"The Big Ones" by Nick Amato
Trophy Native Steelhead by Joseph Princen Jr. inspired me to mull over the memory of all the large steelhead I’ve either caught or witnessed.
The information in his article on run timing and weather conditions peaked my interest. It really got me thinking about a couple of winter steelhead rivers that I intimately know.
Both stream’s wild winter steelhead runs peak in February, although good numbers of fish arrive from late November through April.
These flowing gems also have produced a few specimens in excess of 30 pounds and receive limited angling pressure. At least in the canyons that I once called home.
Caption: This large Oregon steelhead was hooked in shallow water while it was on the move.
The funny thing is I’ve caught a lot of steelhead in these rivers, but rarely really big ones until recently. I knew they were in there, but most of legendary giants where caught during high water with Spin-N-Glos. The most recent 30-plus pounder on a plunked pink worm. I prefer covering lots of water, so waiting in a stationary position on the bank wasn’t high on my priority list. I preferred to hike many miles of river. The lower the water, the better, because I could get around easily and concentrate on deep pools, slots and under heavy water.
What started to become clear with time, was that I was finding lots of fish in these conditions, but the big ones rarely bit. I know this because in many pools during low-water conditions you could see them. I’ll never forget watching one 25-pound-plus beast gliding in and out of my vision between canyon shadows. It took just one cast into eight-foot deep, gin-clear water, to spook it into the headwaters.
That was with light-tackle too.
Many times I’d find pools with 40 or more wild winter steelhead that I could see. Sometime you could clearly view the 20-pound-plus specimens. Did they ever bite in these conditions?
Never... Sure you could catch a few beautiful fish into the teens, but not one of the really big ones. It would only take a hookup or two to spook all of the fish.
Don’t think I’m complaining. I’m not talking about dark, late season fish. I’d found multiple, low water staging holes and pools, which kept my light tackle very busy. The visions of those giant steelhead never left me. I vowed to one day figure out how to effectively target them while they were migrating in higher water. Now I’ll flash forward 25 years.
Besides plugs, spoons and big Spin-N-Glos there are two other “baits” that giant, moving steelhead seem to like. Intruder-style flies and plastic worms. Pink, especially when it comes to worms, seems to be the go-to color, but all kinds of color combinations seem to work. In clearish water—black/chartreuse and red/black color combos seem to be highly effective.
I’m going to skip the how and shoot right to the when although technique can be summarized as follows. When rivers are flowing at medium or even high levels don’t be surprised at how tight to the bank fish will travel. Think soft water not too far from shore. This is a huge over-simplification, but it’s a fact that moving steelhead will hold and travel right along the bank’s edge in high-water conditions, along with the shallow edges of big tailouts that have high flow. More on all of this in future issues.
Here are the somewhat simple steps to figuring out when giant steelhead are on the move, chrome bright and potential biters.
Long-time friend and pro guide Captain Obvious explained to me that if a river doesn’t have many 20-pound-plus steelhead it’s hard to target them.
With that out of the way Oregon and Northern California have many streams that consistently produce 20-pounders, like the Umpqua, Nehalem, Wilson, Coquille, etc. More big fish equals better odds. Targeting them in Washington state or B.C. will definitely increase your chances.
Next try to pin down the 10 best big fish days of the season. In the two streams I didn’t name there is always a push of large fish that usually occurs during the month of February. On one stream it happens at the beginning of February and the other is usually best during the last week of February. You can figure this out by either fishing a lot or questioning locals: guides, shop owners, fish bums, plunkers or possibly learn on the internet (chat rooms or Facebook).
You want to check out the tides. Big tides can be good especially on smaller streams. JP isn’t joking when he says these really big ones move fast. They can move though the lower river and be lost in the canyon pools in just a day or two. Finding them while they are moving upriver is when you have the best chance of connecting with an aggressive biter.
Then you just need perfect water conditions. Warming or at least stable water temperatures are always a plus. Medium to light rain that is holding water levels stable at “green means go” to “not quite completely clear” is what you are after.
Cover and learn new water and of course put in the time. Connect with one of nature’s most spectacular gifts could be the most memorable moment of your life!
- written by Nick Amato