Terry Wiest (left) and Ron Camp (right).
As you’ll notice with probably 99% of the articles and “how to …” in magazines, they’re geared toward anglers that already have some knowledge of the game. I got thinking back to my youth and how badly I wanted to fish for steelhead but didn’t have any resources like we do now. There was no internet back then. No social media, cell phones haven’t even been thought of then. The weekly Fishing and Hunting News was basically a newspaper picture show providing anglers a way to show off their catch, much like Facebook does now, as far as reports, they were always at least a month or more late. Dad was a great outdoorsman and taught me how to hunt and fish, but steelheading was not something that he’d ever pursued. Fortunately, after continuous nagging he was able to persuade one of his co-workers to take me out on the Green River in Kent, WA to give me that first steelhead experience.
That was in 1975… I was twelve years old at the time and eager to catch a steelhead. No experience with river fishing whatsoever I just had to find out what it was all about. I got a cheap rod and reel and some rubber hip boots. My dad’s buddy “Don” was a well versed angler who did very well on the Green from all the stories I’d heard from my Dad. At the time, the Green was a “top five” steelhead producing river in Washington State (now it’s so pitiful I can’t even stand to give it a go even though I’m less than ½ hour away).
From the crack of dawn, we were on the river and Don had me watch him as he cast slightly upstream, then let his presentation slightly “tick” the bottom as it moved downstream with the current. Then he’d reel up and do it again. Each cast he’d have me look at the rod tip and see how each time the lead touched bottom it was transmitted from the lure through the rod.
“So when you get a bite does it just hammer it?” I remember asking.
“No, it’s not quite like that,” said Don. “It’s something you just have to get a feel for. It’s more that the fish takes the lure in, and it kinda feels like a sponge. hen you feel that, set the hook”.
Man, what the hell does a sponge feel like?
Anyhow, we spent all day walking the banks of the river. Most the time I’d say I was screwing more with my reel than I was fishing. I “had” to have a baitcaster because at the time that’s what prob-ably over 90% of the steelheaders used, even though I’d never used one before. Today I’d say use whatever you are comfortable with.
BACK TO THE BASICS GEAR:
- Size #14 / #12 Pearl Pink / Peach Corky
- Hook Size #4 / #2
- 8lb / 10lb Fluorocarbon Leader
- 10lb / 12lb Monofilament Main Line
- Hollow Core Lead
- Size #0 Ball Bearing Barrel Swivel
- Fluorescent Pink Yarn
- Peach Yarn
- 1/8 oz. SMJ2 Steelhead Jig
- 3/4”- 1” Red and White Bobber
- 8 ó’- 9’ Rod / 8 - 12lbs Fast Action
- Spin/Baitcasting with Good Drag System
I use both baitcaster reels in left or right retrieve, as well as spinning reels. It was one of the most exciting days of my fishing memoirs. This was the day I became hooked!
So how many fish did I hook? Zero.
And I was hooked? Hell yes.
There’s nothing to describe the exhilaration of being on the water and targeting these magnificent fish.
As I’ve written many times, I didn’t catch a single steelhead the whole first year I fished. It didn’t matter. Each time I went I retained more information. I watched others, I asked questions (hopefully without being too much of a pest), and I tried to learn each time I was on the water. I still do.
So this article is for you! Those who want to explore the wonderful world of steelhead fishing to see if it’s for you. Whether you’re a young kid like I was just wanting to get out there and do it, or if you’re basically any age but just not sure if steelheading is for you. And don’t think because it’s basic you won’t catch fish… I hammered the steelhead in my teens using the gear recommended below and still use the same gear today. One you become addicted however, eventually you’re going to expand your arsenal just like the rest of us and you’ll have tons of choices on how to fish for what I consider the ultimate fish to pursue.
The information I’ve provided is super simplified, keeping costs to a very minimum, and only recommending minimal gear to get you on fish.
A couple of assumptions:
This would be for fishing small to medium sized rivers where you can fish from the bank. This would also be for winter hatchery fish most likely between December through January. As conditions change and wild fish come in, we try and change things up a bit, although below will definitely still catch fish.
This is what you’ll need for a very basic, simplified steelhead fishing setup that will allow you to use two of the top techniques for steelhead fishing, drift fishing and float fishing, while using the bare minimum of gear.
First of all, you’re going to need a rod and a reel. What are you comfortable with? Spin or baitcaster? You’ll need an 8 ½’ to 9’ rod rated between 8lb and 12lb with fast action. The fast action will allow you to feel what the lure is transmitting whether it’s the bottom or that “sponge”. Even though I use G. Loomis rods exclusively (Pro Staff Member), that doesn’t mean when you start out you need to spend $200 to $400 plus on a rod. There are some decent rods out there for under $75 if that’s what your budget allows. If you’re going to spend a little extra, spend it on the reel, the drag is the most important factor when it comes to rod/reel setup as steelhead are known for incredible line stripping runs. A cheap drag system on a reel may cost you that beautiful fish you hooked and got your heart pumping. I only use Shimano reels (again Pro Staff Member) and there are some decent Shimano reels for relatively inexpensive prices.
Author taking a glory shot with this beautiful chrome OP winter steelhead before release. Ron Camp image
You’ll notice in the main photo of the article there is the Shimano Calcutta loaded with PowerPro braided line! Don’t use this if you are just starting out. Use a high quality monofilament line for your main line. I use 10lb main line for smaller rivers and clear water. I’ll bump it to 12lb for medium to large rivers or with higher colored up water. For leader, fluorocarbon has been a game changer to me. Use a 24 to 32 inch fluorocarbon leader. Don’t skimp on the leader; some cheaper fluorocarbons seem like they break at the mere site of a steelhead. I use strictly Seaguar fluorocarbon and I have absolutely no affiliation with them. It’s just that good.
