Drift Boating For Winter Steelhead: A Northwest Tradition

Reaching over to turn off my wake-up alarm, I apologized to my partner Kate for waking her up so early. It’s 4am and time to get up the steelhead are biting and I am going fishing. All steelhead fishing should start with a good cup of coffee.  Thinking back on that morning as I was getting ready to leave, cup of coffee in hand, I remember the sound of the rain drops on my trucks roof and how they were strangely comforting. You think it would be exactly opposite but the sound of rain in the darkness of the morning, triggers memories for me of seasons past hunting and fishing in Oregon. Many great adventures started out in the darkness of a rainy winter morning. The first winter rains, after a dry fall  light a fire in a steelhead fisherman’s soul. If the coffee doesn’t light the fire first.  Veteran steelhead fisherman instinctually know that warm rains bring fish to the rivers in winter.   I have been chasing steelhead for over 40 years in winter from Oregon To British Columbia. The roar of rapids, warm rays of afternoon sun peaking out from rain filled clouds, and the anticipation of what lies just out of sight beneath the waters surface has enriched my life in  ways difficult to explain in words. A wise man once said if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life at 47 years old I am truly blessed to have experienced so many seasons of steelhead fishing. In this short essay if I could just give you a glimpse of what has made it a northwest tradition I will have succeeded. . This particular morning I had a 2-hour drive to the Umpqua River near Roseburg, Oregon. Roseburg was once a bustling timber town, but those days are gone and steelhead guiding is now what keep many of the young men busy with work. The Umpqua River flows from high in the Cascade mountains, and swells with rain each time a winter storm passes. This surge in freshwater travels down the basins to the ocean and calls the steelhead trout back to the rivers they called home to spawn a new generation. The sloped mountainsides, thick with evergreen fir trees, frame this beautiful and wild river and protect it from silty runoff. Steelhead green is the color of the water of the Umpqua on most days even when it is filled with a freshet of rainwater. You know rain or shine, steelhead fisherman are some of the toughest fisherman on the planet. Proof is that today’s expected high temperature is 39 degrees. While some days the ice freezes in our rod guides but not today! I can’t imagine a fishing trip that makes an angler prepare more for the elements. Simms Gore-Tex outer shells and lots of merino wool help keep us warm. I have an amazingly comfortable Alpaca wool hat that I pull down over my ears and neck that I highly recommend buying at the Alpaca farm in Redmond, Oregon. Skip the tour of the farmyard those innocent looking beasts are spitters! That’s another story though best saved for a good laugh on the river. For added comfort on the drift boat, I installed a propane heater for my guys to huddle around. It must really help because if it isn’t working that day I hear about it. I can’t feel the heat from the rowers seat but they tell me its nice. Gore-Tex outer shells, merino wool, and adrenaline keep us warm. A person driving along the river, seeing the drift boaters float by,  must wonder what gets so many people out boating the river on a frosty morning? I think only an angler who has experienced a steelhead peeling line of a spinning reel, wild jumps, all while drifting down a white water river could tell them exactly why. Steelhead trout are known for their jumping ability and wild runs around obstacles in the river. Jumps of 3 feet or more completely out of the water are common once the savvy fish realizes it’s been hooked. Winter steelhead fishing on the Umpqua River, takes place from January thru March, and has been keeping myself and Captain Silas busy. Both of us row locally built aluminum Willie’s Drift Boats and wouldn’t have it any other way. Our boats are the gold standard for coastal wild rivers and can comfortably accommodate 2 anglers and a guide. We primarily side drift for steelhead with spinning rods, artificial baits, and keep the technique simple and enjoyable for both seasoned veterans and new anglers. Side drifting is a sight and feel fishery where the rod is held by the angler as the bait bounces along the bottom. The tug on the end of your line is often seen by the guide who calls out “set the hook”!!!  This season there have been many “First Steelhead” caught by clients young and wise, and if they figure it out so can you.  Even if you weren’t so lucky that day fishing sights of bald eagles, beaver, otter, deer and waterfowl are constant and many people enjoy the experience for much more than just the fishing. This season fishing success has been constant with clients averaging 1 to 2 fish a day per angler. On a good day this season a boat might see up to 6 or more fish landed, and the fish are large this season averaging 10lbs. Captain Silas has landed 2 fish so far this season over 20lbs. The Umpqua River, strong and swift by nature, is home to some of the largest steelhead trout I have ever seen on the West Coast. The fish of a lifetime is always just a cast away. Most fish are wild and must be released due to regulations however this season we have caught a few hatchery fish that can be kept. We snap lots of pictures before releasing the prize catch and send them to you at the end of the day. The Umpqua River is very close to interstate I-5 making it a few hour drive from most anywhere in Oregon with plenty of hotel accommodations. If you would like to book a trip with us this season now is the time to start your own northwest tradition or remember an old one!

Lingcod: A Winter Fishery

We have had some record fishing days this season with limits of lingcod and rockfish common. Jigging for lingcod in depths near the coastline has been highly productive. A new technique I picked up has improved our hook to land ratio this season which really has me excited for the future. The technique involves jigging soft plastic baits with light tackle. Its not revolutionary but the way we do it is. You’ll have to come out and fish with us to see! In Oregon the ocean lingcod season is open year around, with some of the best fishing occurring in the winter and spring months. Lingcod are known for their cryptic camouflage appearance, and fierce toothy grin. They are piscivorous predators that lurk on the rocky near coastal reefs hunting for fish, crab, or octopus to make a meal off. Lingcod are highly aggressive in the winter and spring while spawning takes place. October through March the number of weather windows are limited but when tide, wind, and wave height allow our boats head out to reward the persistence with world class lingcod fishing. Our port of Charleston is unique in that it is a deep-water port, with the safest ocean access in Oregon. Our Captains are all seasoned veterans of the sea and are known for targeting trophy lingcod. We are also very good at finding the medium “good eating size fish” as well. Leave the trophy lingcod for pictures and keep the smaller fish to eat is my nuanced approach. If you have never eaten lingcod, let me describe it for you. It is a white halibut like meat but better and easier to cook. Known by locals for its moist consistency and mild flavor, it is highly prized as table fare. The lingcod limit is 2 per angler a day and it is very common for anglers to catch their limit. Head out with us for a winter adventure on the ocean and enjoy the best lingcod action you have ever seen.