Thursday, July 7, 2016

Low Water Tactics for Summer Steelhead on the Siletz River

ODFW's Coastal Multi-Species plan reduced the number of hatchery smolts released into the Siletz River by 30,000 in the spring of 2014. This year, there will be fewer fish returning to the popular weekend fishery of the Siletz gorge, presenting some new challenges to anglers who have regularly targeted these fish, and newcomers who want in on one of the Northwest's most beautiful and productive summer steelhead fisheries.

As the water level drops and the clarity improves, the summer runs offer a challenge to steelhead anglers that greatly differs from the presentations that are most effective during the high, murky conditions of customary winter steelhead fisheries. When it matters most, being able to adapt to and mimic your environment will greatly improve your success rates. As spring chinook have reached their spawning grounds, eggs are a fresh, nutritious food source that is readily available. Chinook eggs tend to be larger, more bright red berries. If you're fishing a bead, the freshest eggs are nearly transparent, as should be your presentation.

On low, clear, sunny days, being a shade off and being able to match the hatch can make the difference. Early in the morning and late in the evening before the fog clears, UV colors that mimic a dead egg pattern tend to be more effective than during the middle of the day. If you're fishing bait, cured prawn meat or eggs will have the same effect. A transparent bead with a "wet" sheen to it that reflects white light can make the difference when the sun is hitting the water. Uncured prawn meat gives off a subtle appearance in daylight, however it also has it's own bioluminescent properties and reflects subtle UV light.

In low light or low visibility conditions, creating a presentation that reacts to ultra-violet light is crucial to offering a target that the fish can find. Decoding what colors work for the water your fishing is as simple as tying a different color on and dropping it in front of you, acknowledging your own visibility of what you're offering the fish.

Sam Wurdinger of Dinger Jigs designs his presentations for summer steelhead based upon removing the UV properties that are often "too loud," specifically pointing to the success of nightmare patterns. More importantly than UV properties, the red collar, black feathers, and white jighead create contrast in common summer steelhead conditions. None of those three colors in the pattern react to ultra violet light. Stem floats will track well with jigs in low water without the addition of extra weight or gear. Strung directly onto a mono bumper with a flouro leader to the jig, a stem float will communicate whether or not the jig is making contact with the bottom, and is easily adjustable to vary the depth. The Hawken's Aerofloat AF-1 model is a great float for this technique. A small piece of pencil lead threaded directly onto the stem can also make up the difference between the rating on the float and the weight of the jig.

When the water is low, adapting your equipment is equally as valuable as adapting the presentation. Clear, thin diameter monofilament in the 6-10lb range reduces the line visibility. Advances in flourocarbon technology have become deadly for line shy fish as well. Finding a good combination of low visibility mono with some good stretch to accompany flourocarbon leader line will add an element of stealth to the fish you're targeting. Clear floats also offer less contrast to distract fish at the surface.

Having a lighter, fast action rod with some good bend will also help relieve the stress on the line from a hot fish. Longer rods are typically better suited for high sticking and steering fish through obstacles as well. A rod in the 10 to 11 foot range will can be the difference between ruining and making your day once you've dialed in the presentation the fish want.

Scents have their place in low water conditions as well. It's a common misconception that the purpose of using scent is to "attract" fish. While there may some validity to this theory, it's short-sighted and misses the big picture. In some situations, particularly in water with low visibility, scent may help the fish locate your presentation. Steelhead are more sight-oriented, so in most instances of low, clear water, your presentation doesn't need scent in order for the fish to find it.

However, scent serves one particular purpose in all conditions, keeping the bait in the mouth of the fish long enough for the signal of the bite to reach your hand or give a visual confirmation as the synapses in your brain start telling you to set the hook. When you're hopping from one hole to another, pounding every piece of water that's deep enough you can't see the bottom, it's difficult at times to know what's going on down there. At times, scent can be the difference between getting a bite and landing a fish.

Gel scents are best suited for hard baits like plugs, spinners, and beads. Smelly Jelly's Pro Guide Formula and Pro Cure's line of Super Gels are ideal for their staying power. When the fish hits the presentation and realizes that it isn't squishy like a shrimp, baitfish, or egg, they'll immediately spit it out. The extra second or three that the fish keeps the bait in it's mouth tasting that gel scent will help the hooks find something to grab onto.

Jigs on the other hand are a little trickier. Gels and oil based scents detract from the natural presentation of the maribou or rabbit hair. If the feathers or hair stick together, you'll lose the natural, eye-catching, pulsating action. Pro Cure's water soluable scents, unlike gel scents, don't inhibit the movement of the jig's materials. You'll have to add scent more frequently, as it tends to milk out and leave a scent trail in the water column. If you don't remove these scents when your jigs aren't in use, the water soluable scents will still ruin the maribou. You can preserve your jigs by carrying a small jar of Lemon Joy soap, and shaking it up, like a miniature jig washing machine.

When targeting summers from a boat, the Moonshine Park to Twin Bridges float has the best water, but is also difficult and even dangerous to navigate in low water conditions less than 4ft deep at the tidewater gauge. The Twin bridges to Hee Hee Illahee park float is a close second, and can easily be extended to the other side of town as the river makes a horse shoe bend around it to Old Mill Park. While you can easily make the walk across town from one ramp to the other, the Siletz River Shuttle makes runs to all the ramps on the river and can be reached at (541)444-1111.

Moonshine Park has some very accommodating primitive and RV camping facilities, as well as a scenic waterfall and some great water for fishing. However the frequent traffic from campers also puts a lot of fishing pressure on that stretch.

Above the park, the Siletz River gorge offers excellent bank fishing and beautiful scenery as well. Vehicle access into the Plum Creek Timber area is restricted due to safety concerns with log trucks barreling down the gorge Monday through Friday. However, you can still hike or bike into the gorge and fish. Not everyone follows these rules, but there are harsh fines for the ones that get caught, and the danger of playing chicken with a fully loaded log truck is not worth the risk.

Some of the best water is in plain view for the first mile or two. Three miles into the gorge, there is a boulder field of rapids that is a popular destination for recreational kayakers. The water is very swift through this section of the river, so be cautious about approaching the water if you choose to fish there. About 5 miles up, there's a right turn that goes to a bridge over the river. If you stop on the bridge and look left at any point during the summer, you'll likely see the spawning grounds of spring chinook. There are almost always a few summers downstream feeding on stray eggs. There's lots of river to walk all the way up to Buck Creek through this section. The ironic challenge of the water upstream of this section is that it's all great water, and the fish could be anywhere. About 12 miles upstream there is another bridge that crosses a small creek that dumps into the river right at the road. This is another popular spawning ground for spring chinook where summer steelhead tend to stick around and feed before heading up to the falls. This is also a great pit-stop to just sit and enjoy the sounds of the water, taking in all the scenery.

While a combination of wild and hatchery summers are present in the river throughout fall and even into winter, getting there early during the summer months and picking off the more determined of the fish fresh from the salt is as challenging as it is rewarding. The earlier hatchery fish are some of the best steelhead table fare around, and commonly run larger in size. Even if you put forth the effort and fail to bring home the bacon, this is one fishery where every day is a beautiful day on the water.

This article was printed in the June 2016 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.