Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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For steelhead, always have a ‘Plan B’

The angler who fishes for steelhead enough is reminded how tough they are to catch. (Photo courtesy Steve Pollick)

By John Tertuliani
Contributing Writer

The angler who fishes for steelhead often enough is reminded on occasion how difficult they can be to catch. Just when you think you have them figured out, you cannot get a bite to save your life. You arrive loaded for bear with a presentation that seems to be the best you ever had, only to stand in the cold water for hours on end, casting and wondering.

Such a day can make you ponder how much you really know about steelhead. Their life history evolves in a large lake, the seasonal migration inland to what they believe is their natal water may have shifted their priorities. Their behavior is not focused on eating. When faced with a lull in the action, it may be time for Plan B, a different presentation. Sometimes desperation leads to inspiration.

A backup plan makes sense. The tried-and-true tactics for most anglers are finesse tactics, those that include a drifting presentation. It could be a fly, spawn bag, bead, or a jig suspended under a strike indicator or float. Little, if any, motion is imparted, a drag-free drift is the center of attention. A presentation drifted without imparting any movement does not generate pressure waves; you are sight fishing in the sense of hoping the steelhead see your offering. Of the tackle commonly drifted, the jig is a crossover bait. It can be drifted, jigged, and tipped with live bait; the jigging motion generates pressure waves based on the extent of the motion.

Plan B in my mind has to be more aggressive. I draw this conclusion when nothing else works. Steelhead anglers in states with large rivers, especially western states, use boats to troll and cast plugs, crankbaits, spoons, and spinners. About this time, I start to wonder why not try something similar here?

I prefer a small Rapala or Flicker Shad. The beauty of casting a plug to a flowing water is you merely have to take up the slack. The moving water will put life into the bait without having to crank your reel. The momentum of the flow swings your bait downstream and back toward you. It is an easy and productive way to explore the places you consider quality habitat in a short period of time.

No matter the lure being tossed, I replace treble hooks with a single hook to reduce snags in the submerged timber. Deadfalls and undercut root wads form scour holes, places where steelhead pause when swimming inland, places that prove nearly impossible to penetrate without snagging treble hooks.

Ironically, I started experimenting with single hooks for bass. I grew tired of losing expensive baits every time I cast among the fallen trees. The transition to single hooks was not easy. I learned early on that attaching a single hook to each split ring solved my snagging problem in submerged timber, but in turn all but eliminated my chances of hooking fish.

I gave up on single hooks for a while, that is until I learned how an angler used a single hook on a jointed Rapala to comply with single-hook regulations for salmon fishing. The hook was not connected directly to the split ring; a bead-chain swivel was used to extend the hook away from the body. Bead-chain swivels are popular with salmon anglers, designed for in-line use in rigging, not as a hook extension. The size of most bead-chain swivels is too large for the smaller lures I use.

I got around this by making bead-chain swivels from split rings and a crane swivel, to extend a hook away from the body, farther than possible with a split ring alone. The hook hangs down during a retrieve. Two hooks will tangle when cast, so I settled on one hook attached to the forward split ring. A hook can be just as easily connected to the rear split ring instead. I prefer a forward connection, for the time being.

I am still seeking the optimum distance a hook should be extended from the body. Think of stringing a plastic bead above a hook, there is no precise distance that anglers abide by. A potential consequence for using too long of a chain swivel is tangling and a partial return to snagging wood; too short and you can miss bites. I am experimenting with hook gap as well. I prefer a hook gap as wide as possible, without being too heavy to deaden action. A gap too narrow can catch a plug body along the back taper.

So, see? Steelhead are truly a challenge.

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