Issue: October 2013
Blood, guts, roe, sardines, squid, sand shrimp, prawns, tuna, crawfish and a wide assortment of bait pastes, stink sauces and fish oils… fall fishing can be one messy business! And just think: that stuff gets all over everything… Your rods, your lures, your boat, your reels, your clothes—and you!
If left unattended, all that slimy mess will turn rancid and cover everything you have with fish-repelling stink. Unsightly and unappealing to finned critters! So, it is imperative to thoroughly wash all your gear before you put it away.
Unfortunately there’s no one magic bullet that you can use to clean everything but I have found a handful of products that get the job done very nicely. Here are some suggestions to “de-stinkify” your fishing stuff:
Rods & Reels
This time of year—salmon season—is when my gear really gets hammered. Rods and reels end up with a liberal coating of pinkish egg slime at the end of each day that, if you forget to wipe everything down, eventually dries, hardens and turns into a thick, yellowish crust. I know you know what I’m talking about here—the stuff is damn near impossible to get off, right?
In my early days of egg-fishing, I tried just about everything to get the scunge off—scrubbing rods and reels with plastic brushes and soapy water didn’t do the trick, nor did hitting them with a low-powered pressure washer. Heck, I even tried putting them in a hot shower and letting them steam for 20 minutes to little or no avail.
Then an old-timer guide let me in on a little secret: Lemon Pledge is like magic! Yep, I’m talking the furniture polish here. This stuff works wonders on all that dried, caked-on goo! All you have to do is spray some Pledge on the areas you want to clean, let it foam for several minutes, and then wipe it off with a dry towel. Presto… blanks, cork handles, guides and reel side plates look new again!
Speaking of reels, you can simply give ‘em the Pledge treatment and be done or, if you want go the extra mile, spray some WD-40 on a cloth afterward and then wipe them down. Nice and shiny!
Since it is fall salmon time, I’m sure a lot of you are running sardine wraps on your plugs—along with an assortment of other types of scent—sticky liquids, bait oils and smelly pastes.
Salmon are obviously very sensitive to scent and that’s why we’re always adding it to our baits and lures. However, those smells that attract fish will also repel them if left on your lures. So, as soon as you’re done using a plug it needs a bath.
I like to throw them in a bucket of soapy water and let the slime and oils loosen up. Then, at the end of the day, I’ll gently scrub any residue off with a soft bristled plastic brush. Avoid sponges because they just don’t mix well with treble hooks. A quick rinse in river water (don’t use tap water if possible because it often contains chlorine), followed by a pat-down with a towel and you’re done. Just remember to let your baits dry thoroughly before putting them in the box to avoid rust.
Since salmon have such powerful sniffers, don’t use just any soap. Lemon Joy is the way to go (Ajax brand at the Dollar Store works too). I’m not sure why fish don’t seem to mind the smell of lemon, but you can confidently wash stuff in it without fear of turning them off. To prove that point to a skeptical client one day, I squirted Lemon Joy all over my bait wrap and promptly got bit! Not sure I’d recommend that one every day, but it worked that time…
Boat interiors and floors are often thoroughly disgusting after a day of fishing. Come late afternoon, a boat’s deck can be awash in a thick coating of fish slime, fish blood, ground-up Doritos, roe balls that somebody stepped on and unknown assortment of other smelly stinky, dirty things.
I’ve tried quite a few products for cleaning the inside of my boat, and I have found Simple Green is not a bad way to go—but I’m not so sure about the smell that it leaves on the inside of the boat. I really don’t want my customers touching anything that has a chemical smell and then transferring that scent onto their baits or lures.
Recently I found my new favorite boat-cleaning product in the laundry detergent aisle… OxyClean Versatile Powder. This white detergent apparently has a real knack for eating proteins...which is obviously what a lot of the schmegma on the inside of a fishing boat is made of.
All I do is pour one scoop into a bucket, then spray some warm water into it and then scrub it on my floors and interior with a plastic brush. Next, I simply walk away and let the OxyClean do its magic. The longer you leave it on, the more stains it eats up.
A quick rinse with the hose and you’re done! Once I started using this stuff, my boat hasn’t sparkled so much since it was new. An additional plus: the stuff’s biodegradable.
Now that you’ve gotten everything cleaned up, there’s one thing that probably still stinks: You! Sardine stank is hard to get off your hands—especially on warm days—and roe funk hangs around quite a while too. Throw in some fish cleaning and maybe a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos and the wife’s not going to get within 100 yards of you.
That’s where a stiff plastic brush and some Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Peppermint Soap come in handy. Give all affected areas a thorough scrubbing and you may just be allowed back in the house!
Issue: September 2013
I've talked to way too many people lately who have told me that their lifetime dream is to fish Alaska…but all too often the conversation gets around to finances and many folks just don’t think they’ll ever be able to afford it.
But I’m here to tell ya that there are ways to make your fantasy fishing adventure into reality. As long as you’re willing to forgo the mint-on-the-pillow lodging and fully guided fishing experience, you can do Alaska for a lot less cash than you think!
