with a “switch” fly rod and indicator.

My bead and small spit shot ticked the bottom in tune with the varied current seams. I was fishing well and knew it. Daydreaming about a future steelhead camping trip I instinctively let the bead swing at the end of the dead-drift. “No… something doesn’t feel right,” I thought to myself. Then it happened again. A light but solid tug. For a split second I figured I’d foul hooked a whitefish or sucker. Moments later there was no question, for my fly-line backing was dissipating at a rapid pace. That’s when, in the far distance, my prize began to leap as it rounded the bend in the rapids below.

The “good ol’ days” is a phrase my wife hates. She cringes when I fondly recount my bachelor days. Fridge filled with beer and stale pizza, and a freezer loaded with frozen burritos. It was a girl- and child-free safe haven for fishing bums. Back then the only thing on my mind was to fish as hard and cover as much water as possible. A lot has changed as I’ve “matured.”

My old fishing strategy was one of sheer determination to find the “easy” biters by quickly covering lots of water. Usually with one rod and one technique. This strategy can account for big numbers and build angling knowledge in a hurry. It is also time-consuming and hard on the body. Even dangerous if done alone in uncharted river stretches, especially where canyons are involved. Some of the death dodging that I highly recommend avoiding, includes: getting blown off your feet in tailouts; hitting your head on large branches while rock-hopping in canyons; and the foot stuck in a hard-flowing pocket trick.

If you are in good physical shape there is no faster way to learn where steelhead hold and how to catch them than by hiking up and down long stretches of creeks or small rivers. For years I covered hundreds of miles of water while throwing metal and then switched to floats. Both methods are relatively snag free, at least when compared to drift fishing. Back then if I would have taken the time to learn how to cast a light Spey rod well it would have been just as effective as a spinner. At least I finally learned to cast with one. Chain-up a bike and hike, what’s more to like?

Now that I’m getting older and fatter I take a much different approach when I’m bank fishing a run. I like to “mix it up.” This strategy can be as simple or complex as you like. I would have to guess that the majority of bank fishermen fish only a few spots per day. Maybe only one. I’ll give you an example of what I sometimes do if I’m only going to fish one spot for steelhead.

I’ll bring three or four rods that are pre-rigged. They will be broken down, but rigged. I use rubber bands or elastic hair bands to hold the rod sections together. I usually use a backpack to bring lunch and gear. Once at the hopeful hot spot I’ll set up each rod and have them ready. One of the great things about this is if you bust off on your first cast you can grab another rod just like that. Lately I’ve been taking a jig rod, heavier worm (on a ¼-ounce jig head) rig, bait and bobber rig and a fly rod, usually set up with an indicator. I’ll spend a designated time fishing each system until I feel the hole has been covered. I’ll use extra tackle in the backpack to change the riggings out if necessary: color, weight, size, lure type, etc.

Obviously it’s a good idea to pick a spot that either has fish migrating through it, or better yet has holding fish. Even if your spot isn’t very good, with time something will happen sooner or later. What I like is a mediocre spot that doesn’t have much pressure. Then I can take my time and relax. Of course in a heavy angling pressure situation you can quickly change your tackle if you see what’s hot (or break off).

What I’ve found is that you don’t necessarily catch a fish right away. I’ve spent time working over the same piece of water for hours, only to catch a fish after changing tactics three or four times. The steelhead discussed at the beginning of this article was hooked after I’d fished the same run with four different types of gear for over two hours. It was one of the most rewarding fish I’ve ever hooked.

What's in this issue?

Issue: February 2015

Jake Gregg with an early-season wild Eagle Creek steelhead. A Clackamas River tributary.

 Clackamas Winter Steelhead  by Larry Ellis hits very, very close to home. My Dad grew up fishing the Clackamas River, as did I. Now I live on its banks. This river has never offered the greatest fishing in the world, but it’s definitely home.

