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Record steelhead run offers epic angling
By PHIL SIMONSKI
For the Baker City Herald
During the summer and fall of 2000, Eastern Oregon steelhead anglers watched the fish counts over the dams on the Columbia. The biggest run in years in fact, a record-breaking run was making its way up the system.
And most of these fish were headed for the Snake River.
Steelhead fishermen were all smiles. They knew that by the time the final four was being played, they would be fishing and not watching television.
For the past several weeks the flat ground in the Rondowa area of Wallowa County has been at a premium. Several large tent camps have been there and fishermen have done well.
Another area where camping space has been at a premium is what is known as the Gravel Pit. This area is located on the Wallowa River between the town of Minam and Big Canyon hatchery.
Why the crowd?
We have approached the best time and river conditions for this year. For the next 10 days steelhead fishing will be tops in the Wallowa and Imnaha Rivers. The Grande Ronde has been rather cloudy and with runoff being unusually dirty this year you will have to spend more hours fishing for each fish hooked in this river. Another good stream is Catherine Creek.
With the days getting warmer and longer, this makes for the fish to want to move during all hours of the day.
This years run has shown a surprising number of wild fish. When you hook into one of these critters you can appreciated what the wild fish policy is trying to do. They just seem to fight harder and longer. Looking at a wild fish and comparing it to a hatchery fish, the only outward appearance is the adipose fin is in place. The run is so good this year that the limit has been raised to three fish a day on some Northeastern streams. Check with your local Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife office to be sure.
The department wants anglers to harvest as many hatchery fish as possible and not have too many wild fish spawn with those hatchery critters.
Speaking for the average fishermen, so long as there are this many fish available to catch and a few to take home and eat, fishermen really dont care where they come from.
Methods that have been working are the same as always.
Tom Hughes of Baker City seems to be the guy that can tell you just what they are biting on. For years Ive counted on Tom to give me the low down on just where the fish are and whats working. This year was no different.
Generally, this the Hughes method and equipment: An 8-foot, 6-inch steelhead rod; casting reel filled with 20-pound test braided line; and a snap swivel equipped with a proper weight slinky. In water that is as cloudy as this year, use 12-pound test leader; I use 10.
The key to Toms success is that he uses small floaters called corkies. They actually are small plastic foam balls with a hole. they come in sizes from No. 2s to No. 14s. Their purpose is to help keep your hook off the rocks and your bait just above the stream bottom. They come in numerous colors. Most fishermen fall in love with one or two colors because of past good experiences.
Run your leader through the hole so it rides just above the hook. In some cases tie a size No. 14 between the egg loop knot and the eye of the hook. This way your leader will not cut your egg when you tighten down on it. Smaller corkies in size 10 and 12 seem to work better on these spring fish. Fall steelhead in the Snake River like larger sizes.
Attach fresh steelhead or salmon roe to the loop and youre in business. Smaller baits seem to work better than a huge glob of eggs.
Finally, Tom uses smaller hooks than most other fishermen do. Hooks as small as a No. 4 are not too small. Smaller hooks seem to not hang up as often, either.
What to look for in water
Most of the water in the Wallowa and the portion of Minam that is open to steelhead fishing is called pocket water. There are few pools and you fish the pockets and short runs for the steelhead as they move through. Cast slightly up stream and target your lure so it will bounce along the bottom in the area the fish are holding. Steelhead seem to like ripple type water better than boiling, roily water.
Locations where fast water meets the slack water is what is known as holding water. In some cases, especially when the water is high, it is hard to read where this holding water is located. Look for small white caps that constantly appear in the same place. These large ripples indicate the location of a large rock and a small pocket of holding water.
Some fishermen like to stand and cast to these locations for hours. Others will give the holding water a half dozen casts and move on. With so many fish moving through this year, both methods work.
Good steelhead fishermen will adjust to changing water conditions. One of the folks with whom I keep in close touch is Mac Huff of Enterprise. Mac owns Wallowa Outdoors (541/426-3493) and is always willing to give you up-to-date information on the Wallowa and lower Grande Ronde.
If Mac says, stay home, like he recently did, I heed his advice. I stayed home and waited two days. That wait really paid off as the river had cleared a little and dropped several inches in those two days, producing an excellent day of fishing.
What about a drift boat?
With runoff being at such a premium this year, I have seen few drift boats being used. One big advantage of drifting during the spring is you can use different tackle.
With a run as strong as it is this year and water conditions changing rapidly there are windows of opportunity to use fly rods. If you like hanging onto a fly rod, for dear life, for 15 minutes or so try drifting a single corky, weighted by several split shot. Also use a strike indicator. When the indicator goes under, set the hook. You may be surprised to find a 30-inch critter that wants to get rid of that thing stuck in its mouth. He doesnt want you to take it out for him, either.
Another method that has worked well this spring is fishing a jig below a bobber. This method has been popular for years on the westside. Since most of our streams are shallower than the westside counterparts, we only have to set the bobber for three or four feet. A small piece of uncooked shrimp or Smelly Jelly egg is attached to the hook as an added enticer.
With the best run in years now moving through our Northeastern streams, even novices should be able to have a great deal of fun fishing for these big sea run rainbow trout.
See you on the water.