As salmon season winds down to an end, the north fork of the Alsea is open to anglers awaiting the return of winter steelhead. These robust sea-run rainbow trout are known for their speed as well as acrobatic leaps once they’ve been hooked. Last year’s return numbers were lower than usual, but historically, the numbers tend to ebb and flow. On average, early fish show up in December following an increase in water levels from rainfall. The highest numbers arrive in January and February. When waters are high and muddy or murky, bobber rigged leadhead marabou jigs or drifting pink worms gets down deeper, faster, providing a more visible target. When water levels are low and clear, adjusting to a more realistic presentation can fool fish into biting. Stick with bright but realistic colors. Much like salmon, steelhead tend to bite on an instinctive reaction to competitive breeding. Salmonids view foreign eggs floating in the river as opposition to survival of their own young. Color and scent are the two key factors to triggering bites. While salmon react mostly to scent, steelhead react mostly to color. There are many different presentations, but drifting corkie and yarn or a bead gives the illusion of a single egg, wiggled free from a redd, floating downstream with the current. Adding scent to the yarn can also make your presentation more noticeable.
Finding the right holes takes some guesswork. Look for areas of slackwater that end just above falls. Fish moving through fast current will sit at the top of the falls and rest. The choppy current and deeper water at the bottom of the falls also provides cover from predators above the surface (with the exception of fishermen). As a good rule of thumb, you want a bobber to drift upright at about the speed of a walking or fast-walking pace and you want to a drift rig to find bottom and bounce along, rather than dragging.
Only adipose-fin-clipped hatchery steelhead can be retained. If you notice that you’ve hooked a native, take extra precaution not to cause it any harm. Studies show that using a soft-thread net, or tailing the fish underwater are the best landing techniques to ensure survival. In spite of the “chrome-dome” reputation, steelhead actually have very sensitive skull structure. Because they swim side-to-side, beaching native steelhead puts them at risk of harm from banging its head against the ground. If possible, keep fish upright or in the water. Don’t lay them on the bank for a picture, or keep them out of water for very long. If you are retaining a hatchery fish, you can use this weakness to your advantage by using the force of a blunt object to the head to immobilize the fish so you can remove the hook safely. After your catch is secured, cut or rip the gills. This is not only the best way to ensure a humanely killed harvest, but it increases the quality of meat by removing the excess blood from the flesh, which can spoil much faster than the meat itself.
Steelhead are known as “the fish of a thousand casts.” They are a challenge for even the most experienced anglers. If you put in the time and effort to catch one, you’ll soon find yourself counting, “998…999…”
by Randall Bonner
Photo Credit: Colin Walsh