Fishing is best ‘when rivers drop and waters clear after a rain’

Winter steelhead tips from a local pro

Steelheading this time of year is a challenging sport. After all, how many people think about fishing in the middle of the winter? Dealing with the rain, hail, snow, and cold rivers that fluctuate from muddy-to-clear, depending on the ever-changing weather conditions, is what makes this sport difficult for some and exciting to others. The rewards can be great (if you dress for the occasion) big hard fighting fish and scenery that at times can be breathtaking.

To be successful takes persistence, well honed angling skills and an understanding of the fish you are after. To help figure these critters out, remember that in most situations steelhead prefer to lie in water less than ten feet deep. Depths averaging five-to-eight feet and moving the speed of a brisk walk are what you should look for, especially if the river bottom is contoured, strewn with boulders and/or running next to a cut bank. If the water is higher than normal, fish will be found anywhere the current slows. This usually means near shore, in big, wide drifts, or along current edges.

Steelhead love to rest in the tail-out (end) of a hole, but will move farther into the drift if pressured or when the water is low and clear. They migrate most during the morning and evening time periods, on a full moon – providing there is no cloud cover, and when the river is high, green and dropping from a recent rain storm. All these are general rules but remember that fish are where you find them and since they can be aggressive biters, it pays to try a few casts in every good looking spot.

Where you fish, high or low, on a river should depend on water conditions. The basic rule is, if the water is high, fish high. If the water is low, (and been that way for awhile) fish low on the river.

Fishing is best, when rivers drop and waters clear after a rain. Steelhead are drawn upstream by the smell of fresh water. As water levels drop, moving fish begin to hold in the holes, mostly near the tailouts. After a storm and water fluctuation, good fishing can last from a few days to a week or more, depending on the run size.

Angling effort normally increases during these time periods. As the water levels drop and clear, most fish numbers are thinned by sport harvest – the rest disperse throughout the river. This is a time when anglers wait (some pray) for the next rainstorm and subsequent rise in water level which will encourage another wave of fish to enter rivers.

Water conditions can dictate which technique will be the most effective. Under extreme low water try drifting fishing a Corky Drifter near bottom in combination with a small egg cluster or sand shrimp, float a steelhead jig below a float, or cast-and-retrieve a weighted spinner. Under high turbid water conditions, I’ve always enjoyed the best success drift fishing with a larger (or two) drift bobbers like a Corky Drifter rigged with an 18-inch leader and pencil weight or large slinky style sinker.

Rivers in the mid-Columbia offering opportunity for winter run steelhead include the Hood River, White Salmon, Wind and Rock Creek. While the Wind and White Salmon are no longer stocked with hatchery winter steelhead they are open to fishing and there is a real opportunity to capture a late-returning summer steelhead or winter steelhead that has strayed from another river system.

According to ODF&W biologist Jason Seals, the department has continued a hatchery brood-stock program on the Hood River by releasing 50,000 smolt annually. These progeny-of-wild fish start returning in late December or early January and run through mid-April – normally peaking in March.

Biologist John Weinheimer with WDFW said that although the department has stopped stocking the Wind and White Salmon with hatchery winter runs they’ve started a new program on Rock Creek by releasing 20,000 fin-clipped hatchery smolt. These fish should begin returning this month and remain in the system through winter.

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