Frank and his neighborhood friends would often make the hour-long bike ride from Milwaukie to Carver. Here they would hike up and down, and during low water across, the mighty Clackamas in pursuit of trout. I’m sure they filled their creels with rainbows and cutthroat every time they went out.

Dad and I spend a lot of time back in the 1970s fishing from his wooden drift boat. We fished with pencil lead and drift bobbers, usually Glo Gos since we made them at that time. We also pulled a lot of plugs, primarily Hot Shots. Then Tadpollies, in the later days. I don’t remember catching many steelhead on those trips to the Clackamas. Once in a while someone in the boat would get one. Although I truly enjoyed nearly freezing to death while getting skunked, fishing was either terrible, or the techniques we were using weren’t up to speed. All the same those are the trips that turned me into a steelheader with a true appreciation of the sport. I really believe that you should pay your dues before you catch your first steelhead.

Since then I’ve learned many of the secrets of the Clackamas River system. I’ve floated many of her tributaries and am pretty sure I’ve fished every hole on the river. Including every canyon hole above North Fork Reservoir, before the hatchery summer steelhead run was taken in the late 1990s.

Once you learn where and when to find the fish, catching can become quite good. It’s also a true challenge to learn the ways of a large river. The rewards of hooking a hot fish in big water are self evident: long, deep runs give fish a chance to truly dance.

 Halloween on the Kenai  by Scott Haugen talks about the ever important off-season experience. This makes me think of getting away from angling pressure. Sure, it’s always fun to hit fisheries during prime time, but with a little homework there are memories to be made during the “off season.”

Secondary runs are often overlooked. For example the late-run coho that return to some Oregon and Washington coastal waters as late as February, are often the largest fish of the year. Winter steelhead, especially wild runs, can vary greatly too. With some time on the water and a little research it’s possible to find fresh fish in the off-season with no other anglers in sight.

 Rating the Bite  by Bill Herzog will definitely get you thinkin’. From my personal experience, once you get past the, “Wow, I actually hooked one on the swung fly” factor the grab isn’t any better than any other I’ve experienced. Bill really knows how to get anglers worked up.

I’ve had many really soft bites while swinging a fly and lots of less than spectacular hang-down bites. That’s not to say that many fish will chase the fly, grab it and tear off, burning out line, all the time jumping as the fly reel screams. The key to getting a good grab on any gear is to fish for hyper-aggressive fish in medium water depth combined with a solid current. The “surprise” factor is also key.

Following is an incomplete list of grabs that are the equivalent or better than a “typical” swung-fly bite.

 Float-Fishing Surprise Bite:  This has happened to me more times than I care to admit, but it’s always a heart-stopper. You make a cast, lose track of your float due to talking, daydreaming or taking in some breathtaking scenery, when your rod buckles over and is nearly ripped from your hand. It’s cool enough to see a float go down, but when it happens unexpectedly the excitement level is increased tenfold.

 Drift Gear Hangdown Bite:  Pretty much the same deal here. You made your drift and are not expecting to get bit. A steelhead has followed your rig to the shore and at the very last second grabs and heads for the middle of the river. Wow! I’m really getting pumped now.

 Reeling in a Jig Bite:  Your dead-drift is over and while reeling in, typically through a tailout, a fish hits the jig like a freight-train. The shock you feel combined with the power of the hit is enough to hook anyone on steelhead fishing for life.

 Steelhead Chasing Hardware Bite:  Casting into a medium-sized stream you see a giant steelhead (actually any sized aggressive steelhead will do) nosed-up to your lure and swim behind it. You almost lose your mind in the hopes that the fish will finish the job and grab. Then it happens. The beauty nails it and punches a hole through the sky! Yeah, and an arm-jerking “swung fly grab” can be pretty good too.

How Many Did You Catch? How Big Were They?

Issue: January 2015

Frankie with his App-winning rainbow trout. Ronnie was OK with it because he gets to play too.

