I was asked to perhaps entertain the idea of an article on spoon fishing for winter steelhead. Truth be told, in the last 35+ years I have put down a crazy train load of words in print on the subject, anyone who has been paying even a fraction of attention has seen the work.
Rubber waders, fiberglass rod, a nickel Little Cleo and a large Babine River steelhead with guide Todd Stockner in 1983.
Because of this I was naturally a bit hesitant to re-hash the subject in STS for the 450th time. I felt a bit like the Seattle Mariners, who every summer drag out the line-ups from the legendary 1995 team to a game in late July when the fans have no other reason to be there…bring out your biggest hits to sell tickets when you’ve got not much else.
We forget sometimes as fishing writers there are the young, the newcomers to the sport regardless of age and of course those who love everything about what we do and just want to sponge it all up all over again.
So, like a classic rock band that is on their farewell tour, I’m going to roll-out the play list one more time, for a retirement tour if you will, for those who have never seen the show and for those who want to sing along with the hits one more time. This one is for the fans. Lights down, curtains up, on your feet. It’s time for some classic metal!
The Opening Number…
Types of Spoons for River Fishing Welcome…
Welcome... to my world of steel. It started January something, 1971 on the legendary Puyallup River, one of the rivers that spawned the metal genre’ for winter steelhead. My uncle taught me how to swing spoons there; a ½-ounce red/white Dardevle caught my very first steelhead below the mouth of the Carbon River. The Dardevle has caught countless steelhead, and if any-one still used them, they would still catch steelhead today. Like many techniques, spoon fishing has evolved greatly since the days of fiberglass rods and Ambassadeur reels. Let’s begin by looking at the four styles of spoons and show why one style literally outshines all others.
The four are, with examples: The fat teardrop (Stee-Lees, Wob-L-Rites), the classics (Dardevles), the ovals (BC Steels, Little Cleos) and elongated (Krocodiles). Fat teardrops have the greatest surface area to weight ratio, so they tend to “float” more that the narrower styles. Elongated styles have the least surface area to weight, so they sink far quicker. So much so they are best suited for jigging than river fishing. Drop a manhole cover (fat teardrop) and a large metal spike (elongated) that weigh the same and see which sinks quickest. The very first steelhead spoon was the fat teardrop Wob-L-Rite, brought to the Northwest by a gent named CV Clark of Seneca Tackle. The Stee-Lee was the most popular spoon in my youth, thousands of steelhead were tricked in Puget Sound rivers alone by this fat teardrop style. The Dardevle, a classic style with truly little wave (bend) had a better surface area to weight ratio and was a killer for winter steelheaders for twenty plus years. It was a teardrop/classic show on western steelhead rivers, until some Californians brought a Midwest staple to the Skeena system in the early ‘70s and changed spoon fishing for steelhead forever.
When the Little Cleo spoon, an oval style, was used on the hallowed waters of the Skeena system it did not take long for this style of spoon to get the reputation for finding giant male steelhead. Back then, the lure featured a topless woman on the concave side, so speculation why the largest males struck the spoon so well…
River Herzog with a Snake River summer run caught on a 1/4-ounce brass BC Steel.
The reason this style works better that the rest is its versatility. Where a teardrop works best in slow/shallow water, elongated only in the deepest/fastest water and the classic somewhere in between, the oval Cleo features a dual wave (bend), one more than the classic which naturally doubled its action. It features the nearly ideal balance of weight to surface ratio, which means it can be fished in nearly all river situations by adjustments with a combination of line angle/retrieve speed/rod angle. No other style can claim this, we noticed this on our trips to BC and brought the Cleo back home where we made our own version…but far improved. At Pen Tac we wanted the perfect steelhead spoon, the Cleo being the template. A pair of Boeing wing engineers put hydrodynamics to work and created the BC Steel, which is perfectly balanced with weight, surface area and wave (bend) in addition to new edges and hole placement. Boom.
Just look at the number of cheaper finished, less quality brass bodied knock offs of the BC Steel out there today if there is any doubt which style spoon is the most effective. No one is copying fat teardrops, classics or elongated styles.
The Sing Along…
Techniques for Spoon Fishing
One of the most talented spoon fishermen I’ve ever seen was a gent named Kent Williamson from of all places, North Carolina. The man fished the sublime Babine River, a tributary of queen Skeena every fall for 30 years. Kent fished a Little Cleo one way using a 7-foot bass rod, he cast upstream from his position and “burned” the spoon back to his position, close to the bottom, like a spinner. He caught a train load of trophy steelhead doing this. We are not going do that. Just wanted to show that when someone shows (tells) you how to do something it is never an absolute.
