Winter Steelhead Oregon-Style

Spent last week in Oregon, enjoying the first big rains since anyone could remember. “If you had been here last week,” the regulars said, “it would have been sunny and 65 degrees.”

I thought I’d timed it just right, expecting rivers to rise in the rain and then quickly fall, a bump that could bring in lots of chrome metalheads and give the “stale” fish, which had been in the river for a few weeks, a blast of energy and thoughts of moving from their holdover spots to new ground. When that happens, steelhead often get real grabby.

A beautiful wild fish that Hickman took in the rain. Hickman’s Fish Taco sealed the deal.

The problem with that equation is this: Mankind still hasn’t built a rainjacket that keeps wind-driven spray out of the cuffs. Nor do we have one that keeps rain from filtering past cinched hoods during an entire day in the deluge. I tested this thoroughly, standing in coastal rivers from early morning until it was too dark to even wade safely. Each night we drove away from the river, over potholed roads, with rain pelting the windshield and our wipers on the megafast setting, pretty much soaked to the wading belt. Shivering a little, too.

Now, I’m not complaining because we did catch some fish, three to be exact, in the two days I spent on the water. And that’s not bad considering it took me at least a half day to find a semblance of my former cast.

Hickman headed downstream with Ozzie aboard. Deathwish or steelhead dreams resting straight ahead?

I’m in the game with a six-pound hen.

I was fishing with Jeff Hickman, who owns Fish The Swing and guides on the Clackamas and Sandy rivers near Portland. During summers he runs day trips and campouts, via jetboat, on the fabled lower Deschutes River. And if you can get him booked for one of those precious trips you’re doing yourself a giant favor. Anyway, on the coast, it was just a few days among friends, fishing our heads off and discussing ways to protect a resource that seems to be in peril. Wayward logging on private land. State logging cuts that leave no tree standing—except a few skinnies that’ll blow over in the next big windstorm. Lack  of enforcement on catch-and-release-only wild steelhead rivers. And . . . the biggie . . . talk of tainting wild steelhead rivers with hatchery impostors. Those are subjects to be tackled at a later date and with more detail when I can do some serious research and interviewing. Today, its about sharing a few fun pics from the trip, and a few winter steelhead tips. Want to contact Hickman at Fish The Swing? Call 971-275-2269 or email Follow the Swing on instagram at fishtheswing

GT’s Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Tips

1. Fish all day in the rain, whether you’re cold or not. Time equals fish.

2. Make sure to concentrate on the tailouts and water where you really don’t need to mend once your line touches the water. You want to cast at a 45 degree angle downstream and have the line immediately tighten so you are in touch with the fly. If something grabs, you’ll know. You want a nice, slow pass through the run, with the fly hanging, tantalizingly, just in front of a fish’s snout. Remember, they aren’t eating. They are mad, territorial, and aggressive. Give them a chance to get worked up.

3. Fish the hangdown. Listen, the hangdown doesn’t serve me well. I’ve made 50,000 casts for steelhead and I think I’ve only taken two on the hangdown. But guys in the know, like Hickman, say many of their fish are taken that way. Despite my success, I still fish the hangdown, hoping that my luck, one of these days, changes.

4. Don’t forget your flask. Attitude adjustment on the side of the river can be key. And I mean that. Sometimes all it takes is a seat on the bench to see something in the river flow and currents, or in the way the water breaks around a submerged boulder, to make a difference. Take that break. Enjoy the burn. Realize what you missed. Step back out there and catch your dreamfish.

5. Fish a two-handed rod. It’s just cool and you can cover much more water with one than without. Some may argue that most steelhead are hooked within yards of shore and that you only need a single-hander to do that, but the truth is, especially in lower flows, you may have to tempt them from the depths and that means reaching the midstream slots or those deep, slow runs on the opposite bank.

6. Fish a fly that you like. If you don’t like your fly you won’t fish with confidence. I like Pick-Yer-Pockets and a variety of marabou patterns. I like combinations of black and green, but the merit of pink and orange can’t be denied. During higher flows I feel way more confident with a larger fly than I would in low, clear flows. In low flows, go small.

7. Just because someone has fished a run doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go in after them and clean house. Most people aren’t very good anglers and they miss fish because they couldn’t reach them or didn’t present the fly in a way that allowed a fish to take it. And, maybe you have the fly the fish wants and the dude who just passed through was throwing   junk. An admission: Maybe I just described myself in Oregon because Hickman, the ninja master, hooked one nice fish in a run I’d just spent a lot of time in and, the following day, he did the same thing. Bad host. Bad host for sure.

8. The bottom. I like fishing the bottom. I like heavy tips in the T-14 range. I like getting down. From my days spent watching gear guys on Washington’s steelhead streams, I know that steelhead like the bottom, too. That’s why I go there. Some people say that we flyfishers are looking for the one fish that’s aggressive. That’s the one we want. The one that is willing to move a ways for a fly. But I want them all. I want the ones that don’t want to eat. I want to make them eat. And the only way to do that is to put a fly on the bottom, right in front of their faces, and drag it just in front of their snouts, super slowly. The bad part of that equation is that I lose more flies, and even sinktips, than anyone I know. You have to be willing to part with your luggage if you fish in that fashion, and you have to be willing and able to rebuild your gear, many times a day, with freezing hands. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs, I know.

9. Fish with a guide or a knowledgable friend. Hickman’s advice on the Oregon rivers I’ve never fished was instrumental. In fact, he saw a steelhead roll, dropped me off above that fish, and not three casts later I was into it, a fresh, super-bright six-pound hen. You have to realize that finding steelhead and catching your first or your 50th is difficult on rivers you are not familiar with. Repetition breeds numbers. Guys and gals who fish a river over and over learn where the fish really like to be. And they can go in and pick apart the choicest portions of a river without wasting their time on the unproductive places. You want that knowledge. You don’t want to start from the ground up. You want to start at an expert’s level, at least when it comes to finding the fish. Spend the money or buy your friends dinner and beers. Your money will be well spent and put chrome in your hand faster than if you’d tried to solve the problem on your own.


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