STEEL & THE CHOCOLATE BEAST
Chocolate rivers swirl through the nightmares of every steelheader. Flood phobias stem from annual experiences with torrential rains and snowmelt that blow rivers out in spring, making it difficult to predict when to travel and where to go.
Though weak El Ni€¢o conditions prevailed as this article went to press, predicting a dry spring in the Great Lakes region, we all know that rivers can jump from bone dry to flood stage overnight in spring, despite a drier-than-usual climate. If El Ni€¢o conditions strengthen, it could be a wet spring. And since warming weather and rain have something to do with triggering spring runs of steelhead, blown-out rivers tend to coincide with the first big push of uneducated, active, biting, big-lake rainbows.
Many a steelheader looks at a blown-out, chocolate river and drives on by to check the next tributary up the coast (me, too). But sometimes we're forced to embrace the swollen, brown flow because every reachable river is blown out. Or we don't have time to drive up the coast, or . . . What to do?
LOVE THAT EVIL RIVER
When Peter Green sings, "Love that evil woman," he's got the blues because he has no options. The no-option blues. Spring steelheaders can relate. Worst-case scenario: You can free up just one weekend to spend on big rainbows all spring only to arrive at the doorstep of the chocolate beast. Nothing to do but love that evil river.
One reason we fear the dirty brown river is the fact that the usual spots never produce. Steelhead seem to be gone. As so often happens, however, appearances deceive. And too few of us check the most obvious spots of all -- the spots we're standing in, right under our boots.
Spring-run steelhead have a biological imperative ticking away like a time bomb inside their relatively tiny but complex brains, that basically screams, "Must spawn soon." They're also sight feeders with a penchant for inhabiting clear, highly oxygenated water. Flood waters carry fine silt that stings their gills and reduces their visual field to an area only inches across. The "must spawn" imperative basically outweighs preferences for clean water and, no matter how bad the river looks, steelhead will run it if the water temperature is warming and the spawning window is open.
Upon plunging into a flood-stage river, steelhead find leaves, sticks, garbage, branches, and water-logged trees tumbling downstream at them. With visibility severely reduced, they can't see an object coming until it approaches quite close. Steelhead can pick up vibrations from large objects with their lateral lines, but smaller things can pose problems. The obvious answer is to get out of the main flow, where all the "usual spots" are.
The areas of reduced flow in a river become the paths of least resistance to any fish migrating upstream in high water. The larger the area of reduced flow, the more likely steelhead will hold or pause there. Migrating fish are almost uncatchable. Holding fish are the prime targets. The likeliest areas include the inside turn on a bend, the slow side of a long run, a shallow flat out of the main flow below a dam, a cascade or steep rapids, or any shallow water out of the main flow or hiding behind a current break. Often these spots are quite close to the bank, where the shoreline itself further slows the current through friction. Steelhead also seek these spots because slower water allows some of the silt to settle, while most debris tends to be swept into the faster currents.
Cloudy water giveth, and it taketh away. The advantage of cloudy water stems from the lack of visibility and the resulting behavior of steelhead. They can't see you. Even in 2 feet of water, you remain invisible until you're standing on top of them. Since they can't see danger, they seem to suppose it doesn't exist and can be quite aggressive if you don't stomp around like a sasquatch or wade through them. The problem is, they can't see your bait, either. They're like a pack of Mr. Magoos in cloudy water. So appeal to their sense of smell, bulk up the bait, fish it on bottom, and slow it down.
The inside of a bend is a classic high-water spot. In low water, the shallow flat on the inside of the bend is the spot to wade while fishing the deeper outside bend. In high water, steelhead hold on that shallow flat where you were wading. So, don't wade in before thoroughly working an inside bend. The higher the water, the farther below the point or middle of the bend, and the closer to the bank, steelhead will hold. In true floods, steelhead hold behind things like standing trees and cutbanks around flooded footpaths -- almost always below the midpoint on the inside of a bend in shallow water.
The fast water continues to follow the same bank down below the outside bend. Long runs have considerably slower water on the side of the inside bend, and steelhead often hold all along an inside run in high water. Just keep fishing slowly downstream below an inside bend, and stay on the bank. Make short casts. In fact, drop in the first bait right by your boots. Fish on bottom, making progressively longer casts out to mid-river, sweeping them up against the bank below you. Let the bait sit for a minute or two at the end of each drift.
A big tangle of logs or fallen trees on the slow side of the river can hold a lot of steelhead. Get right behind it on the bank and literally drop baits down into the tangle on the downstream side, probing every nook you can drag the bait through.
On shallow flats surrounding any kind of plunge pool, the best method tends to be float-fishing. A float represents the quickest way to find the slowest currents over expansive areas and covers a flat most efficiently, with fewer snags and less down time.
Most high-water spots on most rivers call for bottom-bouncing gear. An 8 1/2- to 10-foot medium-power rod with a fairly fast action is key. In high, cloudy water, steelhead become far less line-shy. Use a 10- to 12-pound monofilament mainline with an 8- to 10-pound mono leader. Tough, abrasion-resistant lines like Ande Premium, P-Line X-Tra Strong, and Maxima Ultragreen are an absolute must. Fluorocarbon isn't necessary. Use it if you like, but when Mr. Magoo finds that big fast water, it's nice to have maximum stretch and shock absorption handy.
My favorite rig in high water is very simple. It starts with a Mustad 9260D, which is not a premium hook. But it has a down eye and a beaked point, creating a smaller gap that less wood fits into. The beaked point deflects off more wood than a straight point; because it's not a premium hook, it can be straightened out when snagged in wood, and it can still land a steelhead after being reshaped.
In wood, I often tie the hook right to the main line and place several split shot 18 inches to 2 feet above it. The hook is the usual culprit when snagged in wood, so it's rare to lose sinkers this way. If the rig breaks off, one knot puts you back in business. If the bottom is rocky, tie a barrel swivel to the end of the line. Tie a 2-foot, 8- to 10-pound leader to the other end of the swivel, leaving a 4- to 5-inch tag end for attaching split shot, pencil lead, or drop-shot weights. In really heavy rock, tie a snap swivel to the tag end and clip it through a slinky (buckshot in parachute cord -- the most rock-resistant sinker available). Tin split shot works well for this, too, because it tends to bounce out of crevices.
Leaders should be kept short to keep the bait close to eye level. The slower the water, the longer the leader can be -- up to 3 feet, because steelhead often ride well off bottom where silt content is less dense. In a true flood, steelhead can be penned into fairly confined spots right on the bottom, and a 1-foot leader works better.
Yarn fishermen tend to excel in high water. Bright, fluorescent yarn in shades of white, chartreuse, glow, or orange stand out in cloudy conditions. I often use yarn (snelled to the back of the hook with a bumper knot) or plastic eggs in conjunction with Titleist-sized spawn bags to create a big bright package with scent appeal. Well, not really the size of a golf ball, but something with a diameter ranging from a quarter to a 50-cent piece (remember those?). When tying these spawn bags, I add bright, fluorescent Styrofoam float beads to the package, to keep it up off bottom. In high-water conditions, the most visible netting tends to be chartreuse or fluorescent white, followed equally by fluorescent shades of pink and orange. I often contrast the color of the float beads with the color of the netting, to make the float beads stand out.
Big plastic eggs add translucent color, bulk, and some buoyancy to the package. Run a magnum egg all the way up the hook to cover the eye and secure it on the knot before baiting up with spawn. I like to use a green or chartreuse egg with orange spawn bags, and orange eggs with chartreuse or green bags, to contrast those colors and make one stand out. Larger packages require larger hooks, and I typically use a size #4 or size #2 9260D in high water.
Another way to brighten and bulk up the package is the leader float. Slide a glow or fluorescent Worden's Lil' Corky onto the leader above the hook. This keeps the bait up better and adds more color than Styrofoam float beads; however, I often use both. The bait can't be too visible or too gaudy at flood stage.
The cloudier the water, the more the rig needs to be overweighted. It's best to have it drag on bottom, even to the point where the rig has to be prompted along with the rod. Give steelhead a good, long look at it.
On shallow flats, attach a float like the Thill River Master to the line; tie on a swivel below it; place just enough shot on the line between the float and the swivel to make the float stand up, and tie in a 2-foot fluorocarbon leader (I like fluorocarbon here, because the line is dangling down at the fish from above). To that, attach a relatively heavy jig (1/8- to 1/4-ounce) adorned with yarn, white feathers, or marabou. Glow-in-the-dark jigs in shades of pink, white, and chartreuse work best by creating an aura of lighted silt and particles around the bait. Bait up with a big spawn sack and systematically cover the flat, checking the float hard to slow it down ("checking" is holding the float back so it isn't swept along in the faster surface currents, while still allowing it to slip downstream). That way, the jig is in their faces before the float passes overhead.
If you find the chocolate beast this spring, don't fight it. If you can't escape by running to another venue, fish a little differently. Stay on the bank and fish where you typically wade, to find high-water steel.