The Care And Handling Of Wild Steelhead

Kinda expected I might get a comment or two out of our February issue which featured a wild steelhead on the cover, a wild steelhead-handling tips article inside … and a photo of a wild Oregon steelhead held out of the water a couple pages later, plus a few ads with wild steelhead above the river.

Now, I don’t have any say about what appears in the advertisements, but my hope with the material I was in charge of was to continue to educate steelheaders on the care and handling of the species from even before they’re hooked to the release.

We anglers tend to focus on two facets of that: The use of bait divers; and whether the fish should be held out of the water for a grip-n-grin shot.

On the latter point, the rules are mixed.

Generally they say that the fish must be released unharmed.

Specifically, Washington’s say fish to be released may not be removed totally from the water; Oregon’s fishing pamphlet strongly suggests they not be (see below image for fishing ethics); California, BC and Idaho are mum on the point.

I think that and angler peer pressure as well as repetition in print and elsewhere have had an effect over the years. I’ve been doing this hook-and-bullet magazine gig since 1999 and I believe I’ve seen a shift in the handling photos I’m receiving.

KEN RODGERS POSES BEHIND A NICE HOH RIVER NATIVE STEELHEAD CAUGHT ON SIDE-DRIFTED EGGS. IN WASHINGTON, STEELHEAD AND OTHER SPECIES THAT WILL BE RELEASED MUST BE KEPT PARTIALLY IN THE WATER -- THIS IMAGE TAKES IT TO ANOTHER LEVEL. RODGERS WAS FISHING WITH GREG SPRINGER OF SPRINGER'S SPORTFISHING, WHO REQUIRES THAT ALL WILD STEELHEAD CAUGHT DURING GUIDED TRIPS WITH HIM BE RELEASED. (SPRINGER'S SPORTFISHING)

Native steelhead are already in in many rivers, and their numbers should increase as we head into March. So too will fishing pressure. Indeed, the word today from the Facebook page of Greg Springer of Springer’s Sportfishing is that the torrential rain out in Forks will pull fish in and up next week, making for some pretty darn good fishing.

With that and the health of the wild stocks foremost in mind, here’s the article from our February issue. Let’s work together — fly guys and bobber lobbers, side drifters and spoon chuckers, young guns and old dogs — to get better: Please feel free to add your own handling tips, suggestions and ideas at the end.

ANGLERS HAVE BECOME MORE “GENTLE” ON WILD STEELHEAD, BUT THERE’S STILL ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT TO ENSURE THAT WE HAVE PLENTY OF HAWGS, LIKE THE 40-BY-23-INCHER LANDED OUT OF GUIDE MIKE AINSWORTH’S BOAT AT THE END OF 2012, COMING BACK TO OUR RIVERS. (FIRST LIGHT GUIDE SERVICE)

By Andy Schneider

What is a native steelhead to you? Is it simply a hindrance when trying to catch your hatchery-fish limit? Is it a genetically polluted unclipped hatchery fish?

Or is it a species all to itself, full of life, fight and vigor in the frigid winter waters? Is it part and parcel of a pursuit that draws you to shadowy canyons lined with towering conifers and moss-covered trees?

Native steelhead are undoubtedly the king of Northwest rivers this time of year. Sure, a hatchery fish may come along that fights just a little harder than the last cookie cutter, but once it’s bonked, bled and in the fish box, its fight is quickly forgotten.

On the other hand, a mildly blushed, midteen nate, hooked on a metallic red Tadpolly just above mile marker 10, in the extreme tail-out of the hole and which dragged your drift boat bouncing down the shallows to the next hole, will still be remembered today even though it bit four years ago this February 17.

At 10:08 a.m.

THERE IS NO “SPECIFIC” TECHNIQUE to catch only native steelhead. They tend to bite everything their hatchery cousins do, so there is no need to go out and learn the hot new tactic of the winter. But what you can do is modify your tackle, as well as your approach, slightly to help reduce the risk of injury to a native steelhead since they are so bitey.

Plugs: There is nothing quite like watching a plug rod take a violent plunge as a steelhead grabs the lure – and the bites only get more savage when it’s a native taking the bait.

