Building Your Steelhead and Salmon Arsenal by Terry J. Wiest
When getting into steelhead fishing most anglers will start with one technique, usually drift fishing or bobber fishing. And that’s a great thing!
I always stress to learn a specific technique thoroughly and then start learning others, this way you have a fall back technique should others fail. I first started drift fishing when I was 13. I believe drift fishing more than any other technique helps you learn where the fish are, how they bite, how to feel the bottom and really understand more of how a steelhead thinks.
After fishing for years only drift fishing I became very successful. Then I read an article in Salmon Trout Steelheader (January 2004) by Bret Stuart about fishing with a float and jig. I was intrigued.
So I contacted Stuart and he invited me down to fish the McKenzie River. After a few pointers and putting the float right where Stuart told me to, it was fish on! It was caught on a peach and white Stuarts Bullet Jig which I still have in my office. It was a double-digit day and needless to say I was hooked.
My new “go to” technique was float and jig. While fishing most rivers in Washington, I would be the only angler fishing this technique and in the right type of water, it was lethal. I somehow got tagged with being the “Jig Guy” and was always trying to perfect this technique.
I became so enthralled with this technique I wrote the award winning book “Float-Fishing for Salmon and Steelhead.” But what most anglers didn’t realize is that although float fishing was favorite technique, I didn’t hesitate to use other techniques if that’s what the water called for.
By switching your gear up for different holes, water depths, water speed, and condition, you can maximize your opportunity and take advantage of the fish that other people are missing.
If you’re fishing with a guide, or just happen to look inside a guide’s boat, it’s usually stocked plumb full of different types of rods, reels and gear. As you float down the river he/she will often switch up depending on the type of hole you’re coming to next. Guides need to get their clients on fish and that means using the best technique for the opportunity put in front of them.
One such guide is my fishing buddy Todd Girtz. The first time I fished with Girtz many years ago, well before he was a guide, I couldn’t believe all the gear he brought with us. I didn’t know if it was all going to fit in the truck. But it did, and, it became quite apparent that this dude eats, sleeps and breathes fish!
We drove to Forks and hit several rivers all in one day from the bank. We mostly float fished, but we did our share of drift fishing too. But he also had spinner and spoon rods set up if the need arose. As always when you fish with Girtz, we were the first ones on the river and the last ones off. We caught (and released) several fish which just added to what was the first of many fantastic trips with him.
So when I get asked, “What should I buy to catch steelhead,” well, then I have to start asking a series of questions. Where are you fishing, what time of year, what’s the weather, how deep is the water, how fast is the water, fishing from a boat or the bank?
It will inventively end up being float and jig or drift fishing for those who aren’t that seasoned, which is cool, we all gotta start somewhere, and it’s better to learn one of those techniques first before building an arsenal, which it where most of us want to end up.
So to assist me with building such an arsenal, I went to my buddy Girtz who is like a walking fishing encyclopedia. Below is a good start to upping your game and have all water and conditions covered. Once you’ve learned the techniques, it’s a matter of which technique will give you the best opportunity in any given situation.
Bobbers, or floats, allow fine depth adjustments to put your gear right where you want it. It could be just above a snag, right off a seam, just below a boulder or anywhere you feel a fish might be holding.
For steelhead, a float and jig have become very popular and for good reason, they’re lethal! The most important thing to remember when using this technique is to present the jig “naturally.” You’ll want the jig to move downstream as if it’s free drifting without the float attached.
Girtz says, “Keeping the bobber straight up and down is the key.”
Getting Started: First you’ll need some jigs, weights, floats, bobber stops, beads, rod and reel.
Jigs – I prefer 1/8-ounce marabou jigs in pink colors (we talk about color choices in more advanced lessons).
Weights – Inline weights in ¼-ounce size.
Floats – A well balanced float is a must. To determine size add the weight of the jig, plus the inline weight to give you float size. Example: 1/8-ounce jig + ¼-ounce inline weight = 3/8-ounce float
Bobber Stops – Essentially a blood knot tied on a tube that you slip over your line, remove the tube and tighten. Make sure and trim the ends.
Beads – Put on each side of the float to act as a cushion
Line – 30-pound braid for mainline (it has the natural ability to float); 3 feet of 10– to 12-pound Fluorocarbon for leader.
Rod – 10’ 6” moderate-action spinning rod
Reel – 2500 series spinning reel.
Cast above the hole so your presentation has time to sink down and start a natural flow before it gets to the hole. You’ll want your jig to be one foot off the bottom. The best way to achieve this is to lengthen your float so it hits the bottom.
