Steelhead Munching Brined Shrimp in Hells Canyon

By Jason Schultz | 01/28/2013

Even when you take the fishing out of the mix, Hells Canyon is such an unbelievable place. We’ve had days this winter where we’ve caught 20-plus steelhead, seen full curled rams right down on the water’s edge, 100-plus elk walking the bank and mule deer all up and down the river. Most anglers are overwhelmed when they catch steelhead, see the natural beauty of Hells Canyon and capture all the wildlife in a single day on the river.

Many anglers can’t believe all of this happened. And, to be honest, seeing this stuff is pretty common. This time of year all the critters are down on the water. It’s an awesome fixture. I couldn’t ask for a better office.

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Steelhead season is in full swing here and while we might have to contend with a little cold weather fishing has been surprisingly good, considering there’s roughly half the numbers of steelhead that we’ve had on some of the better years. Fortunately, we’ve had really good conditions and the amount of effort out there is hardly any.

After Thanksgiving it’s like everyone quit fishing. Most days I feel like I have Hells Canyon all to myself. Meanwhile, we are consistently getting 15-30 steelhead a day. They are averaging five to 10 pounds with some of the larger fish being in the mid-teens. An average everyday Hells Canyon steelhead is seven pounds.

blog2Cured Coon Shrimp

This Hells Canyon steelhead fishery starts in September and stays good until sometime around the first part of March. While many believe fishing is slower due to smaller fish counts coming over the dam, I haven’t had a bad day in the last two weeks, which tells me the numbers of fish are stable. The only thing that’s going to slow this is if we get a big bunch of water. If that happens the fish will leave Hells Canyon and head into the tributaries.

Our techniques are pretty standard up here. When the water drops below 40 degrees these fish slow down. Usually, by the middle of December, once spawning salmon are gone, officials allow operators to fluctuate the water out of Hells Canyon Dam.

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During salmon season flows are lowered and controlled to enable salmon to spawn under certain variables. On the other hand, now that flows are up again it sends the steelhead to deep water where the main flow isn’t blasting them. They look for comfortable spots on the side of the river. It’s not uncommon to catch fish here in over 50 feet of water.

We short cast, feed out about 65 feet of line and literally fishing straight down. It’s kind of like vertical jigging for walleye. I use a standard side drifting rig. You have 5-feet of leader and are fishing with 3-inches of quarter-inch lead to maintain bottom contact. It’s a real slow gig. The slower you can present it the better off you are.

blogCured Coon Shrimp

You can catch fish on eggs, and other baits, but for one reason or another coon shrimp out-fishes that stuff in that deep water. We brine and dye the shrimp. I use red Fire Brine to complete this process and it ends up turning the shrimp pink. The natural color of the shrimp with the red Fire Brine ends up looking bright pink, which is good.

I fish the shrimp on a double hook rig, basically twin No. 4 Gamakatsu red hooks tied 1-inch apart from each other topped by a No. 10 Corkie or Cheater. I choose 12-pound mono leader for it, due to its resistance to line cuts in this rocky canyon environment. Bringing lots of gear is a necessity when steelhead fishing in Hells Canyon. When I fish six clients my average day consists of 50 riggings lost to snags. My deck hands are on the ball keeping a freshly rigged and baited rod in our clients hands at all times.

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For more info on Schultz’s Hells Canyon steelhead trips please visit