Oregon Winter Steelhead
WKF CAPTAIN SEAN KEARNEY:
As the Winter Steelhead season here in Oregon marches on, most anglers start shifting their focus towards “Springers”, or Spring run Chinook Salmon. This excites me quite a bit as it takes some of the pressure off of the Steelhead water during maybe the best month of the year to hook into a giant Steelhead in Oregon.
The Winter Steelhead season opens up on my home river December 1st. At this time the hatchery born Steelhead are starting to make their run up Oregon’s coastal rivers after spending 3 or 4 years out in the Pacific Ocean. Hatchery born Steelhead have their adipose fins clipped before they are released into the rivers as smolts. This helps differentiate them from the native, wild Steelhead. The native fish will have intact adipose fins, and are illegal to harvest in most, if not all of Oregon.
My home river, the Alsea, is known to have a good early return of hatchery Steelhead and fishing can be in full swing by the third week of December, while some of Oregon’s other Steelhead rivers may have to wait a few more weeks to see the bulk of their return. The Steelhead season only gets better as the winter progresses, and as we get later into February and March, more and more native, non-fin clipped Steelhead shoot up the rivers. These native fish can grow in excess of 20 pounds, and usually have a bit more attitude than their hatchery born cousins, offering some incredible battles on light tackle.
Generally, fishing is better when the rivers are on the drop. Anglers anticipate big rains throughout the season to allow fresh fish to come in from the ocean and swim up in the shallow reaches of the rivers where they spawn. Fishing can be tough when the rivers are discolored and on the rise, but once they start dropping and the water color turns green it’s game on.
My Winter Progression
Before this season began, I read a few good books on Steelhead fishing. The one that got me excited the most was an excellent read titled “Spinner Fishing for Steelhead, Salmon and Trout” by Jed Davis. This was/is the most technical book on fishing that I’ve read yet, and the way he described the feeling of hooking into Steelhead on spinners was incredible. Encouraged by this book, I assured myself I would be starting off the season using spinners and only spinners. For those that don’t know, I am a hardcore surfcaster from April through November in New England, and I absolutely love using plugs for Striped Bass. I felt like casting and retrieving spinners for Steelhead came natural to me, it was as if I was casting and retrieving a darter or bottle plug in heavy current for Stripers. This book also gave me the knowledge base to create my own spinner lures, so when I stepped on the river for the first time this season I was already armed with a few dozen of my homemade spinners.
It took me two full day trial and error sessions to land my first Steelhead on a spinner, but it was on from there. By the end of the first week in January, I had about a dozen Steelhead on spinners under my belt and was ready to switch things up.
Two other popular options to catch these fish were drift fishing and float fishing. I chose float fishing as it was a much different kind of take than spinner fishing or drift fishing. Instead of feeling the bite, this time I was watching the bite happen. It’s hard to match the excitement of watching your float drift through perfect looking Steelhead water and then seeing it slip below the surface, only to pull back on the rod and feel a Steelhead thrashing on the other end.
You can float just about anything you can imagine through Steelhead water, a bead, egg sack, jig, fly, worm, you name it. While I have floated most of the above this season, I prefer to use beads because they just flat out catch fish for me. I match the color and size of the bead, along with the size of the float and weight, and thickness of my leader to the conditions of the river that day.
As I write this, I am just now beginning to abandon my home river and starting to explore more of Oregon’s incredible Steelhead rivers. This season has been incredible so far for me, but it’s gotten to the point where it has almost become too easy to hook into fish on my home river, and I need more of a challenge. Progression happens when you challenge yourself and push the limits of your comfort zone. This past weekend I left the comfort of my home river and spent some time exploring the Clackamas River.
To track my adventures on Instagram: