Targeting Winter Steelhead And Sturgeon
Written By: Cal Kellogg, December 1, 2011
The day before a foot of fresh snow had fallen. Overnight the cloud cover had broken up and the air temperature plummeted. When Gene Rush and I woke up about and hour before sunrise the temperature was hovering in the teens. At the cabin the air was crystal clear, revealing an impressive array of shimmering stars dotting the sky from horizon to horizon.
Launching my boat a short while after dawn we encountered a wall of dense fog hanging over the lake's surface. While the lake's temperature was a chilly 39 degrees the difference between water temperature and the frigid air was great enough to prompt the formation of fog.
With the low light level and little fishing pressure, trolling seemed an obvious choice until the water temperature was factored in. Anytime the water temperature drops below the middle 40's trolling for rainbows becomes a sketchy proposition. They will still feed readily at these temperatures, but they won't move very far or very quickly to do so.
This is why I advised Gene that we stood a much better chance of hooking trout if we anchored up and fished bait rather than trolling. Gene was agreeable, so we slowly motored out of the marina and I set a course, using my hand held GPS unit, for a series of rocky shelves in an area that boasted several underwater springs. It was an area that featured well oxygenated water, shallow feeding areas and instant access to the security of deep water. The two mile run to the spot took us nearly a half an hour, since the fog forced us to move along at little more than idle speed. But, as soon as we started cruising over the shelves the sonar unit started registering multiple fish and I knew our patience was going to pay off.
After dropping the anchor on the shallow side of the shelves in 20 feet of water, Gene and I each rigged our spinning rods with slip bobber set ups and baited our hooks with lively baby night crawlers. After pitching the rigs out we put the rods in their holders with reel's bails open. Gene's bobber was adjusted to fish his worm 10 feet below the surface, while I had mine set for 15 feet.
Our baits had been in the water for a very short time when Gene's bobber started to twitch and wiggle before slowly disappearing into the dark water. Knowing that the trout would spend a good deal of time mouthing the worm, I cautioned Gene not to set the hook too quickly. Finally after about 30 seconds of waiting line started to steadily stream out of Gene's spinning reel. Closing the reel's bail Gene allowed the line to tighten and drove the hook home.
At first the trout showed little reaction and Gene was able to quickly reel it to within a few yards of the boat before it woke up and started making fast hard charging runs. The fish was strong and determined, but it was no match for the unrelenting pressure of the spinning rod. We'd been fishing for less than 15 minutes when Gene slid the first trout of the day, a fine 3.25 pound rainbow, into the net.
Over the course of the next three hours Gene and I were in trout fishing heaven as we battle rainbow after rainbow in the 2 to 4 pound range. That night while eating dinner at a lakeside restaurant we overheard a bunch of local guides that had spent the day trolling, talking about how tough the fishing had been. This made our success all the more gratifying.
It's a sad fact that when many anglers make the transition from bank fishing to fishing from a boat they get caught up in what I like to call the "trolling rut". These anglers, perhaps on an unconscious level have the belief that because they have a boat they must troll whether they are catching fish or not. Don't get me wrong, trolling is a great way to catch trout, but it doesn't work all the time. There are plenty of instances when trout are sluggish or inactive and just won't chase a moving lure. At such times if you really want to catch trout your best bet for success is soaking natural bait.
Bait fishing from a boat is a simple yet highly effective proposition. Unlike the bank angler that most often fishes floating baits off the bottom, the boat angler uses a couple different techniques to suspend baits at various levels below the surface.
The simplest method of all is either to anchor up or drift with a bait hanging directly below the boat. A light spinning rod spooled with 4, 6 or 8 pond monofilament is well suited for this work. To rig up begin by tying a small swivel to the end of the line. Tie a 24 inch 4 pound fluorocarbon leader to the swivel and tip it with an appropriate hook. Above the swivel add a split shot or two to get the rig down.
A variety of different baits can be effectively fished in this manner including worms, salmon eggs, cured roe, crickets, mealworms, small anchovy fillets or live minnows. The only baits that should be avoided when using this approach are floating baits like Power Bait, Power Eggs and marshmallows. Since the line will be hanging down directly below the boat in most cases, a bait that floats up will set next to the main line and tangles will inevitably result.
All things considered, my favorite baits for fishing from a boat are baby night crawlers or minnows. These baits are alive and provide a lot of subtle movement that really makes them attractive to tentative trout. Since the trout that are generally targeted while bait fishing from a boat are inactive, applying Pro-Cure Super Gels to baits can mean the difference between success and failure. My favorite scents include anise, anchovy, herring, predator and garlic.
This method of fishing is especially popular at lakes that feature a lot of natural forage in the form of both aquatic insects and minnows such as Lake Almanor near Chester, California. In lakes that have a massive abundance of food, the period when trout are actively feeding and willing to chase lures is short and the trout are seldom hungry. Instead of seeking out actively feeding trout, anglers zero in on the areas were the trout hang out between active feeding periods. While the trout might not be focused on foraging, they still have a hard time passing up a vulnerable slow moving offering presented right in front of them.
