High Water Steelheading

by Ed Park

If you believe you cannot catch steelhead in high water, but must wait until it drops and turns that famous steelhead green, then listen up, I have a story to tell.

A few years back a major storm slammed into Oregon and Washington. Heavy snows closed roads, schools, airports and businesses. Roofs, trees and power lines collapsed, boats sunk, and hundreds of motorists were stranded. Headlines read, "Portland to Canada Paralyzed." This was followed by drenching rains that melted the snow. Flooding was rampant, bridges washed out, and roads were inundated or blocked by slides.

During the worst of the high water, Buzz Ramsey and I fished Oregon's Necanicum, Kilchis and Trask rivers, each of which was high, wild, and chocolate brown. It rained continually and we saw no other boats. Buzz Ramsey is a famed steelheader. He works for Luhr Jensen & Sons Inc., of Hood River, Oregon, and part of his job is testing lures and methods. He fishes for steelhead at least 70 days each winter, regardless of conditions. Buzz had told me you can catch steelhead when the rivers are high and muddy, if you adapt your tackle and techniques to the conditions. Although I had my doubts, I asked him to call me when things were, "...as bad as possible but when you still think you can catch steelhead."

Author Ed Park lifts up a fine winter steelhead, taken when the river was high, muddy, and out of shape.

The rod strained, the reel sang, the line hummed, and the world was right again. Steelhead! Even the name suggests power, speed and dazzling aerial shows. Combine that with a flooding river and I had my hands more than full. But it was a good fullness, for I knew that I was learning something known to few. During the next uncounted minutes we cast against or into that submerged brush, had a dozen hits, hooked eight, landed five, released them all. Then the bite stopped abruptly. Before we moved on, Buzz explained. Normally steelhead move up the river channels. In high water, they are found in slower, shallower water, sometimes right against the brush, and in little pockets hardly big enough to hold them. There they can escape the relentless pounding of a flooding river.

That evening Buzz explained his theories on tackle. Begin with a stout rod. Have a good quality reel capable of holding a couple of hundred yards of line. Normally anglers use eight to 12-pound line. In high water, use 15- to 20-pound. Use a three-way swivel, crimping 1/4-inch hollow pencil lead right up against the swivel on a short drop leader. Normally Buzz uses an 18- to 24-inch leader, but in high water he uses a 24- to 30-inch leader, so his lure floats higher off the bottom. Buzz mostly uses Okie-Drifters. The usual rigging is one #3 Okie. For higher visibility in high water, use either two #3 Okies, or a smaller #1 Okie next to the hook with a larger #4 or #5 above that. He prefers contrasting colors, using orange, plus a glo-orange-stripe, orange-pearl, or something with white in it. Use the largest legal hook, for the greatest bite.

His call came during the height of that rainstorm and flooding. "Hey, Ed, the rivers are up in the trees, over the pastures, drowning cows. Come on down."

We first fished the Necanicum River and I was excited as we headed downriver. Two hours later I was cold, wet, discouraged. We'd fished hard, fought the powerful river, lost lots of tackle to snags, and got nothing but wetter. Buzz kept his conviction, "You've got to have faith. People try it, but if they don't get any bumps the first couple of hours, like today, they call me names, quit, go home, kick the dog, and grumble."

Lunch restored some warmth, but my remaining faith hung only on Buzz's reputation. I was fishing, but the keen edge had been drowned. Suddenly Buzz dropped the oars, lowered the anchor and excitedly pointed, "Cast right against the brush, Ed. I saw some roll." Normally I'd never have fished there. It was a narrow, shallow stretch of water, right against the willows, where the water slowed considerably below a driftwood pile. My cast was long, hung up on some brush, then dropped in. In that shallow water the lure bounced bottom immediately, drifted maybe four feet, then stopped. I slammed that rod up and back, hesitated an instant, then slammed again as I recognized that exciting resistance. The river immediately erupted as ten pounds of steelhead took to the air, then began a long, powerful run seaward.

We first fished the Necanicum River and I was excited as we headed downriver. Two hours later I was cold, wet, discouraged. We'd fished hard, fought the powerful river, lost lots of tackle to snags, and got nothing but wetter. Buzz kept his conviction, "You've got to have faith. People try it, but if they don't get any bumps the first couple of hours, like today, they call me names, quit, go home, kick the dog, and grumble."

That evening Buzz explained his theories on tackle. Begin with a stout rod. Have a good quality reel capable of holding a couple of hundred yards of line. Normally anglers use eight to 12-pound line. In high water, use 15- to 20-pound. Use a three-way swivel, crimping 1/4-inch hollow pencil lead right up against the swivel on a short drop leader. Normally Buzz uses an 18- to 24-inch leader, but in high water he uses a 24- to 30-inch leader, so his lure floats higher off the bottom. Buzz mostly uses Okie-Drifters. The usual rigging is one #3 Okie. For higher visibility in high water, use either two #3 Okies, or a smaller #1 Okie next to the hook with a larger #4 or #5 above that. He prefers contrasting colors, using orange, plus a glo-orange-stripe, orange-pearl, or something with white in it. Use the largest legal hook, for the greatest bite.

The second day we fished the Kilchis in a pouring rain. Again we had the river all to ourselves. It was still rising and was the color of chocolate pudding. We fished spots where experience told Buzz he'd find fish under such conditions, such as a comparatively gentle stretch just above some wild rapids. Soon we saw a fish come porpoising over the tail-out and within two casts Buzz had the first one on. For a good half-hour we hooked, played, and lost or released several fish. When the bite stopped we broke out the coffee and lunch. For a couple of hours we stayed at that one spot. Now and then we'd see a fish come up over the tail-out and each time we'd get three or four hits, then the bite would end abruptly and we'd wait for more to move through. The river was full of small groups of moving fish.

But anyone can get a one, two, or even three-day jump on most anglers by keeping an eye on the river gauges. By fishing a couple of days ahead of what is considered fishable, you'll have little competition, the rivers should be full of fresh, unmolested steelhead, and if you use the proper tackle and techniques -- and have faith -- you, too, can learn to catch steelhead in high, powerful, muddy water.

The third day we fished the Trask River, and in two hours Buzz and I hooked five and landed four. Some of those fish were caught right at our feet in less than a foot of water along the shoreline brush. I had steelhead bumping into my boots. Buzz hooked one not four feet in front of me and its first jump hit my left thigh. Buzz also hooked another by dangling his bobber on only about a foot of line, a rod length below him. We were hooking steelhead right against the willows, in the shallow, slow water. Buzz emphatically warned that others should not expect our kind of success when the rivers are three feet too high.

When steelhead rivers are high and muddy, most anglers tend to stay home. Those who know how to fish in off-color conditions can do very well.