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Brooks: Prime Time Winter Steelhead Techniques

Brooks: Prime Time Winter Steelhead Techniques

By Jason Brooks

February is known for being the best month of the winter season to catch steelhead. A mix of hatchery fish and wild fish will be in rivers, which is why anglers favor February. In my home state of Washington, seasons have been cut and rivers closed due to concerns over native stock, as well as management disagreements, but there are still places to catch steelhead if anglers are respectful of the fish they are targeting.

Because both wild and hatchery fish can be in the same system, it is up to the angler to know which runs are prevalent in the river they are fishing. Oregon has some great fisheries this time of year, as does Idaho and Canada. Alaska still has incredible steelhead fishing, which will only get better in the coming weeks and into the springtime.

Best techniques for winter steelhead fishing

With all of that, there are two techniques that are consistent at catching fish -- and each have their place. One is good for rivers with encounters of wild fish and the other is great for rivers where hatchery fish dominate, as it uses bait. Let us look at both techniques, when to, as well as when not to use them.

Brooks: Prime Time Winter Steelhead Techniques

Utilizing a pink worm for winter steelhead

The pink rubber worm is arguably one of the best and easiest ways to catch winter steelhead. Years ago, I caught my very first steelhead by drift fishing a pink rubber worm -- and it happened to be a wild fish on a now-closed Washington coastal river. That fish means a lot to me and knowing it was released without harm taught me early on to respect the runs. The rubber worm mimics a washed-out nightcrawler and fish will grab them with aggression. The bit is unmistakable and, thanks to a few different ways to rig and fish the rubber worm, anglers can keep mortality low. It can be fished multiple ways, from drift fishing, bobber dogging, and float fishing. The pink worm is always rigged on a rod in my drift boat and ready to catch fish.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing the rubber worm is the most common way to fish for steelhead and it is effective. One cloudless day we were drifting down a river when we saw a fish resting in a run, lazily swaying its tail back and forth, just hanging out. My fishing partner cast his line just a bit too far away and the fish started to make its way towards the pink worm, but it passed by before the fish made it to the offering. It was my follow-up cast where the worm approached and this time the fish grabbed it. Sight fishing for steelhead is exciting and knowing that you are throwing a lure they will bite makes it even more exciting.

Rigging is simple using a standard drift fishing rod and a mainline to a swivel where a piece of pencil lead is hanging. The leader should be clear monofilament or fluorocarbon to a larger hook size (such as a size 1/0). A small hook can be swallowed, but the larger hook is likely to catch in the corner of the mouth or jaw. On the leader is a 4- to 6-inch pink worm and, though you can put the hook in several locations, if you use a Pro-Cure bait threader you can run it near the tail. Be sure to use a small bead to keep the hook from ripping the rubber worm. By putting the hook near the tail, this ensures the fish will grab the worm towards the head or mid-body and the hook will take hold on the outside of the mouth, keeping mortality low.

Here is where you can really increase your odds of catching winter steelhead while drift fishing the pink worm -- use a float. It's important to keep the pink worm off the bottom of the river, thus using a Mack's Lure Cha Cha Float at the head of the worm works extremely well. Some anglers like to match the color of the worm, while others will use a contrasting color to increase visibility. If you are fishing right after a rain and the water is an off-color, put a small bead in front of the Cha Cha Float to act as a bearing and then a small Smile Blade 0.8, which will add flash and action to the lure. A healthy dose of Mack's Lure UV Bait Scents in the Pro Gel Nightcrawler Blend formula will also help with bites if bait is legal to use.

Bobber Dogging

Another way to fish a pink worm is to rig it for drift fishing but run it while bobber dogging as the trailing lure. Most who bobber dog will use a tandem two-rig setup with about 18- to 30-inches between the two baits. The top rig is best to be low profile, such as a yarnie or bead, then trailed by the rubber worm, as it will have more drag.

Float fishing pink worms is easy and almost foolproof. Using a sliding or slip float, the rubber worm can be added to a Mack's Lure Rock Dancer Bucktail Jig as a tail or use a painted jig head and slide the rubber worm onto the hook. For those perfect "steelhead green" murky waters or after a rainstorm, increase your hookups with a Smile Blade SD Drift Jig. First designed for walleye anglers who use real worms, the SD Drift Jig has a small barb called a "keeper," which will hold the rubber worm in place and the bright colors integrated with the detachable Smile Blade SD Hitch adds flash and visibility. If you are in a fishery that allows bait, you can use a real nightcrawler with this unique jig head, as well.

Using Bait Divers for Winter Steelhead

When it comes to fishing for hatchery steelhead in rivers where you are unlikely to encounter wild fish, such as the Cowlitz River in southwest Washington, then one technique that puts a lot of fish in the boat is using bait divers. Several years ago, I had a discussion with a friend who is a guide, about using bait divers. They primarily fished rivers where they encounter wild fish, and he was a bit upset with me about using bait divers, but I was fishing a river where it was predominantly hatchery fish. We came to an agreement that bait trailing a bait diver is too effective for rivers with wild fish, but one of the best options for hatchery fish. This is because of the use of bait and how it is rigged, which almost always means a deep hook into the mouth of the fish. Use this technique responsibly.

Brooks: Prime Time Winter Steelhead Techniques

Rigging a Bait Diver

Rigging the bait diver is easy and fishing it is easy, as well, as long as you can control your boat, which is harder to do than one might think. Simply use a plug rod and, at the end of the mainline, use a barrel swivel with a stout monofilament leader to a bait diver as a buffer. Nobody likes losing gear, but you will be backing this down to root balls, along seams, near cutbanks and log jams, so if you do hang up, and suddenly find yourself too close to the hazard, you do not want a braided line to become an anchor line, if fishing from a drift boat or raft. From the bait diver, use a 24- to 36-inch leader to tandem size 1 hooks. Rigging the bait is where the guides' secrets come in -- some like to rig sand or coonstripe shrimp while others will rig it with a bend. If using a gob of eggs, try using a sand shrimp tail with it.

Additionally, Mack's Lure offers the Smile Blade Shrimp Rig, which is where using bait divers becomes one of the best techniques for hatchery steelhead. The Shrimp Rig is pre-tied on a long leader to a Smile Blade, which spins in slow and fast water, with a Cha Cha Float that adds buoyancy as the bait diver digs into the bottom of the river cobble. A sharp single hook is trailed by a treble hook. Use the single hook to pin the head of a cured coonstripe shrimp and straighten the tail out and secure it with a treble hook, leaving two points exposed. You can also fish other baits, such as sand shrimp, nightcrawlers, and cured eggs. This rigging would take you a while to pre-tie, but it's ready to fish right out of the package through Mack's Lure.

When it comes to February steelhead fishing, be sure to know which runs you are likely to encounter. Fish responsibly and use a technique that is appropriate. For wild fish, using an artificial bait, such as a pink rubber worm, is an effective technique that will keep mortality rates low. Hatchery fish are there for anglers to catch and keep, so when fishing in a river where you are targeting hatchery fish, it's best to use techniques that will catch fish and the use of a bait diver is one of the best.

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