I asked five questions to some of the best steelheaders alive to steer you toward a twenty-pound trophy. Here’s what they had to say...
In this Brave New World even the most skilled anglers can have plenty of obstacles between them and finding a steelhead. Lord knows the last few seasons I’ve come dangerously close to selling my soul during far too many winter days for a single hookup. We love them all, from the four-pound peanuts to the mid-teeners, they make losing sleep and suffering through numbing cold, wet, darkness and inevitable skunkings almost worth the price of admission. Make no mistake, we all want the same reward for our sacrifices. A chance at the seemingly unobtainable twenty-pound ghost. It may be as simple as fishing as often as possible, in as many rivers as one can afford to visit, relying on sheer serendipity for crossing paths with a giant. With that in mind, nothing worth having is handed to you, especially a trophy steelhead. We are all too familiar with the formula for success: Extensive preparation x time x effort = steelhead of a lifetime. Does a shortcut exist?
There’s a game my fishing partners and I used to play around the campfire, usually after one too many potent potables. The scene usually got loud, all speaking out of turn, finger pointing, suggestions on their mother’s breeding habits, you get the picture. Fun, right? We’ve all been there. The one subject that always got the most play was this: I got five questions for you, if you could 1) only pick one river, 2) one day of the year, 3) one section to fish, 4) one water level with 5) one technique for a trophy steelhead, what would you say?
There are a few rules. First, and most importantly, the river has to be available to the general public. If there were access to a time machine, it would be possible to enjoy the rare opportunity I was able to capitalize on—the ability to fish the now private trophy waters of the Skeena, when those places were in their discovery phase and Joe Anybody could afford to haul in giant steelhead hand over fist. For the gear-angler and/or those who cannot just drop eight grand for a week of fishing, that option, for myself and the hundreds of other real steelheaders (not just loaded CEO’s with too much money) that would truly appreciate it, no longer exists.
No multi-thousand-dollar trips to select British Columbia waters, no fly-in by helicopter/float plane only, no inaccessible rivers or pay-to-fish tribal streams. That first rule alone immediately eliminates the easy answers. The section of river must be easily accessible by bank as well as boat anglers. The waters must be open for all types of techniques.
So, to help my fellow steelheaders, I’ve called the Justice League of steelhead fishing to my aid. Six of the best to slip on a pair of waders. You will definitely recognize the names. We have followed their exploits for years—in magazines, on television, seminars, radio, DVDs or just on the water. All have had numerous encounters with the icon of our sport—the twenty-pound steelhead—and each has an encyclopedia of information on exactly how, when and where to help the readers find their Ike. I asked them each the same five questions. With the previously mentioned rules in mind, here’s what they had to say. Please ignore the run on sentences, misspelled and/or dirty words, the poor grammatical content, as I tried to keep the quotes as close to the interview as possible. As a bonus, I’ve asked each angler to give one invaluable tip to the steelhead fisherman. Get a yellow highlighter.
Might as well kick things off with the Joe Montana of the steelhead world...
The Dean of all Steelheaders
If there were a Mt. Rushmoreish tribute to the greatest steelhead anglers, this fellow would be first in line. For forty-plus years the man in the hat has been the Pied Piper of the steelheading world. His record-sized fish have been in every magazine this side of Pluto. From Luhr Jensen to Berkely to Yakima Bait, he has been and always will be the face of our sport. From salmon to trout to Russian taimen...all hail the king.
Buzz Ramsey and John Chamberlain with a 30-pound Thompson River steelhead caught in 1984.
BR: “Well...holy smokes...a twenty-pounder, wow, interesting. I have caught some big steelhead. Remember those two, the 25- and 30-pounders a day apart, especially, I caught from BC’s Thompson River back in ‘84. So, for a river I obviously have to go with the Thompson for my choice to find a trophy. There are many rivers in Washington, Oregon and California that an angler could find a twenty-pounder, but for odds, I still have to go with the Thompson.
