Drift fishing for Steelhead
How to Clearwater River Drift Fishing
Winter Steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River is our favorite time of the year. The Clearwater “B-Run” fish are some of the toughest steelhead in the Pacific northwest. Mostly known for their larger stature, the Clearwater fish are resilient and hearty.
Drift fishing is our most effective method to our anglers and fishing guides. Therefore our guide service cast light spinning gear from 24-26 ft. open jet boats. We feel this tried and true method to be most effective, even on stubborn fish. Drift fishing has evolved into other forms of fishing. The same principles apply, trying to deliver a presentation that naturally drifts along the rivers bottom. Other terms used for drift fishing are “Boon-dogging or in other words “Side-drifting”. For the purpose of this article, lets refer to side-drifting techniques.
Classic Side Drifting Water
Steelhead can be found in many different sections of water. However, there are factors that go into why and when fish are in a particular section. Being on the water every day, our guides stay in tune with resting and moving fish. When we refer to classic steelhead water, we’re talking 4-10 ft. There are 3 parts to that classic water, in which all can hold fish. Time of year, water temperature and pressure all factor in. Before you access a desired fishing hole, use the read and react theory. Successful fishing guides are continually cued into their surroundings. We’ll look up and down holes for rolling fish and also watch other anglers. We’ve learned by breaking the water into Riffles, Pools and Tail-outs, huge dividends have paid off. Above All, observation is key, game planning essential. Follow along!
Top End – Riffled Water
Firstly, the upper third or top end of a classic run has riffled water. The infrastructure of the shallow water, river rock and steep gradient decline create the top. When rivers are low and clear, fish love to hang there. The faster current and riffle offer protection for weary fish. Early season, anglers can also target moving fish here. You more than likely won’t hit the mother lode here but always good for a fish.
Pro Tips: Keep your boat of some distance and make casts slightly above your target. Key in on proper weight and match the speed of the water flow. Low and clear water demands distance between boat and fish
Middle Section – Lesser Grade with Depth
Secondly, middle sections with lesser gradient flows that have some depth are deadly. As a result, these deeper slots create current breaks with bottom ledges and structure. Fish like to hang here to get a break from the heavier currents though-out the river. This section has a tendency to flatten and widen out. Pay attention to the rivers bank and any underwater ledges. Above all, the middle part of this run has a chance to hold big pods and be super productive.
Pro Tips: Make sure you’re not dragging the weight, slot can be snaggy. Lighten the weight and keep lines at a 45 degrees angle. Key is to tick the bottom lightly. Lower profile baits, such as mad river beads can be most effective. If the flat has some width, start down the middle and work one side at a time. You might have to make multiple runs in order to cover the entire section. Fish slow and take your time!
Tail-Outs – Bottom Third
Lastly, winter steelhead have a knack for holding in tail-outs. This bottom third, down-stream section of the hole is the first resting water fish hit above rapids. Less experienced anglers tend to bi-pass this water. Fact is, guides hammer a lot of fish in tail-outs. Because fish get a chance to rest here and also escape fishing pressure. Back-trolling anglers consider tail-outs their dream water. So the problem for jet boat side-drifters is that you eventually run out of water. We hook tons of fish in these sections and end up fighting our fish down river. This can be a problem if the water flows are low.
Pro Tips: Keep some distance and use light weight. Fish can be spooky in this section! Focus on structure where resting fish will lie. The softer water below boulders is where you’ll find resting fish. Be prepared to float down river when hooked up.
Clearwater River Water Flows
Low Water Conditions
Classic Steelhead water fishes awesome in normal to lower water flows. Typically, we find fish in all 3 sections. Start at the top end, casting your bait right down the middle of the riffle. Remember, steelhead like cover, so keep distance and make longer casts. Lower water fishing separates the experienced angler from the novice weekend warrior. Weary fish tend to spread out and your game plan should be a stealthy one. Our guides fish more down the middle in lower water conditions, focusing on riffled water. Make sure you pick apart the top and hit it from every angle. Keep your weights on the lighter side and lines tight. Making longer casts is crucial.
High Water Conditions
We classify our higher water fishing into 2 categories, rising or stable. Typically, with rising water, fish are on the move. They’ll hug the riverbank where water is slowest moving. Clearwater steelhead have traveled 400 miles, returning to their spawning grounds. In high water, look towards the bank and think path of least resistance. Fishing can get tough as they have one thing on their mind.