First, you need to bump up the pound test your using. Twenty-pound test is not too heavy, even in the clearest of waters. When plug fishing, heavy leaders just don’t spook the fish, and they are a huge benefit when turning a fish’s head as it races upriver, trying to escape to the next hole, as well as when trying to retrieve snagged plugs.

Second, switch out your trebles to siwash hooks. While there is no published report on the mortality rate of a treble hook over a siwash hook, anyone who has landed a big steelhead after an extended fight can see how much damage a treble hook can deliver. A No. 1-sized siwash works well for smaller plugs, like Hot Shot 30s while 1/0s work well for K-11Xs and Mag Lip 3.5s.

THE AUTHOR ADVISES SWITCHING YOUR PLUGS TO A SINGLE SIWASH HOOK INSTEAD OF TREBLES, HAVING NOTED THE DAMAGE MULTIPLE HOOKS MAKE INSIDE THE MOUTH OF FISH. HE WAS ALSO ABLE TO SNAP THIS UNIQUE IMAGE WITH A GO PRO CAM; PERHAPS IN THE FUTURE MORE SHOTS LIKE THIS WILL BE ENTERED IN PHOTO CONTESTS OR DISPLAYED ON SOCIAL MEDIA. (ANDY SCHNEIDER)

Side-drifting: Your bait is softly bouncing along the emerald-green drift, when suddenly you don’t feel bottom anymore. You pull back lightly on the rod and feel two surges back to back, then a flash of chrome breaks the surface of the water and splashes down next to the far bank. Side-drifting is a balance of long rods, long leader, light weight and small baits. If you change too much this configuration, you lose its effectiveness. But you can easily upsize your hooks without altering your setup. Instead of two size 4 hooks, switch to a single No. 1 hook. Having a little larger hook will help prevent a swallowed bait and allow you to put heavy pressure on the fish without bending the hook. Utilize the length of the long side-drifting rods and keep them loaded up – this will help win battles sooner.

Diver and bait: Just say no! There is no excuse for using diver and bait in a river where you have a good chance of catching a native steelhead. There is a river in the Northwest where that tactic is acceptable, the Cowlitz, but every other stream in these parts should be free of anglers back-trolling bait in the months of February and March.

Diver and bait is very successful at hooking fish deep in their throat and gills, more often than not, causing mortal damage. While diver and bait works, it doesn’t work as well as a 3.5 Mag Lip in heavy flows or a size 30 Hot Shot in low, clear water. Why mess with the hassle of bait, when a straight plug is easier, cheaper and more fun to use?

SO, WHERE ARE YOU likely to encounter a native steelhead?

These fish have a genetic “drive” to explore watersheds, so it’s anyone’s guess where they aren’t. The only river where one might be considered “unusual” is the Cowlitz. Otherwise, just about every other Northwest creek and river has a run of wild fish in it.

But there are a few rivers that have little or no hatchery plants, like the Trask, Kilchis and the mainstem Nehalem. Then there are rivers where it’s a 50/50 ratio of nates to hatcheries: the Sandy, Kalama, Siletz and the Nestucca.

But native steelhead can even be found in hatchery-rich rivers like the Clackamas, Wilson, Necanicum and even Eagle Creek.

WHILE THERE IS NO OFFICIAL policy and protocol for handling a native steelhead, there are definitely some standard operating procedures.

With the following handling suggestions, keep in mind that safety of an angler takes precedence over any fish, and safety should be considered foremost when handling a feisty slime rocket.

ODFW'S RULES ARE SILENT ON WHAT GEAR TO USE, BUT SUGGEST BARBLESS HOOKS AND STRONG TACKLE. (ODFW)

Waders: Wearing waders makes handling a native so much easier, whether on a boat or bank. From a drifter or a sled, you can hop out and handle the fish in the shallows near shore, instead of hanging over the gunnel. From the bank, you can walk a fish up- or downriver to a more accessible spot to deal with. Having waders also allows you to get right down into the water if you want to take a picture with a native.

Pictures: Waterproof cameras have come way down in price; you can buy a decent digital camera for less than $60.

Having a camera you can dunk in the river and get an underwater shot of a fish not only makes for some great and unique pictures, but it doesn’t stress the fish out. If you have a nice smartphone that takes great pictures, you can upgrade the case to a completely waterproof case, or buy inexpensive Ziploc-style phone bags. Or even keep a waterproof disposable camera onboard or in a vest pocket.