One of the reasons I bring this up in the fall is we’re in the post-summer peak and, therefore, you can find some good deals. Plus, late August into early October is prime time for chrome coho!
Here’s how to do it on the cheap…
Fish the Road
Several destinations in Alaska have good road systems, and by renting a car, you can access plenty of world-class fishing. Of course, roadside spots are often crowded with anglers but it’s amazing how alone you can feel by simply walking up or downstream a few hundred yards.
The more remote a location you choose, the more expensive the car rental is. For example, we rented a moldy, leaky, gutless wonder of a wreck we dubbed “The Wrat” in Cordova for the alarming rate of $900/week (which really isn’t all that bad when divided three or four ways), but cars in places like Kodiak and Juneau were much more reasonable. If available, you typically get a better rate from the “name brand” rental places. Some hotels and cabins also include car rental in their packages, so take a close look at that type of deal too.
Also, consider upgrading to a 4WD or at least something with some ground clearance. One year, my buddy Ron and I about ripped the transmission fluid pan right off the bottom of a tiny economy car while going like a rocket on a logging road about 50 miles from town! Can you say bear food?
I’m just kidding here—camping in the fall in Alaska isn’t the best plan. The weather can turn quickly on you and living in a miserably cold and damp tent for a week isn’t my idea of fun.
By “roughing it” I’m talking about passing on the 5-star accommodations and finding a place to stay that is easier on the wallet. Nothing is super cheap in Alaska, but you can find some very reasonable rates on motels, cabins and B&B’s—again, especially when you can divide up the cost.
When I’m on self-guided fishing missions with friends, we really don’t care how nice a place is. We’re typically fishing until the wee hours so all that’s required is a place that’s clean, warm and dry. We spend so little time indoors that anything above the bare minimum is a waste of money.
One thing I would look into, however, is if the place has a freezer where you can keep fish during your visit. In most Alaskan fishing towns, there are processing plants that will clean, vacuum seal, freeze and ship your fish but we’ve also taken a Food Saver on some missions and did the processing ourselves to save money.
<span style="color: #cc6600;">Hot Destinations</span><br><br>There are tons of cool places to visit this time of year for a little do-it-yourself fishing adventure but two that I’ve found extremely enjoyable are Kodiak and Cordova. <br><br>Cordova has some of the largest silvers in Alaska and the numbers of fish there can be mind-boggling. On our last mission, Reilly and I probably caught 60 chrome coho each a day without trying. The downside is there isn’t a whole lot of variety there in the fall. Some Dollies and saltwater fishing, but it’s mostly a silver show.<br><br>There’s a mixture of waters to fish that are easily accessed from the road system: The Eyak River just outside of town has plenty of coho below the outlet of Eyak Lake. The best action occurs in the deeper holes about a mile and a half downstream. Access to that area is via boat (there’s a public boat launch at Mile 6.5 on the highway) or by hiking the trail that begins at the bridge. The trail is a well-worn affair that begins on the downstream side of the bridge and follows the western bank of the river. <br><br>Ibeck Creek—locally known as “7 Mile” because of its distance from town—has a tremendous run of silvers and you can hike up- or downstream from the bridge on well-worn trails. You can also check out Hippy Cove (Fleming Spit), Alaganik Slough and several other smaller streams. Power Creek also gets loaded with Dollies. <br><br>I’ve stayed at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, which was fine, right on the harbor and had the benefit of having a restaurant/bar that was open late for those of us burning the midnight oil out fishing. I’ve also been to Orca Adventure Lodge at the end of the road, which was a very nice basecamp too. <br><br>Kodiak is probably my all-time favorite road-system spot. There’s a lot more road to explore there than Cordova and more accessible streams too. The town of Cordova is also large enough to offer everything you need as far as supplies and meals. <br><br>The Buskin River right on the outskirts of town is a big-time silver producer. It’s lower reaches get pounded by local anglers but if you hike just a little bit, you can get away from people. Out of town, the Olds, American and Pasagshak rivers are all worth investigating and feature easy wading on pea-gravel bottoms. There are tons of other smaller streams to check out as well—and we’ve also caught lots of silvers in the surf there at places like Kalsin Bay. <br><br>The best place I’ve found to stay in Kodiak is A Smiling Bear B&B. The place is awesome, the owner treats you like family and the rates are really reasonable. Just plan on gaining some weight with all the wonderful food!<br><br>There you have it—that dream Alaskan vacation isn’t as far out of reach as you thought!
Issue: August 2013
So, everywhere you look these days you see ads for bait brines…brines for herring, eggs, shrimp and more. Big companies like Pro Cure, Atlas-Mike’s and Pautzke, along with some smaller outfits, all seem to be on board with the concept. But is this all just marketing hype or do bait brines really deserve a place in salmon, trout and steelhead anglers’ curing repertoire? Well, I spent the better part of the past couple seasons trying all sorts of baits in liquid cures to find out… The two major selling points that the manufacturers typically use is that liquid brines for baits are quick, easy to use and are all but fool-proof. Lofty claims…but if true, they’d represent a new era in the bait-curing process. Atlas-Mike’s came out with the first “cure in a bottle” for eggs and so, thus, was the first one I tried. I cannot personally comment on the products from the likes of Pautzke and Pro Cure, et al, but I have heard good things about both as well. I’m sure they all have little subtle nuances that make them different from the others and you’ll just have to test several different brands until you find the one that best suits your needs.
Too Good to Be True?
I have brined eggs in the past, so the theory here isn’t new. However, my previous experiences always had to do with making brines up with powdered cures, water and a special blend of 11 secret herbs and spices. What is unique about these new cures, however, is the fact that they come in liquid form. Throw your bait in a zip-lock, pour the cure over it and let the magic begin.
It sounded too easy to be true…and, quite honestly, I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to such things. When I first ordered a couple bottles of Mike’s Brite & Tight Cluster-Skein Formula 1-Step Cure, I figured that the company would have a tiger by the tail if the stuff actually worked. After all, many of my early days of egg curing went horribly wrong and my eggs ended up too gooey and soft or burnt to a crisp. I’ve heard that sad tale from tons of fishermen too. If the Brite & Tight worked as advertised, it would make life so much easier for a lot of folks—in particular, the recreational guy who only gets to fish here and there on the weekends and doesn’t have much bait to waste perfecting his curing process.
I started by cutting my skeins into bait-sized clusters and then dropped them into a gallon-sized zip-lock. I poured enough cure into the bag to cover all the eggs and mixed everything around a few times. Make sure you are wearing rubber gloves because the dye in the cure will stain your fingers for days. The cure takes best at room temperature and the bottle says that all you need to do is let it soak for 2 to 12 hours. Because I live in a hot climate, that’s not practical, so I put the eggs in the fridge for 24 hours.
When I pulled them out of the fridge the next afternoon, the eggs were glowing orange—almost Gooey Bob or Jensen Egg color. They were nice and firm but not like rubber balls and smelled good. It really was that easy.
Now, you still have to do some work to ensure the end product is to your liking. I found that the brined eggs need to dry overnight in a strainer (less time if you want a more wet salmon-style egg). Then, I’d let them sit out again overnight in the cool garage on paper towels to get a good tacky steelhead side-drift-style bait. After that, the eggs were so nice that there was hardly any mess on my gear or hands after a day of fishing with them.
Mike’s claims that their eggs last for months in the fridge and a year in the freezer. I have yet to freeze any of them, instead I’ve just kept them refrigerated in air-tight plastic tubs. I’ve now had eggs in the fridge for nine months and they look and smell great and don’t have any mold. I’m not sure how long they’ll last like that but so far, so good!
I fished for both kings and steelhead with the Brite & Tight eggs. What’s immediately apparent is how durable the baits are when done properly. The color and smell also last longer than conventional cures. That durability translated into a clear increase in fishing time, which can only improve one’s success.
I caught plenty of kings with the stuff but seemed to do better on steelhead and that may be due to the fact that the cure is sulfite-free. Which leads me to my next point…
The really interesting thing about liquid brine cures is that the sky’s the limit on what you can do to doctor them up. You can add all sorts of your favorite scents, oils and other sneaky bite enhancers to make your baits even more effective. Just off the top of my head, Pro Cure’s water-soluble scents would probably be very interesting to try. You could also add any number of commercially-produced scents along with natural stuff like tuna oil or throw some sardine chunks into the bag with the eggs.
On a semi-related note, just for kicks I also cured up raw prawn meat with the cure with the same general method as the one listed above. The baits took the color well and had an amazing scent to them (hello summer steelies!).
Well, I was very impressed with the liquid cure and I think it’s going to be a huge hit with anglers who’ve had trouble curing eggs the conventional way. The only downside is a bottle of liquid is less cost effective than a shaker of powdered cure. However, when you factor in the cost of your time and how precious eggs can be, the value is pretty good in the end.
Again, I tried the Mike’s stuff and was very happy with it but don’t be afraid to try out Pro Cure, Pautzke and the others. Happy brining!
Issue: June 2013
Summer’s here and that means that there are plenty of spooning opportunities out there! I love the simplicity and effectiveness that spooning (aka: “jigging”) affords and it is one deadly technique for ocean salmon, halibut and rockfish, along with trout and landlocked salmon in lakes and reservoirs.
While it’s a super easy technique to learn, there are some little twists and tweaks that can help you take your jigging to the next level. If you’re game, read on!
Rigging Up & The Big Secret
For spooning, you want a rod that’s got some oomph in the lower two-thirds—so you can muscle fish out of deep water and also move the spoon. But it should also have some give in the tip so that a fish can suck down your spoon and not feel too much resistance. Casting gear is the only way to go, as it’s really hard to make subtle adjustments with spinning tackle.
I like a baitcaster with a high-speed retrieve (above 7:1) if I’m working deep water, or a lower speed, more torquey model when trying to wench big fish out of the rocks. When it comes to line, keep this in mind: braid…braid…braid. There’s no other choice for jigging. Braided line has a slim profile so it is less subject to current drag, has no stretch (great for deep water), and is super durable and very sensitive.
Now, here’s the super top secret rigging tip I can throw at you to make your jigging much more effective: Run a heavy mono leader—the heaviest you can get away with without spooking the fish. For example, I’ll run a 10- to 15-foot section of 40-pound when jigging mackinaw. The lakers rarely get over 15 pounds where I fish, so it’s not the strength of the line I’m looking for but the thick diameter. The heavy line acts almost like a parachute for the lure, slowing its fall and thus making it flutter more enticingly. You’d be amazed how much of a difference this makes!
If you’re trout fishing in a lake, 20-pound seems to do the trick and I’ve gone as heavy as 60-plus when in the ocean. Spoons
When it comes to choosing a spoon, there are several things to consider. What does the natural forage in the area look like? In most cases, I try to “match the hatch” as much as possible and use the jig that best matches the profile and color of the local baitfish. When herring are the main item on the menu for salmon, rockfish or halibut, I’ll go with something like a silver Hopkins, Crippled Herring, Point Wilson Dart or Blade Runner spoon. But if narrow baitfish are what the fish are dining on, a slender jig like a Point Wilson Candlefish or a P-Line Laser Minnow will get the job done.
Silver or white are great all-around colors as most baitfish have some sort of shiny hue to them. However, when I’m bouncing rock piles for rockfish and lings, I’ll often switch to a darker lure—something brown, dark green or black—to match the myriad of juvenile rockfish that inhabit these areas.
In freshwater, the same concepts apply. I’ll go with a wider-bodied spoon when threadfin shad are the primary baitfish and then use a more streamlined model when the fish are eating pond smelt. Kokanee are a bit of a wild card and they seem to prefer spoons with bright fluorescent finishes like hot pink, flame red and chartreuse.
As far as weight goes, you want to use the lightest lure you can get away with. It’s pretty simple: the lighter the lure, the more flutter you get. And of course, the more your spoon is flashing like a wounded fish, the better!
Swap the Hooks!
The majority of all jigging spoons come standard with treble hooks but I’ve never been all that fond of them. Taking a tip from the tropical saltwater guys, I started testing assist hooks out and have gone all in with them. If you’ve never heard of assist hooks, let me explain. They’re a single hook attached to a short length of cord that is fastened to the top eye of the spoon (yes, the top!). Some folks run two hooks up there but I’ve found one works great. I have to admit that a jig looks strange with the treble removed and the hook at the top, but they are deadly.
Assist hooks are also much easier on the fish and are usually buried right in the corner of the jaw—not down in the gills. They’ve also been a godsend for me when jigging deep like I do for mackinaw at places like Lake Tahoe. So many times I’ve dropped a jig all the way down to 120 feet, only to have the lure flip and the treble wrap around the line just above the knot. Talk about frustrating! But that never happens with assist hooks!
One basic concept to keep in mind when spooning is: use your wrists, not your elbows or shoulders. Most of the time the best jigging motion is, with the rod tip angled towards the water, a quick upward snap of the wrist and then you allow the tip to fall back towards the water. There’s a fine line here—the lure will have the most action as it falls on a slack line. However, most strikes come as the lure is on the drop, so if you have too much slack in your line, you will miss a lot of bites.
The best way to describe it is let your lure drop on a “controlled” fall in which you keep a little tension on the line. That’s where trouble comes in when the elbows and shoulders get involved—too high an upward stroke and you’ll almost assuredly have loose coils of line on the water, which translates into a lot of undetected strikes.
Bites can be slight “ticks” to outright arm yankers, but most are fairly subtle. For that reason, it’s a good idea to also watch your line where it enters the water. If you notice any slight hesitation or direction change, set the hook immediately!
One final note on technique: Try to keep your presentation as vertical as possible. The lures work best when presented straight up and down over the fish and you’re less prone to snags that way. If the current or wind is pushing the boat along so quickly that you have a pretty good line angle going, either reel up and drop again or try a heavier lure.
For more tricks, tips, destinations & more check out my website: www.fishwithjd.com
Issue: May 2013
So, you’re in the market for a drift boat, eh? Well, let me give you a little piece of advice that will both greatly benefit you and the boating industry as a whole: Don’t buy one!
Yep, you heard me. Instead, convince two or three of your buddies to buy boats instead! That way the boating industry is happy (more sales), and, best of all, you get to go fishing instead of rowing! Trust me, if you’re the owner of the boat you’re going to spend a lot more time on the sticks than fishing (which, truthfully, is just as much fun). But if you’d rather be sitting up front hooking fish and asking your bud to stop rowing so he can net your fish, talking friends into owning boats is the way to go!
And once your buddies do buy boats, here’s another little tip: When they ask you to take a turn on the oars, be sure to clang a couple big rocks, scratch a little paint or put the rod tips into some overhanging tree branches…that way you’ll never have to row again!
Okay, all kidding aside, owning a drift boat is awesome. If you’ve been a bankie all your life, a drifter opens up whole other worlds to you. As I alluded to before, the act of rowing and piloting your craft downriver is really addictive and the truth of the matter is you’ll often be content just “guiding” your friends. Drift boats are also quiet, don’t burn any fuel and require very little maintenance compared to a sled. Another really cool aspect of them is the fact that you can launch a drift boat just about anywhere—no ramp required.
Before you buy one, however, you’ll want to take a long, hard look at what you plan on doing with your drift boat. That will help you choose the boat that’s right for you. Do you fish big water? Maybe a high-side model is the way to go. On the other hand, if you are fishing wide-open rivers where the wind blows a lot, go with a lower-sided vessel. Do you mostly fly-fish? A boat with a seat fore and aft of the rower’s stand and casting braces is a good bet, but if you mainly backtroll plugs, get a boat that will fish two or three across the front.
Are you going to guide out of it? If that’s the case get the biggest, nicest boat you can afford. But if you are a weekend warrior who, in reality, may only get out a few days a month, consider something more basic—you don’t need all the comfy seats, storage compartments, forced-air heating and other fancy stuff in that case.
When it comes to what your hull is made out of, the three main choices are fiberglass, wood and aluminum. There are some specialty boats out there as well that feature roto molded construction, composites and there’s even a fully inflatable model. Those are all pretty cool and interesting, but to keep things simple, let’s focus on the “Big 3.”
Wood drift boats are beautiful and are favorites of anglers who like to give a nostalgic nod to the good ol’ days. Wood hulls are also extremely stealthy and quiet when sliding over or banging into rocks. Because wood flexes, they are also extremely durable. The downside, of course, is the maintenance. It takes a lot of work to keep a wooden drift boat looking good and floating high.
Drift boats made out of aluminum are nearly bulletproof, require almost zero maintenance and will last you a lifetime. One downside to metal is it is very loud—drop a pair of pliers on the floor or hit a rock and fish in three surrounding counties are likely to hear the sound. Aluminum is also very “sticky” on rocks, which makes dragging the boat through shallow water tough—though you can get around that with a UHMW bottom sheet.
Aluminum also absorbs more heat in the summer and is also colder to the touch in the winter than wood or glass. Metal drift boats can withstand a massive beating from the rocks, but the material will dent when you hit it hard enough. Many dents can be pounded out, but repairs aren’t always super easy if you’re not a bodywork expert.
One of the chief advantages of fiberglass is it is super slick. You can slide over boulders, shallows and even dry gravel much easier in a glass boat. The floor will flex and “give” when you hit a rock, and then pop back into shape, so you never have dents. However, the floor of a fiberglass boat can feel a little less solid when you’re standing up—it’s not going to give out on you, but it takes a little time to get your “sea legs” when walking and standing in one. At least that’s been my experience in the two I’ve owned.
Most folks assume fiberglass is fragile and not well suited to rocky rivers but that’s just not the case. Today’s glass drifters are virtually indestructible—and easy to repair if you do happen to somehow punch a hole in one. You’ll get bottom scratches and ding up the chines—even to the point of being able to see layers of fiberglass cloth, but most of those wounds are simply cosmetic. Because gel coat is involved, a glass boat will show more signs of use along the chines.
When fishing hot areas during the summer, glass is nice because it doesn’t retain as much heat. It also holds more warmth during the coldest days.
Which length/width drift boat you go with depends a lot on what you’re going to be doing with it, how many folks you plan to take and the size of the rivers you plan to fish. It’s hard to recommend a general all-around model, though the classic 16X54 is probably the most common boat on the water. I’ve had everything from 16’s to a massive 20X72 and now run an 18X61.
The best thing to do is talk with the manufacturers about your plans and they can suggest a boat that best suits you. Speaking of manufacturers…
If you go online and start sniffing around in the forums, you’ll get nothing but confused when it comes down to which brand of drift boat to buy. People get loyal to their favorite brand and almost treat them like sports teams—their favorite is the best and all the rest suck. I mention this so you can sift through the hype and B.S. that you’re sure to encounter.
The truth of the matter is all the major manufacturers build a quality boat. I have not rowed them all and therefore can only intelligently comment on the boats I’ve spent the last 15 years of guiding in and those are Willie, Clackacraft and Pavati.
So here’s my bottom line regarding those three: Willie makes beautiful boats, they’re good people and have an impeccable reputation in the industry…you can’t go wrong there whatsoever. If you decide to go the glass route, you won’t be disappointed with Clacka either. Same deal: really good folks to work with, extremely high-quality boats with nice lines and a whole lot of years of experience behind them.
My last two boats have been Pavatis, which I have also been extremely pleased with. The fit and finish work is amazing, they row nicely and have a lot of innovative stuff that makes my job easier and my clients comfortable. Again, a really good choice—especially if you like all the “Gucci” bells and whistles.
