By Anton Jones | 01/04/2011
UPPER COLUMBIA STEELHEAD – THIS ISN’T THE SKYKOMISH!
They may be called summer steelhead, but on Washington State’s Upper Columbia River, October through March is the prime time to catch these ocean going rainbow trout! The Department of Fish and Wildlife varies the starts and closures, but over the last 5 years the runs have been good and the dates consistent.
This is big water. The flow and water levels can be very inconsistent. It is dependent more on power generation rather than rainfall like smaller Western Washington streams and rivers.
THE ROD AND REEL YOU’LL NEED:
We almost always fish baited jig and bobber combinations on the Upper Columbia. When it comes to rods we look for a medium action rod with enough tip flexibility to allow us to make long casts with a bunch of weight hanging from it. The rod must also have enough length to quickly pick up slack and enough backbone to deliver solid hook sets. Longer is better until you compromise backbone and close range maneuvering of the fish to the net. We generally favor rods from 7 to 9 feet that are rated for lines from 6 pound up to 20 pound test.
A nice but expensive feature to look for in a rod is eye material that resists icing. Since we frequently fish in weather below freezing having rod eyes that resist icing is important.
Super sensitivity is not important in this kind of fishing because you are sight fishing on the bobber, not “feeling” the bite through the rod. Therefore, you can save money buying rods for this application.
To break it down simply, look for a rod that casts 2 to 4 ounces of weight, a rod that has backbone for solid hook sets and enough length to quickly remove slack line that will allow these hook sets.
We use medium sized spinning reels for this particular type of fishing. Our favorite reel is Shimano’s Sedona 2500. Retailing closer to $50 than $100, it’s an economical reel with a smooth drag, infinite anti-reverse with no back slap and enough capacity to hold at least 150 yds of 6 pound test monofilament.
Whether or not you go with the Shimano Sedona, a drag that engages smoothly is something you’ll want to have in your reel. These fish are powerful and unpredictable! If the drag takes more pressure to engage or is jerky you will lose more fish to pullouts and possibly to straightened hooks. To ensure solid hook sets and to not break the reel the infinite anti-reverse is a must. Having that quarter inch to half inch of “back-slap” will not only cause you to miss fish on the set, it will cause the reel to break down in fairly short order. If you are fishing from a boat and maneuver it to assist the angler on big fish, reel capacity is not a big deal. Rarely will a fish get more than 50 yards from the boat.
A 9′ Custom rod by HIS Rods mated with a Shimano Sedona 2500
LINE AND TACKLE:
Super braid is the ideal line for this type of fishing and Power Pro is the brand we prefer. The fifteen pound test we use has the same diameter as six pound test monofilament. This allows you to cast a long ways. Slack management and solid hook sets are very important. The line floats so you can readily see how much slack you have and because there is no stretch, you can easily get solid hook ups.
Your selection of bobbers and bobber stops are key considerations in this fishery. The bobbers must be big and stable enough to stand up in heavy water yet be rigged so that a light biting fish can pull it down with a minimum of resistance. Other bobber characteristics to keep in mind are visibility, “spookability” and durability. We have caught loads of fish with those big ‘ol foam bobbers, but we suspect that we have missed loads more because they are more difficult to pull down than more slender bobbers. They are durable as all get out and you need to add enough weight to counterbalance them that you can cast them a country mile. They may spook fish because of their grenade-like landing, particularly in shallow water lies.
The bigger Drennan bobbers may be a better bet. They are sensitive, very visible above the water, but invisible to the fish underneath. Their Achilles heel is their fragility and expense. If you are a well-heeled angler and are a very accurate caster, Drennan’s are the bobber for you. On the other hand, if you tend to hit rocks when you cast, you’ll end up with a lot of broken Drennan bobbers.
Another bobber option is to go with the Thill Big Fish Sliders. They are almost as sensitive as a similar sized Drennan, but, are much more durable and less expensive. They are also very visible above the surface yet blend in nicely below the waterline. If you are shopping for other bobbers, keep in mind they must have appropriate openings. The line holes at the top and bottom have to be hard enough to resist being cut by the braid as it slides through and it must be the right sized opening to allow the line to slide freely through yet stop a small bead that catches the bobber stop knot.
This brings up another point – bobber stop knots and beads. Friction and castability are key issues here. We prefer knots to neoprene stoppers for one reason – durability. The neoprene stoppers get cut very easily by the braid we use when compared to stop knots. The key characteristics of stopper knots are friction and castability. You need to be able to slide them, yet they should provide enough friction that they do not slide when the weight below jams the bobber into it. They also need to be small enough that when they are wound onto the reel for deeper water applications the come off the reel and through the rod eyes without resistance.
(Top) A Drennan Crystal Piker float (Bottom) A big ‘ol inexpensive foam float
A Thill 4″ Big Fish Slider Float
Traditional jigs in this part of the river are bucktailed offerings like a Mack’s Rock Dancer jig in red and black or purple and black and they do work. However, we have had great success using marabou jigs with standard “ball” shaped heads colored hot pink, red or orange in one-eighth or one-quarter ounce size. Having greens or chartreuses in your arsenal for deeper water applications could also prove to productive. Jig characteristics to consider other than shape, weight and color of the head are hook size, strength and style. Too heavy a hook deadens the action and too light a hook can bend or even break under the stress of a big fish. Since we fish barbless hooks here, that newer sickle shaped hook is worth consideration because we think the return bend of the point towards the shank helps keep fish on. Some of our favorite commercial lures include Worden Lures Maxi jigs and Mack’s Lure Glo-Getter jigs.
