By: TJ Hester

A Reach is defined as a continuous extent of land or water, particularly a stretch of river between two bends. The 63 free-flowing miles of the Columbia River here in Eastern Washington, known as the Hanford Reach, is no exception and it’s one of my favorite places in the Northwest to steelhead fish. Meanwhile, this vast amount of water doubles as our greatest enemy when it comes to winter steelhead fishing.

Thus far, weather patterns have brought a lower average flow from Priest Rapids Dam, yet an average swing in elevation, churning daily from roughly 70,000-140,000 CFS. For anglers from smaller river systems this can be intimidating, dramatic and seemingly unfishable. On the other hand, navigating fluctuation brings normalcy in the greater Tri Cities area.

We are faced with a unique situation. The Ringold Hatchery, unlike Western Washington’s Blue Creek on the Cowlitz River, doesn’t get fresh steelhead daily. Because we have so much water that harbors steelhead anglers have to work hard to find them at times.


Let’s Find ‘em!

As a friend of mine tells me often: steelhead are like toddlers; they wander aimlessly for no particular reason. Our fishing is a game of cat and mouse. They wander day-to-day and hour-by-hour – and we follow searching for congregating pods.

You can find our winter steelhead by covering lots of water. I’m also a believer in using electronics. If you catch a fish somewhere mark a waypoint on your depth finder and rename it to reflect the water flow at that time. That fish was there for a reason. This enables you return to that spot when flows are comparative.

Keep in mind, steelhead move up and down, but more so side-to-side. On softer flows they frequently slide into the deeper water where they feel safe. Nevertheless, they get brushed up into the trees on higher flows.


Cold Means Simplify – Everything

Like toddlers, steelhead often aren’t cooperative. Oddly enough, they can sniff a big meal and not eat it, but they will pick up a tiny crumb and be content. It’s imperative not to get fancy or complicate baits. It’s best to simplify.

Got Bait? Get Bit

When it comes to your offering how simple do you need to get? My top December, November, and January rig is a tiny Corky with a small coon shrimp drifted with pencil lead. I avoid large, fancy yarn ties, cocktails and spin-n-glo’s. However, some anglers fish beads such as Brad’s Roe Beads soaked in Pautzke Nectar (make sure to soak them overnight).

My shrimp cure is simple. To have good cured bait you have to start with quality, fresh bait. Find a local bait distributor or retailer (I go through Columbia Basin Bait) and make sure you are picky when choosing your offerings.


TJ’s Easy Shrimp Brine

For the cure, I think color is more important than flavor. And, during these cooler months I turn to dark colors.

Step 1:

Fill the mason jar halfway with Red (or Purple) Fire Brine


Step 2:

Next, fill the lid (to the screw part) with kosher salt and dump it in the jar.


Step 3:

Fill the lid halfway with sugar and dump that in.


Step 4:

Add a squirt of Red (or Purple) Fire Dye. (This intensifies the vibrancy of the shrimp.)


Step 5:

Shake jar until the contents are thoroughly mixed.


Step 6:

Add the shrimp, carefully trying not to damage the whiskers or head.


Step 7:

Fill jar with Red Pautzke Nectar.


Step 8:

Roll jar gently to mix the contents while trying not to damage the shrimp.

I usually wait two weeks before fishing. Then the meat can soak in the magical concoction and be cured all the way through.


Editor’s Note: TJ Hester operates Hester’s Sportfishing. For more info on his Hanford Reach jet boat steelhead trips please visit