Good luck with your decision and be sure to make one of your buddies learn to row so you get a chance to sit up front in your new boat now and then! Captions: JD Richey running some whitewater in a Pavati. To get the boat that’s right for you, be sure to think about all the things you’re going to do with it first. Each hull material and boat style has its pros and cons. Before taking the plunge, think about how you plan to use the boat.
Issue: April 2013
You can bet your grandfather and all his buddies caught plenty of steelhead on good ol’ nightcrawlers back in the day, but the use of “garden hackle” seems to have become a bit of a lost art these days.
Did the fish get a memo from Steelie HQ banning the biting of worms? Or did they suddenly grow tired of the flavor? Hardly! Fishing ‘crawlers for steelhead is just like most other methods—they are cyclic and kinda come in and out of fashion over the years.
While worm-fishing may seem a little “old school” at the moment, don’t let that dissuade you. Give them a try this spring and you’ll see what our grandfathers already knew decades ago!
There are many advantages to throwing wigglers at steelhead: First off, worms are readily available, they require no curing and they are durable. Plus, you give the fish something a little different to look at. My good pal Riles often tells the story of walking up to a lineup of anglers drifting roe on Nor Cal’s Feather River. He fished eggs with everybody else without a sniff and then put on a ‘crawler and began drifting the exact same spot. The steelies, presumably numb to all the clusters of roe drifting by, went super kooky over the worms and Riles pounded a bunch of them in a row in front of the stunned lineup.
You obviously have many choices when it comes to worms now—Canadian Crawlers, Mini Crawlers, African Nightcrawlers, European Nightcrawlers, Red Wigglers—and even dyed ‘crawlers. Which ones best?
Well, the simple answer is steelies will eat them all. I’m kind of a keep-it-simple kind of guy myself, so I stick to regular and mini crawlers. Minis work great in most situations, but regular and jumbo crawlers are good when fishing for big late-season wild bucks. The European variety is also a good choice because they don’t require refrigeration and wiggle long after being submerged. If your worms are too long, you can cut them in half and run the cut-off side up the line first—that way the worm will last longer.
You can simply buy a few Styrofoam cups of ‘crawlers at your local bait shop or mail order them off the Internet if you need large quantities.
Worms are cool too because they can be fished several different ways. The classic method of drift fishing them is probably still the most common way to go. Slinkies or hollow-core pencil lead are great for drifting worms off the bank, but I do a lot of side-drifting them as well from the boat using Mad River Drifter “sploosh balls.”
Using a bait threader, string your worm headfirst up the line so it lies nice and straight. Above it, run a Hard Fish Pill or Lil’Corky to give the bait some flotation and a splash of color (fluorescent red seems to be the all-around best but pinks and oranges work too). As far as hooks go, try bait holders or octopus style—just be sure to go with the smallest size you can get away with for buoyancy purposes. Typically a No. 2 is a good all-around choice. When tying the hook on, use a Triline or Palomar knot instead of an egg loop and leave a bit of a tag end, which will act as a bait-holder barb.
Other variations on this theme include running a small Spin-N-Glo or Wobble Glo ahead of the worm to give it a little more action, vibration and flash.
You can also fish threaded worms under a float just as you would with eggs or shrimp. Backtrolled behind a diver is another technique in which ‘crawlers shine. To rig-up, use a No. 10 clear Jet Diver on a 12- to 18-inch dropper off your main line and then run 4 to 5 feet of leader behind it to the worm. Again, a bait floatation device like a Corkie, Fish Pill or Spin-N-Glo in front of the worm will keep it up off the bottom.
When backtrolling nightcrawlers, you’ll typically get a few different styles of grabs. The first is the peck-peck-peck variety, which usually (but not always!) ends up being a halfpounder, smolt or trout. Adult steelies tend to pick up the worm with a solid “thump,” and then, if you can resist setting the hook, they’ll turn with it and load the rod up. Of course, there’s also my personal favorite: The Blitzkrieg bite in which the fish pounds the bait so hard that it’s all you can do to keep the rod from going over the side!
Another way of rigging ‘crawlers that I have been having success with lately is fishing them exactly the way you would a pink worm jig under a float. I’ll thread the worm onto a 1/8-ounce jig head with a worm keeper collar and dead-drift it below a Thill TurboMaster balsa float. This method is especially deadly on spring and summer fish in low, clear water!
Speaking of low water, you can also catch fish while drifting ‘crawlers “naked”—with no weight. To get a good cast, you’ll need to go with spinning gear and light line—but there are times when even the most skittish fish will throw caution into the wind and slurp down a free-drifting crawler like a brown spaghetti noodle.
It seems kinda silly to add scent to a bait that already has plenty of stink to it, but I have had days when it helped a lot with the bite. My all-around favorite is Atlas-Mike’s Shrimp Lunker Lotion, but don’t be afraid to try your favorite steelie scent too. I’ll either lather up a worm with sauce every cast or two or throw a few in a zip-lock baggie and then add a squirt of juice and allow them to marinate for a while.
Go Old School!
Well, I hope this gives you a few ideas on how to get started throwing worms for steelhead. Again, it seems like a dated technique, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be changing your tune if you give crawlers a chance this spring!