The other day I looked over and noticed, yet again, my two boys were held in a trance by a video game called Minecraft. I’m not sure how it works, but apparently you build things with computerized blocks. If we didn’t take the iPad or iPhones away from them at regular intervals I swear these two little guys would play all day.

I’ve been taking them fishing on a regular basis. They always have a good time, but don’t really actively participate in the fishing part, at least not for long.

This spring we took Frankie and Ronnie to the Indian Springs Trout Farm located near the Clackamas River. I’m told that when I was very little we did this kind of thing once in awhile. To be honest I have just as much fun, if not more, than the kids.

On this spring-time trip my wife Veronica paired up with our oldest, Frankie and my team mate was the little guy, Ronnie. We used the standard, push-button style rod and reel combos, rigging and worms provided by Indian Springs. The hooks are nice and dull which is good for two reasons: It keeps the cost down (you must keep and pay for each trout landed), and accidentally hooking people is a little tougher.

The trout on this particular day, although biting very well, were difficult to hook. Once I picked up on this I decided to have some fun. At first I was letting Ronnie do his own thing, which became dangerous in a hurry. He’s not a bad caster, but is 100 percent not focused on what he is doing. Veronica and Frankie got lucky and pulled one in. At that point, when our competition wasn’t looking I was hooking fish (with a firm hookset) for Ronnie and then secretly handing them off. Ronnie didn’t mind and took great pride by bragging loudly about it. Then the numbers started piling up in our favor, and people (the other team) started getting upset.

I won’t say how badly Ronnie outfished Frankie, but they both kept track of the numbers and remembered the exact count all summer. Every time fishing was brought up Ronnie was quick to remind Frankie of his victory! I must admit that I gave Veronica a hard time about it too.

At times I forget just how serious anglers take numbers. I guess the first question most people ask an angler returning from a fishing trip is, “How many did you catch, and how big were they?”

I took the kids on numerous trips throughout summer and let them play while I fished. As fall neared I asked the boys if they were pumped to go fishing and Ronnie immediately responded with a big “Yes.” Frankie on the other hand said that he didn’t like to go fishing any more. I felt like maybe all of that ribbing had done some damage.

So Frankie and I went fishing by ourselves. I told him that I’d helped Ronnie catch all of those fish. We had played an unsporting trick on him and Veronica—also that all of Ronnie’s bragging wasn’t very nice. The incident, I found out, had badly hurt his feelings. We had a great day and caught some nice fish together.

It’s the beginning of December, freezing cold outside and I want to go fishing. Local rivers are high and out of shape, plus a cold front has moved in. A bad combination, especially when factored in with the early season timing. I know where fish are biting, but there are too many commitments to make a long road trip.

Wouldn’t you know it, the first thing the kids do when they get up is head for the computer games. Even though it’s 30 degrees outside I ask Veronica if it’s okay if I take the boys fishing. She’s a good sport and says she doesn’t mind. We make a plan to get some breakfast, do some shopping and then head over to Indian Springs Trout Farm. I called to make sure they were open and was pleasantly surprised to find that they are open year-round.

The boys are oblivious to our discussion. So I ask them if they want to go fishing. Of course they say “no way, it’s too cold.” I figured that was coming but ever the motivator I had a plan. They both want some .99 cent App really bad that I refused to buy because I don’t want them to get in the habit of trying to buy things from the App store. Fortunately they haven’t figured out our passwords...yet.

“How about we play a game and whoever catches the most fish gets to buy that App you guys want?” I’ve never seen little boots go on faster. Those kids were in the truck before I could finish my coffee.

By the time we were done shopping the air temperature had risen to a toasty 35 degrees. Heavy winds made me think twice about fishing, but the kids were having none of it. They wanted that game!

The rules were simple. The first person to put three trout in the bucket wins. Even in the bitter cold the kids sat still, patiently fished, paid attention and did very well considering the conditions. Frankie beat his little brother by one fish, but Ronnie got his third fish soon thereafter.