Allow me to drop an opinion that is a paradox of my very existence—spoon fishing is both the easiest and most difficult technique. Easy? Box of lures, sharpener, braid cutter and pliers are all you need for a day. Just cast it out and retrieve it back to your side of the river. One knot to the lure and off you go. Difficult? Knowing that every piece of steelhead water fishes differently with spoons, many times the presentation changes multiple times in one cast. Keeping the spoon down in the zone, wobbling and giving off flash at the ideal cadence, yet not allowing it to lose action and hit rock or retrieve too rapidly causing it to spin and rise. You may never take an eye blink off, perpetual adjustments and paying rapt attention to the entire presentation is what makes this technique difficult. Fishing with a technique that requires more work is most rewarding. You do all the control, not relying completely on the mindless, skill-optional dragging downstream of an un-mended sawed-off bobber…
The following was my uncle’s favorite saying. Standing with me on Day One on the Puyallup, he said,” Spoon fishing is something you can do in five minutes, but it will take you a lifetime to perfect.” He was spot on. That man had me hooking my first steelhead after just a few minutes of instruction. Fifty (throwing up emoji) years later I’m still learning how to present a spoon. I think I figured out a few things, but everyone needs practice.
Let’s begin with the presentation used 90% stream side: The Classic Swing…an exhibition of sheer precision.
First, recognize what “spoon water” is. Ideally, it’s that long piece of water that is deep on one side, tapering to shallow on the gravel bar you’re standing on. Know that this is “cheater water,” but almost ev-erything can be fished with a spoon as long as you know where the lure is at all times and how much action is being imparted to the lure.
The hat says it all... 30 pounds of B.C. steelhead loved metal.
Begin with positioning immediately above where you would expect the first fish in the run to hold under current conditions. Depending on depth and speed of the water, cast either slightly above your position (for faster/deeper water) or just below your position (slower/shallower water) and allow, using your mind’s eye, the lure to sink to near bottom. I say “near” because a steelhead will rise to the lure, no need to bang rocks.
Here is where practice, practice, practice comes in. You must keep the spoon wobbling, not spinning, as a spinning lure will create a “push” that causes the lure to rise toward the surface like a water skier. No bueno. This is done by following the lure downriver as it travels with the rod tip, a faster follow to allow more sink and a stop or hold back to allow it to catch up. Line tension is paramount, not so much it pulls the spoon either out of position, initiating unwanted spin and not so little tension the spoon finds rock and stops working. A great balance is just enough tension to allow a slight “bounce” in the mainline, this shows the lure is wobbling and flashing properly and not spinning. Watch your rod, it should be slightly bent and vibrating from tip to butt, a “wiggle” of the rod tip approximately twice a second. Using bright mainlines shows off this bounce easily and helps follow the exact position of the lure. You may fish remark-ably close to obstructions when you know the lures exact location, too difficult to do with natural toned mainlines.
For the spoon to work, it must have water flowing over the head of the body to create a series of push/pull vacuums that impart action to the spoon. Try to keep the head of the lure facing upstream, even slightly, to allow the spoon to do its thing.
Before you begin your cast, know that every piece of water will fish differently, most of the time depth/speed will change multiple times during a presentation. Here is where you must do two things simulta-neously to be effective—stay close to the bottom while keeping just enough tension on the line to allow water to flow over the head of the lure, imparting action. Not so little tension it allows the lure to strike bottom, killing all action, dulling hooks and possibly losing the lure to obstructions. Keeping the spoon moving along is priority number one.
There will be a time after each presentation the lure will be beneath you. If it is still working in holding water, leave it be for a second or two, as a follower may have just caught up to it. Usually the spoon has travelled into the shallows; reel swiftly while raising rod tips to keep it off rocks.
Bill Explains Swinging Spoons for Coho:
Now it becomes clearer why you see few anglers swinging spoons, especially beginners. It is by far the most difficult technique and it takes the longest just to get to the level of minimal effectiveness. In today’s more-faster-now attitudes and the competitiveness created by social media, few are willing to sacrifice hookups when there are fall-down simple techniques that make beginners look like grizzled vets.
Spoon fishing is your connection to the best times of yesteryear and is one hell of a lot more satisfying.
Cold is the time for a spoon’s flash to “wake up” lethargic steelhead.
