Hopefully, history repeats itself, as after each dip in numbers the following years showed a steady increase. Sometimes that increase was record numbers of returning summer steelhead.
River Herzog and Richie Underwood all smiles with a Quinault Chinook that gripped a 50/50 BC Steel.
One of my best friends has left his 30-year home on the coast, just outside of Forks, making the big move to southwest Montana. I’ve already made the inland trek to his new place near Dillon, where the trout fishing is flat nuts in every direction. That’s a subject for later, stay tuned… what I really miss is our pre dawn rituals in front of his old place on the Sol Duc River. Especially during the fall, when there is so much to do with a fishing rod. The topics during our coffee sipping talks usually focused on what most of us anglers are thinking during autumn’s apex.
“You know, there is so much to fish for this time of year a fellow can just get frozen with indecision! You can go for summer steelhead, river salmon, saltwater, all those trophy trout lakes… boy howdy. It’s like you just had a great meal and someone brings you a huge t-bone!”
This is the way it went for many years before we loaded the truck for the days’ casting and retrieving festivities. Too much to do. If had to pick a fave time of the calendar, October and November have the firepower. In the spirit of my friend not able to make a choice, let’s shotgun our way across the angling smorgasbord and pick and choose three of my favorites out of the dozens of premium fall opportunities.
IT’S FEBRUARY IN OCTOBER
For river salmon freaks, October is your time. You are proudly sporting blue rectal examination gloves, sensually running your latex covered hands through chemically cured buckets of female fish guts. I’ll get to you folks in a minute. First, let’s talk steelhead. The best steelhead fishing of the year. There’s the sublime tribs of the Skeena, of course, but for most of us this means the Columbia and its arteries. The Klickitat. The Deschutes. John Day. The Snake. Clearwater. The Grande Ronde. I would love to add the Wenatchee and Methow rivers to this list, but piss poor returns to two of my favorite rivers have seen closures the last five years. Mid to upper Columbia summer steelhead rivers conjure up visions of plenty of opportunities, guarantees of multiple hookup days for worshippers of all techniques.
Well, under “normal” years, this would ring true.
The “easy” fishing over numbers, nicer weather, more rivers
open are the main attractions, as the grind of winter steelhead-ing never shows it’s rainy, cold dark face. Well, kids, we have been spoiled for many autumns, and now we are paying the piper for all that mindless fun. Since 1995, there have been 150,000 steelhead on bad years passing over Bonneville on their way to those previously mentioned rivers, the early 2000s saw 250,000 on average and even a half million plus in 2009. It was like pink salmon fishing used to be in Puget Sound. Last year only 100,000 showed up and projections for 2019 aren’t much better. Sounds like a lot of steelhead, but when you spread that number over a thousand miles and 15 rivers, no so much. Throw mid river Tribal netting into the mix and we have a serious numbers problem.
So what now? During those lean years of the early 70s, the WDFW and ODFW laid down closures and restrictions that would make the Spanish Inquisition blush. Nothing so far (when you read this things may be very different), just a one hatchery steelhead limit per day on the Snake and its tributaries, not two or three as we have come to expect during the last decade. Most importantly, we are fishing. But there will not be a slashing summer run behind each rock like years past. We will be searching, making many casts to empty pools and runs. Just like winter! We will be looking for a single encounter a day instead of status quo double digits. We will be steelheading. Hopefully, history repeats itself, as after each dip in numbers the following years showed a steady increase. Sometimes that increase was record numbers of returning summer steelhead.
So bring your winter ‘tudes, patience and expectations to our autumn summer run rivers. You are a steelheader. February just arrived a bit early this year.
A TROUT ENCORE
Remember all that marvelous trout fishing we had during the spring, just to watch the heat of summer put them down like an extra loud, burbling birds-dropping-out-of-the-sky fart at the dinner table on a big date. Well, good news, the cooling nights of fall is the Beano to us trout anglers who love autumn lakes. Most summer trout anglers are trading rods for rifles, leaving even the most popular waters relatively empty of competition. I know here in Central Washington we no longer have to move to the groove of the Tourist Boogie. The “dancers” from the Seattle (ugh) areas are back on the other side of the big hill where they belong. Being originally from the Seattle area, whenever I feel a twinge of homesickness I fill a humidifier with urine and close the window…mmmm…downtown…
Four pounds of fly caught trophy brook trout from a Colville Nation lake.
Anyway, trout that have endured warm and minimal oxygenated water feel the cooling from colder nights and shorter days, plus begin to trap on the feed bag with a bit of urgency, knowing the true cold is near. Food—any food—is taken with caution tossed to the breeze. This means real shots at the largest trout in lake, no more extra time to be picky. Think casting and trolling lures. The best part is now is the time lakes “flip,” that is the cooler water will be near the surface, so target trout in the top 20 feet. No downriggers or added weight.
Four pounds of fly caught trophy brook trout from a Colville Nation lake.
The old line of no flash, no fish rings true when water temps drop sharply in fall lakes. Your Number One lure out of the box should be a 1/8th oz. Rooster Tail. Think silver plated blades in the early/late light or dark overcast days; bust out the copper or brass blades mid day or under the low autumn sun. Colors? Well, Henry Ford said it best when asked which car color was his favorite; he said any color as long as it’s black. Follow that choice with brown, red and some all yellow ‘Tails if you happen to have a population of brown trout. Tip them with a single Gulp maggot or 2” of real nightcrawler. Number two would be flat lining a 2.5 Mag Lip in all gold or bleeding frog. I’ll only pull out the gear if the trout won’t play on the fly rod. Slowly rowing a 3” black marabou just under the surface has produced some real gorgeous trout for me the last few autumns on the lakes. Also, try casting or trolling a 1/6th oz. brass or copper Little Cleo, the favorite of cutthroat on both sides of the mountains.