So what’s going to hook these elusive fish? How about a Lil’ Corky! The staple of steelhead fishing everyone that has ever fished for steelhead has to have at one time or another used corkies. The corky emulates an egg. As it flows downstream through the steelhead holding water, hopefully it looks natural enough for a holding fish to simply suck it in (the sponge feel). Along with the corky, most anglers, myself included, will also attach some yarn to the hook via the egg loop knot. If you don’t learn to tie any other knot learn to tie an egg loop knot. The yarn is supposed to mimic some of the membrane that often is attached to eggs as they’re exposed from the river bottom and then break free to float downstream. I’m super anal about my yarn! I want it cut square and cut short. For me it must be cut along the shank and above the height of the hook point. After exposing the yarn to the water a few casts you may need to trim again. I make sure it looks like
a clean cut before every cast. Does it make a difference? In my mind yes, and that’s all that matters. The power of the mind is unbelievable, and I want to know in my mind that on any given cast I have everything perfect and I may get a strike.
For Corkies, pearl pink is an absolute must!
Somewhat as productive is also peach. I’ll couple a #14 pearl pink Corky with fluorescent pink yarn, or a #14 peach Corky with peach or orange yarn and tie it to a #4 hook. Using 8lb, 24 to 32-inch fluorocarbon leader as indicated above, tie the leader to a ball bearing barrel swivel. On the other end of the swivel tie the main line. This would be my main setup for drift fishing in smaller to medium water that is on the low and clear side. Once the water rises and the water is larger and dirtied up a bit, step up to the same colors, but a #12 corkie with a #2 hook.
You’re going to need some lead too! I like hollow core lead for its ease of use and less breaking your leaders off. I tie about a two inch piece of scrap line to one of the rings on the barrel swivel. Slide the hole from a small piece of hollow core lead up the “tag” and crimp it down with pliers. You’ll want the lead to “tick” the bottom every few seconds. If it drags, reel in and trim some lead off. If it doesn’t touch the bottom at all, take that lead off and add a longer piece.
What’s good about this method is if the lead gets lodged in a snag or between rocks, chances are the lead will pull free from the “tag” before breaking your line. You can then simply add a new piece of lead and you’re back fishing. A good habit is to have several pieces of lead cut at various lengths before you hit the water to reduce the time not fishing.
Although I cut my teeth drift fishing for steelhead, it’s only because back in the day nobody knew how deadly effective float fishing was.
Float fishing is by far the most effective way to catch steelhead in my opinion.
For more on why I think so, you can check out my book, Float Fishing for Salmon and Steelhead. Follow the techniques and guidelines within the book and you’ll be on a fast track to becoming a very proficient steelhead angler.
To make things simple, here’s a very easy way to use the same rod/reel/line and weight you are already using for drift fishing and converting it to a float fishing setup.
First of all, we need to get rid of the corkie setup and add a jig. Specifically, a 1/8oz SMJ2 Steelhead Jig. Originally developed by Beau Mac and now sold by Hawken Fishing in both the regular and pro style (uses a Gamakatsu hook which I’d definitely prefer).
This has been and will continue to be one of the most effective steelhead catching jigs there is regardless of water conditions.
No coincidence it’s similar to the pearl pink Corky and pink yarn setup. The SMJ2 has a pearl pink head, double beads and then both pink and white marabou feathers. It’s simply deadly.
To be best prepared, tie up a half dozen or so jigs with about 3ft of 8lb fluorocarbon leader, to be used in small, clear water conditions and another half dozen with 10lb fluorocarbon when the water is a bit faster, dirtier or larger. Tie the leader onto the barrel swivel replacing the leader from the Corky. Then
attach a ¾ inch red and white bobber above the barrel swivel. Yes, the
kind you use for trout.
Now I can honestly say I’ve never used these bobbers for steelhead, but the idea here is to allow you to use all the gear you already have and still be able to float fish.
Try and adjust the length below the bobber so the jig would be approximately 1 foot above the bottom. With this type of bobber it’s easy to slide it up or down the main line to adjust the length. If the weight from the lead and the jig pulls the bobber under, either switch to a 1” bobber or trim some of the lead. You need the bobber to be seen and remain above the surface to so you know when a fish takes your jig.
Releasing another chromer back into the wild. Ron Camp image
Cast just above where you think the fish are holding and allow the bobber to flow downstream as natural as possible. If the bobber disappears… set the hook. If it’s a fish… then Yahoo!!! If it was just bottom, then adjust the float in 1 ft. increments until you no longer touch the bottom. It’s great to “tick” the bottom while drift fishing, but float fishing, not so much.
I prefer float fishing in slower water where I can control the float and jig to cover the entire hole while trying to make sure it floats directly through where I believe a fish may be.
In faster water, take the float off, replace the jig with a new leader containing a Corky, and you’re back to fishing with minimum effort.
The more leaders you have pre-tied, both with Corkies and with jigs, the better. I wasted so much time when I was younger trying to tie up while thigh deep in water with ice cold hands after breaking off. With pre-tied leaders it’s as simple as clipping the old knot off, if necessary, and then tying the new leader on with an improved clinch knot or a reverse clinch knot. Personal preference tells me to use the latter.
Give it a go… you should know by the time you hit the river if you’re hooked or not. Chances are, if you read this article you’re already done for.
Welcome to the club!