Issue: March 2013
There’s been a lot of chatter on the Internet and radio lately about how to hold a steelhead up for a photo. The rules governing wild steelhead in Washington State (basically, you can’t hold a native up out of the water for a photo) are really what got this whole discussion kicked off.
So, I figured I’d kick my two cents worth in…
Let me first start by saying that I appreciate the basic concept of what Washington is trying to do here. Wild steelhead are gifts from the river gods and are to be respected and handled as little as possible. I get that. But I also know that when done properly, a wild steelhead can be held up for a quick “grip and grin” shot and then immediately released without ill effect.
For those of us who love to pursue and catch wild steelhead, the photo is often the prize…something to share with friends and family and reflect upon years down the road. To not be able to snap a shot of you holding your trophy is a hard concept for me to swallow.
I think Washington could probably get a little creative here and switch the rules around to enable anglers to get their photos without hurting the fish. Just the basic self-imposed rules that my close circle of steelheading buddies follow would fit the bill.
Use the net as little as possible
We try to avoid netting wild steelies whenever possible. Even when we hook a fish from a boat, we pull over and gently beach the fish. Obviously, there are some cases in which that’s not practical and if we have to net one, it’s with a soft mesh no-knot catch & release net like Beckman’s Pen Fin Saver.
Regular landing nets are abrasive and the mesh knots can rip lots of scales off a fish. The catch & release models are much more fish-friendly, but again, try to avoid scooping them at all. The last thing you want to do to a wild steelhead is put it into a standard net and then flop it onto the floor of a boat. That’s going to equal a dead fish in a lot of cases!
If you do have to net your fish with the C&R bag, either hold the steelie in the water and get quickly to shore or lean (carefully) over the gunwale and hold the fish up just above the water. Avoid holding it up inside the boat, because one strong flop could send the fish crashing into the bottom of the boat.
Kneel down! So, if you can get to shore with your fish, the best thing to do is gently walk backwards up the bank so that it eases into shallow water on its side. It’s best to do this in areas with small, smooth cobble—steer clear of sandy banks if you can because it can get in the fish’s gills and stick to its slime coat.
Now, be sure to pay attention to the word “ease” here—we’re not violently dragging the fish ashore. We want to gently coax him into the shallows on his side, where he’s calm and not flopping. A steelhead can do damage to its internal organs if it flops wildly on the rocks.
With the fish on its side, it’s easy to remove the hook and then it’s time to get ready for the photo. With the fish still in the water, make sure your cameraman is ready and you have the lighting you want. Now, while kneeling on one knee, wet your hands. This is a most important step! By touching the fish with wet hands, you are less likely to remove any of the fish’s protective slime coat. Never use dry hands—or even worse—a dry towel. There was a photo that made the rounds in January of a huge 30-pound-class buck from the Umpqua River that was being held with a dry towel around the wrist of the tail. Because of that, the fish had a large almost 2-foot chink in his defenses when released.
Okay, so now that your hands are wet, gently grasp the fish around the wrist of the tail with one hand and slide the other one under the belly. Do this with kid gloves—you definitely don’t want to squeeze too hard. On particularly large fish, be sure to find a point with your belly hand that supports the weight of the steelhead without torqueing its spine.
By kneeling out in the water, you cut down the distance which the fish could fall if he flops and you lose your grip. Additionally, doing it out over the water ensures that the fish won’t get hurt falling on rocks if you happen to drop it accidentally. Snap a quick couple of photos and slide the fish back into the water with its nose pointed upstream and you’re done.
The whole process from pulling the hook to letting the fish go should only take 10 seconds or so—when done properly it’s not hurting the fish at all.
For the past several years, I have been hired to catch spring-run chinook salmon for acoustic tagging studies. We catch the fish on rod and reel, net them (with a C&R net), put them into a tub of water and insert a battery-sized tag down their throats. Then we insert two spaghetti tags (via a sharp tool) into their back and clip a piece of tail with scissors for genetic sampling. The fish are in captivity for about 2-3 minutes and are exposed to much more invasive treatment than the steelhead previously discussed. But because the tags allow us to track the fish, we also have found that they all swim off and the vast majority either reach the hatchery or spawning grounds. Based on that alone, I’d have to say a steelhead that is carefully handled will be just fine!
By diligently practicing proper fish-handling techniques, we’ll ensure that there are wild steelhead for us to catch and photograph in the future.
Issue: February 2013
Over the past several years, I’ve had the good fortune of being hired by various agencies to catch—with rod and reel—chinook salmon for acoustic tagging studies. These have all been tracking programs to look at the spatial and temporal distribution of both spring and fall kings…but some very interesting anecdotal information has come out as well.
Some of the most compelling stuff had to do with the relationship between hook placement in a fish and its chance for survival.
As I started reflecting on some of my experiences, I got on the horn with noted Northwest guide and fellow “science angler” Bob Toman, who has done even more salmon tagging than I in Oregon. As always, he was extremely interesting to talk to and had a lot of info to share as well.
So, here are just some random observations from our experiences—ones that I think may surprise you a bit…
If it Bleeds it Dies?
One of the longstanding beliefs I’ve held on to over the years is that a salmon or steelhead is likely going to die if it is pumping blood from its gills. Might as well bonk it, right? Well, not so fast…
After tagging hundreds of chinook on the Yuba and Feather rivers in Northern California, I’ve had a handful of our fish hooked deep in the gill arches (mostly hooked on No. 4 & 5 spinners)—all of which I figured were dead. A couple did die, but we also had several amazing stories of survival.
The most blatant example came one October while targeting fall kings on the Yuba. A dusky buck of nearly 30 pounds mashed my Kwikfish and took it down deep…way deep. When we got the fish to the boat, the K15 was barely visible in its mouth. It quickly became obvious that the fish had a severed gill arch as it was pumping an alarming amount of blood.
Fishing had been slow so far that week, so the biologists decided to outfit the king with an acoustic tag anyway. While they tagged and measured the salmon, I constantly scooped blood out of the livewell with a 5-gallon bucket and replaced it with fresh water. The buck was bleeding so heavily that I couldn’t keep the water clean and soon he was obscured by crimson in the tank.
When we released the big boy, we watched as he swam weakly off in a daze and figured he’d be buzzard food by morning. Well, a couple weeks later, the biologist texted me and said that she found our fish, dubbed “The Bleeder,” many miles upstream and hanging with a female on a redd!
Toman has had similar experiences with spring chinook on the Willamette River. He said that 150 springers that he caught and tagged one session were released into a fish ladder so they could be monitored. Of that batch, a little over a dozen of the fish had been hooked in the gill arches and were bleeders. After their release, several of the wounded chinook drifted upside down and were barely quivering against the back screen of the pen. The biologist figured those kings were going to die and almost pulled them from the pen to toss them downstream. But he decided not to and was blown away to see that the fish had righted themselves later and eventually all survived to swim out on their own.
The Ability to Heal
“Salmon have blood pressure just like you and I do,” says Toman. “When you make them bleed, the pressure drops off a bit and then they can often plug the hole and stop the blood loss. Eventually, their bodies remanufacture more blood and they can continue on.”
I had never thought about that—the fact that a fish can sustain a potentially mortal wound and then sometimes heal itself—but Toman’s point really makes sense.
“You see those fish with big seal, shark or killer whale bites and you know they must have been bleeding like a stuck pig when it first happened,” he says. “But, again, they are able to heal themselves and the lost blood gets replaced.”
Toman concedes, however, that mortality was as high as 83 percent on his springers when hooked in the gills. During his study years, there was a 60 percent mortality rate for gut-hooked fish. The most impressive and encouraging stat, however, was that just 2.3 percent of the fish Toman hooked in the jaw died on his projects.
To support that evidence, I tagged 114 spring chinook on the Yuba a few years back. When hired later that year to catch Fall-Run, I actually recaptured five of my springers! Pretty amazing when you consider it was four months later when I caught them again! Of those five re-captures, all were jaw hooked the first time and two were gill hooked the second time. All five “two timers” were later tracked upstream in the spawning areas.
Toman says that the “official number” assigned to catch-and-release mortality of springers in Oregon is 12 percent overall, but that seems a bit high and he has been asking survey crews to ask anglers where their fish were hooked to try to gain more data about hook placement.
I think info like that is important for fisheries managers to consider when looking at quotas and regulations for rivers that have both hatchery and wild fish in them. Obviously, we want to keep angling opportunities available while minimizing any damage to the native spawner population. Some of that can be accomplished with catch & release and gear-specific regs.
We’ve already looked at mortality rates of spring chinook based on hook placement and Toman thinks that data too could be used as a management tool to increase survival of released fish.
“One thing I’ve noticed is when we fished prawns straight or with a Corky, the springers routinely swallowed them,” says Toman. “But when we rigged prawns with spinners, the fish hit them like a lure and were almost always hooked in the jaw—about 90 percent were like that. Though I get nowhere at all with it, I’ve been suggesting the managers look at maybe making some regulations that would reduce the incidence of gut-hooked fish. If you could use only, say, a prawn spinner on the Columbia, we could keep that mortality rate down around that 2.3 percent rather than the 12 percent they say it is. It would be a great tool for us because we would get to fish a whole lot longer.”
Speaking of gear changes, Toman says that he feels that there are several situations in which the mandatory use of larger hooks would also help because he believes they keep fish from swallowing the bait.
“We did a lot of underwater filming in Alaska, watching kings bite eggs,” he says. “A 2/0, 3/0 or even 4/0 hook can get swallowed pretty deep—but with big 5/0 and 6/0’s on there, a fish feels them pretty quickly and starts shaking his head rather than continuing to swallow. Then you hook ‘em in the mouth more often than the gills or gut.”
Of course, there are other things to consider—trebles or singles; how long a fish is played; how it is handled, water temps, etc., but Toman makes some interesting points here.
Food for thought anyway…