Every year hundreds and hundreds of steelhead are caught around the Pacific Northwest by anglers fishing with jigs. In rivers big and small, steelhead will take a brightly colored jig, usually fished below a bobber. And, while late fall, winter and early spring tends to be the best time of year to try to entice a steelhead strike on a jig, they will work pretty much wherever steelhead hold no matter what time of the year it is.
I caught my first steelhead on a jig almost 30 years ago in the famous Blue Creek hole on Washington’s Cowlitz River. Since then I have had good luck with them on a number of other rivers including the Snake and the Columbia.
Kyle Phillips lands a late summer run steelhead on Washington’s Snake River. The fish took a ¼ ounce Maxi Jig tipped with a piece of dyed prawn.
In the upper Columbia River during the colder winter months the preferred fishing method is to drift along through likely-looking fish-holding spots and throw out a jig tipped with piece of prawn or shrimp.
Guide Shane Magnuson has really good luck putting clients on fish with this technique and has had huge success fishing with Worden’s Maxi Jig. My son Kyle and I fished with Magnuson a few years back and had good luck using 1/8th ounce Maxi Jigs tipped with a small piece of dyed coon-tail shrimp.
“We’ve had our best luck on jigs that are orange or pink,” said Magnuson as he stuck the tail end of a bright pink dyed shrimp on the tip of one of the Maxi Jigs.
Depending on the depth of the holes we fished, we set our bobber stops anywhere from 14 to 23 feet.
“You want that jig and bait right on the bottom,” Magnuson instructed as Kyle and I got ready to make a cast out into the surprisingly warm Columbia. On the day we fished with him in mid-December the water temperatures were a balmy 48 degrees.
“It is better to have your jig bouncing on bottom than not low enough in the water,” Magnuson continued. It didn’t take us long to figure out where the steelhead were. We made a couple of drifts at one of the guide’s favorite holes and on the third drift my bobber dipped below the surface. I set the hook and in an instant I was doing battle with a beautiful 11-pound steelhead.
Two more rosy-cheeked steelhead were enticed to bite our jig-and-bait offerings in a couple of hours of fishing. All-in-all, not bad for a day of fishing on a late fall day, when most anglers have given up on fishing for the year.
Fishing jigs just below some of the dams on the Columbia, or on the Snake will work just as well. A couple of years ago my two sons and a brother-in-law and I hit the Snake River on the day after Christmas.
Using a similar set-up as on the Columbia, we drifted a mile stretch of fairly soft water that was no more than 30 feet deep. It was one of those cold, knock-the-ice-out-of-your-eyelets but we kept warm by landing several nice steelhead. Bright orange Maxi Jigs in ¼ ounce size were the hot color and size, and we tipped the jigs with a tiny piece of dyed shrimp.
We were fishing from my 20-foot jet sled that day, but bank anglers can get in on the jig fishing action too. Above and below some of the dams on both the Columbia and Snake anglers fish from the rocky shorelines with bobbers and baited jigs and have good luck on steelhead migrating up the river.
The secret here is to not set your bobber stop too deep. Even though the water might be over a hundred feet deep, most of the steelhead are caught in the top 10 to 12 feet of the river.
Fishing bobbers and jigs in fairly shallow, smaller rivers will work too. On Oregon’s John Day River guide Steve Fleming will use smaller 1/16th ounce jigs fished only a few feet below a bobber and let the outfit drift from one hole to another as he works the small river from a drift boat.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw how low the river was when I fished with him a few years back. And I was even more stunned a bit downstream when my small bobber slurped below the surface indicating a late summer run had sucked up the small jig I was fishing.
A few minutes later when I released the little five pound steelhead back into the river I was again reminded why fishing jigs is such a productive way to go.
There are several brands of steelhead jigs on the market. Worden’s Maxi Jig is designed with super strong and super sharp 2X Owner Hooks. They come in five sizes from 1/32 up to 3/8 ounce and are available in over 35 different color combinations.
One tip for success is to use the correct size of slip bobber with your jigs. There are a number of good bobbers on the market, just make sure the bobber is rated to the size of jig you will be using.
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