From worst to first, rating the bite: what type of steelhead grab is most thrilling?
by Bill Herzog, freshwater editor
So … what technique wets your whistle when it comes down to initial contact with our favorite fish?
It’s the blink, that frozen moment on the clock when it all, finally, comes together. When piled on hours of tedious prep in the garage are cashed in for seconds of un-cut gratification, that moment we know we’ve chosen the proper technique, colors, lure size, presentation speed, etc. A thrill so overwhelming that if we could buy it over the counter, let’s just say a whole bunch of us would never leave the house.
So many variables have to line up to get that abracadabra sizzle — when we know “one’s on” and we Sharpie one big black check mark into the awesome column. If we can get real for a moment, there are some initial connections with the silver ghost that are far above and beyond that peg the jazz meter to eleven. There are techniques we as anglers prefer to deploy over others for this reason, even when we are sure there are one or perhaps several other techniques more effective for current conditions.
Of course, size of fish, how fresh and aggressive they may be will be factors. Just for grins, let’s look at the most popular steelheading methods and discuss (well, I’ll be discussing, you will be reading) which ones may generate the ultimate reaction on the wow meter from the greatest game fish.
Keep in mind, this rating has little to do with which method is most fun, satisfying, popular, productive, legal, most challenging or the like. It’s all about The Yank. This list is gleaned from decades of excited talk with countless other anglers, from novice to old timers, from hundreds of articles, TV and video and maybe just a smidge from personal experience. I left out jig twitching, as this one is primarily a trout and salmon technique.
Here is a list of the Magnificent Seven. Worst to first, least to beast, lame to fame … but always guaranteed to raise eyebrows and debate.
7 Drift Fishing
This includes side drifting and boondogging, they all fall into the category, as our Canadian friends call “bottom bouncing”. Last but never least, who does not love old school drift fishing? It is one of the original steelheading techniques that have been around since everyone reading this was born. I have personally caught more steelhead with this technique than any other. I wrote a book about it back on stone tablets when the telegraph and stage coach were modern modes of communication and travel. An all-time favorite and profoundly effective way to shake hands with Mr. Shiny. However …
The soft, spongy stop so common from a drift fishing bite may be easily missed by the non-caffeinated, the distracted or greenhorn. Best case scenario, a sharp pulsing chew that pulls the rod tip down several inches. The most exciting bit about drift fishing is a steelhead’s reaction to sharp hook and lip-ripping hook set. And truth be told, a bite when side drifting is no more than the line becoming tight. Drift fishing and all its offshoot techniques are so effective I don’t believe any other technique can top its versatility over all sorts of conditions. Exciting on the bite? Dead last.
6 Bobber With Jig/Bait and Fly Rod Nymphing
These two methods are all visual, all the time. So similar I’ve lumped them together. There is not a single steelheader reading this who does not get his jones rubbed out and pulse quickened by watching a float or indicator go shooting under. Your eyes are never wider than the instant of vanishing float/indicator. This is the one and only grab that causes us to set the hook in our sleep.
You have all done it. After a day of many take downs, usually after bobber/jig fishing over schools of chum salmon or three days of multiple bobber downs, that half-asleep hook set that smacks the old lady in the side. A solid nine out of ten on the visual program. Great to watch? Oh yeah. The yank? Meh.
5 Plunking and Divers/Bait
Similar takes, similar excitement. These would possibly rate higher if the angler kept the rod in hand. The realization of the bite, the adrenaline burst, the Zen like hold off of the hook set…you know the drill. The slow to swift build up to full rod bend/tight line, the turn of the fish for proper hook placement followed by a panicked, shaky handed attempt to remove the loaded, rattling rod pinned to the holder, the renegade lunge of a tide fresh steelhead on its initial burst … whew. These techniques are, like the last, mostly visual and just a rung or two on the excitement ladder below #2 on our list.
4 Spoons and Spinners
Surprise … y’all thought this one would be ranked higher, didn’t you? Especially when you read who was writing this article. Just fourth? Yes, all due to the variety of strikes metal flashing lures elicit.
First is the slack line grab. More than common, I would venture a guess that this type of bite on metal happens a full 50% of the time. Thrilling as a float going down. Caused by an aggressive fish charging the lure from below and behind; after a swift grab the fish’s momentum carries it rapidly forward toward the angler’s position, causing instant slack. Very subtle and if not paying close attention and watching your line this is one of the easiest of all steelhead bites to miss. Common when there is five feet or more of visibility. Your only clue is a rapidly dropping line (slack) and perhaps a slight “tick”. Any reaction less than an instant, hard “hit yourself in the ass” hook set results in a dropped lure and none the wiser of an encounter.
Second is just a halt of lure movement downstream and vibration. Similar to finding a tree branch or rock bottom. A common grab on metal when rivers run with limited (2 to 3 feet) visibility, as a steelhead by the time it locates the lure is normally in close proximity and only has to move a short distance to bite. Just a stop. A fast reaction hook set to determine if it’s indeed alive, wood or bedrock. Not too thrilling.
