Sunday, 21 December 2014

Winter Steelhead Habits

River anglers are now waiting for rivers to drop and winter steelhead to appear in their runs. Wild winters enter on rising tides and anglers get to know their calendars. The Nimpkish peaks in November and December, the Stamp January and February, ditto for the Cowichan, February and March in the Nitinat, January for the Sarita, and the Gold. Hatchery fish also have the same patterns in most rivers.

Summer steelhead are also available. They can enter from May through December, and then over-winter until spawning in the spring, when water temperature rises and flows subside. And both species can move a lot in short periods of time. On the Somass, for instance, two hours after the high tide they can be five miles upstream of saltwater at the confluence of the Stamp and Sproat.

The Campbell is an exception. Its summer run has split into two with most arriving in summer, but more recently, a contingent coming back in January. River anglers need to understand many rivers and their calendars to find the most fish. This takes decades, but if you know two dozen Island rivers, you will be rewarded with fish and knowledge that is its own reward – what can be better than a river, afterall?

There are two kinds of steelhead water: pass-through and holding. The farms on the Somass have a long inside bend where you can see the fish moving up through the slow water, waiting just below where the current is faster, and then moving up into it. In the Fraser, steelhead have been clocked at 24 kms per day upstream. As Island rivers are short, this means they can be anywhere, and this is why some anglers opine that steelhead are where you find them, not necessarily in the same high-percentage spots year in year out.

In pass-through water, you can fish your way down it, then walk back up to fish it again, because in the intervening time, steelhead will be, yes, passing through. Holding water, where steelhead stop and wait, typifies where steelhead will be found for longer periods. They are: heads of pools, tailouts and runs. Runs are 3-to 8-feet straight lines where there is a bottom crease under swirling water above, moving at walking speed.

Steelhead are associated with rock rather than wood. In runs, the bottom rocks create back eddies in the current where steelhead will sit without having to put out as much energy staying in one place, for example, one foot above bottom. Stand on a bridge some time and watch your river. If you spot a steelhead, it will invariably be close to rock, and swimming slowly, meaning where it is there is less current.

Fishers look for first water to find the bityest fish and so they are constantly on the move. They move from one hot run to another. If on the water with boats, that is when you pick up fish that are not necessarily in the best runs, as in, they are where they are. After catching a fish, come back in summer and look at the bottom. Winter flows create runs that in summer don’t look like much, but higher water means faster flows and those minor dips become holding water. Think of current as a wall. Steelhead don’t waste energy and so they are seldom found in current.

Another thing, in winter, there are deep pools where steelhead spend time on the bottom in torpor. River temperatures are often colder than the ocean and thus cold-blooded fish aestivate in cold weather. An example is the pools in the Ash River.

Summers tend to spawn earlier than winters, thus keeping the two species apart and not blended together. Both types of steelhead tend to move back into tailouts as the season progresses; these are slow water, and the fine gravel is well aerated and thus some tailouts are spawning spots. But do get to know your river well. You will find spawning water that you would not predict unless you had seen fish in it digging redds.

You will also catch more fish if you know your river. Our logging-gravel-choked rivers change their bottoms in high winter flows, moving thousands of tons of gravel and silt, eliminating and creating runs every year. In one of mine, I had caught many fish at a certain spot where they came up through a fast riffle and then stopped in deeper slower water to rest before moving on. In the winter in question, the run had been eliminated by gravel pushed directly below it that breached the surface, and a channel had been gouged on the other side of the river, where there had been none.

As I had caught steelhead in the spot, which was simply a backwater now – a place steelhead seldom will sit as they favour oxygen-enriched water, I made a few casts into water that was less than knee deep, clear, slow and an awkward spot for a fish, clearly in view of predators. Steelhead will not sit where they feel threatened.

As luck would have it, I got a sharp bite and the fish moved directly across into the current and then downstream, me glumphing along trying to keep up. Six hundred yards later, having crossed the river three times trying to stay with the fish, I was on my knees in the shallow water, looking down at the water trembling the fish.

When I tried to lift the steelhead, I had to stretch my arm way out to my fingertips, and the tail in my other hand was more than half way across my chest. I held the fish in the current until it was ready and pushed my hand aside to serpentine downstream. On my knees, it came to me that it was my first winter steelhead exceeding 20 pounds, a stellar member of any river on the planet’s gene pool. And it was caught in a spot no other angler who didn’t know the river well, would have wasted a cast.

One more thing: getting first water is more than being the first to fish a good run early in the morning. Steelhead can bite, or not bite, or be spooked by an angler that preceded you, or have moved up or down. But the important fact is this: steelhead come back on the bite later or at different times in the day. You may be an hour behind the last angler who received no bite, and catch a steelhead yourself. Steelhead are bity fish and it is good there are laws protecting them as they are bold beyond good sense. And that is a good thing, for us anglers, giving first water all day long, the better you know your river.

Have a nice Christmas.


A nice summer steelhead. Compare its size with the rod. The cork is a foot long, the reel is four inches across. That’s how big the doe is, and another good story for another time, the rod being a six weight, and the usual, almost drowning.

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