Winter Fish II

Winter steelhead: Bright is better

by Scott Sadil

Spring comes early to the coast of Oregon.  While the rest of the state lies in wait beneath frosty inversion layers and soggy fronts rolling in waves off the Pacific, the coast, especially to the south, greets the first dainty wildflowers and swollen buds of willows and red alders with an enthusiasm that makes those of us from the interior lowland river valleys or snow-limned high desert feel as though we’ve been guilty of lollygagging, reluctant to rise from our dour winter slumbers.

For while we may doze, of course, our coastal rivers and streams, as Haig-Brown assured us, never sleep.  Shortly after the salmon arrive, drawn upriver by fall freshets, their spawning needs and imminent death, coastal winter steelhead also begin to appear, in many cases pure strains of native fish, unique to small specific watersheds, descrete runs unadulterated by hatchery practices—fish with no more intent to die, after spawning efforts, than you or I as we settle down for a mid-winter nap.

This is how you end up with twelve- and fifteen- and even twenty-pound steelhead in creeks and short rivers no bigger than a high-country Rocky Mountain trout stream. The fish arrive, they spawn, they rush back out to the sea.  Or is there more to it than that? 

Where the wild things run

The truth, in fact, is that surprising gaps still exist in our understanding of these native populations of wild, coastal, winter-run fish.  

We know the broad brush strokes, outlined above.  But old-timers who have fished these waters their whole lives will tell you it’s possible these same fish enter a stream more than once a season; that some years, when conditions aren’t right, they can show up in other drainages; that it wouldn’t surprise them if a steelhead poked its head into more than one drainage over the course of a favorable winter.

How much do we really know about these elusive wild animals?  That they exist at all, in the modern world, seems little short of a miracle.  Yet should you finally find one, and be fortunate enough to bring it to hand, you may realize, at last, that all we do, with rod and reel, is scratch the surface of their remarkable lives.  Whereveryou fish, they’re usually not there.

Rough water, strong fish

Or so we assume.  The truth, once again, may be far different from what we believe.  The startling news about these small, all but hidden runs of wild fish is that nobody actually knows how many fish are in the systems, how big or small the runs.  Some fish are in and out so quickly, it’s as if they don’t exist.  Some watersheds are so difficult to penetrate—unless you’re two feet long and can swim upstream—that it’s all but impossible to find most of the fish that may or may not arrive in any given winter.

Whenever I’m on the coast prospecting for a spell, looking for a winter-run fish, I’m struck how often I’m approached by other anglers who know even less than I do.  Are there fish here?  Have you caught one?  What are you using?  I try to be polite, encouraging—but let it be known right here, I’m not about to give up any secrets.

Recently a youngster, Mack, a seasonal fire fighter from Montana, told me he had been trying for three weeks without success.  Fortunately, his girlfriend, a traveling radiologist, had a job at the county hospital, a choice of locations, said Mack, that he had “influenced.”  That same afternoon, a company truck for a tree service outfit pulled off the state highway and the driver hopped out and asked me if there were fish in the creek next to where I was standing beside my pickup’s open tailgate, putting up a rod.  

Fresh is best

Seems like he might have guessed I wasn’t there for casting practice. 

In his younger days, my buddy C.L. used to come up to Oregon from California and book a room for an entire month.

Is it worth it?  Only, perhaps, if you find them.  And even then, you probably still need to recognize just what a treasure you’ve found.

Gray’s angling editor, Scott Sadil, refuses to let on to anyone how much time he estimates he’s spent in the past 25 years fishing, without success, for steelhead.