“Timing, the Thompson is a fall fishery, I would go there the last week of October through the first week of November, so to pick one day I have to go with November 1st as ‘trophy day’. Water conditions...the Thompson stays fairly stable, so at that time you pretty much get what you get. The river has great visibility, approximately five to six feet, and tremendous flows. They move around a lot there, where you find them one day may be barren the next and vice versa. Because the river is so large, you will find them in the shallower spots. Look for structure and flats less than 10 feet deep but no less than five, those areas we targeted and always found big steelhead laying in that style of structure. The bigger, deeper holes, no steelhead.
“Best area...well, this is no surprise, really, but I would fish the first couple miles above Spences Bridge. More water up there than one guy could fish thoroughly in a month. Best technique, I have to choose one, since you can no longer fish from a boat on the Thompson (transportation only), it would have to be a large 6- to 8-inch shiny pink plastic worm and a float. Big steelhead love a huge pink worm. Present that worm on fairly heavy tackle, also. The Thompson is a mine field of giant boulders that just do not allow you to drift fish, a float is mandatory or you’ll be re-tying all day long. If you can find a run where there are no anglers around, try a Side Planer and a 3.5 Mag Lip in chrome/blue. That’s the color they really went for back in the day, no reason to believe it wouldn’t work as well now.”
Buzz Ramsey’s Tip: “One tip for the steelheader...okay, always stay on high alert. Keep your eyes on the rod, never waiver. Be always at the ready to set the hook, to pull the trigger so to speak, when that float or tip nods down. Stay in the moment.”
Thanks, Buzz. To quote Wayne and Garth, we’re not worthy.
Contemporary Hunter of Giants
Anyone with seventy twenty-pound steelhead on his resume, plus a few thirty-pounders, well, pull up a chair and open your ears. Like pigs that sniff out truffles, DC has an in-bred skill for finding outsized double-striped beasts like no one else I’ve ever met. Pay extra close attention when Captain Cook talks trophies.
Danny Cook with a monster caught north of the border.
DC: “Boy...you take away the Skeena rivers it makes the choice tough. The Kispiox in B.C. is sort of available to the general public, with pretty good bank access, but I can’t count those rivers, right? Boy... there’s the Sol Duc, the Skagit if it was still open...for a trophy river that you can still target (open), I would have to say Washington’s Skykomish River, the Proctor Creek stretch between Sultan and Monroe. When might be a surprise, but I would try to be there on February 14th. It might seem early, but the Sky’ gets more trophy-sized steelhead than most anglers are aware of at this time.
“Water height...gotta be right after it starts to drop into fishable shape. The river must be high and green so the big fish are not up under some inaccessible cover. When the water is up it moves them to the shallower holding water. The darker water color also makes them really aggressive. And although I love Tadpollys and BC Steels, which are two of the top no-brainer go-to lures for giant bucks, I would have to drift fish a large “bubble gum pink” plastic worm and #6 metallic pink Cheater, 15- to 20-pound Maxima leader, mainline and 2/0 hook. Lots of color and profile on that lure. Big bucks really grip a drift-fished big pink worm.”
Danny Cook’s Tip: “Before you make your first cast, always try and reflect, even for a moment, on why you started steelheading, the magic you felt. Nothing compares to that. Enjoy the beauty of your surroundings, the exploration of new water. Appreciate your surroundings. That’s where it’s at for me.”
Stop by the Wooldridge Boats factory in south Seattle sometime and step in Danny’s office. Checking out each of his 700 framed photos of trophy steelhead takes as much time as looking at every painting in the Louvre.
Olympic Peninsula Guide, Dean of the Sol Duc River
A hardcore gear-angler for thirty years, JD now pursues steelhead with fur and feathers almost exclusively. He’s had dozens of encounters with huge fish, a handful of them in the thirty-pound category. As someone who lives on the banks of and makes his living on one of the best trophy steelhead rivers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, JD has a vault full of experience to share.
