River Fishing

 There are basically five rules of fishing, which most successful anglers should learn and follow.  Fishing a river for salmon, steelhead and trout require an understanding of these rules and how they relate to the fish they are targeting.

1. Fish where they are, not where they ain't: In a river, this rule has more than one part.  You must know at what times of the year the fish will be in the river and you must know in what parts of the river each species will be.  For example, it would be foolish to fish a local river for sea-run cutthroat trout in June.  The rivers are open then (June 1) but the sea-run cutthroat does not start to move up the river until August or September (they are called “harvest trout” for this reason).  The task is to find out when your targeted fish species enters the river system and then determine where in the river they tend to hold.
   The following is a partial list of fish species found in Northwest rivers and the most productive waters in which to locate them in.
  • Steelhead: Winter hatchery fish enter the system generally from late October into January or February (with the majority of the fish in December and early January) for their spawning in late February or March.  The native run comes in starting about the same time but the majority seems to come in late February and March.  Summer steelhead start coming into the river as early as March or May with no real major run.  The season opens June 1 and there are Summer Steelhead available at that time.  I feel it peaks in September and October just in time for the start of the winter fish.  These fish stay in the river system all summer and winter, spawning in February or March; basically at the same time as the Winter Steelhead (I don’t know how they tell each other apart).  Steelhead tends to hold in 3-6 feet of water, at the head of holes or the tail-outs, in front of or behind large rocks and on specific travel routes.  They will go to deeper water for cover during sunny weather, low water or when disturbed but hang on the edges of this deeper water.  They prefer to have foam or swirling current over their head or some other cover to protect them from above.  Look for them at the seams of rivers where fast water meets with slow water.  Steelhead are very cautious and can be disturbed easily.
  • Chinook Salmon: Spring Chinook enter the local river systems in May and June into July with the majority of the fish in June to July (the Columbia River fish enter sooner due to the distance they must travel).  Fall Chinook enter the system in September and October.  They tend to prefer the bottom of deep pools where they challenge each other on a constant basis for territory.  They spawn in the larger gravel in shallower water and you can often observe them fighting over the nests.  Take a drive to the Wenatchee River in October for this show.
  • Humpies or Pinks: These salmon enter the system in late August into September and early October in massive numbers.  They are an odd year fish (2011, 2013, 2015, etc.) but there is a growing population of even year Pinks in the local rivers, which are protected at this time (although there is an occasional short opening). Pinks cover the entire strata of the river high and low and let you know when and where they are in the river by jumping and splashing about.  They tend to be more aggressive at the top of a hole where they wait to make their next move up the river.  Concentrate in the deeper water but expect them anywhere in the river.
  • Coho or Silvers: Coho enter the river system around September into October and November with the peak in late September and October.  There are Coho present in the river well into November and early December on some years.  They prefer deeper water and will occupy top to bottom but the majority of the biters I find closer to the bottom in the deeper holes.  They will not compete with the Chinook for the deep holes so if Chinook are present, look for Coho at the tops of the holes or in slightly shallower spots.
  • Chum or Dog Salmon: Formerly one of the more prolific and fun fish to catch, the Chum salmon, may be the “dog” of salmon but they can be lots of fun.  They enter the system from October into December with the majority in November and early December.  Chum salmon are found in the 2-5 foot water close to the shore and are often missed by anglers who tend to stand where the fish are and cast over them.  Watch closely and you will see Chum Salmon rising behind and among the anglers - totally overlooked by them.  If you fish properly, you can catch Chum behind the other anglers.
  • Sockeye: A growing fishery for sockeye is developing in the Skagit River system with the increase of production in Baker Lake.  There is also a river fishery in the Fraser River in Canada most years.  Sockeye run on the shallow side in about 2-3 foot of water and are often over looked while anglers cast over them into the deeper water.
  • Sea Run Cutthroat Trout: These trout make their spawning run in August or September (“when the red ants fly”) and will be found in traditional trout water at the seams, riffles, in front of and behind rocks, in front of and behind salmon schools and in the “soft” water.  They try to avoid the large salmon schools for self preservation-salmon attack them because the trout will eat the eggs!