Focus on inside seams and fish a bigger profile. We also like to scent up with any of the Pro-Cure products. Bloody Anise Tuna, Shrimp, Sand Shrimp, Krill, Anise are some of our favorite. When fishing off-colored water, experiment with some brighter colors such as chartreuse or fluorescents. Stable or declining water flow is a steelhead anglers dream. New fish have arrived and hold pods in the deeper pools. Migrating steelhead have time to settle in, adjusting to the flows and temperatures. Long flats that possess deeper holes and steady water flow, rings fish on! Fish may be found towards the top, in the center or down low. Remember, recognize what you see, react to the conditions. There is no replacement for observation
Side drifting is an easy method to learn and our guides have proven that. In a sense, our guides are actually fishing. What do I mean by this? We have our clients cast out, slightly upstream with enough weight to tick the bottom. The bait will drift at a natural speed, which is controlled by the fishing guide. We spread our lines out creating what we call “the wall of death”. The drift is complete when the guide yells “reel up” or your rigging gets below the boat. Expect to make a series of casts, drifts, and retrieves when side drifting in our boats
Keys to Side Drifting
The key to having success on the Clearwater River is to decipher rock or fish. The river is slightly gradient, medium in size and full of boulders. It’s hard to believe fish grow in excess of 20 pounds and create such a soft bite. Before we fish with our anglers, we’ll brief them on the soft bite and what follows next. Most of us have deckhands, to help shorten the learning curve.
It’s super important to pay attention to your line drifting along. The rod tip has to follow your line as the bait drifts downstream. The rod height needs to be below the bill of your cap for optimal leverage when setting a hook. There are 3 things that happen when side drifting. The bait bounces along the bottom, with no resistance. The bait is drifting and stops, rod tip bent in half. Bait is drifting along, hesitation with spongy feel, rod tip is loaded up…..Set the hook and set it hard!
Pro Tips: Make sure there is enough weight to feel the bottom every 10 feet or so. Having too much weight creates a drag and eliminates a natural flow. Not having enough weight, takes you out of the strike zone. The goal is to keep your presentation in the strike zone or just off the bottom of the river
Using Proper Rod
Our fishing rods have been designed specifically for Clearwater river steelhead. Fishing rods come in various lengths and weight and possess different actions. Our guides fish out of a sled so getting spooled is not an option. The Clearwater is a medium sized river and can require making long casts. We don’t have a lot of brush nor heavy currents. Our clearwater fish are big, so backbone becomes a factor. The bite is super light, so rod sensitivity is a must. We employ light line, presentation so weight and action become important. All these factors went into consideration when choosing to build the best fishing rod.
Our guide service is sponsored by Edge Rods, built by the grandfather of graphite, Gary Loomis. Anglers that fish our guide service, fish with Edge HM 962. This rod is super sensitive, light in weight, medium slow action for soft biting fish, and enough backbone for our big “B-run steelhead. Why is this all important, go back to the beginning. Determining a rock or fish is the key to success
Side Drifting Set Ups
When it comes to fishing line for steelhead fishing, typically 10-12 lb. test monofilament is what most of us use. We like to use the term light line tackle and for good reason. Our medium sized river, low and clear, require medium to long casts. Therefore our rods are super sensitive and light. Our anglers cast from jet boats and won’t get spooled.
There are plenty of line choices and everyone has their favorite. Some anglers choose to use high-tech braids which have zero stretch. They are super sensitive and cast great distances. Problem using braid on the clearwater, we fish in December and January, meaning cold weather. If you’re into braid, here are some local favorites. KastKing Kast Pro Braid, Spiderwire, Power Pro Spectra, Sufix 832 Advanced Braid, Power Pro 8 Super Slick V2, FireLine Braid. Our fishing guides choose to use mono over braid.
We’ve learned from our guiding experiences, it’s more practical and efficient for guiding applications. It’s inevitable that the rivers boulders will grab our gear. Losing a little fishing line over breaking a $600 rod is a good thing. We also like a little stretch, remember the bite is subtle and soft. The softer rods and dialed in reel drags make mono a better choice. Mono also holds knots better and won’t dig into itself like braid will. I know that some people might argue this, I believe mono is less visible when visibility is crystalline. The last factor is wind knots, no chance of un-doing knots in braided line. Backtrolling is a different story, we use braided line
Most of us guides use Fluorocarbon leaders. We feel like fluorocarbon is more invisible in low water conditions and adds a stealthy like presentation. The light refractive index of fluorocarbon is very similar to that of fresh water. When talking about strength, there are dimensions to consider. Fluorocarbon is much harder than monofilament and has a higher abrasion resistance, which is useful during side-drifting applications. Idaho weather is in-predictable and we like the resistant to the elements that fluorocarbon has to offer. As a result, we use any of the following brands and all are reliable. Seaguar Invizx, PLine CX Premimum, Sufix Invisiline.
leader length is determined by water clarity and the rivers bottom structure. The clearer the water is, the longer the leader we will use. The Clearwater is gin clear in color but the bottom is boulder invested. We cut most of our leader length between 48-60 inches. If the water muddies, we’ll keep our leaders on the short side of things.
