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David Johnson

Guiding in the NW and Alaska for 19 years, Degree in Fisheries, long time ifish guide

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January 09, 2014

Steelhead Begining

by David Johnson

The 2013/2014 winter steelhead season sure has gotten off to a rocky start. Thanksgiving is usually the "official" kick-off of winter steelhead season, however, this year it's just getting started. First we had an arctic blast for the first half of December and then the second half of the month and the first half of January we've had this pesky high pressure system that has blocked off the rain and given us a drought. Also add in that the state has cut plants of early returning hatchery stocks giving us less returning fish this time of year.

Sure, there's been some bright spots of catching fish on various rivers but for the most part it's been scratch fishing. The only good thing has been the lack of pressure making for some enjoyable time on the water without an aluminum hatch.

But things are looking up. The water that is. It is looking like we will be getting a train of our much missed Pacific NW weather systems. Rivers are rising!

With the higher flows I am thinking of side drifting and drift fishing.

Drift fishing holds a special place in my heart.

When I was a young steelheader, drift drifting was the principle method for winter steelhead but in the last ten years others techniques have pushed it to the side. This is a disadvantage to many. Sometimes drift fishing is the only thing that will get down to the fish. And sometimes you need to slow things down and give the fish some time to look at your offering.

One thing for sure. When drift fishing, it's all about sensitivity. You are going to want the absolute most sensitive rod you can get your hands on. Don't sell yourself short.
I love my GLoomis IMX for drift fishing. With it I can feel everything, from line touching a stick, to when the bottom turns from sand to gravel, to the very lightest steelhead pick up.

In the early years the single biggest handicap to me catching steelhead was not having a quality, sensitive rod. After a couple winters of not catching any steelhead I finally up-graded to a decent rod and started catching fish.

Many beginning steelheaders ask, "How do I choose the right color drift bobber and/or yarn?"

I try and match the color of my gear to the color of the water.

It's pretty simple, bright when the water is dirty and tone down as the water clears.

In real murky water my favorites are chartreuse clown, orange fluorescent and flame red. Reverse clown is a relatively new color that I'm planning on using a lot this year too.

As the water clears just a little bit, rocket red, sherbet and sunset join the party.

By the way, flame red and rocket red are Yakima Baits all-time best selling colors.

When things are that perfect "Steelhead Green", almost anything goes. Start out in the morning with the brighter dirty water colors and as the light increases start to tone it down.

Everyone's favorite color for green to clear water is the Pink Pearl (listed as pearl red in the catalog) Also for clear water go with some of the more pastel/pearl colors like pearl green, mother of pearl and pearl clown. It things are super, super clear try a black/glitter.

And never overlook the metallic colors when the sun is shining, the metallic blue and metallic cerise are my favorites. I like them better in clear water but they do seem to work in all water conditions. And don't overlook the sparkle finish corky either, they are nice little attention getters.

I also really like the luminous colors at or before first light. In clearer water I like peach luminous, luminous pink and luminous rocket red and straight up luminous in cloudier water.

I'm a bait fishermen. I like eggs. I will also use prawn tail chunks or sand shrimp but my go to are always eggs. There are also some pretty good rubber eggs out there on the market too. Some anglers will just us a corky and yarn, scented or un-scented (shrimp, krill, crawfish, and anise). I will use yarn too but usually in combo with some bait. You will want to use a contrasting color. Pink/chartreuse, blue/cerise, orange or red/white. My all-time favorite corky/yarn color combo is rocket red and white yarn with just a little bit of egg added. Especially early in the season. I think the white yarn imitates a piece of salmon flesh being washed down stream, much like the flesh flies used for Alaskan trout.

It's important to make sure you are matching your hook size to the corky size. I like to run a size #1 or 1/0 with a size 10 and a #1 or #2 with my size 12. You don't want the hook to be too big and sink your offering down but you want it big enough that the point isn't blocked by the body of the drift bobber.

Besides using corkies for drift bobbers I've been using Winners. A winner is basically a spin glo body without the wings. I use winners the most for running between two hooks while side drifting (#12 winner, two #3 Vision hooks) but I will also use it for drift fishing rigged on top of a corky (my favorite is a #12 corky/#12 or #10 winner, rocket red with white yarn)

On some occasions I like to drift fish with Spin-n-Glos. I like them for drift fishing in large sweeping tail-outs during high water. My favorites are flame tiger with black wings, chartreuse clown, flame, orange fluorescent and metallic blue in size #10 rigged above a 1/0 hook and tipped with sand shrimp. In my early years I caught several of my first steelhead on the flame tiger and sand shrimp.

A killer producer for clear and cold water steelies is a chrome body with a red head and a small pinch of eggs.

Make sure that you use a small plastic bead as a bearing between the spin glo and hook.

I also like to use the old Birdie Drifters in these tail-outs.

Choose your spin-n-Glo and Winner colors just like you would with corkies.

For leader I almost always use 10# Maxima Ultragreen for leader but will drop down to 8# Ultragreen in real low water conditions. I think if you polled a hundred steelheaders you would probably find that 80 or 90 of them used Ultragreen. I believe that the light/clear green color of this line really blends in with the underwater environment of our rivers.

I hope this blog has helped point you in the right direction for your up and coming steelhead fishing this winter.

Comments (4)

FishingTheWest wrote 3 years ago

Good read, some very good info. I'm pretty biased in what I use but I'm going to have to try some of those metallic colors you mentioned a little more. Thanks,


BrushApe wrote 3 years ago

Good information Mr. Johnson. This blog needs to be archived in a technique thread. When a newbie asks for help getting started it would be a great place to direct them. Thanks for sharing.

BillH wrote 3 years ago

I have to agree with about everything you've said her but I can't get used to the idea of the metallic corkies even though I've had the greatest confidence in blue pirate and green pirate plugs in clear water for plugging. Also, I guess not very many of us still have a stash of the small and medium size sunrise okies!

Bill H

Audball wrote 3 years ago

Regarding metallic.... We fished the Kachitna (sp?) River in Alaska a few years back for summer run kings....those kings were tightlipped, until someone tried a couple green metallic size 4 (large) corkies .... then it was game on. In two days, we caught a dozen nice kings on those..

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