By Chris Heller, January 11th, 2009

By Chris Heller

One of my favorite things about Steelhead, particularly winters, is fishing them during wet seasons or high water conditions….how much easier they are to catch in these situations is hard to argue. For the purpose of this training, I’ll focus on ‘where’ to fish, as opposed to ‘what’ to use.

As I linked up to the river levels through the website this morning, I tried to imagine what might help those of you out there wondering ‘when’ is the right time to fish on a dropping river system. This question was brought up to me recently by a friend I worked with that is really trying to make it out on the river more often….but he lacks a network of information….and so I figure although sometimes I think most of you know exactly what I think I know…..it seems there may be some benefit to making sure basics continue to be covered.

Most of you reading this have probably caught Steelhead in high water…….this is more likely due to the number of times you have fished high water versus the pattern you’ve recognized while fishing the aforementioned. This being said, let’s look at some of the reasons that fish are so much more vulnerable in high water and how you, as an avid Metal Head chaser, can capitalize:


Everyone know that Salmon are lazy. Well, although Steelhead are about as different from Salmon as men are from women….they are still lazy by nature….this allows them to conserve calories for their freshwater ventures. So, every time you walk up to a piece of water you plan on fishing…..don’t walk right up and start casting. Take a moment to observe where the heaviest flows of water are. Imagine where the least path of resistance is…..and then begin to take into account the necessary things such as depth, clarity and turbidity. Once you’ve observed where the water is swelling (this would not be a good cast) versus where the water is fanning (classic SH water) begin a couple very short casts……with either a float and a plastic or jig…..or a traditional drift rig.


To begin; if you are drift fishing (bottom bouncing as the notorious Sal would call it ) you will want to start with an obviously smaller than required amount of lead. This will ensure that while you cast and retrieve to gain a sense of depth and water speed….you most likely will not get hung up. Nothing more frustrating that getting hung up on your first or second toss ( B dog may have a story to share here…..).

If it’s a bobber or float you are using for your first cast, again, to ‘feel’ out your drift…starting closest to you. Run a very short leader or float depth here as you are going to be fishing at your feet in some cases. One of the best examples of fishermen who do this method effectively…..is fly fishermen. They understand better than most how close fish can be to the bank in these conditions. Mostly because, at one time or another, their casting abilities were limited…and they ended up short by default. Even as they got better and more skilled with casting distance, that ‘close to the bank’ mentality is already ingrained.

An old TS member vigilantly dead drifts at his feet….

It is always surprising to me how many times a SH is hooked a dozen feet off the bank, or closer. I’ve watched Sal fish at his feet for a long time…..for trout and SH….and I firmly enlist in this method……simply because I catch more fish close than I do far. I believe, as bank fishermen, we tend to think the farther casts are better, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth: A far cast creates some very obvious problems that will limit your ability to be successful; 1) the longer the cast, the harder it will be to set the hook, especially with traditional line, mono, that most of us from the bank use. 2) You will rarely achieve the depth you need to for Winter fish, by cast far. Even in lower flows, you want to find a deeper slot, and fish you feet if possible.


A longer cast can make you successful in a tail-out situation, however, where your goal is to ‘swing’ your bait, jig, spinner or fly across a tail-out. This is a fly fisherman mimicking method that can be extremely successful, but more so for Summers, than Winters.

I can’t remind everyone enough that Steelhead are just big, spooky trout. Try to sneak up on the water you are going to sample, even if it’s higher and off color. A lot of times, with a smaller river or stream, if you don’t consciously practice this, you are startling fish before you ever even knew they were there. Think about how many times a fish has hit your bait or lure while you were very close to the boat or bank. Same idea. That fish MAY NOT have followed your bait or lure, it may have just been positioned much closer than you had anticipated. Maybe you got lucky.

But luck is usually not a factor when fishing high water. No more than with anything else you do, anyway. Read the water, but do so in sections. By this I mean, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to imagine where ALL of the fish might be laying (remember, we aren’t salmon fishing) but rather, where is a spot that A fish might hold……considering all of the things I’ve said to this point.

Once you have petered around in close, you can loosen up a bit and loose a bit of your stealthiness…while focusing on that next section of water. The ‘next section out’ as I call it. Fish three sections out, and then step down or up. Resist the urge to cast across the river. The fish will never see you bait or lure other than by fluke…..which, folks, this is a fluky thing sometimes, after all, it is called fishing now isn’t it.

  1. Captain Jack says:

    Great post Chris, there’s some stuff in there I haven’t considered before and my High Water Steelhead game is in much need of improvement.

  2. Great article Chris. Good information here on eliminating water and recognizing prime water to target your efforts.

  3. daheller says:

    Nice piece. Is this on the Examiner? If not, it should be. Sal

  4. The Hustler says:

    All of the steelhead I have caught (which aren’t but a few) have been at my feet or very near to shore. And that is mostly thanks to you, H3llcat. This article is spot on. Thanks!

  5. Marcos Soliz says:

    Great article!when I’m plunking for chrome,usually all the fish are close to the bank, reminds me they use the shore to navigate..thanks for the tips and brush ups!

  6. Hellcat says:

    Thanks a ton, Marcos!

  7. Nick Nichols says:

    Great info for a guy that is still new to the steelhead game. Thanks for offering up some much needed tips and tricks.

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