They were both happy as can be, ate their trout for dinner and love playing their new game. Problem solved, I think?

What’s In This Issue?

Issue: December 2014

Ronnie and Veronica Amato caught this Clackamas River coho with a spinner.

It takes a lot of time and effort to make Salmon Trout Steelheader and it’s always satisfying when an issue is finished. The same question enters my mind each month. Is there six dollars worth of useful information and entertainment in these pages? Let’s take a look.

The magazine starts out with a top-notch recipe then follows with lots of useful fishing product information. Then J.D. Richey details how to avoid getting a nasty infection. The funny thing is the same thing happened to me this summer. My neighbor Todd crashed a remote control airplane into the top of one of my cedar trees. Most of the plane exploded on impact, throwing parts all over the place. The souped-up plane was going over 100 mph when it hit. I decided to try to cast a sinker over the branch that was holding what was left of the fuselage to knock it loose.

I finally gave up, but managed to slice my fingers in two places while pulling on the braided line. A week later I went tuna fishing. Between handling live bait and cleaning fish (or possibly something else) I managed to get two staff infections that quickly grew out of control. I’ve never had this happen before so I’ll be sure to clean line cut wounds better in the future.

I’ve fished around and with Bob Toman since I was a little kid. Larry Ellis did a great job interviewing him about his trip to New Zealand. Some of the stocks of chinook there may have come from the Clackamas River. I can’t wait to find out more about this unique and exotic fishery.

Josiah Darr has been using lead-free sinkers for the past few years with great success. He did a good job of explaining some of the options available and how to use them. He also just completed a video on Bobber Doggin’ Baits and Beads. If you want to catch more steelhead and salmon I highly recommend his video.

Scott Haugen has a sad, but uplifting article about his family friend Russ Mathews. Russ is one tough guy and has a real passion for making spider sinkers and fishing the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Stories like this go to the heart of what this magazine is really about.

Bob Reece is the new President of the Northwest Steelheaders. I look forward to working closely with him in future issues. We have had a relationship with the Steelheaders for over 40 years and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish together in the future. Bob and the Steelheaders will continue to be regular contributors to STS.

Robert Campbell introduced me to the Bling Egg many years ago on Oregon’s Deschutes River. With a fly rod and indicator setup he put on a fish-catching clinic. I’ve been using this pattern, or variations of it, for many seasons now. At times it can be truly amazing. If you have not read Michael Gorman’s book Steelhead Fly Angling: Guerilla Fly Rod Tactics, I highly recommend that you do. Michael is an expert and his book will make you a better angler.

“Paradise Lost: The Story of Steelhead Hole” by Bill Herzog has special meaning to me. I was one of the few people that Bill took to Steelhead Hole back in the early ‘90s. His magical tales are a large part of what makes steelhead fishing special. When I visited I felt and understood his passion for this place. This was when I learned the importance of respecting someone’s fishing spot. I never returned or told anyone where it was located. I chose to seek out my own special fishing places and keep them to myself. I think the pursuit of these gems, that sometimes come and go, is what drives a steelheader’s passion.

Love him or hate him, Guide Joe Superfisky is quite a character in the Northwest fishing scene. He has a lot of fun interviewing his fellow guide Chris Vertopolous.

Captain Armand J. Castagna lives to fish. When he gives out advice I’m always listening. Anything he has to say is worth a lot more than the price of this magazine, and his articles always help me become a better angler.

Jason Brooks really sums it up with his article “Fish Now, Not Later.” It’s a funny subject because this is something we have always preached in the magazine. But lately with two small kids, fixer-upper house, instant (fishing, weather, water-level) reports on the Internet, and personal knowledge, I find myself waiting for the perfect time to hit the water.

Guess what? Everyone else seems to have the same info, so to beat the crowds it can be best to Zag when everyone else is Zigging.

