A Forest for Winter Steelhead

A Forest for Winter Steelhead

Dawn was muffled in a gray cloak. Snowfall settled on cedars and softened our footfalls through the dark wood. Majestic white pines surrounded us on a high bluff. As we reached the lip of the high bank, we could see the dark river below, a ribbon of black, wending its way through the hardwoods that love the flood plain. A kingfisher skirted the glassy flow.

We reached the river bank. No wind. No footprints. No trucks or trailers at the landing several miles below, meaning no one has set out from the landing several miles above. A Cooper's hawk circled overhead. An occasional mink slipped along the far bank.

In the stained flow, in the shadow of red oaks hovering over the banks, we could see patches of white gravel in darker surroundings on a shallow bend. Tell-tale signs of spawning activity, where brown trout or coho salmon recently deposited their hope for the future. For many fish that spawn here, in one of the most stable rivers on earth, the forest will allow that hope to succeed. As discussed in an earlier post, it's the forest that brings life to steelhead, trout, and salmon — not the other way around. We crossed the river, being careful to avoid those patches of white gravel.



The river is low and clear, which means winter steelhead are both sparse and wary. Spooking a few fish isn't so bad when the river is up and each good wintering pool holds 50 or more giant rainbows. Spook one in these conditions and you may not find another chance to hook up for several miles. So I work my way slowly into position, careful not to throw a heavy wake. I bait up after establishing the most strategic spot from which to approach the run, allowing fish to get used to my presence.

Oh, they know you're there. But that doesn't mean you can get away with brash, threatening motions and clumsy footwork. When ready I make a short cast, to the edge of the shallow sand, where the bottom is just becoming indistinguishable. The next cast is just a few inches longer, and so on, allowing the fish in the pool to get accustomed to the rhythm of sinkers and bait cutting into the flow with as little disturbance as possible, accomplished by stopping the rig just above the surface.

After several short casts, sinkers begin finding gravel. The familiar and gratifying "tap-tap-tap" hums through my old G. Loomis STR1141. Like Kevin Costner in that movie about baseball, evoking the "mechanism" that filters out the crowd — those kingfishers, Cooper's hawks, and minks fade into the winter postcard background and consciousness soon has room for only two things: The river and my connection to it. I automatically extend the rod with my downstream hand, following and stretching the natural drift of the bait. Time seems to hover in a space between heartbeats.

In all of fishing, few things are harder to describe than the the typical "strike" of a steelhead. Little trout feel like little perch, bap-bap-bapping away at the bait. A big trout just closes its mouth on it. The tapping of sinker on gravel is barely interrupted. The sensation is dull. The rod tip bends down a quarter inch. As if triggering an ancient trap resting between synapses in a mind immersed in this activity for decades, the rod snaps back over my shoulder almost automatically. The tip snaps down, the blank begins to thrash, and the drag begins to sing.


As it finally tired, a small steelhead was slipped onto the snow-covered knee of a fallen oak lying on the river's floor. Following the winter fashion of its kind, the rainbow lived up to its name, providing a bright exclamation point of color in a gray and white world.

"My waders are leaking," Mary says, still snapping photos. Nuts. That's no fun when it's 20┬░F and the water is just above freezing. Oh, well. Walking out would warm that foot. One steelhead is all a great day requires, so, naturally, I wanted her to catch one. Apparently that wasn't going to happen, though we dabbled along in pools where she could fish from the bank. ┬áLuckily, she wouldn't need waders in the days to come, as we jumped from river to river, and boat to boat, trying some things I've never tried before — with surprising results.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

New Spinning Reel for Finesse Fishermen

New Spinning Reel for Finesse Fishermen

As Pure Fishing's Andrew Upshaw explains, reel making giant Abu Garcia has done it again at ICAST 2019 with a new spinning reel geared towards finesse fishermen.

Selective Harvest Yellow Bass

Selective Harvest Yellow Bass

In order to sustain good fishing, it's important to understand which to release and fish you should for a fine meal.

Mustad Skatter Shad Bladed Jig

Mustad Skatter Shad Bladed Jig

As Mustad continues to expand into an all-around tackle company, Reid McKinstry shows off some innovative features that make the Mustad Skatter Shad bladed jig a winner in big bass waters.

As KVD tells OSG's Lynn Burkhead, innovative Humminbird products and cutting-edge technology like that found in the new Mega 360 Imaging sonar are major reasons contributing to his unparalleled success.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Everything you need to know about popular catfish species and how to catch them on proven riggings. Catfish

All About Catfish

Rob Neumann

Everything you need to know about popular catfish species and how to catch them on proven...

To guide your carp quest, we've lined up the best carp baits that are easy-to-fish natural baits and commercial options. Other Fish

Best Carp Baits Today

Dan Johnson - June 29, 2018

To guide your carp quest, we've lined up the best carp baits that are easy-to-fish natural...


Spring is prime time for pike. The Prespawn and Postspawn periods offer excellent odds at catching Pike & Muskie

How To Catch Pike In Spring

Dan Johnson - April 26, 2016

Spring is prime time for pike. The Prespawn and Postspawn periods offer excellent odds at...

It was an August evening and I was wading the flats in Brewster, MA with my cousin. Here you can Other Fish

Must-Have Striped Bass Tackle

Rick Bach - May 04, 2017

It was an August evening and I was wading the flats in Brewster, MA with my cousin. Here you...

See More Trending Articles

More Trout & Salmon

The In-Fisherman staff takes you on a mission for monsters, as they cast for shallow late-season Trout & Salmon

Hawg Nation Lake Trout

Jeff Simpson - August 09, 2016

The In-Fisherman staff takes you on a mission for monsters, as they cast for shallow...

The In-Fisherman staff uses proven trout strategies to catch fish in deep river pools. Trout & Salmon

Rock Solid Trout Strategies

In-Fisherman - May 19, 2015

The In-Fisherman staff uses proven trout strategies to catch fish in deep river pools.

Buzz Ramsey shares his top 10 picks. Trout & Salmon

The Top 10 Steelhead Rivers On The West Coast

Matt Straw - May 04, 2015

Buzz Ramsey shares his top 10 picks.

Getting paid to spend life on the water isn't always glamorous. Trout & Salmon

Legendary Angler: Buzz Ramsey

Matt Straw - May 01, 2015

Getting paid to spend life on the water isn't always glamorous.

See More Trout & Salmon

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All In-Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now