December’s arrival signals the start of some normally hot cold weather fishing in the Northwest and other regions of the country. The steelhead begin their migration up a number of rivers on the coast of Washington and Oregon, and inland, the summer steelhead moving up the Columbia and Snake Rivers create some very viable options for winter time fishing.
In many of the bigger rivers anglers will find some pretty good luck trolling diving, wiggling plugs, or fishing a dyed prawn below a float.
Both daytime and nighttime fishing can be productive, but you need to be prepared for the sometimes subfreezing temperatures, especially at night.
Old style fat plugs like a Wiggle Wart or the new Fat Wiggler plug will work well in this for trolling, but one of the hottest new plugs is diving Mag Lip. Guides have been using the larger sized Mag Lips for a few years for spring and fall chinook salmon, but the newer smaller sized 3.0 and 3.5 Mag Lips are particularly well suited for trolling for both summer and winter steelhead. Flat-lined behind the boat the Mag Lip will dive fairly deep, and has the wide wiggle attractive action of the old style FlatFish.
The other attraction of the Mag Lip is the lure’s skip-beat action. As the lure works through the water it will move quickly to one side or the other every few beats, enticing following fish to strike as they are fooled into thinking the lure is trying to get away.
The Mag Lips come in a variety of colors including all of the popular winter steelhead colors such as metallic red, gold, and silver, among others.
In faster water on some of the rivers anglers will back-troll these plugs down through the holding water. The secret is to keep the boat (either a drift boat or jetsled) moving just slow enough down the river to back the lures slowly through the hole. Often times the steelhead will strike right at the end of the drift, as the water starts to shallow.
While most anglers will troll during the day, taking advantage of the sometimes warming rays of winter sunshine, others have found that trolling at night can be as good, or even more productive for winter steelhead.
Anglers will troll many of the same plugs and have found that fluorescent red or black with silver specks are deadly colors at night. And some will use lighted lures with good success.
Even in the bigger, deeper waters, keeping the lures in the top 15 feet or so of the water column is normally the most effective. Most of the plugs described above will dive 8 to 12 feet, so many times they are rigged to just run on a flat line, straight out the boat, with no added weight.
Some anglers will use downriggers to help keep the lures in a certain depth, especially if they are marking fish holding at certain depths.
Fishing a dyed prawn or coon tail shrimp below a float can be productive in these same waters. While some anglers will drift with bobber and bait, others will troll the rigs extremely slow in the slack waters such as the pools created above a dam.
Using a slip bobber with a small (1/4 or 1/8 oz.) steelhead jig such as a Maxi Jig tipped with a prawn tail, the anglers will set their bobber stop to keep the jig and bait in the same depths as the plug fishermen.
This exact same set-up can be fished from the shore lines and during the winter, when the colder waters have the steelhead a bit more lethargic, this is an excellent technique to use to produce strikes.
Another popular winter steelhead technique is called side-drifting. This involves using the kicker motor or oars to keep the boat under control and giving it just enough power to allow the current to push the boat down river at the same speed as the weight and bait at the end of the angler’s line. Concentrate on water that is anywhere from 6 to 18 feet deep, and use baits such as cured salmon eggs or dyed prawns. Use enough weight to keep the rig bumping bottom as you drift and to help float the bait into the strike zone just off the bottom use a small a Lil’ Corky or Spin-N-Glo to add color and motion to the rig to entice strikes.
Catching a couple of nice steelhead for the holiday smoker makes the cold fingers and toes worth the effort. There are several techniques that are proven for success no matter where you are. The fish are here so now is the time to get in on this sometimes hot winter time fishing!