Anchor Up in Tidewater for High-Water Steelhead by Larry Ellis

Anchor Up in Tidewater for High-Water Steelhead by Larry Ellis

Originally featured in December 2012 Issue of Salmon Trout Steelheader

steelhead tidewater plug fishing

Paul LeFebvre releases a wild steelhead caught while fishing in high-water tidewater.

Ah, there’s nothing like the camaraderie that takes place at the local watering hole, where fabricated fables get spun faster than the wheels at NASCAR.  Every town has one of these hangouts, be it a sports bar, tackle shop or café – any place where bonding takes place between the brethren of steelheaders.

“The river is just too high to fish today, even for plunkers,” was the most common sentence being uttered around the big screen on this particular day, after a recent freshet had just blown out everyone’s home river.

But what this group didn’t realize was that while they were downing a few brewskis and daydreaming vicariously through each other’s far-fetched confabulations, another assemblage of anglers were living the high life and blowing the foam off the mugs of some chrome-bright metal in the real world. 

This latter group of anglers were having the time of their lives, anchored up in tidewater during high-river flows, waiting for steelhead number four to come to the net.  After the steelhead was released, their vigilant eyes were again peeled on their rod tips that were vibrating to the rhythm of their plugs, waiting for a fifth savage take-down.  

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced this unique fishery, and all I can say is that it’s an absolute blast.  

We’re talking about fishing for tidewater steelhead in high water, probably the least talked about, and without a doubt, the largest untapped resource in the steelhead arena. 

People can only speculate as to the reason why this fishery does not receive the acclaim that it deserves.  Perhaps the reason is because this fishery occurs in a section of the river that may not, at first glance, appear to be as pretty as other sections of the river.  Under normal river flows, tidewater appears lifeless with its slack frog water, muddy banks and interspersed patches of brush and willows.

But when a river starts dropping after a major rise, this seemingly featureless piece of tidewater becomes suddenly transformed into a totally different world, complete with tail-outs, slots and current seams. 

The tidewater portion of a river may not win the same beauty contests that cobblestone environments in the upper river garner, but during high water, what tidewater lacks in eye-appeal makes up with sudden take-downs that are so violent that they can yank the rod right out of its holder, and line-peeling bursts of speed that would have given Hemmingway goose bumps. 


This technique is specific for river conditions that are considered to be too high for anglers to deploy conventional steelheading techniques like drift-fishing and side-drifting.  Normally during these high-water conditions, anglers either pack it up and go home, or wait for river flows to drop enough so they can begin plunking.

But here’s something that might entice you to try this new technique.  In most cases, you can begin fishing the high flows of tidewater when the upper river is even too high for plunkers. 

But first of all, we’re not talking about fishing super-high flows of chocolate-brown water blowing chunks of debris like trees, logs and beaver dams.  That situation is at the very least – hazardous, let alone – unfishable.

We are, however, talking about fishing coastal river systems with water color ranging from a slate-gray to a pea-green hue that has visibility between 6 inches and 3 feet, with 18-inch vis being ideal.

The ideal high-water flows for fishing tidewater will vary from river to river, but under normal circumstances, you will want to look for rivers that are flowing between 2,000 and 3,000 cubic feet per second faster than what its maximum put-in flow would be for launching a drift boat.

In other words, if you wouldn’t think of launching your drift-boat until river “A” was flowing at a maximum of 4,000 cfs, the tidal portions of the same river would normally fish well between 6,000 and 7,000 cfs, sometimes even higher.


Rainfall is the factor that guides this technique.  

Sporadic storms that quickly raise river flows may create fishable conditions where the window of opportunity may only last between 2 and 3 days.

But if storm after storm keeps hammering a river system (and nobody ever knows when those super high-water years may come), the same window can last much longer. I’ve seen river systems remain fishable in tidewater for several weeks on end.   So everyone should keep this little fishing trick in their arsenal just in case a particular season produces more rain than usual.


Fishing for high-water tidewater steelhead is an anchor-up situation, and since you’re going to be bucking high-water flows, a sled with a powerful engine is the only way to go.  