2. Match the hatch: Most andromous fish do not feed once they enter the fresh water system so matching the hatch becomes a bit more difficult than in most other types of fishing.  If the fish has no interest in eating, how can bait possibly induce them to strike?  Fortunately, baits and other lures do work and they work well once you discover the secrets of how to use them.  You have two things in your favor when trying to induce a strike.  First of all, these fish have been feeding almost constantly since they emerged from the egg and now, years later, they will still pick up food if only out of habit or curiosity.  They have no arms so the only way they can pick up anything is with their mouth-set the hook!  Secondly, often these fish are very aggressive and will attack some lures or items which invade their territory either because they perceive it as a threat or they are just having a bad scale day.  They can only attack with their mouth-set the hook!  Finally, some anglers have told me that if something enters a fish’s territory which does not belong there, they will pick it up to remove it; I don’t know if this is true but set the hook anyway.
   Following are methods I have found to induce a strike.
  • Steelhead: Summer Steelhead will actively feed at times and will take eggs or small baits for their food value.  Try sand shrimp, small cluster eggs, worms, and artificials of these items along with small corkies or jigs.  Summer Steelhead become much like trout if they have been in fresh water for a long time.  They will also take smaller spoons, spinners and plugs.  An excellent method for Summer Steelhead is a pair of flies under a strike indicator; try a fly and an egg pattern together.  Winter Steelhead do not actively feed but will take the above items in larger sizes.  The major difference will be how they will be taken.  Food items will be mouthed and spit out by Winter Steelhead with a subtle motion missed by many people.  The “take” is seldom hard with Winter Steelhead and can be confused with the weight tapping on the bottom or some other “non-fish” happening.    Your float may just quiver a little as it goes down stream.  Whenever anything happens to your offering which is out of the ordinary, set the hook!  Spoons, spinners and plugs will often be taken with gusto.  I have seen steelhead travel across a river to take a spoon or a spinner but bait has to almost hit them on the nose to get their attention.
  • Chinook: Chinook will take the same items as Steelhead but the offering should be larger such as quarter size egg clusters versus dime size for Steelhead and larger corkies or cheaters.  Remember, Chinook will average in the teens with some into the 40 plus pound bracket.  You must give them larger offerings to get their attention and to entice a strike.  Chinook prefer slow offerings so increase your lead weight to slow down the bait. Often they will follow a floating bait down river mouthing it all the way.  Chinook also tend towards larger spoons, spinners and plugs.
  • Humpies or Pinks: Think pink for Humpies but don’t get hung up on that color since they also take greens and other colors at times.  Humpies will take pink corkies with pink yarn and a small pink sand shrimp with gusto-or they will ignore everything you try and splash all around you.  Try a small pink squid over a ¼ oz or larger lead head jig but use a trout rod since the strike will be on the fall and will be very light-you must set the hook immediately or you will lose the fish.  Pink spoons will often get strikes as well as pink buzz bombs but be careful you do not snag the fish with a buzz bomb.  The Dick Nite spoon has emerged as a real contender for Humpies generally in the smaller sizes.  Try half and half or the pink or green patterns.  One of my favorite things to do is fish for Humpies with small pink or green flies.  Look for the fish at the head of the holes ready to make a run up river; these are more likely to take a fly.
  • Coho: Coho in the Snohomish River system are notorious non-biters.  You can induce the bite if you put your time in and are willing to try different things.  They will take bait; they will take spinners (try a #3 Blue Fox in silver or chartreuse or a Mepps brass or silver), spoons, marabou or rabbit fur jigs and plugs.  The best lure in the last fifteen years has been the Dick Nite spoon in half and half, green, chartreuse, brass and silver and many other colors.  Use the smallest you have in low water and hang on.  Jigging buzz bombs is very effective but you must not snag the fish.  They will take it on the down fall, not on the up pull.
