The Elusive Steelhead

Written By: Mike McNeilly, March 13, 2012
Species: Steelhead

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Never has there been a fish that beats me up as bad as the steelhead. I have sworn off fishing for them more times than I can remember. I have even had long hiatuses where I stuck to the plan. Be that as it may, like a victim of spousal abuse, I always return for another beating. The analogy in my mind is: the steelhead is Ike, and I am Tina.

2011, has been no exception, and Ike has really laid into me this season. Usually, my beef with steelhead fishing is the lack of encounters with the quarry. This year, I have had plenty of encounters, but I have failed miserably to capitalize. Not only are steelhead transient fish that move around by nature, here today gone the next, but they also are subject to mood swings caused by river flows, air temperature, and their very own abundance.

Probably the biggest factor in catching them would be the fact that you can’t catch them if they aren’t there. These fish can move several miles a day, and just because you caught them in a spot last week, doesn’t necessarily mean they will be there a week later. Of course, each year is different as well.

A few years ago, the Trinity River had a huge run of fish, and just about anybody that could make a cast was hooking fish. This year, the fishing has been slow on the Trinity, and it is mainly because there aren’t a lot of fish to be had. It doesn’t matter how good you are at catching them if there aren’t many around.

So, now that I have put out my disclaimer for why I often times fail to catch these fish, I can now get to the facts of why I have failed this season. Lack of fish is not a valid excuse except for the trip I took to the Trinity. Overall, there have been good numbers of fish in the rivers I have fished, I’ve just failed to execute most of the time.

My steelhead season began on a small coastal river in California that I’ve sworn to keep must remain anonymous. On River X, my friend Mike Novi, managed to capitalize and land the second steelhead of his career. He made it look easy. Set the hook, play the fish, walk the fish onto a gravel bar, snap some photos and release.

I’ve caught several steelhead in my angling career, and when my opportunity came to show the rookie how it was done, I wiffed. Everything went fine at first. The fish bit, I set the hook, it jumped, charged upstream and jumped again. Then it turned downstream and ran right back at me in a flash and dogged it out in the middle of the river for a minute. I was kind of surprised the barbless hook held through the fight. I thought I might the fish would hold and I might land the fish, but I couldn’t believe the steelhead hadn’t ran into the willows. Of course, right after that the fish ran into the willows and snapped my line!

That was opportunity number one of 2011. My second came on the Mad River days later. I’d never fished the Mad before that trip, but I had long heard of its giant chromers that shoot out of the ocean and travel just a few miles to the hatchery.

This is a river where your gear will be tested. The steelhead are big and pack a bad attitude. Being fresh from the ocean they exert savage strength and make sizzling runs.

On day one of my Mad River excursion, I drew a complete blank. Of course, I had the excuse that I am from Nevada and this isn’t my home water to fall back on. To rub salt in my wounds I saw several locals carrying out big chrome steelies in the 8 to 12 pound range. However, most of them were throwing 10 foot leaders and beads, and that’s not my kind of game. I was fishless on day one, but I did formulate a plan for day two.

Day two dawned cold. My car read 27 degrees and a thick frost coated its windows. I headed to the river and got right to the spot I wanted before anybody else arrived. My roe and yarn combo dead drifted through the run. Somewhere during the drift, a big bright hen woofed the roe down. I set the hook, she jumped, then slashed her way across the river, then she ran back at me and jumped twice more.

The fight just kept going on and on. I could tell the fish was in the 10 pound range and I knew that if she didn’t throw in the towel soon, the chances of that barbless hook coming undone would go up exponentially with each passing second. About two minutes into the fight, I began thinking, “This fish should have given up or escaped by now…” and that’s when the hook popped loose. That’s steelhead fishing!

Later that day, I had several more opportunities. The fish were on the chomp, and they liked my roe teamed with a Spin-n-Glow. I tallied 6 good bites, and firmly hooked 3 total fish. Despite the abundant chances, I didn’t manage to bring a single fish to hand. One ran me into a tree, and another jumped and tossed the hook.

It would be yet another week later when I finally managed to land one of those elusive beasts. Surprisingly, I landed my first one of the 2011 season on the American River. The American can be a tough nut to crack, but I had the key to the combo. That day, I hooked 2 fish losing the first one, and extending the streak to 5 straight lost fish. It was a tough blow to take. Luckily, right before dark, I had a nice 8 pound hatchery buck crunch my roe and stay hooked for the entire fight.

So, there a ton of big mean winter steelhead rampaging up west coast rivers, but be forewarned and challenging as they are to hook, landing them is even harder.

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