Hits From The Most Popular Album: Spoon Weights, Colors and Finishes
Ed Eppinger, son of the inventor of the Dardevle spoon, said that his company makes spoons in over 2,000 color and metal finish combinations. When he fishes, however, he uses only brass and red/white, as Ed claims the other colors are for the fishermen. Think the same when choosing steelhead spoons to match conditions, as only a few are all you will really need to tempt strikes in 90% of all river conditions.
For 2 feet of visibility (bare minimum for moving lures) to 6 feet, choose genuine silver plate, not nickel. Silver reflects 90% of light, giving off the most flash and attraction. Gold is the same, except for a yellow flash instead of white. The best finish under “green means go” conditions is by far the 50/50, half gold/half silver finish. From 6 foot to unlimited go with copper or plain brass, which give off 40% of light, a toned-down version so not so likely to spook fish in clearer water. The “attraction threshold” is the desire, that is using a finish that makes fish aggressive but not so much flash it spooks them.
One quarter ounce, 2/5ths and 2/3rd ounce oval spoons will make up your metal arsenal, with 2/5ths and 2/3rds getting most of the playing time. Quarter ounce ovals for very shallow and/or slow flowing water, 2/5ths for nearly all other times and 2/3rds for getting that extra casting distance on larger rivers and getting down faster on edges.
Like Ed, I use two colors (finishes) for all my spoon fishing now, either copper for unlimited visibility up to 5 feet and silver plate for 2-1/2 to 6 foot of visibility. Quarter ounce for low water and 2/5ths for every-thing else. The rest of the equation is reading water and the fish actually being there. A spoon will work from 2 feet of visibility up to unlimited.
For rigging the spoon, there are three or four different and effective ways to do it, personal preference be your guide. My go to rigging on the oval spoon is this: Start by placing two #5 or #6 split rings on the 2/5ths and 2/3rds top and bottom, #5s on the ¼ ounce. Place a #5 quality barrel swivel on the top and bottom, a #7 on the ¼ ounce. Clamp on a high quality 1/0 or 2/0 open eyed siwash style single hook (depending on the size of fish you may hook) on the bottom swivel, a #1 siwash on the ¼ ounce. Sharpen ‘em up and off you go.
What about colors? Reds, greens, chartreuse, glow? Sure. They work. But if you stick with just metal finishes and present them properly, nothing else matters. If you have a favorite color/finish that works well and gives great confidence, stay with it.
Like father, like son, River throws spoons before any other technique.
Something From The New Album…
Super Lines and Braids
Spoon fishing in rivers has been pretty much the same show at every stop since monofilament was invented by the DuPont company in 1951. Except for perhaps some new plating techniques and hook placement, shapes, styles and colors have been all the same since Elvis. Throw in advancements on rods and reels and you are up to date. Add new evolutions on braided and fused super lines and now we take spoon fishing up 10 notches.
It starts with feel. No stretch super lines transfer feel, the movements of the lure at a ridiculous level compared to stretchy monos. Watching lines bounce and rod tip movements are our only clues when using mono, as stretch virtually kills all sensation to the hand, no mater the most expensive, light and sensitive rods of today.
Ideally, most 30-pound braids are thin enough to use on spinning reels and fine for heavier level wind use; for lighter spoons, spinning reels exclusively and smaller fish try a 20-pound braid mainline. Braids take 99% of the guesswork out of where and what the lure is doing. Nearly every movement of the spoon body is transferred to the hand, plus anglers can now feel instant contact with bottom to prevent lure loss, dulled hooks and knowing precisely where the lure is travelling, keeping it in the strike zone. Hook sets are now a non-worry, as zero stretch allows 100 feet of line out and still drive a sharp tine home.
The addition of approximately 7 feet of mono “top shot” uni-knotted to the braid main line serves several purposes. For summer fishing, smaller fish and lower flows, use 12-pound test; for winter, larger fish 15 pound and even 20 when you suspect the large natives are prowling. It acts alike a shock absorber on wicked strikes; it gives an easier and more secure knot to the lure and a somewhat invisible connection unlike bright colored or opaque braids. Bottom line…braid will make you a far more effective spoon fisher.
Again, there are many of us who prefer the feel of old school mono when they swing metal. That’s fine. A lot of us don’t like chocolate and root for the Dallas Cowboys. If you haven’t tried super lines for spoon fishing, give it a serious try. Never run from innovation…or root for Dallas.
End of the Show….
