Winter steelhead have a special place in my heart, for it was a little, six pound hatchery winter run steelhead that started my love affair with these fish. I eagerly anticipate the arrival of early hatchery brats in late November or early December to kick off the winter steelhead season. The returns of winter fish vary from river to river, but generally the hatchery fish arrive from mid November through late January. By this time the large native fish have started to arrive in good numbers. Native steelhead continue to show through late spring on most rivers, with March being my favorite month to go after these brutes.
Hatchery steelhead average from six to eight pounds on most rivers, but on certain rivers, such as the Cowlitz they tend to run a little larger. These hatchery brats provide a bulk of the sports catch each year, and tend to arrive in larger numbers than natives. This can make for some very good fishing on rivers that have large hatchery plants. This can also create crowded fishing conditions, as these fish tend to stack up near the hatcheries, or at hatchery release points on rivers that do not have hatcheries on them. Areas like the famous Blue Creek hole on the Cowlitz River, or Tokul Creek on the Snoqualmie River can provide some excellent catches, as long as you don't mind fishing in a crowd. This is not my idea of steelhead fishing, and I do not fish these areas.
Native winter steelhead are the fish that really get me excited. The battles with these fish, compared to their hatchery cousins, are where most of my steelhead memories have come from. These magnificent fish will really test your skills. In my opinion these fish are much more aggressive than hatchery fish, many times striking with reckless abandon. No subtle takes here, these fish will hit with arm wrenching yanks. When you set the hook on these fish, they go bezerk. Because of their strength and speed, you will not land all of the native steelhead you hook. If you do you will feel a real sense of accomplishment. Some of my greatest memories are of battles lost to these brutes. I practice catch and release on all wild steelhead, and encourage everyone else to do the same.
I prefer to fish rivers that support both moderate hatchery returns and strong native runs. I don't fish areas that hatchery fish stack, but rather look for holding water that provide a resting area for steelhead on their upstream journey. I won't spend alot of time pounding one spot, instead I like to cover alot of water, looking for aggressive fish. My usual approach is to fish upstream working my float/jig combination, and then work my way back downstream to the truck fishing spoons. This allows me to fish the soft holding water close to shore with my jigs by fishing from below the fish, thus not spooking them with my presence. On my return downstream I can cover the heavier water with my spoons. I believe this approach allows me to very effectively cover all the different holding water in a particular stretch of river.
My best advice to someone looking for their first winter steelhead, is to pick a river close enough to make many trips to it during the winter season, and really learn it. Fish it under all different conditions, high, dirty water as well as low and gin clear. Learn where every boulder is when the water is low, and be able to find it when the river has risen and covered it up. Know where every available bit of cover is and fish these spots on every trip to the river. After a while you will discover spots that will consistently hold fish. Each of these spots may not hold fish every time you fish them, but on any given trip to the river a few will hold fish. If you concentrate your efforts on these spots you will begin to hook more fish. Many of my favorite little pockets go unfished by other anglers simply because there is no visible sign of them. They are little depressions in the river bottom found during low clear conditions. They do not hold fish when I have discovered them, but when the river comes up a couple of feet they create perfect little resting areas for migrating steelhead. Some of my greatest steelheading trips have been days where I got skunked, but discovered a new spot that turns out to be a top producer later on in the season.
Another piece of advice is to choose only one or two techniques that you enjoy and master them. All techniques used to catch steelhead work well when properly fished. You must put in time on the river to master each technique. It is all of the little things learned over the course of many seasons that will get an angler into the 10% club. That is the 10% of steelhead anglers that catch 90% of the steelhead. To do this an angler must be able to match his chosen techniques to the current river conditions, and adjust to any changes as they are encountered.
There is nothing that will brighten up a dreary Washington winter day better, than a chrome bright winter Steelhead. Please do your part to protect this valuable resource, and practice catch and release for all native steelhead.