Last Chance Steelhead by Scott Haugen
Over the decades, some of my best late-season success has taken place in low water conditions. Specifically, casting into small pocket water where fish are holding, has paid-off many times. Casting lightweight drifter setups into small sections of water can be the key to pulling fish from these tight spots.
The thing about these small pockets, they’re often so small, many anglers pass them by.
On a recent trip, two boats were ahead of a buddy and I. They hugged the left side of the main current and side drifted right through the fast, shallow, main current.
Jody Smith with a late season steelhead taken on a Mag Lip while working a shallow slick. A full-time guide, Smith encourages people to think outside the box and not be afraid to taken chances when fishing challenging conditions, reasoning that if you don’t get the gear to where the fish are, they can’t find it.
The closer we got to the spot, it appeared too fast and shallow to hold fish. I thought we might latch into a traveling fish in this water, but since the two boats just fished it with no luck, we approached it differently.
Rather than fish the main current, we casted into small pockets, behind boulders and bedrock, well off to the side of the main current. Over the next 75 yards, we caught two steelhead. Before the day was over, we’d hook and release six more steelhead, all of which were taken from pocket water well off to the side of main currents, less than five feet deep.
Though these small pockets will find you casting multiple times and covering very short sections of water, it’s worth the effort if that’s where fish might be holding. Drifts may cover as little as five feet of water, so use enough sinker to get the terminal gear down, fast, and pull it out before getting hung-up.
Plugging shallow water is also an effective option.
This can be done by way of backtrolling or sitting on anchor.
“I really like plugging the flats this time of year,” offers good friend and noted guide, Jody Smith. “Most guys pass right by these spots, figuring it’s too shallow to hold fish, which is one reason I like them. My favorite spots are slicks, as fish often rest here after traveling through heavy rapids. It might only be two feet deep, and moving fast, but that shouldn’t keep you from fishing it. These are great places to hit early and late in the day, when fish are moving.”
On a recent trip with Smith we anchored and dropped our Mag Lips 40 feet behind the boat. Soon we pulled three chrome steelies from that shallow slick. A couple days later Smith had a guide trip and managed to pull seven steelhead from slicks, and those were in addition to what they caught through other methods that day.
Another effective low water approach is covering as much river as possible with the lines in the water, searching for fish. Here, you’re looking for fish on the move as well as ones that may be holding.
“I really like bobber-dogging when it comes to covering water,” shares Smith. “The float keeps the terminal gear where you want it, which is important when fishing low, clear water. Sidedrifting can find the boat separating too far from the terminal gear, pulling the presentation out of the strike zone, and that strike zone can be small when the water is low.”
Bobber-dogging affords a direct pull between the float and terminal gear, meaning drifts can be precisely positioned. It’s also a very efficient way for multiple anglers to cover water.
On another trip with Smith, a buddy and I hooked into six steelhead in one, 300-yard stretch. The interesting thing here was, the three boats ahead of us fished the water, first, and they didn’t touch a fish.
One boat pulled plugs and two sidedrifted. When Smith suggested we bobber-dog the same water and explained why it made sense.
“These guys are close, but they’re just not hitting the sweet spots where fish are holding right now,” pointed out Smith. “With all the bedrock in this stretch, fish are holding in very specific spots.”
No doubt Smith’s knowledge of the river led to our success, as did the pinpoint accuracy bobber-dogging afforded.
Whether fishing from a boat or shore, apply stealth when working clear, shallow water.
Going with a fluorocarbon leader can make a big difference, as can downsizing the terminal gear so it’s not too intrusive. Think ahead, read the water and anticipate where fish may be holding or traveling, then proceed accordingly. Once dialed-in to low water steelhead, you’ll find the approaches apply from river to river, season to season.
- Scott Haugen