Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Steelhead University

The Steelhead Rules
by Tom "T.J." Nelson

I ran acrosse this site today and thought it was worth passing along. WWW.SteelheadUniversity.COM

Each and every sport has a set of rules and steelheading is no different. In football for instance you are penalized yardage for various rule infractions. Steelhead however, impose much more severe sanctions: Break their rules and they will not even let you play! The following general “rules” are a suggested course of action designed to get you into steelhead more consistently. Bend them, adapt them into your specific plans & places, but don’t break ‘em….the penalties can be painful…

1. Learn to read water
Easily the single most important facet of the education of a river fisherman is learning to read water. I define reading water as: The learned ability to observe a body of water and subsequently predict where fish will be found. By learning to identify high-probability areas we eliminate large, unproductive sections of river. This enables us to concentrate our fishing efforts on the productive runs, which increases our chances of success.

2. Fish the edges.
These three little words uttered to the Author many years ago by an experienced guide have had a tremendous impact upon my steelheading success. Once you’ve attained a basic understanding of reading water you will encounter edges. Edges can be areas of current break, depth change, structure influence or light contrast (shading). Simply stated, edges separate an area of steelhead holding water or cover from a section of less desirable water. Once a steelhead enters a “comfortable” holding area he’s taking a break for a while and quite often will not go much farther than just inside the edge. Put yourself in his fins for a minute: Let’s say you’re hot & tired from honey-do’s in the sun and heading into the shade for a rest. There’s a large shaded area with two chairs: one is just inside the shade and one is in the middle. One more thing…You don’t want the wife to catch you loafing in the shade. Now, where are you gonna sit?

3. Select a section of river near your home and learn it like the back of your hand.
In most of Steelhead country we are fortunate to have a variety of steelhead streams from which to choose. Pick a river close to home so that you’ll have the opportunity to visit it often. Make a point of observing your “crick” in all stream flows but in times of low water in particular. It is in the seasonal low flows of late summer and early fall that the classroom is open. This is the time to learn the location of the troughs, holes, boulders and stream bed current breaks that cannot be observed when the water is higher. Note their location and then observe the surface disturbance that results from these features. What creates a slick? What creates a riffle? What causes that standing wave? The answers to these questions can all be seen at low water and the knowledge gleaned from these experiences form the basis of learning to read water.

4. Become a technique specialist
It only takes a quick walk through the tackle shop to notice the dizzying array of gear available to today’s steelheader. While the ever-increasing diversity of gear and techniques is a boon to experienced anglers, to the novice it becomes difficult to see the forest through the trees. What the veteran steelheader would view as different solution to a fishing challenge, just adds another confusing piece to the novices’ puzzle. To become an expert at all the available techniques would take more time than the Good Lord gives us on this planet. Many steelheaders find it hard to specialize when they see other guys catching fish on lures that they don’t have. Then, they make a mad rush to the tackle shop to buy these rigs for their next outing. As a result, they soon have every lure in the tackle shop and they don’t know how to use any of them. So, what’s a guy (or girl) to do? Pick one or two techniques, stick with them and become a specialist. I would suggest standard drift fishing gear with eggs or shrimp and learning to backtroll plugs. These two techniques will allow you to have the flexibility to tackle most of the river conditions that you will face in the course of an average season.

5. Fish “Prime Time”
Each and every stream has its own distinct peak fishing periods in terms of both fish run timing and optimum flow level. When these two conditions coincide, you guessed it: It’s “Prime Time”. These are the times to call in sick, sneak out of that family engagement, slip out the back, Jack and go catch a stee-lee.

In general terms, after any high water period, the rivers will drop and recede into that dialed-in green color. When this happens during the peak of the hatchery run (usually two weeks either side of Christmas) get out on the river at all costs. The bottom line: If your wife isn’t mad at you, you’re just not fishing enough.

6. High rivers: fish high in the system. Low rivers: low in the system.
After the aforementioned high water, where does the hungry steelheader look for dinner? Up high in the system of course. This is somewhat of a no-brainer in that these areas will be the first to drop in to fishing shape but the second part of the equation needs to be discussed. High water is a green light to migrating salmonids. The low visibility of the river at these times allows the fish to feel safe and so they will travel almost non-stop night and day. During low water however, the reverse is true. The near-unlimited visibility of the clear river will cause the fish to seek cover during the daylight hours and so will not move up river as rapidly. Therefore, when the upriver areas begin to get a little stale as the water drops, look to the lower (just above tide water) to middle river holes for bright, aggressive fish just in from the saltwater.

7. High visibility-high speed. Low visibility-low speed.

When the river is clear the visual attraction of your terminal gear is at its highest. Since the steelhead can see your gear at increased distances and will move to pick up your bait or lure, this is the time for presentations at or near current speed . Fishing at the speed of the current (drift fishing or boondogging, free drifting) allows you to cover the most water in the shortest period of time. However, during periods of reduced visibility, slower presentations such as backtrolling or floats & jigs can be more effective since the lure will stay in the strike zone for a longer period of time. Slowing down your lure allows the steelhead more opportunity to locate and intercept your offering at a time when a faster presentation might just whiz by unnoticed.

