Battling Steelhead Ledges by Scott Haugen
Originally published in STS August 2012
Warm water, hot days and finicky steelhead make it tough this time of year, but if you fish ledges, the odds of success will rise.
Hiking up the steep hill, I paused for a moment, looking back over the section of river I’d been fishing all morning. With one summer steelhead in the cooler, I had one punch left on my tag, and didn’t want to go home without it being filled.
I’d driven a long way on this hot summer day, and though the conditions were tough, I knew the fish were there. Staring at the river through my polarized shades, a flash of silver caught my eye. Looking intently at the spot tight against a bedrock ledge, another flash occurred, then another.
Hiking back down the hill, I was soon carefully wading my way out to the bedrock ledge where I’d last seen the fish flash. I’d fished this same ledge moments earlier, but missed the water where the steelhead was holding.
Caption: Wading rivers can be tricky and even dangerous. Having a wading staff can help make it safer to reach challenging casting platforms.
He was higher in the riffle than I’d expected, and though I’d drifted jigs and pulled lures through the slot, I didn’t get upstream far enough to reach the fish. Once in position, I made a couple casts with my lure, but the turbulence kept kicking my presentation out of the sweet spot.
With the boils and fast moving water, there was no prayer of working a jig through the target water, so I prepared my standard drift fishing setup. The hard part was that I was trying to fish upstream, as there was no way to approach this hole from shore to fish it below.
The first couple casts I made with my little cluster of cured eggs topped with a green Lil’ Corky, I realized this was going to be a tough fish to catch. The fast moving, turbulent water kept rejecting my presentation, which left me no choice but to increase the amount of weight I was using.
I had to get the presentation down, fast, so I increased my weight from 1/4-ounce to 1 1/2-ounces.
This time, the instant my Corky hit the bottom, the fish hammered it.
Soon I was walking back up the hill with my second steelhead of the day.
I was fishing one my favorite rivers on the planet, Oregon’s North Umpqua. I caught my first solo limit of steelhead on this stunning river in 1968, at age four, near the town of Glide.
Today, the North Umpqua is still one of my top rivers to fish this time of year.
Many anglers don’t like fishing the Umpqua, or other rivers, this time of year due to low water levels, increasing water temperatures and outside temperatures that typically eclipse the century mark. But if you know where the fish are, and how to get at ‘em, the effort can be well worth it.
Whether fishing the Umpqua drainage, the Deschutes River or any other bedrock laden rivers this time of year, the comfort lies in knowing fish are there, usually tucked tight to ledges. The number one reason steelhead are attracted to the ledges is protection; they feel safe there.
Not only do ledges allow steelhead to hide from predators, they also offer much needed shade. Even a degree or two in water temperature can offer steelhead relief, and holding in shade is preferred over being in direct sunlight.
What I like most about ledges is that they keep steelhead shaded for longer periods of time than just about any other habitat these fish hold in. This is because the ledges are nothing more than extensions of the land’s topography, meaning those hills or mountains simply extend into the river.
This equates to fish being among shaded ledges later into the morning and earlier in the afternoon, which extends optimal fishing times. It also means that if the angle of the sun is just right, fish will actually be holding tight to the shaded ledges, creating greater fishing opportunities that can span the entire day.
Another feature ledges offer steelhead are a steady, consistent water flow.
Once steelhead find the areas along ledges where the water flow is not laden with boils, they can more easily hold there, whereby conserving energy. This less taxing water is what attracts fish and keeps them there. Once you catch a fish along a ledge, mark precisely where the bite came from–and just as importantly, where the cast hit to achieve the drift–and you’ll catch more from that same spot in the future, guaranteed.
But just because you know where steelhead are holding along which ledges, doesn’t mean catching them is a slam-dunk proposition. In order to catch these fish with consistency, it comes down to position and using the right approach. Following are three options to explore.
Jig The Ledges
I’ll never forget the first cast I made with an 1/8-ounce purple and blue jig along a ledge on Oregon’s Deschutes River not long ago. It was mid-August and daytime temperatures reached 113º. With the sun soon to be ducking behind the towering ridges above, it was only a matter of minutes before the section of river I fished became shaded.
Even before wading to a designated casting platform, I could see the current was moving fast, and given the angle, presenting a jig would be the best option. No sooner had my jig made it halfway down the ledge when my bobber was pulled under. Releasing that fish, two casts later I hooked another steelhead, right in the same spot, and released him, too.
When it comes to fishing jigs, I like faster moving water than what most people consider optimal. In fact, over the years I’ve pulled a lot of steelhead from water fellow anglers refused to even fish, justifying the water was simply moving too fast.
Remember, steelhead have acute vision and can decipher presentations in very fast flowing water, jigs included. The key is keeping the presentation high enough for them to see. Don’t feel like the jig has to be kept tight to the bottom, as when fishing salmon.
One of the advantages jig fishing ledges offers is that it can be done effectively without attaining ideal casting position. As long as there’s not too much mainline on the surface, where it could get pulled under and moved around too much, you’re in good shape.
In faster moving water try heavier jigs, up to 1/4-ounce. This will ensure the jig stays where you want it. Have a variety of jig colors and designs on hand to meet changing light conditions. I like jigs with beaded bodies this time of year, like Maxi Jigs, to help throw light. A steady float that gives a good read, like the Maxi Float, will also allow you to more efficiently cover water.
