High water Winter Steelhead action

On Wednesday, I took the opportunity to catch a seminar by Cody Herman at the Sportsmen’s show.  Some of you may know him as a former Co-host of Outdoor GPS, and current host of Day One Outdoors.  His seminar was titled: River Hydraulics and Fish Behavior.  As you can tell by the name, this was a fairly meaty topic.  But the science of how a river carves and meanders its way from headwater to mouth has always intrigued me as it should for any dedicated river fisherman.  Cody had some very good information on finding Steelhead in all water conditions, but water really had me interested was what he said about fishing in high water.

This is an area of Steelheading that has always eluded me.  Though I feel confident in low water, I’ve had a tendency to shy away from the river when the gauge gets a little out of my comfort zone.  Stained rivers and high flows tend to keep me home, opting to save my ‘hall pass’ for another day.  But sometimes waiting for those prime days can lead to frustration in the form crowded rivers.  Case in point, last Sunday I fished the Clackamas under clear blue skies, 13.2 on the gauge with a steady drop.  The stretch between Barton and Carver must have had at least 40 boats in it and needless to say, only a handful of fish were caught.

For the weekend angler it is important to adapt to whatever set of conditions Mother Nature throws at you or you might miss out.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at some keys to success in high water.

Ironically, one of the drawbacks to fishing in ideal conditions (3-5 feet of visibility) is that fish can hold literally anywhere in the river.  Take that same river and turn it into a raging torrent with a foot of visibility and it actually becomes quite easy to locate fish.  No longer will they hold in the riffles, runs, and tailouts where heavy current and sediment flows make it difficult to hold and breathe.  They will now gravitate to the banks and shallow inside corners where current seams and softer water gives them a place to rest and breathe comfortably.  These areas will also have slightly better visibility, making it easier to get your bait in front of a willing biter.

Plunking is one of the more popular and effective means of catching Steelhead in high flows.  Once you have located a likely traveling lane you’re in business.  Most of the time a long cast isn’t necessary therefore an extra long rod or specialized gear isn’t needed.  Your standard drift rod will usually work just fine since heavy weights aren’t typically used.  A simple 3-way swivel to a 12-20 inch dropper and 36 inch leader of 15-20 lb mono will do the trick.  Medium sized Spin n’ glows in solid colors such as black, white, glow in the dark or other primary colors are a good bet.  Pairing them with cured eggs, Sandshrimp, or Coonstripe Shrimp is the ticket.  Up size your hooks to 1/0 or 2/0 to fit the size of bait you plan to use.

Another method to intercept moving Steelhead is to position your drift boat or jet sled in one of these traveling lanes and then deploy a variety of plugs and baits from anchor.  Though we don’t see it used much on Portland metro streams or the north coast, this is the go-to method for southern Oregon streams such as the Umpqua.

Though there may be times during a heavy storm you might want to wait things out while it’s on a sharp rise, as soon as the river crests and starts to drop you should be thinking about getting back out again.  Also keep in mind that the higher up you go in any given system, the earlier it will begin to get back into shape.

As I mentioned earlier, I had the chance to spend some time at the Sportsmen’s show this week.  I had the pleasure of meeting some great folks from local businesses about some of the new products they will be rolling out in the near future.  Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of those with you next week.  Good luck, and tight lines!