I also firmly believe that the best anchor to use in these high-flow situations is the Rogue Anchor, which is basically a kedge anchor.  It can be bought at the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach.

“It’s what we call our ‘come-back anchor’ because everyone who uses other anchors in heavy current comes back to buy this one,” says Jim Carey, owner of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach (541-247-7142).

I also strongly suggest reading Gary Lewis’s article “Anchor Any River” in the October 2012 issue of Salmon Trout Steelheader, which gives explicit instructions about anchoring up your sled. 

I am really partial to covered sleds for this type of fishing.  During winter, it’s really nice to be sheltered from the cold and have a propane heater warming you up.  Then you can kick back and enjoy a game of cribbage while spinning a few yarns with your buddies while waiting for the sound of your reel’s clicker to tell you there’s a fish on. 

In addition, this fishery is kind of the opposite of fishing from a drift boat, where side-drifters launch upstream and drift downriver. High-water tidewater steelheading is done by launching from the lowest put-in, which is often from a Marina close to the river mouth. You then motor upriver to the spot of your choice, anchor your boat and then set out some plugs. 

It’s very much like anchoring up for springers in swift river current, where anglers set out plugs diving at various depths, while waiting for the streamlined locomotives to hammer their plugs on their way up the tracks to the spawning grounds.

Remember that steelhead have to come through the jaws and into tidewater first.  They come in fresh from the ocean throughout the entire steelhead season, full of vim and vigor, naïve to the hazards of river predators.  This lack of fear makes them extremely aggressive.

Most of them have never seen a Puff Ball, Corky or piece of yarn, so when these highly-energetic specimens bite into their first plug full of razor-sharp treble hooks, it really stings to beat the band, triggering them into performing feats of ferocity that can often cause you to break away from anchor.


Reading the water is critical in knowing where to anchor up and set out your plugs, because during high-water flows, steelhead travel lanes can change on a daily basis.  And therein lies the challenge of fishing high-flow tidewater steelies.

larry ellis steelhead

The author admires a hatchery steelhead caught on a Brad’s Wee Wiggler while fishing in tidewater during high water flows.  Note the willow line on the left of the photograph that created the steelhead travel lane.

But don’t let the expansive water of high tidewater intimidate you.  While this section of the river is a whole lot wider than usual during these high-water periods, you can take solace in the fact that steelies are going to be avoiding 99-percent of the river. Thankfully, that other 1 percent of water that contains their travel lanes are fairly easy to locate. 

Steelhead are going to avoid fast water and take the easiest route they can to travel upriver, almost always in the softer current located at the sides of a river bar.  If the sand bar contains willows nearby, and you are metering water between 3 and 5 feet deep, you’ve found a travel lane, especially if there is a current seam adjacent to the sand bar.

Current seams in tidewater look the same as current seams in the upper river.  They have a frothy appearance with a ripple on top and are straddling areas of calmer water.

Also make sure that your fish finder is always turned on to indicate water speed.  Steelhead will favor water that is flowing between 1.5 and 3 miles an hour, especially if it is in 3 to 5 feet of water straddling a current seam. 


If you find a lengthy slot that is between 3 and 5 feet deep, make sure to anchor up so that the stern of your sled will be approximately 40 to 50 feet upriver from the head of the slot. 

Sometimes you will luck into anchoring up correctly after the first attempt, but more often than not, it will take you three or more tries to get your boat positioned correctly. 

So don’t be afraid of moving your boat as little as a few inches to one side or the other in order to be in perfect position, where there’s a current seam on the starboard side, slightly deeper water in the center and even deeper water yet on the port side.


Now that you’ve anchored up and positioned your boat correctly, it’s almost time to set out your plugs.  But before you start sending your plugs down to the steelhead zone, it’s important to use the right rod, the reason being – you want to be able to see the vibrations of your plug at the rod tip, what is often referred to as its report.

Any rod between 8’ and 8’ 6 “ with a solid backbone and a fast soft tip will make a good plug rod for this type of fishing. 

The soft tip on the rod allows you to visibly see the report of the plug’s action, which is extremely important with this type of fishing.  If the rod tip suddenly stops wiggling, that’s usually a sign that the plug has collected some type of debris, and your cue to check the plug for leaves.

It is also critical to use the same brand and model reels so your plugs are always the same distance away from the back of your boat, creating an impenetrable wall of fear, a wall of plugs that are all the same distance from the back of the boat. When steelhead come to this wall, it really ticks them off not being able to swim through it, and often they will attack a plug out of sheer anger.

There are many aids that can help you achieve this solid wall of plugs, but remember, they are only aids which must be used in conjunction with your brain. 

Using line counters is one such aid.  Letting your plugs out so that the same number is read on all the line counters can help you achieve this lineup.  But there are other aspects to consider.

It is critical that all your line-counter reels are spooled to capacity, because reels that are unequally spooled may read the same number on the counter but in actuality will be at different distances from each other.

In addition, take into account that the plugs on the front rods will be further away from the plugs on the back rods.  Just take a look at your rod tips, estimate the distance between them (front to back), and adjust numbers on your line counters to compensate for these differences.

If you don’t have line counter reels, then use the pull method (my favorite method), where one pull is the distance from the reel to the rod’s first guide.  But what if the distance between the reel and the first guide is different on another rod that is being used on board?   If the difference is only one inch, twenty-four pulls would put that plug two feet ahead or behind the other plug.  The wall of fear just got busted.

plugs fishing

These are the author’s must-fish steelhead plugs while fishing in tidewater for high-water steelhead. From the top left going clockwise: Brad’s gold Wee Wiggler with a black back, Brad’s gold Wiggler, Brad’s gold Wiggler with a red back, Brad’s gold Wiggler with a black back, Yakima Bait’s gold MagLip with a black back for water over 10-feet deep, and a Worden’s gold FatFish with a red back for water between 7- and 10-feet deep.  Missing is a Brad’s gold Wee Wiggler with a red back.

Throw into this equation the fact that plugs that dive deeper will generally be closer to the boat than plugs that dive shallower.  The difference between the two plugs may be one inch or one foot, but if you don’t take these things into consideration, you’ll never achieve a straight line of plugs.

Now what about the angle of the rod to the water?  It only makes sense that a rod that is higher up in the air will cause a plug to run closer to the boat.

So am I being over-critical about the wall of fear?

I think not.  Setting up a wall of fear merely requires a lot of tweaking. When dispatched correctly, the formidable wall will bag you more strikes – no ifs, ands or buts. A person just has to use their brain and compensate for these irregularities when it comes to using this deadly steelhead technique.

For plug selection these are my general rules of thumb.

In three-foot depths, or for the inside rod, I like to use the Brad’s Wee Wiggler, in the colors gold with a black back, or gold with a red back.  On the middle rod, in four to five feet of water, you can also use the Wee Wiggler, but if the plug is not bottoming out, you may have to use the larger Wiggler, which dives deeper.

For the outside rod, or in water depths ranging from 6 to 8 feet, you can either use a Wiggler or  a Worden’s FatFish.

As far as scent goes, my buddies and I always make sure we have plenty of Mike’s Sand Shrimp Lunker Lotion on hand, and we apply a liberal amount of it on our plugs every time they go back in the water. 

Another important consideration when anchoring up is that one rod always tends to get bit more than another, so when you occasionally have to break away from anchor to fight a large steelhead, always remember which chock the anchor rope was running through, and when you return, place the anchor rope back through the same chock.  Doing so will insure that the same rod will continue getting hit again.

Last but not least.  Always make sure your rod is locked in its rod holder with the clicker on. The strikes are no less than thrilling and the sound of the clicker is exhilarating.  When your rod does go off, make sure that the rod tip is meeting the water with line coming off of the spool before picking it up.

Remember that this is a type of fishery that can span the entire duration of the steelhead season, depending on rainfall, so be prepared to battle both wild and hatchery steelhead, as well as the occasional springer later in the season.  Let the wall of fear begin.

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