At Almanor anglers suspend baits just above the bottom in areas that feature springs to catch a variety of handsome rainbows, browns and landlocked king salmon. Overall, this method works best for targeting trout holding in close proximity of the bottom, but it will take suspended fish in open water too. In open water situations, you've got to rely on your sonar unit to pinpoint the depth of the fish and then you must strip line off the reel in one or two foot increments until you know your bait is hanging just above the level of the fish.
An interesting kink on this method that anglers at Almanor employ, is working a small crappie style tube jig in either a pearl or smoke color just off the bottom. The jig is either baited with a small strip of anchovy meat or heavily coated with Pro-Cure anchovy Super Gel. While fishing from an anchored boat the jig is lowered to the bottom and then reeled up about a foot. With the lure hanging in the strike zone the angler holds the rod and shakes the rod tip ever so slightly, imparting a quivering motion to the bait. When you first begin using this method I have to admit that it feels pretty silly, but when the rod loads up and you find yourself locked in battle with a husky rainbow or brown, you'll quickly become a believer!
Free lining is an alternative method for suspending your bait below the boat. In free lining the same rig used for suspending baits is used, except no weight is added. The hook is baited, most often with a worm, and the rig is cast as far as possible from an anchored or slowly drifting boat. When the bait hits the water simply engage the reel and set the rod down. The bait will slowly filter down through the water column. When the bait sinks down to the bottom or comes to a rest directly below the boat, it's time to reel it in slowly and make another cast. The advantage of employing this method stems from the fact that the presentation is very natural and allows you to hit a variety of depths with each cast.
While there is no denying that the simple presentations I've outlined so far can be deadly, my preferred method of fishing bait from a boat is just a bit more sophisticated. I like to employ slip bobbers because they give me the versatility to hit a variety of different depths while systematically probing structure with slowly moving baits from an anchored boat.
When trout are spotted on a sonar unit, seldom will they be holding steadfastly at any one depth. Instead they will be spread across a depth range, let's say 10 to 30 feet for an example. Slip bobbers give a pair of anglers armed with second rod stamps the ability to easily probe this entire depth zone by spreading out their baits at 10, 15, 25 and 30 feet. When the trout start biting it is often possible to refine the depths fished based on which baits are getting hit most consistently.
Now, when exploring these depths my partner and I don't set in the boat passively. Instead, we are constantly working. The first thing I do when selecting a spot to fish is determine which direction the breeze is blowing even if there is not a breeze things typically drift in a given direction. Once I figure out where I think the trout are holding and which direction the drift will be, I anchor the boat up wind or up drift, of the trout. With the anchor set we both cast our first lines off the rear quarter of the boat, my partner fishing from one side and me working the other. Our second rods are tossed out off the front quarter of the boat. Both of our rods are set down in the boat with the bails on our reels open, so line can flow out freely.
We allow our rear bobbers to drift back as far are 200 feet behind the boat, before reeling them back in and casting them out off the boat's front quarter. In this way our baits are constantly on the move and being rotated. When a bobber goes under it is typically best to let the fish run a short distance before engaging the reel and retrieving any slack that exists between you and the fish. Once the fish is felt, a short jabbing hookset is all that is needed to result in a solidly hooked trout.
This method is among the stealthiest for working points, offshore humps, reefs, ledges and expansive flats. A few seasons back I busted 5 pound rainbow using this approach while fishing at Eagle Lake. It was late November and the lake's weeds were dying quickly. With so much dead vegetation drifting around, trolling was pretty frustrating, since I spent most of my time picking weeds off my lures. While cruising around in the lake's northern basin I located a 12 foot deep trough cutting across a flat that ranged from 6 to 8 feet deep. It seemed to me that rainbows traveling across the flat would use the trough as a corridor, because the extra depth would give them a feeling of added security.
Well, to make a long story shorter, after checking the wind I determined that the wind was blowing in roughly the same direction that the trough ran. This meant that if I anchored up on the edge of it, I cold pretty much drift my worms right down the slot. By the time I set the anchor and had my lines in the water there was only about an hour of daylight left and I was a long run from the launch ramp. At most I'd have 30 minutes to fish. The spot seemed so good that I expected action to come quickly, but the fish, if they were there just didn't want to cooperate. With my fishing time nearly exhausted, I went about organizing my gear before reeling in my lines.
The breeze was up and there was a pretty good chop on the water, so when I looked up and couldn't immediately locate one of the bobbers the last thing I thought of was the possibility that a trout had taken it down. As I scanned the water I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, turning to the left I spotted the bobber cutting through the chop as it moved into the wind. Grabbing the rod I started working the reel. As soon as the slack was picked up the rod pulsed into a deep bend and line started streaking off the spool against the tension of the drag.
The trout was powerful and determined not to come near the boat. At times the trout would come to the surface and I could see a big clod of weeds on the line that certainly weren't helping my cause. My strategy was to keep the rod high, using it's flexibility to put pressure on the hefty 'bow. After a 5 minute fight that seemed like 30 I was able to guide the trout to the boat and into my net. If it wasn't for slip bobbers there is no way I would have caught that handsome battler, that's for sure!