by Bill Taylor
The 10% club. That envied group of anglers laying claim to 90% of the fish bound for the boat or bank. We've all heard the cliché before. This especially holds true when drift fishing for winter steelhead, a hallowed yet difficult technique to master. For many of you old school Ifishers, I will be preaching to the choir. While this piece is meant for the angler that is finding it hard to get ‘on the board' with regularity, hopefully it will ring home with a few of you who have come to appreciate the art as I have. What is it about the red hot angler that he/she consistently out fishes others? If you know the answers, you're likely a member of the club already. If not, it will pay to go back to the drawing board. I'll try here to touch on some points you may have been overlooking in your approach to drift fishing.
Keep your hooks needle sharp-For us steelheaders, a few bites, even a bite or two, is an expectation we have to face on some days, even when we do things right. Steelhead (especially winter steelhead) generally just mouth the bait, not wanting to pick it apart like a resident trout. That being the case, your hook has got to be sharp. If the hook sticks, you'll likely feel the sensation, either the actual soft bite or a tug caused by the fish becoming alarmed something sharp is in its mouth. The top fisherman has the sharpest hooks and knows how to keep them that way. Your hook should easily be able to penetrate a calloused part on your hand or finger, or top of the fingernail. It is important to check for sharpness after snagging up or having cast several times. If the hook is dull, it is time to tune up. I prefer using a high carbon steel hook file such as the kind Luhr Jensen, Rapala, and others make. These days, most files come with a handle. Holding the hook so the point is facing opposite the handle, rub the hook lightly and almost flatly against the file 2-4 times each side and on the bottom of the point. This will create a needle-like triangular point. You will actually be taking some metal off the hook to create a new point. Re-sharpening the hook too many times will leave the hook with a stubby point. Don't be afraid to switch to a new rigging if you aren't getting a good point. With practice, you can put a point on a hook that will rival top brand hooks out of the package. If you are having a hard time keeping hooks sharp, try using needle point hooks as opposed to cutting point hooks. Cutting point hooks are great out of the package but are not easy to get sharpened back up due to not having a triangular point to begin with.Be prepared
-Your ability to make casts as soon as you hit the water and as much as possible during the day is going to mean extra fishing time for you compared to the unready fisherman, which there are plenty. Take time beforehand to prepare your riggings so your day can be filled with fishing, not preparation. I love catching fish while my partner is tying riggings. You'll want to have some different alternatives available to you depending upon water conditions. The river tomorrow could be high, low, or just right and might be dropping, rising, or steady. In order to put you ahead of the game, your arsenal should be assembled to be ready for any combination of possibilities. This will mean you will have different sizes and colors of baits as well as different sizes of leaders and weights available. Know your river and cover your water
-In order to have an edge, a fisherman needs to know the lay of the bottom, the migration lanes and holding spots in a particular stream section, along with where the snags are and how to get around them. Show me the top dog in a given hole and I will show you one who has been to that hole several times. Being there when fish are getting caught is a great way to learn as is just putting in the time and figuring out where bites are happening. By putting in time, you'll also begin to understand how drifts change as water level changes. If your days to fish are few and far between, concentrate on one good river, even one good stretch of river, and get to know it well before venturing on. In time, your ability to "read" the water will improve, which will enable you to have a better chance of finding the right lanes where ever you go. While it might be apparent a fish is going to be sitting in a certain spot, it is important that you cover all reasonable sections of water in a drift in a systematic way, not just ‘the slot'. When you first come to a spot you want to fish, begin casting on the short side of the slot. Continue gradually working your way across to the far side of the slot. The theory here is that any fish leaving its holding spot to pick up your bait will have to swim away from you to get back in to the holding spot, which will enable you to feel a fish on. By fishing inside out, the likelihood of a fish swimming toward you after a pick up is considerably decreased. This technique of covering water will also enable you to present to fish that aren't following the normal travel routes or resting in regular holding spots. Fishing pressure, bigger fish, sunlight, and other things can make fish leave their typical haunts. You have to make sure you don't leave stones unturned. Another concept that has to be mastered is extending the drift. In extending your drift, you will let out line little by little as it starts to want to swing back to the bank you are fishing from. Using a level wind, in free spool, softly thumbing line out is a snap. If you are using a spinning reel, you will need to take off the anti-reverse switch so you can reel backward to let line out. A major disadvantage here is that you will have to have one hand on the rod and the other hand on the reel, slowly unwinding line to achieve the same effect of a bait drifting naturally down river. The advantage will be that any bites are felt quickly and ability to set the hook will improve. You will also need to be ready to re-engage the anti-reverse switch on a fish or a snag. Observe and adapt
