Tactics for Dirty Water Steelhead by Brian Kelly

Tactics for Dirty Water Steelhead by Brian Kelly

 Don’t let marginal water conditions keep you from catching fish!

Steelhead anglers are always looking to find clean water conditions since steelhead strongly rely on their sense of vision in order to bite their offerings. That ideal two to three feet of visibility with a green tint is what gets the waders out and household chores left behind. We all want to enjoy the easy fishing that comes with ideal water clarity, but the reality is you either have to learn to adapt to less than desirable conditions or stay home.

Note the murky water - steelhead can still be caught with limited water clarity"

Note the murky water - steelhead can still be caught with limited water clarity

Trying to hook steelhead in limited visibility (less than 6 inches) can be quite intimidating, but don’t be fooled by the misnomer that steelhead won’t bite in off-colored water. They do bite in these conditions and here are some tricks to improve your odds.

Go Bright

When faced with limited water clarity, you must increase the visibility of your bait in order to hook up consistently. The object is to make your offering stand out in the dirty water so the fish can home in on it. One way to accomplish this is to add an attractor to your offering.

Yarn has been used for steelhead since the beginning of the Great Lakes fishery and it makes a great addition to a number of presentations. The added profile and color that yarn gives is crucial to drawing attention to your presentation and it also does a great job of holding scent.

Putting a dab of scents on the yarn just adds more attraction to your offering. When it comes to color combos, try adding multiple yarn colors like fluorescent red and chartreuse to a jig or even at the end of a spawn bag. This color combo has been used successfully on attractors like Spin-N-Glows out west where dirty water is a common occurrence during steelhead season.

A popular option on many Great Lakes streams is adding a bright bead, like a Trout Bead, above a spawn bag. Since the beads do not float, they keep your bait down in the strike zone as well as adding the color that make the difference in getting multiple bites.

With the bead pegged above the hook and an egg sac in its mouth, this steelhead found the authors presentation in marginal water conditions

With the bead pegged above the hook and an egg sac in its mouth, this steelhead found the authors presentation in marginal water conditions

Glow in the dark finishes are one more trick that will help put the odds in your favor. Glow jigs are always apart of my arsenal and have saved the day on numerous trips when faced with dirty water.

With all the powder paints now available, there are quite a few glow finishes to choose from that will give you more options to throw at the fish. Paint a few different colors to see what works in your local watershed, but glow orange, yellow and red are all good options to try.

Throw Good Bait

While adding bright colors is an important point in the dirty water equation, using the freshest bait you can is as equally important. Un-cured steelhead or brown trout spawn, be it fresh or frozen, has a powerful attracting quality that steelhead can seek out with their powerful sense of smell.

Cured eggs commonly found in most tackle shops just do not have the scent dispersing qualities that fresh eggs have. This is a critical point that often gets overlooked by most anglers.

Since you’ll be tying your own spawn bags when using fresh bait, make sure to stick with bright netting colors. Redwing Tackle has some great choices that include fluorescent orange, chartreuse and fluorescent pink that all work well in off-color water. Scarf material is also a good alternative since this material is denser than netting and tends to give a brighter appearance. Another advantage to tying your bags is you can doctor the bags with floater beads or chunks of yarn to change things up.

Adding a single chartreuse floater bead in orange or pink netting (or vice versa) can be the right color combo that adds more hook ups to your day.

Slow Down

When it comes to the presentation aspect of fishing dirty water, make sure you slow it down. Since visibility is limited to begin with, steelhead aren’t going to eat something they can’t see whizzing by.

Float fisherman can accomplish this by using a larger float than normal so more split shot can be used in the rigging. This added weight helps to slow the drift down enough to give steelhead that extra time to home in on the bait. The use of a jig is another tactic that can be utilized reduce the speed of the drift. Jigs work well at keeping the bait in the strike zone longer than a bare hook and also add more color to the bait.

Drift fishing, or bottom bouncing as it is commonly referred to, is a great presentation for dirty water.

The Author and Wayne Ruston found chrome during a high water spell on the Salmon River

The Author and Wayne Ruston found chrome during a high water spell on the Salmon River

Since a drift rig is sweeping across the river bottom, it’s already down in the fish holding zone getting in the face of a waiting steelhead. Make sure to add extra weight, be it split shot or a larger piece of pencil lead to ensure the presentation is held back slightly in the current. Lastly, be sure to add a drift bobber such as a Corky, Wobble Glow or Spin-N-Glow to your rig. These attractors not only add size and color to your presentation, but they also bring subtle vibrations that call out to holding steelhead.

Be sure to also slow down your fishing pace as well. With limited visibility, it may take multiple drifts though a likely holding lie in order to get bit. Don’t be in a rush to make a few casts and move on. Once you find some biters, concentrate on the area and fish it thoroughly.

Don’t let dirty water keep you off the stream this season.

Quite often, fresh pushes of fish enter the river in these conditions and the action can be tremendous. As is always the case with steelhead though, paying attention to the details with payoff in more fish hooked—especially in dirty water.

- written by Brian Kelly

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