PERHAPS WE SHOULD ALSO RETHINK THE WAY WE POSE WITH NATES. WITH HANDLING RULES REQUIRING NATIVES TO BE KEPT IN THE WATER, BRYAN HORNBEAK CAME UP WITH A NOVEL PHOTOGRAPH AFTER HIS SON, ISAAC LANDED HIS TILLAMOOK-AREA WILD STEELHEAD. (WRIGHT & MCGILL/EAGLE CLAW PHOTO CONTEST)

The right net: Being wild steelhead, these fish can drag you up and down the river and sometimes will present you with no safe opportunity to land them in shallow water. Sometimes netting is the safest for the anglers and the fish. But before you even hit the river, make sure you have the proper net. Keep away from green and blue net bags bought at those “Save Time, Money And Gas” one-stop megastores. Instead, look to your fishing tackle retailer for rubber or rubber-coated nets. The wider, softer netting helps keep a native from harm.

As for how to use it, when you net a nate, don’t pull the entire fish out of the water. Simply grab part of the net bag and lift the tail out of the water, leaving the head and gills submerged. Not having its tail in the water will keep the fish from trying to swim in/into the netting.

THOSE CHASING WILD STEELHEAD SHOULD HAVE MULTIPLE PAIRS OF PLIERS HANDY IN THEIR VESTS OR BOATS. (ANDY SCHNEIDER)

Pliers: These should be standard equipment for just about every angler, but having an extra pair or two handy will help in getting a fish released quickly. Trying to describe where you store your pliers to your 8-year-old as you hang over the gunnel with a wildly thrashing fish isn’t easy on you or the fish.

Extra care: “Handle with kid gloves” is a good motto to have when dealing with native steelhead – but actually, wearing gloves that allow you to grip a fish without harming it is a big help in cold winter waters.

“Release fishing gloves” are gaining popularity in the Northwest and are worth the investment. Especially when it comes to our favorite winter fish.

ANOTHER GOOD EXAMPLE OF HANDLING FROM GREG SPRINGER OF SPRINGER'S SPORTFISHING -- HOH NATE PARTIALLY IN WATER, ANGLERS AND PHOTOGRAPHER CROUCHED DOWN. (SPRINGER'S SPORTFISHING)

(PAUL ISHII)

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4 thoughts on “The Care And Handling Of Wild Steelhead”

  1. While I agree fish handling is very important. Yet, you can still kill WIld Steelhead. While I do not partake in the killing of wild Steelhead, I feel that Washingtons fish out of water law is a law that is flawed. We all know it. Fish don’t breathe with fins, yet it does give an a good mind to keep a fish over water instead of dropping the fish. I feel we should re-write the laws of Washington native Steelhead policy to catch and release throughout Washington. Take whatever number is X and let guys take a fish out of the water for photos. A class would be required and a stamp would be necessary in fish handling itself. It would have by laws in which fish must be held over water. I have seem more damage done from many by trying to get the perfect in the water shot than if they were to have a camera ready quickly snap a photo and move on. I am all for fish handling period but, killing Steelhead in today’s world and fisheries is the real problem.

  2. I landed a 41 x 21 steelhead this year. It went up river and nearly spooled me as our boat slid down the river through a couple sets of rapids. When the knot at the end of my line started across my thumb, I finally saw the fish tail up and turn. It came down through the rapids, hung up on a log briefly. I pulled it out and we netted it on the run. Pulled over to get a shot. We always kept the head of the fish in water lifting it only briefly to snap a shot always in contact with water. When the photo was taken and as my hand released the fish shot off into the nearest pool. The beast was released no worse for the wear. I wholeheartedly believe that keeping a fish in the water and in contact with the water at all times will give a wild steelhead the best chance of survival. I hope everyone remembers that, if they want to continue to see fish like this every effort should be made to release these beautiful fish without stressing them out by dragging them around on the beach or holding them out of water.

  3. Carefully removing a fish from the water for a quick photo does less harm to the fish than hooking them in the first place.

    If you really feel the need to not harm the fish stop angling for them. Take up scuba driving

    We have gone to far with this issue. I do agree, anglers should be educated in handling fish.

    I personally will continue to fly fishing for steelhead and I will do what I can to release them without even touching them or removing them from the water. But to make this a law is rediculous in my opinion.

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