KINGS OF METAL
I’m not talking about Black Sabbath and Judas Priest (although a great choice for road tunes on the way to the river), I speak of a way to dupe river Chinook that has a very thin following. A thin, bent metal following.
Eighteen pounds of spoon caught fall king. Spoons get more Chinook than most anglers realize.
Here’s what happens on my old home waters. When the first rains of October turn Olympic Peninsula rivers spate (rise) and colored, it’s not just coho that gets us hyped, it’s their larger angrier kin. Prime time for kings on the OP is not September, it’s October. Weirdly, the bulk of Chinook follow the first push of silvers up here. Ask thirty salmon seekers their go to king technique. Bobbers and roe, 32 out of 30. You may spend days on the coast observing only bobber and roe anglers. Big plug backtrollers, a couple. Big spinners, a few dudes. How about the spoon swingers, about as many as would swing an industrial strength two handed fly rod. That would be two…myself and my partner de jour. I can tell you for the last 15 years the spoon has been as deadly for fall kings as any other technique…when the conditions are right.
In clear water, lower flows, nothing will beat straight salmon roe. For all lure techniques, for greater success wait for rivers to drop from brownish/green to that dialed emerald we sit up at night in cold sweat dreaming about. This is when Chinook lay calmly in slack edges and ends of runs where the bottom begins to rise toward tailouts. Spoon water.
Swinging/fluttering spoons is not new; in fact the man most consider the greatest Northwest fishing writer of all, Roderick Haig-Brown (famous for his writings on fly fishing for steelhead), fished spoons only for giant kings in the lower Nimpkish River on Vancouver Island in the 1950s. His explanations of how the spoon moves across the pool in Fisherman’s Fall are the best descriptions of spoon fishing (the
“mind’s eye,” as he says) ever written. He said a strike from a bright fall heavy king on a spoon was the greatest thrill in river fishing. Copper was his most successful king color (finish), but under limited visibility, when Chinook are most aggressive, you need far more “pop” to get their attention.
Since the 1990s oval style spoons rule the rivers, not just for steelhead but kings/coho as well. Their overall width, weight, wave and camber make them ideal for use in nearly all types of holding water. For all my river salmon fall days, the only spoon in my box is the BC Steel from Pen Tac in three finishes—the silver/gold 50/50 (flat rotten murderous), all silver plate for 2 to 5 feet of visibility and from 6 foot plus (not my fave condition) go with all copper, Haig-Brown’s choice. He was right on with that choice in clearer water. For sizes, 2/3rds will get down easier but 2/5ths will have more flutter. Carry both.
The Eastern autumn season for big water steelhead is short but oh so rewarding. Dave Kilhefner image.
Think trophy steelhead for your rod/reel/line choice. Rods of 9 to 10 foot, rated for 12 to 20 pound. Reels like a Shimano 3000 spinning or 300 Curado casting will do, fill them with 30-pound braid (hi vis or white so you may follow and track
the lure’s movement) with a seven-foot top shot of uni-knotted natural toned or clear 20-pound mono. Switch hooks to 3/0 Gamakatsu Big River Siwash and have at them.
Fish the spoon with a slow, deep swing, slower the better. Allow the spoon to “drop” by giving the lure a foot or so of pure slack for a second or two before re-tightening the line. Do this every four or five seconds during the swing presentation. All salmon key on falling lures. For the same reasons Chinook grip big spinners and plugs, they savagely strike spoons. Sometimes they can be so aggressive towards them they can ruin a day of coho fishing, running off with your expensive silver-plated lures meant for smaller salmon on lighter gear. Expect most strikes when the spoon is almost on the hang down near the end of your swing, a bit less on the down-flutter after the cast hits the water.
A typical sized Eastern doe steelhead. They love a swung fly!!
Try a wee bit of the spooning this October on the Hoh, lower Quinault, Queets, Bogachiel, Sol Duc and Humptulips. There should be average numbers of Chinook returning this fall, so if conditions are right, a trip to the coastal rivers should be well worth your time. Don’t be shocked if a few early hatchery or wild winter steelhead climb all over that spoon. Some of the largest wild winter steelhead I’ve ever seen (and not landed!) were hooked in November while spoon fishing for coho and Chinook on the rain forest rivers. Maybe you folks in Oregon could give this technique a shot on your home waters—results may shock you!
The cool part of the program is, normally, only the freshest, brightest salmon strike metal. One way to weed out the dark-er, plodding fish. Honestly, you’ve never had a strike on bent metal until 30 pounds of bright fall Chinook decides to take your spoon out of the food chain. You may pee a little. When the rivers drop and gin up, which they will, get your blue gloved bud-dies with the sliding bobbers and bucket of red cured fish eggs and off you go.
Red is the author's #1 choice for bunny/marabou flies.
Keep your spoons handy when the kings peter out and the big, hook nosed snarly coho march in. Have I missed any opportunities? How about swinging a fly for giant wild rainbows in the upper Columbia near the Canadian border? Fly fishing/jig fishing for chrome chums in Grays Harbor and Hood Canal? A possible state record rainbow in Rufus Woods Reservoir? Sea-run cutthroat? Yeah. Fall is here. See you in the buffet line.