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Our first taste of Steelhead … except we didn’t actually get to taste it

I was standing in the front of the Defiance drift boat, the drag on the reel was screaming as line was being stripped out, and I’m whooping like a kid on a roller coaster. Mark, our guide, was splitting his time between working the oars, offering me instruction, and cheering me on along with my buddy Jim, who was in the back of the boat. The steelhead was doing its part to add to the scene by running all over the river and making several spectacular jumps. It even pulled that move a couple times where I managed to get it in close, and then it took off again stripping more line off the reel.
I’d been too long off the water, and even though my mind was focused on the task at hand, for a second, Vin Diesel’s line from XXX went through my head:

It wasn’t that big of a steelhead: 7 or 8 pounds. But I didn’t care, it was my first steelie and right then it was perfect.
All right, maybe if it had been a hatchery fish, and I could have kept it, that would have been perfect.
Still, I was as happy as a hooker with a political convention in town.

Now that I think of it, I should probably let you know up front that this isn’t going to be a post about catching big fish. Of the three of us, Gray caught the biggest, and that one was in the 11 – 12 pound range apparently.  steelie We let the guides call the weights since we had a bet going. Nor is this going to be a post about a lot of fish. The steelhead fishing on the Humptulips river wasn’t super hot that day. We each did catch one though, thus breaking each of our steelhead cherries, which was the main point of the trip. Plus, we each had a decent “one that got away” story, which is, of course, a mainstay of any good fishing trip.

Jim with his steelhead

Finally, no recipe this time. All of our steelhead were wild, and therefore were released. We are only allowed to keep hatchery produced steelhead here in Washington State. Now, I could find some steelhead at a local seafood store and cook up a recipe with that. But because I am writing about catching them here, sharing a recipe from store-bought fish just doesn’t seem right. I am a man of integrity after all.
What? What’s everyone laughing about?

All right, let’s back-up a little bit here. I know that many people, especially those that aren’t avid fisherman, are unclear as to what steelhead are, and I often get asked about it. Simply put, they are rainbow trout that migrate from fresh water to salt and then return to freshwater to spawn like salmon do. Thus, they grow significantly larger than typical rainbows and they have pink flesh similar to salmon.

Here is some of what the NOAA website has to say about steelhead:

They are a unique species; individuals develop differently depending on their environment. While all O. mykiss hatch in gravel-bottomed, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated rivers and streams, some stay in fresh water all their lives. These fish are called rainbow trout. The steelhead that migrate to the ocean develop a slimmer profile, become more silvery in color, and typically grow much larger than the rainbow trout that remain in fresh water.
Adults migrate from a marine environment into the freshwater streams and rivers of their birth in order to mate (called anadromy). Unlike other Pacific salmonids, they can spawn more than one time (called iteroparity). Migrations can be hundreds of miles.
Young animals feed primarily on zooplankton. Adults feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects, mollusks, crustaceans, fish eggs, minnows, and other small fishes (including other trout).
Maximum age is about 11 years. Males mature generally at 2 years and females at 3 years. Juvenile steelhead may spend up to 7 years in freshwater before migrating to estuarine areas as smolts and then into the ocean to feed and mature. They can then remain at sea for up to 3 years before returning to freshwater to spawn. Some populations actually return to freshwater after their first season in the ocean, but do not spawn, and then return to the sea after one winter season in freshwater. Timing of return to the ocean can vary, and even within a stream system there can be different seasonal runs.
Steelhead can be divided into two basic reproductive types, based on the state of sexual maturity at the time of river entry and duration of spawning migration:
The stream-maturing type (summer-run steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and northern California) enters freshwater in a sexually immature condition between May and October and requires several months to mature and spawn.
The ocean-maturing type (winter-run steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and northern California) enters freshwater between November and April, with well-developed gonads, and spawns shortly thereafter. Coastal streams are dominated by winter-run steelhead, whereas inland steelhead of the Columbia River basin are almost exclusively summer-run steelhead.

All right, enough of the technical mumbo-jumbo. Let’s get back to the fun stuff.

There are four core members of Team Bait2Plate, and not one of us had ever been steelhead fishing before. Yeah yeah, I know, that’s just wrong: even if drifting a river is a far cast from our home turf of open water salmon fishing. Still, that couldn’t be allowed to continue.

Mark & Jim as seen from my seat in the front of the boat

So I spoke with Mark Coleman of All Rivers & Saltwater Charters, the official charter company of Bait 2 Plate, and arranged a steelhead fishing trip. A few weeks later, Jim, Gray, and I were motoring toward Copalis Beach, near the Humptulips River on the Washington coast. Yep, it was just three of us. Our fourth member came down with a bad case of being a giant pussy.
Just kidding Buck, we love ya. But he had work stuff keeping him busy that day, so like any good fishing buddies, we took off and left his ass behind.

