Trophy Native Steelhead Tactics by Joseph Princen (JP)
I remember each one of them like it was just moments ago, reaching into the cold emerald green winter water, with visions in my mind of the drag-ripping battle that just unfolded up and down the riverside.
Visions of the gray ghost thrashing the surface of the water and leaping into the air like a tropical tarpon in a winter setting. The drag emitting smoke from heat as wet snow hits the reel.
My oarsman is breathing hard from having to row upriver and push downriver to keep up with these Pacific Northwest native monsters. As my fingers finally wrap around the beast’s raw muscle tail, the feeling of shock finally sinks in that I landed a once in a lifetime Pacific Northwest Achievement, the 20-pound steelhead.
You never realize how big these steelhead truly are until you try to wrap your fingers around the tail.
It has the raw girth of a true warrior, a winter-run powerhouse who staggers over the rest of the steelhead in this river. They are just so overwhelmingly wide, it simply doesn't compare to any other species in our realm. Emerging from the water is a ripped high backed, wide shouldered, back street brawler complete with its beautiful iridescent accidents popping out in high definition and on a big scale. Its rosy red amber cheeks flowing into a long amber stripe accenting down the mid section of muscle.
The thousands of perfectly placed black spots painted all over the back of this creature create the ultimate Pacific Northwest trophy, the 20-pound steelhead. With so much adrenalin running through my veins it comes full circle, all of the above, just happened in a matter of seconds.
Each year the Pacific Northwest receives large, 20-pound caliber steelhead—the timing of these native beasts is like clockwork. I have literally logged down to nearly the day when I will get my first shot at a monster steelhead. This usually happens based off large incoming weather fronts and big tides near the end of January and beginning of February.
However some years, we don't know why they don't show until a few weeks into February. Every year is simply different by some margin or another. Weather will always be the biggest determining factor. Threading the needle between making a trip on the cusp of a storm is always a risk. But if your trophy steelhead system is in a low-water phase late in January or early February your big native steelhead will always push when the pressure drops immensely, and the front is moving in.
They will need the water and cover to hide their big bodies, and the threat of rain proves that they will get the water flow and cover they need to make it to the headwaters safely. The day before the storm is usually when they push the hardest, and almost always found in moving water.
A second push of large fish comes early to mid March.
Yet again after the river receives a large amount of precipitation these fish will flood into the river systems. Usually the March strains of fresh, big wilds do not grow to quite the size of the big steelhead that come in late January and early February. Those fish are early and tend to be traveling higher, further, faster and swim through harder water than any of the rest in the steelhead run. Those fish need the bigger muscles and wider fins to make it way into the mountains to find the purest spawning gravel and dig the biggest and safest bed for spawning.
It’s no secret big fish like bigger water, deeper water, but with that said, it’s not always the same circumstances. Finding these beasts is the biggest mystery to me of all. I've caught them in shallow fast-water long-slot stretches, deep holes, bolder gardens, log jams and bucket holes in the middle of the river. But the secret is consistently figuring out what kind of conditions make these beasts predictable day in and day out on your particular river system.
That key is learning and understanding "their natural instincts every day"; with this being said, any given day you launch your boat is a different day of survival for them and the way they behave changes with conditions.
You must think like they do (and I'm being dead serious).
Every single day their conditions change, they think differently and there's only a few things that truly matter to them. "I need to go higher" and I need to do it "safely with the least amount of effort and as fast as possible."
Knowing their predictability and memorizing their behavior for conditions present on that particular day will drastically increase your success. What's the current temperature of the water. How much visibility do you have in the water? What's the river flowing at? Is there sunshine, clouds or a storm approaching? Are they focused on moving? Or are they holding?
On a day with clouds or sunshine, with 3-4 feet of visibility is a prime example of a river that's just dropped into fishable shape. Expect these fish to be in Head Ins, Tail Outs and long stretches of Slot Water.
These zones are known as "traveling zones" or "traveling water." These are trophy fish, and it takes more energy for big-bodied fish to travel through these hard current stretches of faster "traveling water." Expect to catch these bigger fish were current is broken, briefly slows down and the water deepens out and slows down. Or where the surface is broken, enough to cause a small current break between two rocks or logs. These big fish like areas were it’s deep enough in a very long shallow run to hide - preferably with cover above such as an overhanging tree limb touching the surface creating ripples, or a cutout bank with a shadow that’s cast over the surface, or finally a slot in the middle just below two big rocks with broken surface ripples.
Had a rare "guides day off" and Spent it in the bow of my fellow avid steelheaders driftboat, Roger Ross. I was blessed with this centerpinned lightening bolt of a hen, she was electrified from start to finish
The current break must be enough for them to stop momentarily and conserve energy for the next big push through long, hard moving water. This moment of slower current allows an angler to tumble their bait, or float their jig through this area just a bit slower than surrounding water, creating a unique moment of time between the fisherman and fish to make its decision to attack what's in front of them.
Low and Clear, Cold
These are conditions that create a special opportunity for the skilled fisherman to connect with big steelhead. Low water requires accurate casts, proper depth settings and experience determining which water is worth working and which water is just too shallow. The timing targeting these beasts changes with cold weather.
Even though steelhead are tough creatures, snappy and aggressive in even the coldest climates, you still may want to think about sleeping in on those extremely cold mornings with lower conditions. Being that the river is low and with cold weather eminent, there is a special window of opportunity that usually presents itself late morning when the sun rises and connects with the surface of the water for more than an hour.
