February is high season for winter steelhead fishing on Vancouver Island. The well-used rivers include the Cowichan, Stamp, Gold and Nimpkish. Any river with a hatchery has more fish than ones with wild runs. The Campbell is one that has a run of enhanced summer steelhead that has split, with one peak in late January. The Big Qualicum is an intimate river to get to know.
There are many more rivers with winter and summer steelhead, and your best bet is to get out and fish them, for no other angler will give up steelhead information unless you have something to trade. The more times you fish, the greater your knowledge, and thus the more fish you catch. It can take a decade to get to know your chosen rivers in detail. If you fly fish, join a club as they have fish outs and the people you meet have information to share.
The two important parts of your gear are rod and reel. You will need a 9.5- to 10.5-foot trigger finger rod, Rapala having good, reasonably priced rods, while Shimano, and Fenwick are higher-priced, better rods. Better rods have a smoothness that you can feel and enjoy in your trip to a river. The same can be said for better reels, Penn 965, Shimano, and Quantum. Treat yourself to quality gear.
Lay down 20- to 30-pound braided line as mainline for its longer casts. Tie 20 feet of 15- to -20-pound mono to the tag end. Slide on a dink float, putting the line through one hole, wrapping around the float and exiting the line through the lower hole. Tie a size 5 swivel to the bottom end and loosely crimp some pencil lead to the tag end. The point, in a hang up, is for the weight to pull free, preventing breaks above the swivel.
Leader test is 10- to 15- pound, 2- to 4- feet long, to which your terminal tackle is tied, typically a Gooey Bob, Spin-N-Glo, Jensen eggs, blades, or pink worm, and, when allowed, bait, usually cured salmon roe. Note that scent is not considered bait, and it makes sense to use an attractant. Longer leaders are not used because they tend to float up above the weight, out of the zone, and in moving water, fish don’t see the weight behind the lure. Dink floats have the advantages that they are easily adjusted sliding up or down the mainline mono to get your tackle down to the bottom.
How close to the bottom? Well, the expression, ‘if you are not losing some terminal gear, you are not fishing deep enough’, applies. Get to know the 3-D structure of the water you fish. Steelhead usually prefer 3- to 8-foot deep, walking speed runs, heads of pools and tails of pools. But they can be found anywhere, so if you are restricted to an area, by, for example, other anglers above or below you, fish the water you have. The Cowichan is a good example of this issue. Other rivers, the Stamp for instance, have lots of water that you pretty much need to fish with a pontoon boat or other water craft, where no one else, other than another angler with a vessel, can reach.
On the Stamp, for instance, you can put in just below the weir above Robertson Creek hatchery and float down to the Provincial Park. This is a long day, with lots of driving time, and yet is only one float on this long, productive system, that also has some hatchery fish for taking home. Note that Money’s Pool is an intermediate take out point in this long run. If you are up for it, carry your craft into the Falls Pool below the provincial park, a good 25 minutes, that if you do it once you will understand why the Watermaster inflatables that pack down into a packsack you carry on your back are your best bet. I’ve carried a pontoon boat into this stretch of river, and now have a Watermaster.
You want to get first fish water, the good thing being that you only need to be a half hour behind someone else and you are getting first water, because steelhead move around a lot, and come back on the bite at different times. So plan your strategy. Go to the best water first, then to runs that others may have vacated more than a half an hour before you.
There are two kinds of water: holding water, and pass-through water. The former often features a run, or rocks that have slower water around them, on the bottom or behind obstructions, usually rock features, where steelhead can stop and swim easily without expending a great deal of energy. Pass-through water means slow water that fish swim through on their way to faster water above, where they slow or hold in such water.
The inside of a bend is a good example of pass-through water, and on the Stamp, the huge pool at the bottom of the Gun Club run is an example, the far side being the inside bend, and fish migrate slowly up and through the pool. Having said this, if you are a shore angler on foot, the outside of this bend gives up fish, too, particularly coho in the fall. On lower water, the opposite side above the pool is the run, and one of several hundred yards long – a good bet.
The way you plumb a run makes it obvious why a float setup is the best approach. You swing a cast above you, keep your rod tip high in the air, and mend your line, meaning you keep line in the air between rod tip and float. So, you reel in line as the float comes down to your position and payout line once it passes downstream. The purpose is to have a pattern for fishing all fishy territory, in one-foot increments from your side to the far side.
On cold days you plumb the water longer – more casts down the same strip – because steelhead are cold and will not move far to intercept your offering. Even a dozen times for the same slice of water is not too many. On warmer days, however, steelhead will often take your lure the first time it comes down upon them. So it makes no sense to fish and fish a run, rather keep moving to other runs. The more water you cover the greater your chances of catching a steelhead. A water craft can make all the difference, particularly the far side where there is no trail for shore anglers, because you are always on the move and cover water no one else can reach.