J.D. Love with a trophy hooked on the swing.
JDL: “Maybe you should talk to my wife Sandy, she caught the largest steelhead I’ve ever had in my boat on the Peninsula, a fish from the Sol Duc well over 30 pounds on a metallic pink Tadpolly...we’ll come back to that. Which river...have to stay in my back yard and go with the Sol Duc. It produces a lot of twenty-pound fish, has great access for boat and bank anglers. Got to be high and just dropping into shape, just about two to maybe three feet of visibility. I’ve seen and caught large steelhead in late January and early April, but if I had to pick one day it has to be March 1st. A week before, during and a week after that date would be a solid bet to find a twenty-pounder up here.
“How would I catch them...three techniques come to mind, because I primarily fly-fish now it would be a 6” black/purple string leech, 25-pound tippet, swung deep and slow. For gear, straight 20-pound test to a size 4 rocket red Spin-N-Glo, 3/0 hook, drifted deep and then swung slowly at the end of the presentation, or probably the best trophy steelhead lure I’ve ever seen, or like I mentioned earlier, a metallic pink Tadpolly. Find a run with a lot of structure—big rocks, ledges and at least six feet deep, run that Tadpolly back down through there. There are a half dozen lures that will get you a trophy, big pink worms or a BC Steel spoon also come to mind, but I really want a monster, it’s a Tadpolly.
JD Love’s Tip: “Just go fishing. Winter steelhead, especially trophy sized ones, only come from putting in time on the water. Doesn’t matter the technique, try to go when conditions are best and don’t worry about other anglers. During popular times and on busy rivers, try to fish higher or lower in the system than everyone else. Fish hard, keep casting, don’t quit, fish well, be courteous and be patient.”
JD is the only person I know that you may step off his back porch and have a le-git shot at a twenty-pound steelhead. How do I know? I’ve done it twice.
The Oregon Chameleon
Pick a steelheading technique, Robert has put the master stamp on it. The true steelhead gurus show total dominance of every technique, RC has earned that Scout badge. From his many informative articles to his timely how-to books, I can’t think of another angler today with the range of Robert Campbell.
Robert Campbell with a giant.
RC: “(Chuckle) You really want an honest answer? Okay...here it is, only because it’s for STS and the long-time readers deserve a great tip...I would have to say Oregon’s Salmonberry River, March 31st, just before it closes. Wow, I know a dozen or so guys out there just flipped out when they read that. As far as water height, because the river is on the smallish side I would say hit it right after it barely drops into shape, water color being olive, just before it greens up. This place is also one of the rare streams that fishes well on the rise.
“Favorite lure? Here’s an answer that I know won’t surprise you, especially. Swing a 3/4-ounce, silver-plate/cerise Gibbs Koho spoon, with a high-quality 3/0 siwash. Yes, kids, that big. Lots of profile and flash for minimum visibility, plus we all know a huge buck is off-the-charts territorial and will murder bent metal when all other techniques are ignored. And tie that to straight 20-pound test. They are not line shy and if you want to land that beast you better go big or stay home! More big steelhead are lost because we use gear that’s too light, you just cannot get a proper hook-set and turning a trophy away from obstacles is not an option. It’s wonderful for low water and small fish, feel free to land all the 6- to 8-pounders you want. I’ll take a few less bites and land a twenty. By the way, spare no expense when spooling up. Expensive line cost a lot for good reason abrasion-resistant, great knot strength. My trophy line is 20-pound Seaguar Tatsu. You just can’t break that stuff.”
Robert Campbell’s Tip: “Let’s see, what do you call it, fish the fringe. Today, we have to deal with crowded rivers and shared info online. We all know when the rivers are in ideal shape. Be on the river a day before it drops into shape. Don’t shy away from dirty water. Yeah, it takes a little longer to really work the water. You can use bigger gear, and the water is yours while the masses are two days away.”