When the river is low, the sun has a bigger impact on the temperatures of the water because there is less "area" to heat between the surface of the river and the river bed. Once the sun saturates the river bed with reflection, the heat then convects its way up to the surface since heat rises.
Around 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. you may see a "bite" happen with random sporadic action taking place. Since these are big fish you are targeting, they are impacted more from cold temperatures and it usually takes longer for them to become actively aggressive again. This is why the sun plays a huge role in the mood of big steelhead. They must slow their body movements down to a halt to conserve calories to burn to stay warm enough to survive, only the sun can bring them out of this lethargic state.
This brings up my next point, cold mornings usually mean lethargic trophy steelhead. This means, slow, deep holes usually hold these big-bodied fish that are parked, moving only if they have to stave calories in which they burn to stay warm.
Pink worms and big steelhead seem to go hand in hand.
Fishing them on a jig head in low conditions to bobber dogging them in high and dirty conditions. When you were a kid, it’s no secret most of us used worms for trout, it was effective. This being said, rubber steelhead worms are one of the best tactics when targeting big steelhead. Worms present a two in one factor to big steelhead. One being a living creature invading their space or possibly jeopardizing their spawning bed which triggers a natural attack instinct to the worm; and two, this is also a sizeable meal for calorie intake needed to press on throughout the river system to reach their final destination.
The evolution of worms is growing every year in our steelhead industry.
Companies like Western Fishing Operations based out of Oregon is taking the time to experiment with three dimensional and almost holographic coloring patterns showing so vividly in clear glacier water. There are colors for low-water conditions and colors for high water conditions giving the angler a chance to fish the worm and only the worm throughout the entire season as conditions change on a day to day basis.
A basic worm rig, for the float dogging presentation, will start with 24-30" of 17 lb. or greater leader line. I’m often running 20-lb. fluorocarbon during February and March.
Big steelhead have extremely sharp vampire-like teeth and their jaw structures are more powerful than even king salmon. Their ability to snap monoflimement is effortless on big headshakes and long runs. Fluorocarbon provides a small buffer for this.
The nature of big steelhead hiding in bolder gardens also gives you an added threat, often times big fish will run you into the rocks or clay ledges were this abrasion resistance is vital. So many times I’ve heard how leader shy these fish are.
In my experience the trophy fish can care less if your using 25 lb. over 15 lb. unless you’re fishing a super pressured terminal zone, but these big native fish could care less!
They are alpha, omega and will prove that to anything you put in front of them. Use at least a 2/0 hook for 4" or smaller worms and even 4/0 hooks for 5" or bigger worms if you’re fishing them on the jig. Due to the nature of trophy steelheading on jigs and the mechanics of a trophy caliber steelhead fight, if the fish decides to run at warp speed and jump, the forceful nature of a massive steelhead in the air will lead to a cartwheel. The end over end motion of a big, airborne steelhead can bend hooks smaller than 2/0 in any brand.
It’s simple, just don’t go small, they are all sharp and even a 4/0 hook can penetrate a 5-lb. fish. If you’re bobber dogging, the 2/0 Owner Mosquito hook is specifically designed to align the hook flat with the worm. Use a number 12 Cheater on 5" or bigger worms and a number 10 Cheater on 4" or smaller worms.
If it’s low and clear and you’re fishing a jig, don't buy cheap jig hooks!
Get thick-wire 2/0's or bigger. Fish them on an 1/8-oz. jig head, any bigger and you’ll hang-up in the rocks. Floats are personal preferences—personally I enjoy watching sky gray Aero-Floats disappear under the surface. In low conditions you must think like the fish. Look up, what color on most days is our sky? It’s almost always gray. In addition to the Aero-Floats, Beau Mac makes an incredible clear float that's durable and affordable and on sunny days I prefer this float. I always buy either the 20 gram and pair it with half-ounce inline weight or if the current is super turbulant the extra 5 grams of the 25 gram float will provide the bobber more buoyancy when needed. If you’re not experienced, up your weight size to 5/8 inline paired with the 25 gram.
Using the extra weight will allow you to mend less carefully, NOT pulling the float out of the strike zone. The 5/8 weight will keep you were the fish are no matter how sloppy the mends may be.
I’ve been guiding the Olympic Peninsula for many years now, but I have sport fished it for much longer with oar mate Austin. When I get a day away from guiding the first thing I'm doing is making plans with him and packing a cooler of cold ones, scrambling to chuck my personal steelhead gear into the drift boat and pull the guide gear.
No matter how tired I am, there's a smile on my face, because I'm living another day doing what I love. I live to fish and fish to live over 285 days a year or more on the water in Alaska as a skipper and sport guide on the Olympic Peninsula.
Fishing for trophy steelhead will never dull, never fade to me, it’s new everytime.
The feeling never changes—I still shake like a little one on every fish because it’s true, steelheading is an addictive substance! I’m in trouble because all I can think of is those big majestic techno violet colors, glimmering in the water and the beautiful sight of a giant swimming off to carry on those priceless genetics after a quick grip and grin. The hairs on my neck rise when I realize I'm wetting a line in places where 30 pounders still exist. I’ll travel the world in search of him, the one, the 30-pound steelhead. I won’t stop until I find him. Doesn't matter if I land it or one of my clients, I just want to be apart of one. If you want to come share my passion for big steelhead, feel free to visit my website or give me a shout!
- written by Joseph Princen