See you on the river.

What’s In This Issue?

Issue: October 2014

No need to get upset on a holiday weekend when the transmission blows up and your family is trapped on the side of the Highway. At least the view was nice and we had a place to hang out until Dave Eng rescued us.

Big Plugs are the Secret for Slow Water  by J.D. Richey succinctly details when and why large plugs are effective. I’ve been on many salmon trips where we flat-lined large plugs in specific spots. For example during tide changes when anchor fishing for springers in the Columbia. Sometimes it pays to run a larger plug right before the outgoing tide. Then switch to smaller plugs as the current increases. Oftentimes in smaller rivers we will change plug size depending on current speed. Flatlining big plugs in deep tailouts or through medium-speed and depth traveling lanes can be effective also.

In Search of High Adventure, Alaska  by Robert Campbell talks about our annual silver fishing trip to Alaska. My favorite thing to do is explore. Even though we have fished the same remote location for years, and know exactly when and where to catch fish during different conditions, I still love to check out new areas. This year I’m hoping to run the canoe far up a tributary, if water and weather conditions are safe.

Advanced Twitching Jigs  by Jason Brooks has lots of great tips that I’m going to try this year. Rigging different rods with different colors is something that will work very well from a boat or if you are going to bank fish one spot. I’ve been twitching jigs for many years now and find that it can be one of the most effective ways to hook river coho. The key is to use jigs heavy enough to get down quickly. Weight will vary dramatically depending on the depth and water speed of the river you are fishing. When fishing from shore in big water I like to use ½-ounce heads. Heavy line is a must, but once you get used to it you can fish effectively without losing too much gear. It’s really exciting when a salmon chases your lure to shore.

The Grab  by Jim Bedford talks about how fish strike. What’s cooler than getting a bite? The coho I’ve been fishing for lately take all kinds of different ways. Some will chase your lure to the shore and then grab it at the last second. Others will swim behind a lure, fly or jig and lightly mouth it. Oftentimes those are the most difficult grabs to detect. Part of the reason twitching jigs works so well is because if a coho mouths the lure your twitching motion will sometimes lightly hook the salmon and give you a chance to set the hook home. Of course you never want to “jerk” your hook through a school of fish and try to snag them. You can feel the difference between a line rub and a bite.

Crankin’ Bass Plugs for Silver Salmon  by Bruce Holt I know a little bit about too. I went on this trip to check out different G. Loomis IMX rods. I’ve used IMX and other high-performance rods for years. Sometimes having a sensitive rod with the right action for the current fishing task makes a huge difference. For example, coho have a tendency to swim with the plug. If you don’t feel and/or see the slight difference in plug performance you’ll miss a lot of fish. Of course having a light and powerful rod makes for an enjoyable day too.

Learning to Fly-Fish For Steelhead  by Captain Armand Castagna is loaded with tips. I’ve fished with him many times over the years. And every time I walk away a better angler. I’ve fished with very few other anglers who are as “fishy” as him. What’s nice is he will take the time to explain exactly what he did to catch a fish. It can be very frustrating to get badly out-fished and he’s done it to me time and again. But I always learned something new. I still use his wrist twist technique every time I drift fish.

Patiently Fishing  by Tom Ellis gets to the heart of a good fishing trip. I’m a really mellow guy, but I have a quick temper (I’m told it’s because I’m a ginger) that can get me in trouble in a hurry. I’ve learned that there is no point in being impatient while fishing. Especially when fishing with my wife and kids. If they send a line into the kicker motor that’s okay. It just turns the trip into an adventure. If my reel or rod breaks and I don’t have a backup then I just went on a beautiful hike and country drive. If my truck gets a flat in front of Bob’s Tackle Store in 100-degree weather while towing a travel trailer, no problem. A few miles later when the transmission explodes and we are all trapped along the side of the Columbia River, it’s okay. And you know what. It always is okay in the end. Why make a bad day worse…

Why Montana Went Wild

Issue: September 2014

Don Roberts battles a feisty wild trout while fishing with tribal guide Matt Mendes on Oregon’s Deschutes River.

