Sunday, December 8, 2013

Winter Chrome Dome Season is upon us

Winter Steelhead
Photo by Jorge Rubio
    As salmon season winds down to an end on the nearby Alsea river, the north fork opened December first to anglers patiently awaiting the return of winter steelhead. These large, robust sea-run rainbow trout are well known for their incredible speed as well as acrobatic leaps and jumps once they've been hooked. Last year's hatchery return numbers were lower than usual, but historically, the numbers tend to ebb and flow. On average, early fish show up in December following an increase in water levels from rainfall, but the highest numbers arrive in January and February. When waters are high and muddy or murky, bobber rigged leadhead marabou jigs or drifting pink worms will get down deeper and faster, and provide a more visible target. When water levels recede to low and clear, adjusting to a more realistic presentation can help fool fish into biting. Stick with bright but realistic colors. Much like salmon, steelhead tend to bite on an instinctive reaction to competitive breeding. Salmonids view foreign eggs floating along in the river as opposition to the survival of their own young. Color and scent are the two key factors to triggering bites, and while salmon react mostly to scent, steelhead react mostly to color and sight. There are many different presentations, but drifting corkie and yarn or a bead will give the illusion of a single egg that has wiggled free from a redd, floating downstream with the current. Adding some scent to the yarn can turn on the bite, or make your presentation more noticeable.

     Finding the right holes to fish takes some guesswork, but look for areas of slackwater that end just above falls. Fish moving through fast current will sit at the top of the falls and rest. The choppy current and deeper water at the bottom of the falls also provides cover for the fish from predators above the surface (with the exception of fishermen). As a good rule of thumb, when fishing bobber rigs, you want the bobber to drift upright at about the speed of a walking or fast-walking pace. When fishing drift rigs, you want to find the bottom and bounce along, rather than dragging and snagging.

     Only the adipose-fin-clipped hatchery steelhead can be retained, so if you notice that you've hooked a native fish, take extra precaution not to cause it any harm. Studies have shown that using a soft-thread net, or tailing the fish underwater are the best landing techniques to ensure survival of the released fish. In spite of the "chrome-dome" reputation, steelhead actually have very sensitive skull structure. Because they swim side-to-side, beaching a native steelhead puts the fish at risk of harming itself from banging it's head against the ground. If possible, keep native fish upright or in the water for their own safety. Don't lay them on the bank for a picture, or keep them out of water for very long. If you are retaining a adipose-fin-clipped hatchery fish, you can use this weakness to your advantage by using the force of a blunt object to the head to immobilize the fish so you can remove the hook safely. After your catch is secured, cut or rip the gills. This is not only the best way to ensure a humanely killed harvest, but it increases the quality of meat by removing the excess blood from the flesh, which can spoil much faster than the meat itself.

     Steelhead are known as "the fish of a thousand casts." They are a challenge for even the most experienced anglers. If you put in the time and effort to catch one, you'll soon find yourself counting, "998...999..."

Photo Credit: Colin Walsh

This piece was published in the December 12th issue of the Corvallis Advocate:


  1. Randall,
    Wondering if you want to grab a beer or coffee sometime. We just started a new Trout Unlimited Club and have a cool new project up on the Siletz. Also doing the Fly Fishing Film Tour at the Whiteside on Feb 15th.
    Give me a shout sometime Dwayne Meadows

    1. Dwayne, that'd be nice. I'd like to hear more about the Whiteside event.