Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Cold Spell Heats Up Coastal Winter Steelhead Fishing

Cold Snap Heats Up Fishing

After hearing some good reports, I decided to fish the North Fork of the Alsea River on my day off from work. After a cold spell of sleet and icy roads, the few people who got a chance to fish through the cold weather saw a lot less fishing pressure, and in spite of the bite slowing down were still able to produce fish.

Jacob Mikoleit and I ventured over to Big Elk Creek the day before, and it was the same scene. He hooked a couple fish and landed a steelhead, but more impressively, he managed to find a hole that was filled with late-run winter chinook. I heard of fish getting hooked and caught here and there, but it seemed that the cold weather slowed down the hot bite we encountered on New Year's Day.

Jacob Mikoleit caught & released this Winter Chinook January 1st on Big Elk Creek
The reports I heard of fish being caught on the Alsea were around and below town, so I started just above the town stretch on Bud Stout's property, which is on the opposite side of Clemens Park. The property extends up to several holes that are accessible from Clemens Park, but you can get a lot better drifts from that side of the river. The trails are also maintained well, and make the riverbank accessible, with minimal casting hazards and mobility if you're hole-hopping from one place to another. I've never met Bud Stout, but his name is well-known as the back of his tree farm and cattle ranch back right up to this long stretch of the North Fork. Access is as easy as walking up to his door. You don't even have to knock, just leave a $5 bill in an envelope for each person fishing (envelopes provided, sometimes people walk off with the pen) and write the names of each individual, as well as the license plate of the vehicle you're parking just off the road near his (now completely cut) christmas tree farm. I guess you could just say it's a field for now. For $40, you can have access to his property through the entire season.

There's lots of good water on this stretch, and although I didn't even explore the lower portion, the upper section seems to have been carved out quite nicely by the recent flooding, which also knocked down a lot of the grass and riverside shrubbery to make for easy travel along the property.

I hit the first fish upstream on a sandy beach with a steep cut bank on the other side of the river at about 8:30am. There's a slot that goes along this cut bank and slows down before reaching a tailout down below. This has always been a productive spot, and today was no exception. I spotted one fish towards the back of the tailout that rolled on the rocks and showed a flash of chrome. After spending a good 20 minutes trying to catch it, I gave up and started carefully walking upstream.

The water was pretty clear with several feet of visibility. The freezing temperatures got milder in the mid 30's and low 40's for the day. The fish were still pretty lethargic though. While creeping slowly along the bank, I saw a buck in spawning colors only a few feet from the bank in some very soft water. It just seemed to be coasting back into deeper water, so I made a cast upstream in hopes I'd hook whatever it was hanging around.

The bobber was barely moving, almost swirling in a slow, boiling eddy. When the bobber went down, it just sort of sank slowly, almost like it hit a snag. I saw the fish flailing violently and knew it wasn't another debris bite. When I pulled the fish out of the hole back towards the tailout, I got a glimpse of the size and knew I had hooked a good sized fish. After bulldogging me for a minute, I tried to turn it's nose back downstream and it just decided to do a backflip. From watching other anglers and reading some helpful hints in Northwest Sportsman Magazine, I'd picked up that dipping the rod tip into the water helps keep tension on the line when you feel a fish rising to jump out of the water. The length of the line underwater moving against the friction of the water keeps the line tight. It also helped keep this fish on the end of my line.

A personal best for 2016, although it's only 5 days into the year
The hatchery buck ended up measuring 34" nose to tail. The meat cut well, although the fish was beginning to show some color. It also had a very minor mark at the base of it's tail that likely either came from a seal or an otter. After cutting the fillets, the meat did not appear to be damaged by the mark.

Afterwards, I hole-hopped upstream, only spending 10-15 minutes in each area, combing the water in a dozen casts or so. Once I reached some of the ledge rock with overhanging limbs just downstream of the Clemens Park viewing platform, I hooked another buck just after 9am that I decided to let go in hopes that I would be able to upgrade since the fishing was going so well. Both fish were hooked on the exact same gear that brought me success on the Alsea during the Christmas holidays. You can read more about the specifics of the presentation and what made the difference for me here.

I ended up walking downstream and finding a pile of fish hanging out in a deep pool where a creek was dumping into the river, just upstream from the spot where I hooked the first fish. Could not get any of them to bite beads or bait. I gave up on them, fished behind town without a bite or a sight of a fish, then spent an hour at the hatchery watching my friend Josh Hopkins limit out with a couple buzzer beaters before there wasn't enough light left to fish. He hooked those fish on an 8mm cerise colored bead under a cleardrift float. I think downsizing and using a clear float made the difference for him when I couldn't get those fish to bite. By the time they make it that far, the fish have seen a lot of fishing pressure.

It's supposed to get cold again, with sleet and icy roads again for the next couple days. It will be interesting to see how that affects fishing pressure as there did not seem to be as much of it today and certainly not much the day before. While we got fish, they showed some signs of being in freshwater a little longer than the chromers we had been getting. Judging by the groups of fish we saw that were not much further upriver than the big groups of fish that were hit the day before, they seemed to have slowed down their pace to the hatchery. The North Fork is commonly nicknamed the "Dark Fork" for this reason.

Let this one swim another couple miles towards the hatchery. Hopefully someone else gets to catch it.

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