I just returned from the north Oregon Coast, near Tillamook, where friends and I spent multiple days chasing steelhead on rivers where the water levels were high and the water clarity ranged from that fishy looking steelhead green to approaching brown in color. Since we were fishing from a drift boat, our plan was to target rivers like the Wilson, Trask, Nestucca and Kilches. Not to be detoured when the water conditions were less than perfect, we simply changed our location and fishing methods to match the water conditions.
The basic rule in regard to river water height is: When river levels are high (and particularly when they’ve been that way for several days or more), fish higher in the river. The majority of the time, you won’t find large numbers of fish holding in the first several miles of river when water levels are on the edge of being fishable or when they first drop after a high-water event. After all, the majority of fish will have already responded to the rise in water levels by migrating into the mid and upper river.
And while fish may be found holding in the lower three to five miles of river — that wouldn’t be the first place I’d look when the water, although dropping, is beginning to transition from brown to green. There are exceptions, like when a hatchery or hatchery release site (where fish were released as smolt) is located low in the river.
The above scenario is reversed when river water levels are running medium to low — as this is the time you may find the best success prowling the lower three to five miles of river. The lower the water gets the closer to the river mouth you should be trying your luck.
Of course, the character of individual rivers can influence where you might fish; for example, the Nestucca, due to the narrow canyon and riverbed, doesn’t fish very well when water levels are high — the water is just running too fast when this river is much over 6 feet in height. Under those conditions, we spent our time on the Wilson — where there are many wide drifts and tail outs where the water is slower moving and therefore more apt to hold fish. The Trask River is much the same as the Nestucca in this regard with the exception being a bank fishing spot called “The Dam Hole” (I didn’t name it) that produces best when water levels are high — as it’s one of the few places where fish can hold without having to battle heavy river currents.
We employed several different fishing methods during our trip, with a focus on the techniques that perform best when river are mostly high and fast moving. These included drift fishing, side drifting, back-trolling plugs, and steelhead floats. Since there were three of us we carried at least one rod for each of the above methods, meaning we had no less than 15 rods in our boat. After all, and like I keep telling my wife, “man cannot have too many fishing rods.”
Our strategy was to side drift as we moved downriver, and since the water was mostly too fast for us to row back upstream, we anchored and drift fished the more productive spots — especially slow water tail outs. With the water level high, what little float and plug fishing we did was reduced to the slowest of holes and current edges.
Given the high, more turbid water we adjusted our rigs accordingly. For example, the outfits we rigged for drift and side drifting were made up of larger than normal offerings — we wanted our outfits to be large enough to get their attention. As such our drift fishing outfits consisted of larger size 8 Corky drifters, two size 10 Corky drifters rigged in tandem, or size 8 and 10 Spin-N-Glo. Likewise, our side drifting outfits consisted of the same larger Corky sizes but rigged on 18 to 24 inch leaders — the same as when drift fishing. Wanting to side drift with the larger (more visible) but also more buoyant Corkies meant shortening leader lengths so our outfits wouldn’t float up too high in the water column.
In fact, when the water was high and turbid, the only difference in our drift and side drifting outfits were that our drift fishing outfits were rigged on bait-casting rods and reels filled with 14-pound test line and larger pencil or slinky sinkers, while our side drifting rods were longer spin rods and reels filled with 10-pound mono and lighter pencil or slinky style weights.
Of the four rivers mentioned above, it’s only the Wilson and Nestucca that receive plants of hatchery fin-clipped brood stock steelhead. And while you might catch a stray hatchery fish from the Trask or Kilches, most of the keeper action can be had on the Nestucca and Wilson.
Fisheries closer to home that offer brood stock steelhead include the Hood, Sandy and Kalama. Because brood stock steelhead are first generation wild fish, the timing of their return matches that of the wild run, which can last through March and, given decent water flows, into early April.