In 1974, Montana did something that stunned anglers across the state and the nation: It stopped stocking trout in streams and rivers that supported wild trout populations.

The move initially outraged many anglers, fishing businesses, and even some Montana Fish and Game Department staff. For decades, hatcheries had been credited with producing more and better fishing. Without stocking, many Montanans asked, what would happen to the state’s famous trout waters and the businesses that relied on legions of anglers arriving from across the country each summer?

The answer, now well known, is that trout fishing improved dramatically. Once stocking was discontinued, wild trout numbers doubled, tripled, and more on many rivers.

On this 30th anniversary of Montana’s discontinuation of stocking trout in rivers capable of sustaining wild trout,   Montana Outdoors   visited with fisheries biologist Dick Vincent, whose research on the Madison River in the late 1960s and early ’70s led to that decision.

A Montana native who grew up in Norris and Garrison fishing the Madison and Clark Fork rivers, Vincent earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology at Montana State University and began working for the department in 1966. Nationally known in recent years for his studies on whirling disease, particularly on the Madison River, three decades ago Vincent and his crew showed that wild trout thrived in river reaches without stocked fish and suffered in heavily stocked stretches. It was research that was to revolutionize trout management in Montana and throughout the United States.

   How did you get started looking at the effects of stocked trout on wild trout?
Actually, I was first hired by the department to develop new techniques for monitoring trout populations. Back then we didn’t have accurate ways to track trout numbers. I helped develop new electroshocking equipment and techniques so we could sample a lot of fish and larger fish.

   That’s how you got started working on the Madison River?
Right. Once we developed the techniques, we started trying them out on rivers. We picked two stretches of the Madison—the Norris stretch, downstream of Ennis Lake, and the Varney Bridge stretch, about six miles upstream from Ennis—and started doing population monitoring. In 1968, we were able to convince the power company operating the two dams upstream to increase river flows. We began studying the effects of the increased flows on the Norris and Varney sections, figuring that both stretches would benefit. But that wasn’t the case. The flows helped the Norris section, resulting in better recruitment and many more 10-inch-plus fish, but not Varney.

   So you started looking for other factors?
We were so puzzled, because at the time we were sure flows were the big issue, and it didn’t make sense that one stretch of the Madison was responding to improved flows and another wasn’t. I made a list to see what was similar and different about the stretches. The big factor that jumped out was that the Norris area wasn’t stocked at all, but Varney was stocked with anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 catchable trout per year. We asked ourselves: Could it be the stocking? We had no idea, but we wanted to find out.

   That’s when the famous study began?
Well, it didn’t happen that easily. This was in 1969, and what we proposed was to not stock the Varney section for three years while stocking a tributary named O’Dell Creek, which was never stocked before but had some good trout numbers. We wanted to leave the Norris stretch alone and use it as a control.

   Some people didn’t think highly of your proposal, correct?
That’s putting it mildly. I think people thought we had a goal of closing down all stocking, but that wasn’t the case. We specifically wanted to learn if stocking catchable-sized rainbow trout was negatively affecting wild rainbow and brown trout populations. But Ennis businesses, the Fish and Game Commission, and lots of anglers didn’t like the idea of us messing around with stocking in any way. They felt that the Varney stretch would crash during the three-year study. I heard many people say, “If we don’t have stockers, what will fishermen catch?”

   How heavily was Montana into stocking fish at the time?
That was really the peak of our river stocking program. We were stocking the Big Hole, Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison—all the best rivers, which already had great trout fisheries—with an average of 2,000 catchable trout per mile. But the department was still getting complaints about how poor the fishing was, that it was getting worse each year. So the solution was to stock even more, and whoever hollered the loudest got the most fish in their favorite stretch of river. The idea then was that the stocked fish were an addition to the wild populations, that two plus two equaled four. But a few of us biologists wondered if maybe two plus two equaled three or even less.