The Biggest Hits And The Encores
A glint of steel and a flash of light…from a streak of fire as he strikes! Truth be told, the real reason I, along with countless metal maniacs, swing spoons is for the grab. It’s what we all need, it’s what we gotta have! Similar to the suddenness of contact when swinging a fly, but ferocity is amped up past 11 when a real beast decides it is going to remove that wobbling thing from its holding area. There is nothing (not even a plug grab, cause the rod is in the holder) in our sport to compare with a breath robbing eye popping knot testing graphite-creaking-into-the-cork spoon rip down.
Other than the primal scream inducing strike, why invest so much effort on a technique that works so infrequently? We’ll start with a show of hands…how many folks would like to hook the largest steelhead in the river? Exactly. Know that a spoon is first and foremost a trophy lure. Large males (usually the largest of the species in any river system) are extremely territorial, as any large, animated object (like a plug or spoon) will be treated like an intruder and be forcefully removed.
A giant (obviously) fall steelhead that killed a Little Cleo for the author in 1984.
Think of this analogy…a big dog is sitting in his yard. Toss him a small dog treat. If it doesn’t land close, yeah, he sees it, but its far too much energy to move his big butt to go get it. Throw it right to him, he eats it…maybe. Now throw a hissing, wiry cat into his yard. Spoons are the cat. Baits, jigs, beads, worms…each remarkably effective but those are just doggie treats.
Colder water (under 42 degrees) can make for lethargic fish. The flash of a spoon can “wake them up” and jazz them enough to strike when un-animated lures that feature only color and profile may not move them.
I have a hundred stories of times Ike and his ilk have been duped to the flash of metal, but here are two that just may be convincing enough to throw a spoon rod in the boat.
Both tales come from the Babine River in BC. You see, the Babine and her sister the Kispiox have the honor, according to biologists, of producing the largest steelhead on the blue marble. Sixty pounds—and perhaps larger—are the top end of their size. During fifty years of targeting these kraken, many have been hooked (including two by the author, both ending badly), but landing one, well…do not bring your jig and bobber rod to the Babine.
First tale (legend, if you will) comes from original owner/guide of famed Norlakes Lodge, Ejnar Madsen. This was back in the ‘70s, btw, when drifting roe was legal. Guests fished eggs, Okie Drifters and Little Cleo spoons. Roe was the big number getter, Okies were a strong second, but if you wanted a wall hanger, you threw a spoon. There was one run called Cal-lahan’s Ledge that year after year always held the biggest in the river. Ejnar would take his trophy hunters to that pool, with a 2/5ths Little Cleo. In his memoirs he stated that every guest that wanted a 25-pound steelhead—or larger—got one from the Ledge with a spoon. Each year until spoons were outlawed on the river (2007), the biggest fish caught on the Babine gripped a spoon. Not eggs, not drift bobbers, not pink worms, not even the biggest mamba bunny/marabou flies. A spoon.
Don’t think for one second that fact was lost on me my first trip to the Babine in 1979. Every picture on the cabin walls, in the main lodge, each angler holding steelhead too large for reality…each one had a spoon in its maw. That was the year I drank the Kool Aid and became a crazed spoon fisherman.
Second, and I believe it’s my favorite steelhead story of all time.
Remember Kent Williamson, from earlier? Some years back Kent was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Instead of the gruesome treatment with the same result, he opted to hang on and go back to his beloved Babine one more October. It was a Friday afternoon, the last time a guest gets to fish before packing up and heading out Saturday morning. The guests are shuttled from run to run during the day, and this was Kent’s last few hours he would ever get to fish for steelhead. The owner knew this, dropped him off on his favorite run, Callahan’s Ledge, and jetted off. He came back to pick up Kent a few hours later, only to find him tight to an unseen beast.
Who doesn’t love the colors of big male steelies? a 2/5ths silver plate BC Steel always finds trophies up North.
Kent had been fighting the steelhead since he was dropped off. Couldn’t move it. They got in the sled and gave chase. The fish (which took a 2/5ths BC Steel, I’m proud to say) slid up on the beach…and kept sliding up the beach. It was 54 inches long, a 29-inch girth. Fifty…eight…pounds!!!!! They took pictures, released the surreal fish. It was Kent’s last steelhead, the world record if it was legal to kill. Kent watched it swim off, revived, stood up and said, “I’m ready to go now.” I have to believe that is exactly how every steelheader should all go into that good night.
Indeed, why spoons? Besides the great thundering strike and its ability to find a trophy, what’s left? I used to begin my spoon seminars by saying if I had a ma-chine that could show a fresh, aggressive steelhead a choice cluster of salmon roe and a spoon at the exact same time, the steelhead would likely take the eggs first 10 out of 10 times. Wha…huh? Perhaps true, but there are a few reasons to always keep a spoon or two in the vest.
