Before I was a drift boat owner, I used to see the beautiful Clackacrafts, Willies, Fishcrafts and Alumaweld drift boats being launched from blood stained gravel bars at the crack of dawn and think to myself,
“Man, If I just had a drift boat. Then I'd really catch a lot of steelhead.”
As they'd paddle away into the thin morning fog blanketing the river, my heart would sink all the way down to my frozen little feet in the bottom of my waders.
How could I ever be as successful as those guys when I don't even have a drift boat, and I want to fish a section of river where they float?
Hell, my only transportation is a piece of crap '83 Civic wagon with a squished front fender! There's no way I'll ever get to fish water that hasn't already been molested and drained by guides and very good private fishermen.
The answer to my question came the day I was standing on a grassy bank below fifth bridge on the Nestucca at daylight, and a steelhead pulled my float to the bottom of the river only a few yards in front of a passing drift boat
“Good job kid,” the guy on the sticks yelled as the steelhead shot into the air. “You're in a great spot. I catch of a lot of steelhead right where you hooked that one. Guess I need to get up a little earlier.”
That was when it dawned on me. Drift boats are confined to certain areas where they can start their days. I was a bankie. I could go anywhere to start my day. And, I could come back whenever I wanted.
Checking out the Map
With any regular old river map book (I used the Amato's Oregon River Maps and Fishing Guide Atlas.... honest) a smart bankie can easily see the points where 99% of the drift boats on the river will launch.
An experienced bankie will know which section of the river being drifted by the boats is most likely to hold the majority of the fish during a particular time of year on a particular river.
A lucky bankie will have floated the river a time or two with a buddy and know what physical characteristics of the holes lend themselves to being attacked from the bank.
An adventurous bankie spends a day after fishing driving the river and figuring out how he can can get to these excellent fish holding runs from the bank, as well as scouting out a few more for future trips.
Finally, a successful bankie uses all this information formulate a plan as to how to hit some of the best holes on the river at daylight, hours before the first drift boat makes its way down the river to fish.
Jumping into an excellent hole before anyone has a chance to float to it has been a staple of my bank fishing arsenal since I realized how long it took boats to get somewhere I could start my day.
First and Fast
Once a bankie finds a good spot to get first water ahead of the drift boats, they need to work fast.
You have to understand the geography of the river as far as the time it will take your average drift boat and the wave of boats behind it to get your position and run over or catch the fish you’ve been casting at. If your opening ambush point is say, a mile below a popular put in, it’s not going to take boats long to encroach on the area.
So, unless you know exactly where the fish sit within the hole at that water level, a float and jig or float and bait are great openers. It allows you to cover a large swath of water quickly from a single location. If you work fast, you might be able to change up baits or jig colors for a second run through the hole before you hit rush hour.
Another excellent option for covering water fast in this situation is fluttering a spoon. B.C. Steel designed by Bill Herzog, a Little Cleo, a Rvrfisher or a R&B Spoon all can induce a steelhead to strike the first time they lay eyes on it. Just remember, the key to spoon fishing is keeping it in the zone as long as possible by raising and lowering the rod tip, feeding line or reeling slowly.
The longer you’re in the zone, the less time if will take for them to jump on it. But, if the spoon isn’t properly fished, you could easily leave fish for the boaters to clean up.
Now let's say the hole you’re fishing is a good three or four miles below a popular boat ramp. You’ll have much more time to probe the water and dissect the likely looking spots before you are interrupted by the floaters. A more methodical approach like drift fishing can be used. You won’t cover water as quickly, but you’ll be more thorough and the chances of hitting a resting steelhead in the face is high.
But, just because you have the time to spend at single spot, doesn’t mean you should.
Now that you’ve learned a good bank spot where you can get first water in a prime stretch of river, you have two options. Beat up the hole until you’ve drained it of all things scaly and the drift boat armada comes into view or, find another good spot to stay ahead of the crowd.
As a college student without a drift boat, I spent a great deal of time fishing from the bank on a particular river that features a multitude of drift boat launches.
This unlucky fact didn’t make getting first water at my opening bank spot any more difficult, as long as I could drag my hungover ass out of bed. But, what it did do was make getting first water at a second hole much tougher. Even if I sped through the first hole, the area between the boat launches weren’t far enough apart that I could simply move down river to get further ahead of the boats. Occasionally, doing that worked perfectly, but often there simply wasn’t enough time. Taking another route was in order.
As opposed to running downstream, I’d often go upstream of the boat ramp where all the boats coming down to me were launching. This tactic is excellent when the length of the drift above the one you started in is longer than the drift where you started. If this perfect scenario right is right in front of you, by all means, jump on it.
It’s a great way to get a limit or maybe even a few natives to add to the total, but it doesn’t always present itself. To stay successful off the bank, you’ll need to stay smart and be versatile.
Assuming you’ve made it through your first few holes and God forbid you haven’t limited, (or gotten a late start, in which case there’s no way you’ll see first water no matter where you go), what do you do then? Never fear, fish are dumb.