   Were you the only ones suspecting this?
Some anglers had a hunch that river stocking wasn’t all it was made out to be. Bud Lilly, Dick McGuire, Tom Morgan, and a few others had been fishing these great rivers before the big stocking boom, and they told us the fishing was getting increasingly worse. And I’d seen that myself, having grown up fishing the Madison in the 1950s, when we’d catch 3-pounders. Then, in the 1960s, all we could catch were small hatchery fish. But no one knew why the fishing got worse on those rivers.

   How did the study start?
First we had to get permission from the commission to not stock the Varney section for three years. That was a big deal. Art Whitney, the fisheries chief, made the case that we weren’t out to end stocking but that we just wanted to learn something. That took courage. He could have made his life a lot simpler by not going against the flow. But Art was a scientist, and he successfully fought for the study. The three-year study actually began in 1970, but it included information for the years 1967–69. After just one year, we could see that the four-mile-long Varney section was improving by no longer being stocked and that most of the improvement was in the larger fish. By the fall of 1971, wild trout numbers had increased 153 percent from the 1967-69 average, from 1,500 trout to 3,800 trout. The improvement continued every year. By 1974 the total number of wild trout larger than 10 inches was 4,700, a 213 percent increase from the stocking years.

   What happened to O’Dell, the creek you began stocking?
The wild trout population began declining. The 1967-69 average had been 515 brown trout in that 1.4-mile stretch, and it dropped to 380 in 1971 and then 280 in 1972. And the big-fish numbers declined as well, dropping from 63 in 1967-69 to 14 in 1972.

   Were you surprised by the results?
We’d suspected that stocking was having a negative effect, but when we saw large trout numbers in the Varney section triple and trout numbers in O’Dell cut in half, well, that just blew us away.

“...people began to see wild trout as a valuable, limited resource, and that the state needs to protect habitat to conserve that resource..”

   And that caused the agency to rethink its river stocking policy?
River stocking was already under some criticism because the return to the angler was so low. Within three months of being planted, 95 percent of stocked river trout are dead, either from being caught and kept by anglers, about 15 percent, or from other predators, about 80 percent. It’s not cheap to raise fish to catchable size, and when anglers are only catching 15 percent of the stocked fish, those become pretty expensive trout. In 1972, the department figured that each hatchery-reared catchable trout caught by an angler in the upper Madison River cost about $2.50. And that was back in 1972, when a fishing license cost about that much. It just didn’t make sense.

   The study then added weight to arguments against river and stream stocking?
Now there were two strikes against it: One, the department was raising all those fish with little return to the angler and, two, stocking was harming wild fish. Ordinarily you wouldn’t change management policy based on just three years of data, but the numbers from the study were off the charts. The department had to decide what to do, but there was a huge fear that ending stocking would cause an economic disaster for the communities along the rivers. There were a bunch of hearings on changing the policy. But by the end of 1973, the department and the commission agreed that it didn’t make sense. The following year, the department stopped stocking trout in rivers and streams.

   What happened then?
Wild trout numbers increased, just as the study said they would. For example, in the upper Gallatin above Big Sky, trout numbers went from about 450 wild fish per mile to 2,500 once stocking ended. And after the department stopped stocking O’Dell Creek, the numbers went right back up to where they had been.

   Did other states follow?
To a point, yes. We got calls from all over the country from fisheries departments and trout anglers. There was a ripple effect across the United States.

   Some people thought the new policy would be the end of the hatchery system. But that didn’t happen.
Not at all. In fact the department is now rearing and planting eight million trout per year. But instead of stocking rivers and streams, it plants lakes and reservoirs. And instead of stocking catchable-sized fish, the stocking has shifted to smaller trout that grow to be catchable size but have wilder traits. The hatchery program now is critical for lake management and also for helping propagate species of concern such as westslope cutthroat. It’s really doing a great job.