  • Chum: Chum Salmon will willingly take small green or pink flies, small green Dick Nite spoons and small green corkies with a bit of shrimp or egg.  They also have an affinity for purple. Use anise scent (smells like licorice) on all you use and stand by for the fight of your life.  These fish are the most willing biters and run like a freight train.  They are an ugly fish and not top table fair but what a show they put on.  They will also take spinners and spoons but keep on the green side.  Note:  I refer to small, not large presentations since in the salt they are basically krill eaters; use this as your guide to catching Chum Salmon.  They also will take a plug or a jig quite readily.
  • Sockeye: Sockeye will take small offerings such as a small corky with maybe a small piece of yarn.  Drift fish close to the bottom and maybe put a little scent on your lure.  Sockeye are basically krill eaters also and are not generally turned on by large lures.
  • Sea Run Cutthroat: These fish will willingly take bait in the river and often will be caught accidentally while fishing for other species.  Your salmon gear will overpower these smaller fish so if you are targeting them, take lighter gear and fish where they are found, then if you accidentally hook that 30 pound Chinook you’ve always wanted to catch, you will have a heck of a story to tell when you get home about the one that got away.
3. If what you are using is not working then change what you are using. (If someone else is catching fish, find out what they are using): This is the most violated rule I have!  I will not go into great detail on this rule except you must change your gear if you are not getting strikes.  Go smaller if you are using large or go larger if you are using small, especially in response to low clear or high colored water.  Use a different size leader, e.g., go lighter if the water is low, a different color lure or corky, try a spinner or spoon if you were using bait.  Use a float if you have been drifting the bottom.
  I could go on and on and I have many stories of a spoon or spinner catching a fish in the same hole I just went through with bait.  One of the biggest mistakes by those of us who fish is to depend upon that “old reliable” that worked last week, yesterday or even just a short time ago.  Fish constantly change their preference based upon unknown factors none of us can understand.  Adjust to those changes and you will be a much more successful angler.  If you fail to change, you will often be disappointed!  At the same time, watch carefully if someone else is catching fish and copy what he is using if you have it.  I have had people actually give me a sample of what they are using but this is the exception.  Even if he is trying to hide his successful gear, you will see what it is if you watch closely.
4. It's persistence not patience that catches fish: This rule is similar to, yet different from, rule number three.  Persistence means not only changing your presentation method and gear but also casting to different parts of the river, changing locations, maybe even changing rivers.  A difference of just a few feet (some say inches) of your presentation may induce a strike.  Especially with bait in the winter or with certain species, your presentation must almost hit the fish on the nose to get it to strike.  Fish a different part of the particular hole you are concentrating on so your presentation acts just a little bit differently or covers a slightly diverse part of the water.  Experienced people will allow line to come off the spool so their bait “walks” down the middle of the drift (this is called “long lining” or in a boat, back bouncing).  
  There are a variety of things you can do to vary your presentation other than change lures or baits and one of them may be the key to catching a fish.  Watch those who are catching fish and see if they are doing something out of the ordinary, then mimic it.  Sometimes the variation may be extremely subtle such as shorter or lighter leader or casting to a different part of the run.  Look for it and copy it-there is no honor in fishing.
5. Keep it all in perspective: I love fishing a river more than any other type of fishing!  I like the challenge of reading the water, guessing where the fish may be and how to present the lure or bait and then successfully catching that fish.  I love the ambiance of the river with its constant changing, its wildlife and its motion.  Fishing a river is a joy in itself and catching a fish is a bonus.  Keep that attitude and you will always enjoy, like me, the beauty and delight in river fishing.  On the other hand, I love catching fish also!  I fish to catch fish, I can admire the river much more if it has been good to me but don’t let not catching fish spoil your day.  
  This is the most challenging type of fishing and the most enjoyable-have a great day! Remember, when fishing you are dealing with an animal which has the brain the size of a small pea, deals with its world entirely by instinct and has probably never had a conscious thought in its entire life…and the fish are not very smart either.
Have a great day!

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 November 2012 20:57

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