-While on the river, keep an eye on people catching fish. Make sure to detect the type, size and color of their offerings, how much weight they are using, what type of line and gear they are using, how long their leader is. While fishermen may not tell you what their tools are, they can't help but show you if they're busy fishing. An ‘in the zone' fisherman has a potent combination of the right gear, lure, high presentation skills, and a solid read on where the fish are lying or traveling. He can't help but show you the way if he wants to hook up! If you are not having the same success, you owe it to yourself and your wallet to observe and adapt. It's no surprise to me the locals usually have one up on the out of area guys on our Northwest streams. If you are willing to think inside their box and outside of your own, big dividends await you. Improve on accepted techniques
-Another trait of top fishermen is the ability to improve on what is already working for others. The discussion forums here are full of posts made by fishermen eager to show their improvisations. These folks are thinking about the little things they can do to make their presentations even better. The opportunities to improvise seem limitless. For starters, how do you run your weights? Pencil lead? How about running 3/16" thickness with a longer piece of lead on a light drift rather than that ¼" stubbier piece that has been working better in the fast water? Slinkies? How about stuffing 6 or 8 shot inside your cord instead of buckshot to get an even softer read on the bottom so you can detect the lightest peck of a bite? Employing some shrimp oil, anise, or another scent can set you apart. Adding a second or third color often works to your favor, as will decreasing the size of your presentation. Adding or subtracting yarn, stacking drift bobbers, changing the color of beads, sliding weights/fixed weights, the list goes on. Improvising has the effect of personalizing your presentation, which when effective, creates a conduit to that particular fish's psyche that shows you have been able to engage the fish with your own know how.Understand that you are "drift" fishing
-The whole premise of drift fishing is that one is trying to present a bait emulating a piece of meaty matter floating downriver near bottom, along with the current and other debris. Getting the bait to travel more or less naturally down stream is a great start in enticing a fish to sample your offering. Bobber fishing has really taken off in the last couple of decades (thanks to Bradbury, Erickson, and others), due to the ability of bobbers to give drift to the bait underneath without having to make contact with bottom. Many folks have abandoned the time-tested technique of drift fishing because it is just too snaggy a proposition. In order to drift fish, riggings will have to be sacrificed as baits bounce along the bottom and get hung up. The advantage of drift fishing, however, is that the bait spends a vast majority of its time on or near bottom, where steelhead are found most often. The biggest disadvantage of bobber fishing is that bait depth has to be gauged by the fisherman and therefore the bait is not near bottom as much. In drift fishing, there is a happy medium to getting through a drift clean. You must intermittently stay in contact with bottom. Too much and you are hung up a lot. Too little and the bait will arc across the current to the bank, not being able to touch down. A bounce every 2-6 feet is optimal. The right combination of line size, weight, lure buoyancy, water flow, and bottom consistency all have to be considered. If one is good at figuring out the other variables, which come rapidly with practice, the main variable to tweak is how much weight to use. Once the weight is right, one can experiment with types of weight (pencil lead, slinkies, bouncing betty's, split shot, etc.). Each type of weight has its pros and cons. Pencil lead comes off easily if snagged up but emulates a fish bite more than other weights. Slinkies don't click on bottom as bad as pencil lead which helps differentiate a bite from bottom but hang up easily on rat nests of broke off riggings and may begin to lose lead over time. Bouncing Betty's can keep out of nooks and crannies well but get pushed down current faster due to higher surface area. It is often a matter of personal preference but should also be a matter of practicality. You should have a couple options with you for sure.Believe in your chances, stay positive
-It is apparent in a top fisherman's eyes and actions that there is confidence and positivity in presentation. It is an expectation that a bite will occur, not a hope. This expectation comes from the painstaking preparation of tackle, quality execution of the drift, and a trust that fish are near. Although gear is broken off from time to time, the lost riggings are an affirmation of staying in the zone. To be ready for the bite, one can't be second-guessing one's self during the drift. The mind needs to be focused on a potential bite and getting through the drift cleanly while keeping a continual periodic acquaintance with the bottom. Several times during the day, it helps to freshen yourself up a bit with a walk or boondog to the next hole to recharge.
Your ability to move in to the first class of steelheaders will have a lot to do with how well you can master these intangibles. Once mastered, the drift fishing technique can be used on any number of river frequenting species to great success. While you're at it, don't forget to enjoy the water ouzels and the rain forest. They're worth the price of admission too!About the Author
Bill Taylor is an all around Oregon hunter/gatherer and full time guide with a passion for not only fishing but clams, crab, wild mushrooms, forest berries, big game and bird hunting. http://www.ospreyguideadventures.com/