Now that you’ve found the bottom reel up and adjust the bobber stop accordingly so that it floats without touching the bottom. Looking at the float, your presentation will be correct if the float is perfectly straight up and down.
You want to use this technique in holes that are 4– to 10 feet deep flowing at approximate a fast walking speed or slower.
When the float goes down—set the hook! If the float acts different at all—set the hook!
This is my preferred method of steelheading.
Although float and jig is my favorite way to fish for steelhead, it has its limitations. When fishing an area with very inconsistent bottom depths, it is nearly impossible to adjust your gear every time the bottom depth changes, especially when fishing from a moving boat. It is very common to have times where your gear is not fishing deep enough or dragging on the bottom
Girtz has this problem often. He says, “Many of my clients struggle with keeping the float straight up and down. When this happens we usually switch to bobber dogging where you want the float to lay over at a 45-degree angle while your lead drags along the bottom.”
Free drifting or drift fishing is an excellent way to get to the bottom of the deep holes that many people are missing.
As Girtz points out, “It is very common for people that are float fishing or bobber dogging to miss the deepest parts of the hole, leaving aggressive biters for the anglers that can get their gear all the way down to the bottom.”
Drift fishing, in my opinion, should be the first technique learned by all those wishing to fish for both salmon and steelhead in the rivers and streams of this great earth. This is the “foundation” of river fishing. It used to be 90% of all river fishing was done using this technique. Now, not as high a percentage but this method still has a very high success rate.
The idea of drift fishing is to put the presentation right in front of a fishes’ face so it appears it’s tumbling down the river naturally with the current.
Getting Started: You’ll need hooks, drift bobbers (plus optional bait), weight, swivels, line, rod and reel.
Hooks – For steelhead, a single #2 to 1/0 hook; salmon #2/0 to 4/0.
Drift Bobbers – These are not floats! I’m referring to Lil Corkies, Cheaters and the like. These will help the hook and/or bait float off the bottom and into the strike zone. If using bait, cured salmon eggs or sand shrimp are the most popular.
Weight – Pencil lead works great and I prefer hollow core. When tying your knot to the swivel leave the tag end approximately 1-inch long. Slip lead over the tag and crimp down. Now it becomes lodged and you can pull your lead off the tag thus not breaking your line and having to re-tie everything, just replace the lead.
Swivels – A barrel swivel is all you need between your mainline and leader.
Line – For steelhead, 12-pound mono mainline with 10-pound mono leader; for salmon, 25-pound mono mainline with 20-pound mono leader.
Rod – For steelhead, 9-foot rated 8 – 12 lb. casting rod; for salmon, 9-foot rated 10 – 20 lb. casting rod.
Reel – For steelhead, 200 series baitcasting reel; for salmon 300 series.
Cast slightly upriver from your position. Casting too far will cause your presentation to drag too quickly and become lodged before it’s able to fish. Casting downstream doesn’t allow the presentation to sink soon enough. Ideally you’ll want your presentation to touch bottom just before or at the point it is straight across from you. Using pencil lead, you should feel the lead “tick” the bottom every few seconds. If it drags the bottom, reel up and snip off a piece of lead until you have the amount which will allow it to “tick” along. If it doesn’t touch the bottom at all, add a larger piece of lead.
When a steelhead or salmon hits, it won’t be a large “thump,” but rather it will suck it and feel like hooking a sponge. Learning to feel the bite takes more time to learn than probably any other aspect of river fishing, but it’s also the most rewarding once you figure it out.
Water should be from 4 – 12 feet deep and a fast walking speed to a jogging speed is best.
Once you’ve learned to drift fish, you can fish almost any water.
But, Girtz also points out one huge negative factor, “The biggest disadvantage to drift fishing or free drifting is the amount of gear you lose. Two guys in my boat can go through 40 leaders or more in a day if we are fishing a snaggy river. The more time that is spent re-rigging, the less time you are fishing. The more time your gear is affectively fishing, the more fish you will catch!”
Prepping for drift fishing or free drifting also takes a bit of time.
As Girtz continues, “It takes a long time to tie up all those leaders unless you have someone tying them for you.”
Bobber dogging is much easier for most beginners than free drifting or bobber fishing from a boat. It is a great way to cover lots of water with very little adjustment and it does not hang up much.
Girtz states, “Many days my clients can fish the same stick of lead all day without losing one, unless of course that is if someone doesn’t cast into a tree.”