Swing Plugs In Tight
Working plugs along ledges can also be very effective. If in a boat, backtrolling plugs tight to ledges works well if the water conditions allow the boat to be in proper position for making the presentation. But in rivers like the Deschutes, where only bank angling is allowed, plugs still have a place.
There are two ways I like presenting plugs along ledges when fishing from shore. First is standing on the inside of the ledge (close to shore) and bringing the plug towards me. Second is wading into the river and working the plug past me, in towards the ledge or shoreline.
It’s not always possible–or safe–to wade into a river, meaning sometimes the only option is to fish from shore.
This equates to a presentation being cast into the river and worked back towards you. While it can be tough controlling the tempo of a plug presentation at this angle, the key is getting it into the main current, tight to the ledge. This is typically best achieved by fishing the plug well downstream from where you’re standing.
A longer fishing rod in the 9 1/2- to 10 1/2-foot range is ideal for this approach as allows the rod tip to be extended beyond the ledge. The purpose of this is to keep the plug running along the ledge without being swept into it, which will happen with shorter rods, especially if you can’t wade very far into the river.
In other words, a longer rod offers better plug control.
For reference, I like G.Loomis 10'6+ med-hvy spinning rods. It’s not the heavy-duty features I’m after, rather the moderate to heavy action of the rod and it’s length, both of which allow me to reach and effectively fish water that would be difficult to achieve with a lighter, shorter rod.
When wading out into a river and swinging the plug below and across the current, downstream from where you’re standing, a long rod isn’t as crucial. This is because now you’re fishing directly downstream from where you’re standing and are able to control the tempo of the plug’s swing by where the rod is positioned in your hands. An 8 1/2-foot casting or plugging rod is fine.
When working a ledge from in the river, if there’s enough current, all that might be needed is to open the bail and let the flow of the water carry the plug downstream to the target spot–as is the case in jig fishing. In this scenario, if you need to shift the plug’s position to the left or right, simply do so by putting the rod in one hand or the other. This is actually a good way to cover both sides of a seam or chute where fish may hold in or travel up either side of the current line.
If casting and swinging the plug downstream, you can slow down and increase the speed at which the plug is traveling with to the position of the rod.
Caption: Jody Smith systematically casted plugs along bedrock ledges, catching this August steelhead at the very bottom of the swing.
If facing downstream, standing on the left bank, for instance, keeping the rod in your right hand will slow the plug’s movement as it approaches the ledge closer to shore. Should the plug not be traveling far enough or fast enough toward the ledge, place the rod in the left hand and point the rod tip to the left shoreline. This will create a different pull-point on the plug, allowing it to track against the current and be led tighter to the ledge.
I’ve watched a lot of right handed anglers in this situation over the years who make the mistake of pulling their presentations out of the water too early. If they’d take the time to move the rod into their left hand and let the plug work tight against the face of the rock ledge, then they’d be hitting the water these fish often occupy this time of year. It’s called fishing the swing, something fly anglers know all too well, and can be applied to working plugs in the manner described.
Drift fishing is another good approach to use on steelhead stuck tight to rock ledges. Through years of trial and error, the best advice I have here is to be sure and use enough weight.
If fishing ledges with too light of a setup, the terminal gear gets tossed about in the boiling currents and eventually kicked out of the target water. In fact, if the presentation is too light it will never reach the target water.
Drift fishing ledges can be done from one of three positions: From the near shore you’re standing on, from the outside edge of the ledge, and from across the river. Of the three, my favorite is casting opposite the shore I’m standing on and working the face of the ledge across the river. For this I like a casting rod where I can easily let out line to ensure the terminal gear finds the bottom as it’s sinking and simultaneously being carried downstream.
Whether fishing bait or Corkies (check local river regulations), be sure and use enough lead to get the presentation moving toward the bottom, tight to the ledge. This is different than drift fishing the main current, where an occasional tick of the bottom confirms your terminal gear is where it needs to be. When fishing ledges, the amount of weight used might triple, with the objective being to get the presentation down fast, tight against the ledge.
When fishing a ledge in this way, know that the target water you’re actually hitting is small compared to a normal, mid-stream drift.
This is because the boiling, fast moving water keeps the gear from reaching the target water quickly, and kicks it out of the sweet-spot sooner. This is where covering lots of bank, on foot, is important. When working rock ledges on the opposite shore, try moving a step or two downstream with each cast. This ensures you’re covering water. As mentioned earlier, once a fish is hooked, note exactly where the strike came, and keep fishing it.
If fishing a ledge close to my feet, a long rod helps get the terminal gear where it needs to be. Again, be sure to use enough weight to get the presentation down, fast. Also, use an abrasion resistant line–I prefer P-Line’s CXX Xtra-Strong–for not only will each cast find the line rubbing against rocks, but when a fish is hooked, chances are long sections of mainline will be pulled across the rock face. For this you need a line you can count on.
When fishing ledges on the shoreline where you’re standing, the length of the drifts can vary from long to short, depending on your angle. Keep moving downstream as needed to ensure you’re covering all prime water.
With the hottest days of summer upon us, don’t use that as an excuse to not be on the river.
Instead, gear-up accordingly and concentrate efforts on those rock ledges. What you’ll learn is where fish hold in such hot conditions, and better yet, how to consistently catch them.
For 44 years I’ve been catching steelhead off bedrock ledges, and there’s a reason I keep fishing these habitats year after year.
Written by Scott Haugen
All photos taken by Scott Haugen