(Left) Mack’s Rock Dancer jig (Right) Mack’s Glow Getter
A nice array of Worden’s Maxi jigs
For us, baiting those jigs has become simplicity itself. In previous years we had used a commercially prepared “coon-tailed” shrimp that we referred to as Steelhead “candy”. However as we began to use Pautzke’s Fire Cure, we found the durability and economics of this product to be great advantages. Although this portion of the jig and bobber Steelie presentation has taken on a life of it’s own with “secret” and complicated recipes, we have sought simplicity, and benefited from finding it. Our simple recipe is to buy a $5 bag of Wal-Mart frozen pre-cooked 41-60 count shrimp. Cut those into chunks that are between one half and one inch long. Sprinkle Pautzke’s Red Fire Cure liberally over them. Let them set overnight in a cool environment so they thaw and absorb the cure. You can then put them into a watertight container. I would recommend using rubber disposable gloves to handle this stuff unless you don’t mind having whatever you touch semi-permanently dyed by the Fire Cure. We thread one of those chunks onto the jig hook leaving the point exposed. Voila’!
Guide Andy Byrd developed this recipe in order to get “an edge” on our Upper Columbia summer Sockeye fishery. The effort met with great success and we soon found the same recipe works great for steelhead too..
Not only do the fish like this, but we now have more effective fishing time per hour on the water because customers do not cast the bait off their hooks, something that happens on a regular basis with commercially prepared whole shrimp. Combine this durability with a lower purchase price and you’ve got a winning combination!
Putting all of this together is pretty easy. Start by sliding the stopper knot up your braid, then a small bead, then your bobber, then enough weight usually in the form of egg sinkers to counter sink your bobber. Secure all of this by tying your braid line to one end of a swivel. Tie a 30″ piece of ten or twelve pound test mono (We prefer P-Line Fluroclear) to the other end of the swivel. Be sure to use a bit lighter mono than your braid. This helps ensure that snags break in the mono so that you only lose the jig and not the entire rigging. If you have pieces of mono pre-tied to jigs you can be back in operation after a snag as fast as you can tie one knot. Then tie the jig to the other end of the mono. Bait the jig hook and you are in business.
Reading, finding and fishing water are some of the key pieces to the Upper Columbia Steelhead puzzle. When water is moving quickly through the dams and the river is up, we look for current seams that have water from as shallow as 3 feet to as deep as 10 feet. If the water is slower and the river is low, we look for deeper water to fish next to these same current seams. How deep do you go? We’ll, let’s just say 30 feet is not out of the question.
When approaching one of those runs try to quietly come in to the upper end of it from the far side of the river so you don’t disturb the water with your wake. Then control your drift parallel to the seam with either a bow mounted electric motor or a stern mounted kicker motor. In slower water use the bow mount electric. In faster water, the kicker with it’s TR-1 Autopilot is the weapon of choice.
One of the key decisions you’ll have to make involves where and how to position your boat. You want keep the broadside of the boat parallel to the the seam to allow all your anglers casting opportunity. You’ll also want to maintain the distance to the seam to allow your anglers to hit it without spooking the fish. This combination varies depending on the depth of the water. The deeper the seam, the closer you can be to it. Finally, you want to maintain the drift speed so the boat can help to keep slack out of the anglers lines.
This brings up the anglers primary responsibility. You have to keep slack out of your line and stay focused for quick and sure hook sets. Keeping slack out of the line and staying vigilant for bites is the single most important thing in this fishery. Some fish will jerk the bobber down, keep it down and hook themselves, but this is rare. More frequently, the bobber goes down and is back up inside of two seconds. If you are not “on it” you have missed your chance.
Although the river is big here, some of the seams or “lies” are quite narrow and short. This requires a certain etiquette to maintain good relationships between boat anglers. First, approach a lie and start upstream from it. Be sure to not motor in too close to the current seam and maintain your distance by staying a solid hundred feet above the next boat downstream from you. Finally, don’t start your main motor until you have completely cleared the bottom end of the seam by a good hundred feet or so.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to fight the crowds there is plenty of untouched water to prospect around here. In fact, this fishery extends for more than 30 miles.
Hopefully, this will give you a start on learning how to fish this beautiful and productive stretch of the Columbia river for our magnificent steelhead which have overcome predators, dams and many miles to come back to North Central Washington!
Have fun and enjoy one of our un-crowded North Central Washington quality fisheries!
SIDE BAR – A FEW MORE THINGS YOU’LL WANT TO KNOW
The best launches in this stretch of river are in Pateros and Brewster. If you are looking for current information or emergency fishing supplies, the Triangle Shell station in Brewster is the place to go. Finally, be sure to check the Department of Fish and Wildlife website at wdfw.wa.gov for any last minute changes in the rules before you hit the water.