Emeritus of Been There, Done That
Following in the footsteps of his father, legendary publisher Frank Amato, was not a cakewalk. Nick has filled Uncle Frank’s slip-on Italian loafers quite well, not to mention Nick’s far-reaching steelheading experiences that most of us can only dream of. Don’t be fooled by his “gee whiz” demeanor, Nick has shaken hands with the king of our sport many, many times.
NA: “Well, first go down to the (bleep) River, head to the upper section near (bleep) and drift a (bleep) in March. I can even give you exact GPS coordinates, which rock to stand on and exact river levels. Naw, that’s just for you...don’t ever repeat that, ever, please... Okay, if I had one river, it would be the lower Umpqua, immediately above tidewater, last week of January. The river has to be low and cold, however. This stacks the fish up, the water is warmer down near tidewater plus every fish going up the North and South forks is waiting for rain...and there are a lot of them. There is a very good chance for a fish at or better than twenty pounds. A shot at even a chrome thirty-pounder is not out of the realm of possibility. Look for deeper holding sections, featuring boulders or because the Umpqua is famous for these, cast right alongside the basalt ledges. Big steelhead love to have a right-angle ledge protecting their one side.”
Nick Amato’s Tip: “I know this seems obvious, but target the edges, the seams. Too often I watch anglers fish water that is too quick, no matter the water condition. If a steelheader did no more than hit the edges, especially under higher conditions, your catch numbers would go way up.”
Domo arigato, Mr. Amato...
Finder of NorCal Trophies
The “other” JD on our survey. As steel-headers wanting to find trophy-sized fish, we can be thankful Mr. Richey abandoned his rock/rap MTV star status in the early 90s (check out the video for
“Cut It Up” by the Boom Cowboyz on You Tube) for a career guiding on/writing about Northern California’s trophy rivers. His website, “Fish With JD” is one of the best sources of steelhead/salmon/trout information on the Web. “Dakota”, er, JD is also one of the most talented “how-to” outdoor writers of our generation.
J.D. Richey with a big summer-run.
JDR: “So, we’re talking California rivers here, right? Your best chance, and this won’t be a surprise to anyone from down here, for a mind-blowing epic spazzed-out experience from a trophy, I would choose the Smith. The Smith kicks out more twenty-pounders than anywhere else in NorCal. Water conditions? Since the Smith usually flows so clear, my favorite time is when the river just begins to drop in, 2 to 3 feet of visibility. This condition makes them really aggressive. When you can get this condition from Christmas to New Years, this is when the real toads come in. Not a lot of them, but it seems the biggest fish come in during that time. Oh, yeah...target the stretch from the forks down about a mile. That’s the best area.
“I would say the number one lure for trophy steelhead is ‘something wobbling’. That would include spoons, but the best would be a 4.5” Mag Lip, more big steelhead have hit the chrome/chartreuse butt than any other color. The slightly smaller 3.5” is a good choice also, but big fish, big plug. We figured that out when trophy steelhead were being hooked rather regularly while back-trolling for salmon. California steelhead love that chrome/chartreuse combination. Second would be metallic pink/purple butt. The only problem with this is everyone on our very busy rivers prefers to side-drift. It’s hard to plug-fish, blocking up a run when everyone is moving swiftly through. You never get a super warm welcome parking on the freeway, so to speak. However, if you get a chance when the run is open, definitely try a plug for a giant.”
JD Richey’s Tip: “My best tip? Don’t be disappointed if you don’t catch a steelhead. Everybody gets skunked. Try to enjoy your day and chalk it up to a learning experience. First and foremost, covet each and every one. Make each fish special. In this day and age, with the Internet and all, and the crushing competition for each fish you hook, make sure it means something to you.”
You gotta admit, the bikini chicks in the video are really hot.
So there you go, kids. Get a map, buy a calendar, snag a copy of the state fishing regulations, hit the tackle shop, fill up the gas tank and hit the river. We hope this sage advice from six Hall Of Famers helps you find Number One. Because when we talk trophy steelhead, one is a pretty large number.
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