Ah, but the third type of metal grab … this rates as #1A. Ultra-violent, sudden removal of the flashing invader from the food chain, this grab in the steelheader’s world is second to none. A tumbling, pulsing spinner blade and the wobble and flash of a spoon body just flips the maximum berserk on switch for steelhead. A trophy class bright buck greasing your lure and going away is something burned into memory for a lifetime. When it happens, a gear tosser will be forever changed. Rods swiftly bent to maximum capacity clear into butt sections, which occasionally flip up and smack the owners in the chin. In that instant we know why we spend the extra ducats on higher quality reels with baby bottom smooth drags.
The crush on metal is most common under premium visibility conditions when steelhead locates and charges a lure from a distance, allowing full speed before contact. Too light of mainlines will be snapped, compound dirty words are immediate, shorts will be changed. Fun? You have to ask?
3 Floating (Waking) Fly
This one is rated high for it gives the angler two for the price of one on the freak out meter. You get the visual thrill of a float burying along with the yank of a lure grab. As it is with the float bite, the take of a waking, skating surface fly is purely visual, but the aftermath …
When a steelhead is jacked up enough to blow up on a fly on the surface, things happen rapidly and violently that a float take down cannot duplicate. Water is being displaced, bulging, moving everywhere. Gaping mouths, spray, heads and tails above water, leaps, all can be a part of surface grabs from steelhead. The anticipation factor when a fly is chugging along and enters the blow up zone is half right there.
Once a steelheader (usually in summer or fall when steelhead are surface oriented in warmer, clear waters) takes the leap of faith to try, I mean really try to skate up their favorite fish, it will be an experience like you have never had while steelheading.
2 Backtrolling Plugs
Show of hands, how many reading this have hooked a fresh-from-the-tide wild steelhead on a back trolled plug? Right. Can we agree that the term “violent” falls short to describe the sheer ferocity of an aggressive fish reacting not so neighborly to a plug invading its holding territory? I think so.
An old friend and mentor used to say this about plugging for steelhead: “It’s like watching mold grow on cheese most of the time, and you throw in absolute terror and adrenaline when the strike comes.” Nail on the head, that one. Besides the instant, ultra violence of a plug bite, there is one other type of plug grab that only delays the inevitable a heart skip. In clearer water, when the fish attacks the lure as it normally does, after grabbing the plug the steelhead just keeps going upriver, momentum carrying the creature several feet resulting in immediate slack line. However, when we are back trolling this “light” bite lasts only a nano second before the fish swiftly turns back and the rod slams down, creaking into the cork and testing the tensile strength of the rod holder.
Brutal, abrupt and cardiac inducing, there is only one divine connection that steps over the plug strike for the pole position. To top these front six, it had better be something pretty (expletive) special. Done. And the absolute, no debate, hands down, open division winner and people’s champion is …
1 Swung Fly
My fly fishermen out there, you get this. If I have to explain, you’ve never experienced a fresh steelhead launching itself on a swung fly. Those that have, no need to explain. There is a damned straight solid reason theism ethos has so many tag lines, such as, “it ain’t no thing if you ain’t got that swing” or “smack down on the hang down” or the famed “the tug is the drug!” The sudden unseen, instant bowstring tight reel spinning drag screaming almost losing the rod (and sometimes actually losing the rod) breath robbing, eye popping butt clenching leg wobbling primal scream inducing grab is the cosmic funk in our sport.
It’s a mind blowing combination of the aggressiveness of a plug bite married with a spoon grab with the rod in your hands. The strike that really never slaps you into realization what is actually happening until you are being taken on a Nantucket sleigh ride, fifty yards plus of running line and a backing knot ripping through guides brings you to the orgasmic reality that you have reached the mountain top. Poor knots, too light or inferior leader material, crappy hooks, all taken to task by the grab on the swing.
To an angler, the reason we drown half a chicken or rabbit carcass is for that unbeatable grab. The insane yank from a steelhead on the swung fly is the most amazing take in all of steelhead fishing, any time of year, shaking sweaty hands down.
So, fellow steelheaders … agree, disagree? I’m sure everyone reading this is in harmonious agreement with some of it, and others, well, let’s just say the FCC would not approve of the language. One thing I know of there will zero argument. The most gratifying part of our day on the rivers are when we make first contact, no matter the chosen technique.
Be it subtle or violent, hidden or visual, difficult or easy, it’s all about “shaking hands” with the star of our show. ssj
Personally, I’m excited to fish the lower Columbia, which in modern-day vernacular is referred to as Buoy 10, which is nothing more than a nickname to the area we fish. (And that is from the mouth upriver to Tongue Point). Pardon me for sounding old, but ‘back in the day’ we actually spent a lot of time fishing near the red buoy with the painted white numbers one and zero. Buoy 10 was the proverbial ‘welcome mat’ where we greeted salmon in the hundreds of thousands on an incoming tide making short work of our limits. Oftentimes it was where we started our day, and ended our day with a cooler full of salmon as our reward. A lot has changed when I first fished here on a puker boat out of Hammond. (And yes, I vomited with reckless abandon on my inaugural trip and happy to report it hasn’t happened since). What was once predominantly a coho fishery has evolved into a chinook fishery.