Early Winter Steelhead

Early Winter Steelhead

By Jason Brooks

Solitude is often revered as one reason anglers pursue winter steelhead. Not too long ago you could fish the banks of a river, or float down one, and only see a handful of anglers. It was like a “secret club” where only a few knew what it was like to stand in the frigid waters and cast to a far seam only to feel the tug of a bite and the rod arc while setting the hook. A winter steelhead angler was a bit of an oddity as they enjoyed ice forming on the rod guides, wool gloves and hats, and those special moments when a large steelhead fought hard. But in the recent years with metal boats having propane heaters, small jet sleds and even hybrid jet-drift boats, pontoon rafts, and GPS mapping systems allowing bank anglers to find secret holes and public gravel bars the winter run steelhead season is more popular than ever. Solitude is even rarer than the elusive 19-pound steelhead.


Early bound fish might be your best bet to get away from the crowds that are still salmon fishing or chasing big game in the woods. Towards the end of November steelhead will be flooding back into coastal streams with some early run fish already in the systems around Halloween and summer steelhead slowly making their way back downstream. It is a good time to grab the steelhead rod, some cured roe and a few pre-tied leaders to catch these early fish.


Start by realizing that a few hook-ups would be a good day and use this time to explore the rivers before the main runs arrive. Most of the fish will be lingering summer run steelhead but a few winter fish that are known to be larger and more aggressive will be had. It is also a good time to bank fish as most boat anglers will be targeting late returning coho in the deep holes and backwater sloughs. A hike along the riverbank to fish seams and boulder gardens will yield steelhead as well as keep you away from other anglers to find that solitude we all seek.


Drift fishing happens to be one of the favorite ways for bank anglers to catch steelhead. Maybe it is the reminiscing of years gone by where it was the top technique in all of the rivers, or it could be because it lends to the bank angler well. Those that use boats often bobberdog or boondog as they can float long stretches of river and have no need to reel up. Bank bound anglers need to concentrate on smaller areas and pockets which means casting, drifting, reeling, and repeating. This repetition doesn’t always mean casting into the same spot as you should work the water, either up to down or close to far, or in reverse, but if you cover all the water where a steelhead might be then it will lead to more fish caught. This is one benefit the bank angler has because as the boats drift lazily along if they are not in the slot where the steelhead are holding then they are simply wasting their time. Bank anglers can cover all the water in front of them and then cover it again as fish move up the river.


Years ago, we were fishing a coastal river and my buddy was trying to tell us where he had hooked fish the day before. It was along a cut-bank where steelhead were holding near an underwater gravel bar and using it as a current break. My son, who was ten at the time and not the best caster, cast his line on the wrong side of the gravel bar, or so we thought but a few second later the line came taunt, and the fish jumped out of the water. Steelhead are where you find them and sometimes that does not mean where you think they are. The bank angler can fish diverse types of water and cover productive ground as well as just stay in one spot that holds fish. Boulder gardens are a good example, such as the ones up the Skykomish River. It seems early steelhead are caught here often in November and locals will get to the river early to find “their rock” to stand on and stand there all day.

 Do not overlook smaller streams such as the Skookumchuck River, a tributary to the Chehalis River, which sees a late run of coho as well as a robust run of winter steelhead. There are several other streams along the coast as well to explore, with some going up into the Olympic National Park where bank angling really shines. But back to the Skookumchuck where you will find ample bank access including some hike-in spots that will allow you to get away from anglers. Here floating jigs is another fantastic way to find steelhead and not lose gear. It’s a simple way to fish, with a handful of jigs, a float, and your rod in hand.


When it comes to baits most anglers use cured salmon roe, with subtle colors such as orange and pink and even a natural cured egg using nothing more than sugar and borax. But don’t overlook a few other baits, especially chunks of prawn which can be drift fished or put onto the jig to add some enticement. Curing the prawn chunks overnight in Pro-Cure’s Shrimp and Prawn Cure in orange or pink will not only add bite stimulants and color but also toughen up the shrimp so it will not come off the hook. It is also a great cure for coonstripe shrimp, a favorite for steelhead anglers that fish then behind bait divers and a lure such as Mack’s Smile Blade Shrimp Rigs which has pre-snelled hooks with a treble trailer and a smile blade that gives it extra attraction. Another way to fish shrimp and prawns is to split them and then wrap them on plugs or even put a coonstrip shrimp tail or a prawn piece on one of the hooks of a plug. Shrimp are a natural food source and since steelhead feed while migrating to and from the spawning grounds they can’t resist them.


Early winter steelhead are not plentiful but they are aggressive fish and easily caught once you find them. Being a sea-run rainbow trout also means they like trout food. Don’t overlook nightcrawlers as a bait source. If the water conditions are high or have low visibility then a spin-n-glow plunked with a nightcrawler is a good way to spend an afternoon. As the worm washes out you will notice it turns opaque to a white and even light pink. This is why rubber pink worms work so well after a heavy rain. Worms will wash into the rivers and trout, especially steelhead, will gorge on them. If you are fishing in a river that has bait restrictions it is hard to beat a rubber pink worm.


Winter steelhead can be larger than their summer cousins, but the early fish are known as “A” runs and tend to be small compared to late winter fish. The famed Cowlitz River did away with the early A run plantings years ago, though some fish still come back. Thanksgiving was a traditional weekend kick-off of winter steelhead fishing back when they still planted these fish. More and more rivers are going to an “in basin” broodstock program using native origin or wild steelhead to supplement hatchery rearing. This means larger and robust fish and later run timing. It will take a bit to get used to, but early steelhead fishing is not dead, just don’t expect a lot of fish like in years past. Then again this can lead to less anglers on the water and allow you to find some solitude. If this is the only reason why you should give early winter steelhead a try, then at least it is a good reason to hit the river. Sometimes catching a fish is only a byproduct of why we go fishing. Grab your rod and lace up the boots, it is time to wander and find a steelhead or two.


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