Leaky Waders? Don’t Toss Them! 6 Tips For Repurposing Old Waders
December 30, 2020
VICTORY: Two-rod Endorsement Approved for Spring through Summer on Lower Willamette River
January 15, 2021

High Water and Small Creeks: Winter Steelhead Fishing on Oregon’s North Coast

By Joel Taylor
January 11, 2021

I t was the beginning of what would be a turbulent year, but the only thing on my mind last January was how I was going to catch a steelhead during an almost month-long high-water event. All the rivers within my reach were blown out (too murky to fish) and many were flooded. As a dedicated winter steelhead fisherman, however, I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I came up with a plan to scout out potential tributaries at a higher elevation in the watershed than the main rivers, knowing they would be the first bodies of water to clear up. I invited my friend Oliver who had only been steelhead fishing one other time, set my alarm for 4:00am, and went to bed.

As I do most nights before a trip, I found myself dreaming of the possibilities ahead. The draining of a float, the hissing of a reel, the rod nearly getting ripped out of my hands, and the opportunity to receive a handshake from one of the most beautiful and elusive fish out there. And, as most nights before a trip, it was no surprise when I hopped out of bed 30 minutes before my alarm went off.

If you want to fish for steelhead during a high water event, there are a few strategies you can try. Using big baits or attractants to draw fish near is a great way to go. Plunking is also a highly effective way to fish in muddy water. Our strategy, however, was to find smaller creeks that would likely be clear. Usually smaller rivers and creeks will return to typical turbidity levels more quickly after heavy rain, offering better visibility.

It was noon when we finally saw a swirl of green water flowing into the muddy main stem of the Nehalem River. As we ventured closer, it became evident that we had stumbled upon a perfect fishing hole. I pulled over and we hurried down to an open spot on the bank while the steady beat of the rain swelled into a torrential downpour. As our first casts ripped out onto the water, we anxiously waited for the bobbers to drain.

I had just finished my third float through the run when I looked upstream in search of Oliver’s float. I couldn’t spot it. “Where are you at?” I hollered. “I think I am snagged on the bottom, something weird is happening,” he said. My eyes darted to where his braided line met the water, and I could see the faint indication of his bobber about 4 feet below. It gave one tug and I knew.

Fish on!

I dropped my rod in haste and ran up the bank towards him yelling “reel, reel, reel!” Oliver was in complete disbelief. “I don’t think I have a fish, I think I’m stuck,” he said. “No you have a fish on, keep reeling!” I shouted.

“It must be a small fish, because I don’t really feel anything,” Oliver said. I looked back to the water and saw the bright chrome hen swimming towards him. “It’s a steelhead! It’s swimming at you, keep reeling!” Within seconds the fish had reached the bank, took one look at us, turned, and went hot. The reel started hissing, the rod was bent and shaking, and Oliver’s eyes grew wide. I could only imagine what he was thinking as his adrenaline peaked, but instinctively, I knew. I don’t want to lose this fish.

For the next few minutes I barked orders at him. “Reel. Let it run. Keep your line tight! Turn your rod upriver. Reel!” As the fight began to settle I pulled out my net and waded into the creek. Oliver guided his first steelhead into the net. It was his second fishing trip and his third cast, so I’ll chalk it up to beginner’s luck. I popped the hook out of her lip while keeping her gills submerged. Oliver placed his hand softly around her tail fin and under her belly. I instructed him to lift her just a little bit out of the water and snapped a photo before she darted off.

Later that day I looked over Oliver’s winning set-up and noticed he didn’t have any weight on his snap swivel. “Where’s the weight I put on here?” I asked him. Oliver remembered taking it off before we stopped to fish the creek to untangle some line. “I forgot to put it back on before we fished,” he said. That hen must have seen the brightly colored bead near the top of the water, swam up, and hit it! How’s that for a first steelhead?

We didn’t touch another fish for the rest of the day, but I didn’t mind. Some anglers go years before they land their first winter steelhead, and Oliver managed to snag one on his second try. Catching a steelhead or helping another angler learn the love of the tug motivates me to learn from each experience and improve as a fisherman. This was certainly a trip to remember, and reflecting on it after the rough year we’ve all had, I’m ready to get back out there.

This is a guest blog post. If you'd like to submit a piece for our blog, please email Operations Manager Alix Soliman at asoliman@anws.org for more information.