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Extreme Steelheading.

Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

By all accounts, Oregon is in the midst of a very good winter steelhead run. Problem is, relatively few anglers have been taking advantage, due to unfavorable water conditions in coastal rivers and streams.

Early in the season, the rivers were said to be "too high and muddy." In recent weeks, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's weekly fishing report has spoken of rivers being "too low and clear" and/or "too cold."

Welcome to the weird world of winter steelheading, where conditions are seldom good enough for Goldilocks (i.e., "just right") but almost always good enough to produce some fish for those wacky enough to go anyway.

Extreme water conditions make the task more difficult, but you can still catch winter steelhead during the highs and lows of winter flows, according to a trio of expert anglers interviewed between their lectures Saturday at the 34th annual Eugene Boat and Sportsmen's Show.

The water is never "too low to go," according to Walterville author Scott Haugen, whose second book of steelhead fishing tips is due out later this year.

Anglers who diversify their approach so they "have a lot of different techniques to offer" can usually find something that will work, Haugen said.

He said his two most effective low-water techniques both involve fishing for steelhead in different "water" than most anglers would normally target.

"My best tip for low-water winter steelhead would be to hit the small pocket water, even if it's a run that's only five to 10 feet long," Haugen said. "A lot of steelhead, when it's low like this, will get out of the main current and move

behind rocks in little back eddies.

"I've had my best success just side-drifting these little pockets, or casting into them when drafting past."

Haugen's second tip is to fish deep pools - "like deep salmon holes" - that would normally be considered too slow-moving to hold steelhead.

When winter steelhead come in on a high tide and encounter low water in a river, they often seek refuge in a deep hole "a lot like a spring chinook would and just kind of hang there," Haugen said.

Sometimes, using polarized glasses, you can see schools of big fish milling around in the deep pools, he said.

Fish such holes with bait on "like a 10- or 12-foot dropper off a bobber," Haugen said, even in water that "is barely moving - so slow that you think you can't even fish it. It's the slowest presentation I've ever had for winter steelhead, and we've caught the heck out of them that way ... 15-16 fish a day."

Dean Finnerty of Five Rivers Guide Service in Cottage Grove, who specializes in fly-fishing, welcomes low water in winter steelhead streams.

In fact, "the lower it gets and the clearer it gets, the bigger the smile on my face becomes," Finnerty said. "That means we can target those big Umpqua natives."

Low water plays in a fly-fisher's favor because "typically our gear is smaller and quite a bit more subtle than a lot of the other guys' with their eggs or yarn balls, or pulling a plug," he said.

"Plus, because we're fly-fishing, there are fewer people out there doing it - so the steelhead are generally seeing something new," Finnerty said. "They're not seeing the same blue pirate Hot-Shot, or the same white-orange glob of eggs."

Gary Lewis of Gary's Guide Service in Roseburg says he avoids "those real small rivers" like the Elk, Sixes and Coquille when the water gets low "because the steelhead get so spooky you can't get close to them."

But "bigger rivers like the Willamette and the Umpqua" always have enough water "so you can get in and get 'em," Lewis said.

The main thing to do if fishing bait in low water "is to go real small," said Lewis, a guide for 25 years. "You want to have real small bait, about half of a dime size. I like a No. 2 hook."

And while winter steelhead may be hook- and leader-shy while feeding in low water, Lewis insists the fish maintain their territorial aggressiveness when it comes to "plugs," or Hot-Shot style lures.

"You can do real well running plugs," he said. "A lot of the new generation of guides have gotten away from that, but I still run 'em in low water because I know it works, and I know that because years ago that's all we used to do is run plugs."

Lewis said he simply looks for "any big slick that runs out of the tail-end of a hole," and maneuvers his drift boat so the plugs sweep back and forth down through the slick water.

"That way you cover all the water, whereas if you're side-drifting, all you're hitting is one little part of that slick and then another little part."

If the water is really cold, Lewis said, "you want to fish some of the shallower faster water. ... A lot of times they'll pull up in that chop water for protection. A lot of people think they go to the real real deep water for protection, but I don't think so. I think they go to the faster water."

Naturally, no sooner does an angler begin to get the hang of low-water steelhead fishing than a winter storm hits and river levels jump several feet.

But the steelhead are still there, and they can still be caught, our experts say.

Bigger baits and fishing the right spots are the key.

"I like to use a big yarn ball" (about the size of a 50-cent piece), Lewis said. "And fish the slowest stuff you can find on the inside of the current line. But not real deep. You want slow water that's eight, nine, 10 feet deep, not 30 feet."

Haugen said any high water that's safe to be on in a boat - or standing alongside of on the bank - is fishable for winter steelhead.

"We've had really good success in high muddy water where visibility is less than a foot," he said. "You have to increase the size of your presentation - I'll go with like a 2-0 or 3-0 hook, a bigger chunk of eggs with more anise oil, and with a bigger drift bobber, just to get some movement down there so these fish can see it."

Heavy current in the middle of a river will "push the fish close to shore," Haugen said. So close, it is sometimes not even necessary to cast - just drop the bait in three or four feet from the bank.

"If there's willows hanging over the river, a lot of times we'll fish right under the willows," he said. "While other boats are plugging down the middle of the river, we'll follow behind them and cast close to the shore."

Finnerty, the fly-fishing guide, says high and muddy water forces him to switch tactics - and fishing spots.

"I try to find the upper stretches of any of the river systems," he said. "The further up in the systems you go, the clearer the water becomes and the more favorable the conditions become for fly-fishing."

The upper Coquille, Millicoma, Coos, North Fork Alsea, and North Fork Smith rivers "clear up real fast after a big water event," he said. "We avoid the big river systems that take forever to clear up."

For the record, rain is expected in Western Oregon this week, and Northwest River Forecast Center projections indicate coastal river levels may rise sharply, meaning winter steelhead anglers may get to practice low-water and high-water steelheading techniques on the same day.
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Title Annotation:Recreation; Water too low? Too high? Too cold? Welcome to winter steelhead fishing
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 6, 2007
Previous Article:Nature's playlist is worth a listen.

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