Winter Steelhead Report: The Swing is the Thing

Wild Oregon Winter Steelhead

Though we have had a little bit of rain in the last couple of days, thus far Western Oregon is having its driest winter in 35 years. All of the smaller rivers and creeks that I typically fish this time of year are unfishable; with the water too low for either boat or fish passage. The only upside of this historic drought is that some of the big rivers that are almost always high and brown this time of year are low, clear, and fishing well with flies. Whether fishing for fun or guiding, I have spent my time in the last couple of weeks swinging flies, and while I don’t catch as many fish as the guys side-drifting bait or those staring at their bobbers all day, I have been finding good numbers of fish and fairly consistent action.

Wild Oregon Winter Steelhead

Depending on the spot, the fish have come on anything from a light tip and an unweighted fly to a lead-eyed intruder fished on ten feet of T-14. The key is to match your sink tip and fly combination to the depth and flow of the run you are fishing. Winter fish are, on average, less willing to chase a swung fly near the surface than summer fish are. Ideally, you want your fly to be swinging 1-3 feet off the bottom. The fish will move up in the water column to attack your fly, but if you are fishing underneath them, they cannot even see your fly. Touching the bottom every once in a while isn’t a bad thing: most runs have a piece of ledge rock or a boulder that sticks up more than the rest of the structure around it. If you are consistently hanging up, however, you probably need to move to a lighter fly, sink tip, or both.

Wild Oregon Winter Steelhead

In the right type of water, the swing can work surprisingly well in the winter time. Nearly all the fish I have seen brought to hand recently have been wild, two-tone chromers covered with sea lice. There is nothing like it when one of these things climbs on your fly mid-swing. The fish below is a magnificent specimen. Though it was a little colored, it also had sea lice hitch hiking on the base of its fins. If I were to guess, I would say that this was not this fish’s first spawning run, and maybe it didn’t re-bright out in salt water like some of them do.

Wild Oregon Winter Steelhead

My friend Les, a guest for a few days of guided fishing, actually caught this fish, but the picture of me holding it turned out better. Needless to say, our encounter with this fish etched indelible memories for both angler and guide.

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