There are lots of options for weights. In the world of guiding, we keep things simple and with the understanding, gear will be lost. For instance, pencil weights are quick and easy and can be cut to the perfect length based on water conditions. Because the clearwater river has fluctuating water flows and being able to change out weights is critical. For instance, Slinky sinkers are a lot less apt to get hung-up on the bottom than pencil lead but more time consuming to make. Our fishing guides will also use the surgical tubing method, pushing your weight into the tube for a tight fit. With all 3 options, the weight attaches to a 3-way snap swivel through the main line. For the purpose of the Clearwater river, we use ¼ inch diameter and 2-inch cuts are a good base
My greatest advice, stay open minded and be willing to adjust. Because the Clearwater changes daily and so does the fishing. Our fishing guides are super, diverse and all have their favorite rigging. Therefore, key is, we all have multiple set ups readily available for any condition and situation. Side drifting set ups have changed over the years, but the old stand-by corky and eggs still rocks. We’ll list a few or our favorites and let you decide what works for you
Yakima Bait Company’s Lil Corky provides a buoyant presentation for your eggs or shrimp. They come in many different sizes and colors. We use a size 10 corky which keeps our baits in the strike zone, just above the bottom. We experiment with color combinations based on water flows and clarity. My personal favorite is the blue pirate color, especially in cold water conditions.
The bead fishing craze has caught fire on the Clearwater river. It’s really simple and super clean. There are tons of bead choices, colors, sizes and blends all factor in. Glass beads tend to sink while foam or acrylic beads drift more neutral. As previously noted, the clearwater river is a boulder patch. As a result, glass beads are much more effective fished under a float. Creek Candy Bead Company, Trout Beads, and Steelybeads are some of our favorites. Do you want a more buoyant presentation? Like Mad River Fish Pills or BnR Tackle for a softer bead presentation. There’s a time and place for all of them. Because our guide service fishes every day, we know where the fish are
Egg fishing is hard to beat on our river. Fished under a Lil corky is still our number one producing method. The egg loop, or snell is the loop that can be pushed through the eye of your hook. Therefore he beauty of this principle is being able to adjust to the desired size of your egg cluster. With eggs, it’s an easy process of placing your egg cluster inside the loop. Cinch the bait down without cutting into the eggs, and you’ve turned your hook into a beautiful bait. So, give egg fishing a try!
* Above all, experiment with scent for masking human odor and enhancing your presentation. We use Pro-Cure bait scent products on our guided trips. Sand Shrimp, Bloody Tuna, Krill, Anise are some of our favorite. Above all, mix it up try different scents throughout the day. Once we find what the fish want, we’ll key in on that specific scent. So, give scent try.
* In selecting corky colors for clear, cold water conditions: try metallic finishes such as the Patriot, Misty River, Metallic Purple, Metallic Red, Metallic Pink, Black Flake or even try some of the UV enhanced colors
* In selecting corky colors for stained or muddy water: Think high contrast and bright colors like the chartreuse patterns, fluorescent oranges and pinks, or flame colored combinations.
* In selecting corky colors for glacier green water: Use your pink pearls, Egg patterns, clowns, and oranges.
* Deliver your bait in a natural setting along the river bottom. Your bait choice is important, the presentation increases your odds of hooking up. Your presentation will be affected by how much or how little of weight used.
* Cover water: Fish like to move so increase your odds by covering all 3 sections of a run. Don’t get hung up on only fishing one particular part of the section, diversity is key
* Before heading to the river, check water flows, temperatures, clarity, and recent catch records from local guides
Side drifting has taken on new meaning. Side drifting in the Pacific northwest, on the Clearwater River is one of the most rewarding experiences. In conclusion, Since 1978, it’s been my number one method. Our fishing guides think so too! I’ve made adjustments along the way and certainly done plenty of experimenting. New technology and young fishing guides push each one of us to become a better guide. I’m proud to say, our guides are some of the best in the industry.