Columbia Steel- David Johnson shows us how
It’s surprising that the Columbia summer steelhead fishery is one of the most under-utilized fisheries in the northwest but it is. There are thousands of easy to catch fish, in the best weather of the year. And all within reach of major populations. It’s true, there are thousands of anglers missing out on this family friendly, low cost, productive fishery!
Columbia summer steelhead move upstream May to October with the peak being July and August. If it’s any indication, I start booking my summer steelhead trips July 15 through mid August. When you see the Bonneville steelhead counts getting close or going over 1,000 steelhead a day, get on the water!
These fish are actually pretty easy to catch as opposed to their sometimes elusive winter cousins. On account of the warm water temps and their long journey ahead, they have a high metabolism and they are aggressive biters. Couple this nasty attitude with the sheer numbers of fish in the river and for once it’s hard to go wrong. I like to anchor just above a drop off so that as the fish swim up the rise they will run right into my gear. Look for water ranging from 6 to 25 foot in depth, leaning more to the shallow end of that spectrum. Below Bonneville Dam, the Columbia is affected by the tide so you will want to make sure you fish during an outgoing tide if you are anchoring. And when the current dies out on a flood tide, switch over and troll spinners. During the early season they can be caught all up and down the river, especially off of islands. Then as water temps of the Columbia increase, the cooler water at river mouths such as the Deschutes, Lewis, Kalama, Cowlitz, Klickitat and Sandy tend to attract migrating fish. And don’t over look smaller creak and tributary mouths; they will pull in traveling steelhead as well.
The number one lure color for Columbia steelhead is fluorescent red or fluorescent red combined with accents- like black spots, sparkles or black tiger stripes. The number one lure for Columbia steelhead is the U20 Flatfish. But don’t over look the smaller sizes of Flatfish such as the X5, X4 or F4; just make sure they have fluorescent red on them. One thing about the Flatfish you have to watch though is that they will “washout” if the water is too fast. By washed out I mean that they will flip over and no longer run straight.
When the water is too fast for a Flatfish I will switch out to small, un-weighted spinners in size 3, 4 and 5. Rig your spinner the same way, a spreader or three way set up of your choice with a lead on twenty four to thirty inch dropper and the appropriate size lead. On the incoming tide in the lower river, you can troll this same spinner set up but shorten your dropper to about eighteen inches.
These fish also have a sweet tooth for shrimp. Sand shrimp, coon shrimp or arctic prawns. Cure, dyed or fished natural they all work really good fished behind a small spin-glow or tipped onto the hook point of a spinner. Spin-glow colors should be in shades of pink, red and orange. White wings in lower light conditions and mylar wings in the sun.
And if you are using lures, definitely don’t overlook shrimp flavored scents. I like to use gel type scents like Smelly Jelly Sticky Liquid, Mike’s Lunker Lotion or Pro Cure Super Gel.
You can use a variety of rods for this fishery. Since we are usually only using one to four ounces of lead I like to go light on my rod and reel selection. I like to pair my Shimano Curado 200’s with 50# Power Pro and run them on either G. Loomis HSR 9000 or STR 1025C. These light rods give your lures great action and will handle any bonus Chinook you may tie into.
An additional note…..
Some days on the Columbia we catch quite a few wild fish. It’s a testament to how aggressive wild fish are. As an example, one day while fishing below Bonneville Dam we caught ten steelhead and all but one were wild. On the next day I checked to dam counts and found that wild fish passing by were outnumbered 2 to 1. Fortunately our ratios are usually this high as it’s nice to eat them too 😉 Since the water on the Columbia is warm, we have to treat the fish carefully and take care of them. The increased water temperatures can cause stress and weaken their immune systems. Unfortunately I see a lot of fish treated poorly.
Here are some great ways to ensure the health of the fish you release:
1) Use a soft net to cut down on scale and slime loss. Or don’t even net them at all.
2) Use heavier line than you would think. The Columbia isn’t overly clear and the fish are not line shy. By using heavy line/leader you will be able to land a fish more quickly before it is too exhausted. Heavy leader will also allow you to grab the leader for release without a net. I use twenty or twenty five pound test with lures and fifteen with bait.
3) Keep them in the water as much as you can.
4) Do not touch them with a dry hand. A dry hand can remove valuable slime.
5) Float back off anchor when you hook up. This will help land a fish quicker, and keep the fish from being too stressed. Plus you will land more fish since they won’t have the current as an advantage. If you are drifting then fish won’t get pinned to the back of the net. I actually see a lot of guys NOT drop out with steelhead, it’s not good.
David Johnson is a NW fishing guide and can be found at David’s guided fishing homepage. You can also find Dave on facebook and Twitter.