8. Get a boat.
Without question, you can cover more water in a boat than you can on foot. Not only does this translate in to more fish but it also brings another dimension to the fishing experience. From a boat you’ll learn more about a stretch of river in a single day than you would in an entire season from the bank. Do you fish freshwater exclusively? Then a driftboat might just be the ticket. Are you a saltwater angler as well? A forward helm North River Sportster will do double duty on the rivers as well as the Sound. Does duck season find you on the marshes with dog and decoys? North River makes a great six-degree bottom Scout that’s a fine river sled that can double as a duck boat. Whatever your choice, hook up with the guys at Bayside Outboard in Everett or Tacoma North River. With North River dealers you will find the expert advice you need to make the smart hull and rigging choices that will maximize your fishing effectiveness and enjoyment.

9. You can’t catch ‘em if you don’t jerk.
All things being equal, the guy who has “the touch” will catch the most fish. Simply stated “the touch” is the ability to maintain the correct tension on your line so you readily recognize the bite and then set the hook at the right time. Getting “the touch” comes with experience and there is no substitute for time on the water. However, I can offer a few tips to help you along.

Tension: never let your line go completely slack. Slack is the “feel” killer and if you cannot feel the bite the deck is stacked against you. The one exception to this is bobber fishing. Your bobber is then the strike indicator and what you are essentially doing is sight fishing. The other tension extreme is keeping the line so tight that you lose bottom contact which also decreases your effectiveness. Find that happy medium and you’ll be making some ironheads very unhappy.

The bite: recognizing the bite is simply a matter of growing accustomed to the rhythm of the drift as your sinker tangos down the riverbed. Imagine someone pulling on your hook two or three times with a rubber band in addition to the river bottom rhythm and you’ve got a bite!

The hook set: This should be a matter of pride to any self-respecting steelheader. Just like the golfer who enjoys out-driving his regular foursome on Saturday morning, you should strive to have the nastiest hook set on the crick. The air should absolutely be ripped by your rod when you feel a bite. After all, you can’t catch ‘em if you don’t jerk.

10. Fish the best times in the areas that you know best. (Home field advantage)
This is rule #3 plus rule #5. The whole concept is greater than the sum of its parts, so it gets to be rule #10 (I was never very good at math anyway). Once you’ve picked your crick you’ll eventually find out when the fish are in thick and this is when you’ll be paid off for all of your hard work. By bringing all your local knowledge to bear when the fish are plentiful you’ll be the ace for the day and that my friends, is very rewarding.

11. Invest in your sport and get involved with an organization.
These days no matter what type of fishing you like to do, there is probably a group, club, or organization that will satisfy your needs. I would heartily encourage you to do an internet search and find one of these groups. Not only will you be meeting a like-minded group of people but you’ll likely gain valuable fishing information from other members. In addition, many fishing groups are actively involved in fisheries and habitat enhancement programs which is the best way to give a little back to the resource. One thing I know you’ll find out: the more you give the more you’ll get back in return.

For a quality guided experience contact Tom Nelson at Skagit River Outfitters. ( Email:

Comments on "Steelhead University"


Blogger Liz said ... (12:13 PM) : 

The articles on this web page are not only ingenius, they really put in perspective the basic and veteran strategies for taking steelhead. I currently am in my third year of steelin and still am learning new strategies and tactics for hooking and landing these mystical fish. I am 26yrs old and have fished my whole life. I tried float fishing about five years ago and was detered very quickly because of not having any luck, not to mention spending countless hours on the Rocky River. Although it seemed like a lot of wasted time, it is the best thing that could happen to any fisherman. Just being out there even though not having any luck, is an important facet to a green steelheader. Learning the runs, water conditions, and talking to as many veteran steelheaders as possible all aided into becoming the avid river junky I am. Steelheading is like anything else, put the time into it, be patient, and the fish will come. It is July and the time here in Ohio can't move any slower. Like a lot of people, fishing for smallmouth just isn't cutting it, and is just a temporary fix untill October.I do a lot of research online to try and master these fish, and just when you think you know enough, you cross someone who knows more, or an article that enlightens you. Usually it is the old timer who has been doin it forever, but when I read the articles on this web page front to back last night my brain was running circles thinking about the next time I can get out. I have lost countless hour of sleep thinking of how and what I am going to do the next time I get out. Last night after reading you're articles, I had that same feeling, but this time Instead of the alarm going off at 5 A.M., knowing conditions couldn't get any better, jumping up as I am turnin the alarm off and running out the door even quicker, I am left here to thank you for loving this sport as much as I do. Untill then I will be countng the days down untill I get out again, and am sure you are doing the same. Anyone learning this sport will be a better fisherman after reading you're page and you can be sure I will pass it along to any rookie steelheader looking to learn the logistics. It is the hobby my girlfriend insists, " You can't be up to any good". With the ammount of time I put in I can't blame her, atleast I'm not out drinkin with the boys. She just doesn't understand. Thank you and good fishing. -Rusty


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