A Pineapple Express is forecast this week, so think winter steelhead. Rising water and high tide brings them into rivers like the Cowichan and Stamp. In the latter, new fish hit the Confluence Pool in three hours. Wear your raincoat and fish until water turbidity declines to less than a foot. If you have to fish high, brown rivers, remember biters may be within a foot of shore, and where clear streams enter.
Dry weather moves steelhead into pools and they become skittish in runs. In cold, ice forming in your rod guides, hit them on the nose, running dink float setups down multiple times, before moving on. The best fishing is on dropping water after rain, in straight line runs, 3 to 8 feet deep. Learn the 3-D contours of river bottoms you fish frequently.
Gear fishing, with floats and split shot, or pencil lead and leader off its swivel, gives you the best opportunity to learn run dimensions because you can raise or lower the float, changing mainline distance to the weight. Cast out sequentially, in one foot ‘strips’ and run downstream to learn the bottom.
Steelhead are found near rock more frequently than wood, like logs. In winter, they are on the bottom - rivers can be colder than the ocean, in clear weather associated with low temperatures. Fish sink to the bottom and move only inches for lure or fly. I once plumbed a run forty times before the 14 pound winter whacked the lure on the Gold River one frigid February morning.
Dropping water and knee deep visibility are the highest percentage days. Steelhead are very aggressive and will smack anything. When you catch a hatchery steelhead you will keep, always check its stomach for what it may have been eating. I got one in the Stamp that, when gutted, was stuffed with salmon eggs. I could not see the eggs tumbling by me in the water, and it was December, past all spawning but a few remaining chum, with coho more likely in side-stem streams. But the steelhead was selectively picking up eggs and had nothing else in its stomach.
Little wonder gear guys prefer eggs when regulations allow. I once spotted a steelhead finning in its spot, and put a glob of eggs behind a spoon. It looked more like a golf ball than roe-bag. I cast across and above the fish. As the lure swung into view, the steelhead picked up the scent and began moving forward. From behind and out of sight, as much as 25 feet, a 10 pound coho rocketed from invisibility, passed the steelhead and smacked the roe. So I got to keep a fresh coho.
The point is: salmon eggs leave scent passing downstream. It is a huge stimulant and worth pursuing a very long way. I suspect the smell is a pheromone, and more particularly, to fish about to spawn; hence the coho beat the steelhead to the roe as the latter needed several months of ripening.
One more thing: add different rivers to your repertoire in winter. One example would be the Nimpkish on the north Island. You will have to stay overnight as it takes me four hours from Victoria to hit Sayward Junction, where the Fisherboy Hotel is good value for two, one half hour short of Woss, with the Nimpkish just beyond. There are six to eight miles of highway accessible river before it moves away and drops into its canyon shy of the Zebellos turn off.
Plan a north island trip with a half dozen rivers in mind. The Campbell, itself, is worth a plumb as its summer steelhead run has split into two, with January being a high month now. For fly guys, January can also be good for large cutthroat. Explore the Quinsam from the Campground near the logging bridge at Haig-Brown’s Sandy Pool. Consult your fishing friends for info, or join the local fishing club – there are many on Vancouver Island – they can save a decade of prospecting on your own.