Time Is On Your Side, Yes It Is.
As we know, unlike any other technique (spinners also) the wobbling/rotating body of a spoon gives off some degrees of flash. This is possibly our greatest advantage for choosing spoons during our times on the water. This flash, depending on water clarity, gives off an attraction radius that no other technique provides. It's time on the water we value the most, why not make the best of it? Spoons can do just that, lets do a bit of math and show why.
Let’s say there is 6 feet of visibility. Using a silver-plated spoon (which gives off maximum light reflection) that gives approximately twelve plus feet in every direction of the lure for the fish to see and strike. If the run is 100 feet long, ten casts work the water and off you go to a fresh piece of river. If drift gear, beads, jigs, bait and the like only can be seen for 6 feet, that takes almost double the number of casts, more importantly double the amount of time to properly work the water. Other techniques may be overall more effective, but we are looking for aggressive, fresh fish, remember? End of the day, or the short valuable times we get to fish now double the amount of water. Looking for a creature that today is never in abundance stretching out opportunities like this makes a lot of sense.
A Trip To Becharof Lodge with the Boys:
That flash, by the way, also draws steelhead out of hidey-holes like logs and tree branches. Where the fish may not see a perfectly presented float and gear from several feet away, tucked under the lumber yard, it can see the flash and will come out to strike.
The Novel Alternative
I’ve watched this move come into play a zillion times on heavily pressured waters. Face it, steelheaders, especially in this age where a new hotness technique must be used by peer pressure or God forbid be labeled for not being with the program. A decade ago, it was side drifting hot red drift bobbers/baits, today nearly every angler I see is bobber dogging with beads. Nothing wrong with that, anytime an artificial lure replaces bait we all win. However, when 95% of all anglers on the water are doing the same thing, no matter how effective it is, there will be times a few things happen that change the rules.
Copper has always been the author’s favorite in clear conditions. Ask this 20-pound-plus buck how he feels about it.
If rivers have dropped and very few new fish have entered the system, all the “easy” ones have been hooked or stung by these popular techniques or have just gotten numb and un- responsive to the high volume of traffic with the same thing drifting by non-stop. Just look at those little birds pecking gravel a few feet from speeding traffic. Now here comes a blink-ing, animated object completely different from what they are used to or been stung by. First water in amongst 50 drift boats. This used to be our go to method on the Olympic Peninsula’s Bogachiel River during the Christmas prime time glut of hatchery fish. Common number of boats on the “hatchery run” was between 50 and 80 boats. If you were boat number, say, 40…good luck. All the players have been caught, stung or scared by the parade of drift gear. We launched at ten a.m., just tossed spoons behind the masses, targeting wide nondescript sections of travelling/holding water ignored by anglers and picked up easy limits, only due to not one other angler using this technique.
Here is just one more example out of too many to count I’ve experienced using the novel alternative. Back in the day, Reiter Ponds, a hatchery stacking area on the upper Skykomish River in Washington used to open for hatchery summer runs August 1st. Day one, everybody rails on the unmolested fish with their technique of choice, back then was drift gear and floats/jigs. Day two, a noticeable drop off of bites, but still OK fishing. Day three, nobody hooks anything in the clear flows. The steelhead are still there, lots of them, in plain view and giving the finger to all, numb to the repetitive presentations of the same old same old. I show up, step in between one of the 30 anglers with a small, ¼ ounce nickel teardrop spoon. Two casts, two fish. Every day for a week. Something completely different was the key.
My favorite part is when, inevitably, another angler walks up when I’m landing a steelhead, sees the spoon in its mouth and says, “Oh, your using a spoon. Those don’t work here.” … and off he goes. Beautiful.
So, is this all there is for spoon fishing? No way, I could have made this article ten thousand words, easy, and still need to add more. We never stop learning, innovating, practicing as spoon anglers. Spoon fishing is one of the two oldest techniques for steelhead, along with the fly it started this whole train a’ rollin’ over 120 years ago. If your want is to experience what it was like in the heydays of the ‘40s and ‘50s, toss a spoon like great grandpa.
It’s my connection to my Uncle Bob, a man who thought enough to take a youngster steelhead fishing and teach this time-honored technique. Without him, without Frank Amato giving me a lifetime break in 1983, without Nick Amato carrying the flag for his father and peerless magazine, no one reads this. You might say these three fellows have been great tour managers for decades.
Thanks for coming to my show, for buying the albums and grooving along with me all these years. Metal To The End, fellow steelheaders.