Hardware For Steelhead

Here we are in the midst of one of the wettest winters in recent years, and I am writing about techniques that work best in low and clear river conditions. Timely, to say the least. I don’t know what got me thinking about swinging spoons and spinners for steelhead, but here’s some musings on the matter from a mediocre fisherman.

As previously mentioned, when I think of ideal conditions for spoons and spinners, I think of rivers running low and clear. The key with either form of “hardware” is for the fish to be able to see it. There is no smell or taste factor involved unlike fishing a juicy glob of roe or a shrimp.

Fish Sniffer Field Editor Mike McNeilly used a spoon to tempt this big male steelhead while fishing the Eel River.
Fish Sniffer Field Editor Mike McNeilly used a spoon to tempt this big male steelhead while fishing the Eel River.

On the plus side, steelhead aren’t going to move very far to hunt down a nickel sized piece of roe innocuously drifting along with the current, but if a big flashy spoon goes wobbling overhead, the fish very well may track it down and kill it.

If you are new to spoon fishing, the bite is unequaled by anything other than a northern pike chasing down a minnow plug or a striper caught on the troll. I can recall a few times reeling in a spoon where I could feel the tell tale wobble of the spoon telegraphed through the line and into the rod, and then there would be a feeling of complete slack followed by a violent yank.

Sometimes they will hit so hard that they pull line off the reel, and the drag will wail in protest. It’s one of those things that all fishermen should feel at least once. If you get the hang of it, you can actually reel down the slack after the initial grab and really cross the fish’s eyes with a hookset.

Of course, that’s also how you break even the strongest of leaders and the best tied knots. Overzealous home-run swing style hooksets and braided line are a recipe for brief encounters with the quarry.

On the contrary, my experience with spinners has often been a subtle strike where the rod just loads up and gets kind of heavy. That’s not to say that a steelhead won’t grab a folding chair and jump off the top turnbuckle when hitting a spinner, metaphorically speaking, but it’s not usually as aggressive as the spoon bite.

I would also venture to say for every California Steelhead willing to hit a spinner, there’s ten more that would hit a spoon. Spinners will catch fish, but they aren’t as seductive as a well-presented spoon.

My top choice of spinner is one that isn’t commonly found in most steelheader’s tackle boxes. I would venture to say the Blue Fox Vibrax or the Panther Martin are the go-to spinners of most spinner fishermen, but I have had the most success with Mepp’s Aglias.

As far as spoons go, I’ve never gone all Bill Herzog and tried any of the fancy gold or silver plates. I’m too reckless and prone to casting into a tree on the far bank or directly upstream of a mid-river rock to play Russian roulette with an expensive wobbler.

I’ve always been a big proponent of the Little Cleo. Cleo’s seductive dance brings all the boys to the yard. Back when I was a greenhorn steelhead fisherman, the image of a well- endowed lady was actually engraved on the concave side of the spoon.

Alas, political correctness has forever removed Cleo from the iconic spoon that bears her name. The world is so much better without that terrible filth tarnishing our lures, right? Obviously, there is something inherently evil and sexist about the image of a female dancing on a lure.

Regardless, these spoons still catch fish; even sans the engraving. At 4-5$ each, they are a bargain. However, in most rivers, plan on dumping the costs of a good meal for a day’s fishing tackle. On big coastal rivers with big coastal steelhead, I generally prefer the 2/5th’s ounce size, and on the smaller inland rivers with smaller inland steelhead, I like the 1/3rd ounce size.

For me, there are three colors, and there is no particular science or reasoning to using any particular color. I go blindly with what my gut tells me to use. I like brass, copper and chrome finishes.

Spoons are very versatile in the water types that can effectively be fished while practicing the method. Wide tail-outs, the meat and potatoes of steelhead fishing on a big river, are most easily and effectively fished by swinging a spoon.

There’s one particular tail out on the Clearwater River in Idaho that screams “throw a spoon here!” It’s as wide as a football field, and three or four football fields long. The current moves at a steady walking pace with depths of 4-8 ft., and steelhead can hold pretty much anywhere throughout the entire length.

It takes hours to pick this spot apart with bait, and it’s a snaggy mutha at that. However, one can stay above all the snags on the bottom by swinging a spoon just above the bottom and calling the fish out of its layer.

Yet another water type that isn’t typically synonymous with steelhead holding water are big dead water pools. These spots are not the kind of spot that would appear to hold steelhead at a glance. It’s more likely you will encounter these spots by developing an intimate multi year relationship with your river of choice.

For example, the big dead water pool below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery holds a ton of fish, but how to fish it? Try drifting bait through there, it really doesn’t work. You can float bait under a bobber, but that’s a game of patience as stimulating as reading binary code, and it has a small attraction radius.

Why not make a cast out into the pool of slow moving featureless water with a spoon and then slowly retrieve and hope for the best? You will be surprised how many times a steelhead will chase down a spoon in seemingly dead water.

Are the fish holding in these spots? It’s hard to be certain. My guess is that they are moving, and if you catch their eye, they will bite. In the case of the fish below Nimbus, they are living in that pool trying to find the fish ladder and making the occasional foray into legal water.

Lest you think dead water is, well, dead, I have caught them in other seemingly featureless and far from obvious looking spots that have yielded a lot of “bonus fish” on a regular basis.

If the rivers run low and clear at any point this season, get out the hardware and await the slack line grab and rod yank of a steelhead.