In most cases, Girtz uses 1/8-inch diameter stick lead generally between 1 to 5 inches in length, depending on the river flow, attached to a three-way snap swivel. He recommends buying stick leads that have a loop on both ends so you can cut them in half and get two leads out of them.
Girtz stresses, “It is really important to use the right size bobber with your stick lead. You want the bobber tilted at a 45-degree angle to the water as it moves down river. I use a bigger bobber and more lead on high flow days and a smaller bobbers and less lead on low water days. Most days I set the distance from my bobber to my lead between 6 and 8 feet. This set-up can fish 85 percent of most rivers with no adjustment to my gear at all.”
He continues, “I usually only adjust the length between the bobber and lead in water less than 2 feet or more than 9 feet. You want your lead to be dragging or tapping the bottom.”
When set up properly you should be able to see your bobber chugging along without stopping. The easiest way to achieve the proper drift is to leave a small belly in your line on the water down river of the bobber. This will keep your gear moving down river in the slot and it will not swing back to the boat like it does when you are free drifting. And again, more time in the water equals more fish.
Spinner and Spoons
Spinners and spoons can be seen from a long ways away and can cover a lot of area. This is a great technique when the fish are very aggressive—they’ll move large distances to attack the metal.
This works well for both salmon and steelhead. For steelhead the summer months are considered better for spinner fishing when the fish are more aggressive and have a tendency to attack anything that move in their direction that appears to be threatening. For salmon, especially coho, spinners are very effective and often a preferred method.
I always take the treble hook off the spinner and use a single Siwash or sickle hook.
Getting Started: First, you will need some spinners and spoons, rod and reel.
Line – 40-pound braid for mainline tied directly to the lure. This allows you to get more of your gear back.
Rod – 8 - 9 foot spinning rod, fast action. Use the 8ft rods when casting under trees and in difficult spots. 9ft are great for open water.
Reel – 2500 series spinning reel.
Steelhead - #3 or 4 Vibrax, Panther Martin or Rooster Tail Spinners. Blue or copper bodies work great for steelhead.
Coho - #4, 5 or 6 Vibrax or Flying C spinners. Generally bright colors—chartreuse or cerise tend to be extremely effective. Adding a hootchie to the hook can increase strikes at times.
Chinook - #5 or 6 Vibrax or Flash and Glo spinners—Dark Green! About the only color I’ve been consistently successful with.
For spinners cast slightly above and beyond the hole and let it sink to the bottom.
Give a quick “twitch” to start the blade moving and reel in very slowly. The idea is to have the blade turning at the slowest speed possible while maintaining the spinner just above the bottom. If the current moves the spinner downstream, you don’t have to reel as long as the blade is moving. Too fast of a retrieve will be less appealing to the fish, plus will cause the spinner to rise out of the strike zone.
Reel all the way back to where you are, whether it be on the bank or in a boat.
Many times the fish will stalk the spinner and hit it just before you take it out of the water. If a fish follows it and doesn’t take it, try and make a figure eight with the spinner before removing it from the water. Anything that keeps it fishing to allow the fish more time to grab it if it chooses.
You want to use this technique for deeper slow moving holes that fish are holding in. For coho, look for wood structure and cast right at the wood. Back eddies can be incredibly good for coho.
There’s no doubt when you get a hit. It will likely feel as if the rod’s going to rip out of your hands.
This is probably the most fished method for coho.
BC Steel in 2/5 or 2/3 ounce, 50/50 or silver.
Line – 40-pound braid for mainline tied directly to the lure.
Rod – 9-foot spinning rod, fast action.
Reel – 2500 series spinning reel.
When using a spoon cast straight out or slightly down river letting the water flow over your spoon. In most cases, you want the spoon to wobble but not spin. Keep the line tight and slowly retrieve as needed to keep the spoon off the bottom as the current swings the spoon to your side of the river. Take a step or two down river and repeat the process. Most good spoon fishermen will work the hole from top to bottom pushing fish towards the tail out, just like a plug fishermen would do.
Girtz adds, “Some advanced anglers will add a slight twitching motion with the wrist as they retrieve to entice a bite.
Twichin is fast becoming one of the most used techniques for salmon and for good reason, it’s deadly effective. Although steelhead will occasionally hit a twitched jig, I’d keep this technique strictly for salmon.
Getting Started: First you’ll need some jigs, rod and reel.
Jigs: 3/8 and 1/2 ounce are the most common sizes.
Twitchin jigs are similar to those jigs used for float fishing, but generally are heavier, have more material and are larger.
