Steelhead fishing is a great teacher of awareness and open-mindedness.
Some of your lessons will be learned from just being on the river, while some will come from friends, or even from casual conversation with someone you’ve just met — possibly miles away from any stream. Skills can even be learned from magazine articles. To that end, here are five of my favourite tips for catching rainbows.
1. Elastic heart
Beads are very popular with steelhead anglers. However, tying on bead after bead can be time-consuming. Whether you’re sticking one onto your line with toothpicks or plastic, or using a bead knot, the hook has to be snipped off and re-tied every time.
Try an elastic instead. The idea is to create an elastic loop through the heart of the bead, allowing you to thread it onto the line without removing the hook. Moreover, you can prepare dozens of beads this way ahead of time for your next trip.
Run a length of regular fishing line through the bead, curling it around the elastic, and then loop it back through the bead. Pulling firmly but gently, drag the elastic through the bead, creating a new loop on the other side. Make it just big enough to fit a hook through. Once you’ve done that and placed the bead where you want it, gently snug the bead to your line.
To learn how to pre-rig hard beads, click here
2. Under a log
Try taking a short walk through the woods. Look for an old log and roll it over to see what’s hiding underneath.
Pretty much any kind of critter you find there will have been a meal for steelhead at one time or another. Maggots, little red “trout” worms, and other creepy crawlies all have the ability to generate strikes. I find this to be especially true in mid to late spring or early fall, when the water is clear.
The bonus is that all that walking around and bending over will get you warmed up again, and armed with a deadlier bait arsenal to boot.
Note: always check the bait restrictions in the fishing regulations, and remember that salamanders can’t be used as bait in Ontario.
3. Sting like a bee
This is about more than just adding a stinger to your bait. Adding a second item to the menu can often be hands down the most effective approach, especially in clear water.
My favourite is known as a tandem rig. I use a plastic egg on a standard #8 or #10 salmon-egg hook and attach a small nymph to it using a loop knot on a 2 or 3-inch length of line. In my experience, the bead acts as advertisement, while the nymph is the pièce de résistance.
Numerous combinations exist. You can have a nymph tied on, with a streamer, such as a woolly bugger or egg-sucking leach, following, or you can do the reverse and tie the streamer on first. I’ve seen it done successfully with live worms, too, where the lead was a big black woolly bugger with a small piece of worm tied on as the stinger.
4. That swing thing
I once observed a friend suddenly pull his float rig from the water and swing it back and forth in the air. He’d make an adjustment here, repeat, then add or remove a split shot there, and repeat, for no apparent reason. Too intent on fishing to think much of it at the time, I only realized later that air and water both have a “flow.”
The elegant simplicity of this technique is evident when you think about it. How your rig moves through air — whether smoothly or jerkily — is very close to how it will move through water. You can’t see your rig under water, but you can when it’s in the air in front of you. Odds are if it moves smoothly through the breeze, it will do so in the current, so rig accordingly.
5. Big kahuna in the laguna
Lots of current can be good, since it helps move your drift at a decent pace. But what do you do when all the best fast water has been over-fished or is just too clear and low to hold many aggressive fish?
Do like the steelhead: drop down. A “laguna” (a protected rivermouth) often acts as a backup safety zone for migrating steelhead. We call it “frog water” but often the biggest fish will hide out here in between precipitation events. Because of the slow water, anglers often eschew it for faster current. So estuaries often benefit from the double whammy of fewer anglers and more, bigger fish.
Paul Hurtubise is a lifelong steelhead angler who loves to catch, photograph, talk about, and write about steelhead. He has published a blog for the past 10 years.
Originally published in the Nov.-Dec.2018 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.