Later is Better
We all know there are a few holes that consistently stack fish. Maybe it’s the kind of spot people race to out of the boat ramp or the early bankies use headlamps to climb down to. Either way, they are perpetual steelhead producers. Guess what, those holes aren’t just good at daylight or when boats are in them. They’re often good all day.
There is definitely something to be said for getting first water in a likely steelhead hideout. Many fish will grab the first thing they see, and just a few casts into the day, you can easily have a limit laying at your feet. But steelhead aren't always at their most aggressive first thing in the morning. Especially if the water is cold. Instead, they tend to wait for the sun to come up and the air temperature to warm the water a degree or two before they turn on. This can be a huge advantage to the late riser or someone who has a few things to take care of before they hit the water.
Remember those spots we discussed that are essentially the 100-percent holes, if you can find a hole like that later in the day, it typically remains fishy. The best holes like this are the one that are near the top of a common drift boat section of river.
Why the top, you might ask? Because the majority of drift boats launch fairly early in the morning, especially on weekdays. This leaves a lot of the water towards the beginning of their drift unoccupied after the first few hours of daylight. Well, if they blew through a section and the water was cold, the fish might not have been on the bite. The boaters probably didn't hit one, but after a few hours of being left alone and the water temperature raising a little, there could be rabid steelhead lying right where multiple boats fished unsuccessfully.
Avoiding boats all together
By now we all know there are some excellent rivers with very successful Broodstock programs that have essentially created sections of rivers where steelhead will congregate day after day.
The problem is that I can’t think of a single one of them that is more conducive to bankies than boaters. Let’s face it, guides do a lot of the lobbying with ODFW, they go to meetings to discuss proposals and the for the most part, they are the voice of fishermen. That being said, it's no surprise steelhead tend to be thick in places where guides can easily get to them with clients from their boats.
A bankie needs to think about this from a different perspective. It’s not a disadvantage that you can’t easily get to some of the fish. It’s a huge advantage because there are fish they can’t get to at all, and you can. It’s these places where you can find thousands of steelhead completely undisturbed.
Small Hatchery Streams
Like many infant steelhead fisherman, I cut my teeth on small hatchery streams.
These streams are often small, well known, occasionally crowded and usually blanketed with fish when the conditions are right. If there was only one piece of advice I could possibly offer about catching fish in these rivers it would be learn how much rain it takes for them to blow out and learn how long it has to stop before you can catch fish again.
I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in one place while hoards of hatchery raised steelhead came flooding by as the river went from pure chocolate to light chocolate. Like a well trained retriever, the steelhead kept coming back to my feet and sat right where they were supposed to. When you figure out the small windows of perfect conditions where this man-made phenomenon comes together, even a flat out bad fishermen can limp into a couple bites.
Let’s say you missed the perfect water and the stampede of fish swimming by, don’t fret. You still have a chance. The fish often will sit in the deepest pools waiting for the next rain. Most people know this and will target those deep spots so there’s a few fish taken and the rest get stirred up and shut off. But, if you learn to catch the fish in the shallow and faster water, which is where the remainder of the fish will be hiding, you can still have yourself a pretty dang good day.
The last piece of advice I’ll throw out is small hatchery rivers have fairly short peak season. The fish tend to return in a big ball over the course of a month and once that happens, the river’s wad is essentially blown. But, for those not interested in fishing around a lot of people, check out the same rivers long before or after the river reaches its pinnacle. You may be surprised by the number of premature or straggling steelhead lurking around.
Small and Sneaky
There are dozens of rivers around the state of Oregon that might be loaded with steelhead certain times of the year, but they have upper river stretches above the hatchery or tributaries so small even a pontoon boat would be high and dry in 20 yards dumping into them.
These tiny tributaries and canyon water usually doesn’t have the numbers of fish like the mainstream fisheries, but they do give an anger an opportunity to experience wild steelhead fishing in remote locations. The way steelhead fishing is supposed to be. I think some of these places were what Bill Herzog had in mind when he wrote an article so appropriately named Steelhead Sanctuaries for the May 2009 issue of STS. The Zog describes these unfloatable sections of rivers as true steelhead Shangri-La that possess a mind cleansing attribute that can erase, even if only momentarily, the ugliest of mental demons.
These places leave you with nothing but the legendary wild steelhead and pristine flora to let your mind disappear into while you almost spiritually seek that flash of pure electricity your heart has been longing for.
It’s a satisfaction that is unachievable while sitting at a computer at the office no matter how great of a day you had. There's simply something primal and spiritual that connects a man, a fish, a river and the forest in a way that can't be duplicated in any other life experience.
To get this kind of boatless and often divine experience, it can often be as simple as taking a few steps off the beaten path, or going somewhere so elusive that the thought of getting hurt and never being seen again crosses your mind. Either way, it’s these places that allow a bank fishermen to go places no flotation device ever could.
- Written by Professional Fishing Guide Josiah Darr