Hoochies can also be attached to a jig head and are extremely effective
Line – 40-pound braid for mainline tied directly to the jig.
Rod – 7 ½- to 8-foot spinning rod, fast action. Short rods help for casting under the hanging trees.
Reel – 2500 series spinning reel
Cast slightly above and beyond the hole and let it sink to the bottom. Give a quick “twitch” to start the process. As you twitch the jig will come up and toward you. You’ll want to make sure this action only raises the jig six inches to one foot at a time so keep the rod action simple, with a quick short twitch. The longer the rod the less movement required at the wrist.
As the jig begins to fall, reel in approximately ½ crank to take up the slack. After the jig falls back down repeat this motion all the way back to the boat or bank. The fish will almost always hit the jig on the fall—the next twitch generally will set the hook.
Often you’ll feel a missed attempt by the fish to engulf the jig, just keep twitchin and more than likely they’ll attempt it again.
This method is now the “go to” method for coho, pinks and chum.
Bright colors of pink work for all three species, with purple, black, and chartreuse being some other popular colors.
The biggest advantage to plugs is they can make an aggressive fish come out of a place that you would otherwise not be able to get your gear to—or irritate them in to biting.
At times fish will move large distances to hit a plug.
Girtz says, “When fishing plugs I like to run 40-pound braid straight to the plug or plug snap. By using 40—pound test it allows me to force a fish out of the brush and logs if I have to. It’s also still light enough that I can break the line if my gear gets hung on a log.
When Pulling Plugs
It is a good idea to wrap your plugs with some bait if you can do it without hurting the action of the plugs. Sardine, tuna, herring, and anchovies all work well.
Kings: K14, K15 Kwikfish, Maglips 4.0, 4.5 (fickle pickle, silver/chartreuse, double trouble).
Coho: Brads Wiggler, 3.5 Maglips (BW29, pink, silver orange, silver/chartreuse).
Steelhead: Tadpollys, Maglips 3.5 , Hot Shot #35, Brads Wigglers (doctor death, silver orange herring bone, blue or green pirate).
Line: 40-pound braid.
Rod: Girtz says, “I like a 8’6 mag-taper medium-action rod to let the plug work while letting the fish load the rod when taking the plug. Fast-action rods tend to rip the hooks out on the take when using braid and does not let the plug work as well.”
Reel: Baitcasters with smooth drag system.
Bait divers allow your bait to be presented in the perfect spot for an extended period of time without spooking the fish.
Kings/Coho: #20 Jet Diver on slider with dropper. 20-pound leader. Lil Corky. 2/0 hook (bait: eggs, shrimp).
Steelhead: Brads Diver. 15- to 20-pound leader. Spin & Glow (bait: shrimp, eggs).
Girtz, “This is my second favorite way to fish for kings. My #1 way is bobbers and eggs.
Although backing divers through a hole can be very effective, and a great way to find where the biters are, Girtz likes to fish divers on anchor most of the time.
Girtz, “I typically anchor up above the hole and set my divers to a very specific spot. I want my divers to be within a foot or two of a very specific area, usually an area I have caught fish in the past. If I do not catch anything in the first 20 minutes, I will let more line out until I have worked the entire hole.” And he stresses, “Always remember to refresh your bait as needed”.
Line: 40-pound braid.
Rod: 8’6” mag-taper medium-action rod rated 10 to 20 or 12 to 30.
Reel: Shimano Cardiff 400
Plunking allows your bait to be presented in the perfect spot for a long time without spooking the fish. It’s a very effective method in high water when the fish are being forced to the edges of the river.
The setup is pretty basic. You’ll want to use a 1- to 4-ounce pyramid sinker on a three-way swivel. 20-pound mono leader with a nice big Spin-N-Glow, tied to a size 1 to 2/0 hook with either sand shrimp or eggs. Lob your presentation slightly above where you want it to settle. The more current and deeper the hole the further up you’ll want to aim it. Once it settles, put the rod in a rod holder and wait for a bite. Make sure and check your bait every so often and keep it fresh.
Line: 40-pound braid
Rod: 8’6” medium/heavy action rod rated 10 to 20 or 12 to 30. The rod must be heavy enough to cast the lead you are using.
Reel: Shimano Cardiff 400
So there’s a good start to your weaponry.
If you’re passionate about any kind of fishing you know your garage will only continue to fill up with more and more gear. The best thing you can do is keep it well organized so you’ll be ready for anything.
- written by Terry J. Wiest