   Other than producing better wild trout fishing, what other effects did the study have?
I think the biggest thing was that people began to see wild trout as a valuable, limited resource, and that the state needs to protect habitat to conserve that resource. Back in the 1960s, anglers didn’t care about stream flows and river habitat, because if the fishing was poor, you just tossed in more fish. But if you want to catch big wild fish, then you need to fight for water and for habitat, and that is what has happened. I don’t know of a state where people have fought as hard for their rivers as they have here in Montana.

From Montana Outdoors magazine. Used with permission.

Trusty Tool and Mustang Survival

Issue: August 2014

Kathi Darr caught this Clackamas River hatchery spring chinook with a Blue Fox Vibrax during the middle of the day. She is wearing the Mustang PFD. Inset: Trusty Cable Tool kit and  Inflatable PFD Re-Arm Kit that the author used.

I typically don’t review products, but two have crossed my desk that I use all of the time. The first is called the Trusty Cable Tool. It’s a simple tool that will help you remove the cables from a Lowrance fish finder. You can watch a video demonstration at

I have a large and expensive Lowrance unit mounted between the windshield and steering wheel on my 20-foot jet sled. I constantly remove it in situations where it could be stolen. Like at a motel room. It also comes off when I don’t need it, like on the Deschutes.

It can be an unbelievable pain to get fingers behind the unit and remove all three cords. If my fingers are cold or wet it is nearly an impossible task that has to be completed. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes of frustration when cold, wet and tired.

That problem is history (as long as I don’t lose the tool).

A few years back someone left a Mustang Inflatable PFD in one of my boats. It sat in the garage for a year or so, before I decided to start using it. What a life changer.

The other day I let a buddy use it while we floated the Clackamas River from Milo McIver Park to Barton Park. About halfway down the bobbin dissolved and the unit self inflated. It came as quite a shock to my friend.

It was simple enough to deflate the unit. Although we didn’t have any way to rearm the PFD, it was still functional by manual inflation.

Like my boys, I don’t like to wear life jackets. When I was younger the only time you would ever see me wearing one is on the lower Deschutes or crossing the Columbia River bar on an outgoing tide in a small boat. Fortunately my boys must wear their life jackets whether they like it or not, and daddy is happy to wear modern inflatable PFDs.

The reason so few boat fishermen wear standard life jackets is because they are uncomfortable and it’s nearly impossible to fish while wearing one. Sadly many of the guides and anglers I know stow their life jackets well out of reach. If something bad were to happen it might become a serious task to find one. Worse yet, if the boat is upset it might even become impossible to access them from storage spaces typically located under seats. The only time I make mine available is when running dangerous rapids, near the jaws of bays or in the ocean.

When pontoon boat fishing, I usually store mine in a dry bag. And really only take one to be legal. Of course I’ll put it on when exploring new water or if going through some really crazy stuff. But on any home rivers it will never come out.

Probably due in large part because I want to be around to watch my kids grow up, I started wearing the Mustang Survival Inflatable PFD all of the time. They are truly comfortable enough to fish with all day long. In fact after a few minutes I’ll forget that I’m even wearing one.

I’ve even started wearing it while bank fishing. Few, if any, bank anglers wear PFDs. And every year, in the Portland area alone, bank anglers slip to their watery graves. This past season Frank, my dad, had two close calls while bank fishing during heavy flows. He’s not as nimble as he used to be and had to fight his way out of the river. I’ve fallen into the Deschutes a few times lately and could have easily been swept up by the current. Heavy wading boots coupled with waders filled with water make it difficult for even a good swimmer to make it quickly back to shore. Couple that with cold, heavy water and dangerous obstacles or heaven forbid an injury, and you’ll wish you had brought and worn an inflatable PFD.

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