Gray & I, along with Mark & Ian

All right, as fun as it was leaving Buck behind, that wasn’t the fun stuff I was referring to. I’m going to jump past drinks at the Green Lantern tavern and the rustic little motel where we crashed, and go right to next morning, riverside.

Me & Jim about to climb into the boat

The All Rivers drift boats hold two anglers and a guide each. Jim & I were in Mark’s boat and Gray was in the second boat with another guide, Ian and a guy Dave who took the second spot as Buck was stuck at home with that bad case of menstrual cramps.

I mentioned in my last post that work has kept me off the water for a couple months, and a trip floating down a wilderness river with a fishing rod in my hand, was just the tonic I needed.

Those of you not from the area probably don’t know, but the Olympic Peninsula is home to one of the country’s few temperate rainforests. We were drifting through some serious forest primeval stuff, with ferns, lichen, and moss covered trees. Add to that the sound of the river, eagles flying overhead, and very few other people, and it was a great getaway from the world. We even had decent weather considering it was mid-February. There were some periods of rain, but we also had a fair amount to sunshine and mild temperatures.

Of course, with that sunshine and clear water flowing in the river, that meant the fish were seeking the cover of structure and that made our job a little tricky at times. We’d get instructions like, Cast 40 feet to your left, between those two fallen logs into that space about the size of a postage stamp, from this moving boat as we drift by. 

When we found out that there was only going to be three of us, there was some discussion of asking one of our less experienced friends to join us. My thought then was that from what I knew of drift fishing, it took some degree of finesse, and may be difficult for someone not experienced at casting. I’m glad we made the call we did. We did pretty well at dropping our baits where they needed to be, but definitely could use some practice ourselves. We dropped short or got snagged in trees more than a couple times.

I had a little trouble with my video camera that day, but I did get a quick clip of Jim bringing his steelhead to the boat.

I won’t go deep into rigs and techniques in this first steelhead post, but I’ll give you the broad strokes. The basic idea of drift fishing is that your bait is drifting along with current of the river and you are in the boat, ideally keeping pace with your bait. This is where the guide is really earning his money, because he spends pretty much the whole trip working the oars, keeping the boat straight, and speeding us up or slowing us down in an effort to match the speed of our drifting baits.
We were using salmon egg clusters as bait.  I was really curious about working with cured eggs.  My experience with them had been entirely when they are cured as caviar, and I had trouble picturing them being tough enough to stay on a hook.  When fish eggs are cured for eating, part of the process is removing all the membrane and connective tissue around and between the eggs so that they are delicate & palatable.  Curing eggs for bait not only leaves all that connective tissue intact, but seems to strengthen it.  While the clusters were not super tough, they stayed together pretty well if handled with a bit of care.
Given the amount of salmon eggs I get from my own catches in the late summer, I plan on learning the process for myself this year.  I already have an idea for a blog post on both types of curing that I intend to title Eggs Two Ways, or maybe, How do you want your eggs?

Mark had us bouncing between two different presentations techniques: side drifting and float drifting. Side drifting, or “boon-dogging” is simply presenting the bait below a weight and letting bounce along the bottom. Float drifting, or “bobber-dogging” is presenting your bait, wait for it …… beneath a bobber. It’s a bit more of a complex rig than what you would use for say, catching bluegills with worms, but like I said, just the broad strokes for now.  The key here is natural presentation.  You’re trying to make that glob of eggs float along as if it had broken loose from the gravel where it had been laid and is free-flowing with the current.

Me in the front, Jim in the back & Mark running the show from center

Mine hit as I was side drifting through little rippling rapid piece of water. I’m feeling the weight bounce across the bottom … bounce, bounce, SLAM … fish on!   Jim got his float drifting past some fallen logs. I didn’t see Gray’s, but I assume he hooked his at the fish counter of a local market.

I suppose Gray really did legitimately catch that steelhead. Damn! Cost me 20 bucks.

We spent about 8 hours on the river and it seemed to fly by. We weren’t able to put anything in the cooler, but that wasn’t a surprise. Word is that the bulk of the hatchery fish return to the rivers earlier in the winter, and this later run is primarily wild fish.

This trip was about trying something new, catching something new, and getting out on the water with friends.
Mission accomplished!

Jim took several photos of me w/ my steelie, but he just sent me this one where I have a crazy grin on my face. Touche` Jim, Touche`

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