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Plenty of Steelhead There for the Taking

by Rob Phillips
Yakima Herald-Republic, October 3, 2011

Steelhead swim up to 900 miles from the ocean to the headwaters. Anglers can keep only hatchery steelhead, which are marked with a clipped adipose fin, the one behind the dorsal fin. All fish with an adipose fin must be immediately released unharmed. This is the time of year when many anglers put away their gear and either head to the fields for some hunting or to the couch for some football watching. But October is a prime time for some fishing.

A really good run of summer steelhead is moving up the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and now is the time to be looking for fishing them. The fish can be caught below and above several of the dams on the Columbia and Snake in October and into November, but maybe the best place to fish is near McNary Dam, just south of the Tri-Cities on the Washington-Oregon border.

"We do really well above McNary as the water cools," says Tri-Cities guide Bruce Hewitt of Going Fishing Guide Service. "And below the dam, on the Washington side, below the 1-82 Bridge can be really good too."

Depending on water temperatures, Hewitt says, most anglers will try one of a couple methods -- "bobber and shrimp, or pulling plugs" -- for taking the summer runs.

In October, Hewitt likes to pull plugs. His favorite is the half ounce FatFish, because he says it requires virtually no tuning right out of the package. He'll also use Wiggle Warts and Hot Shots at times.

Above the dam he will troll the plugs along the buoy line or up and down the Washington side. And he is very adamant about keeping the sun at his back as he trolls.

"In the morning I troll downstream," Hewitt explains. "Then at mid-day I will switch to back and forth along the buoy line." Come the afternoon, he starts trolling upstream.

"I have a much higher percentage of fish caught when the sun is at my back," he says.

Fishing above McNary is also popular when there is no sun at all. Anglers will troll at night with plugs, both lighted and not.

Hewitt advises anglers to be flexible when night fishing. He says one night the fish will hit a bigger plug, one that dives deeper with a bigger profile, and the next night they might want something smaller that dives not as deep.

Hewitt says those work too, sometimes better than the others. He says the old Vortex are good, but are very hard to find, and the Brad's Lighted Wigglers will work.

As far as lure colors go, he mentioned the metallic pink with the black bill as his favorite this time of year. The standard black with silver flecks, or the black-silver-fleck red butt are also good. If those don't work, try chrome with black back or chrome with orange back, or even some of the different purple colors.

Even though the Columbia above the dam might be 100 feet deep or more, most of the time the steelhead will be holding in the top 15 feet of the pool -- so adding weight to your line above a plug that dives 8 to 12 feet isn't necessary, especially if the water isn't too cold. As the water temperatures drop, the fish will hold a little deeper, but even then they may only be 20 or 30 feet deep. Most of the time those colder temperatures don't arrive until December or later.

Trolling speeds might vary some, but speeds of 1 to 1.5 miles per hour are normally best.

Below the dam, backtrolling -- rather than trolling -- is productive. Same style and color of plugs, but the best method involves pointing the boat upstream and allowing it to slowly slip downstream, backing the diving lures into the faces of the fish headed upstream.

Hewitt says plenty of fish are caught on bait this time of year, too, and as the water temps cool, bait and bobber can be better than trolling. Most of the bait anglers will use a smaller dyed shrimp fished below a slip bobber in the fall.

"I like to use a 2/0 hook and a four-foot leader to a barrel swivel," Hewitt explains of his bobber-and-bait rig. "I use a hollow egg sinker or two on the main line above the barrel swivel and place the bobber stop about 5 to 8 feet up the line."

He also recommends pinching a split shot on the leader a foot or so above the hook and bait. Both the split shot and the egg sinkers will make the rig neutrally buoyant, allowing the bobber to float right, which lets the angler see the sometimes subtle bites.

Most of the bait guys in this part of the river will use a dyed shrimp, and Hewitt says either pink or purple seems to be the favorites of the majority of the bait anglers.

In September and October almost all of the bait anglers will simply use a hook and bait below their bobber, but as the water temperatures drop, or if there is an abundance of bigger "B-run" steelhead moving through, many anglers will switch to a jig with their bait. (Bucktail or marabou jigs in black, or black and red, are favorites.)

Bank anglers can enjoy some good fishing above the dam, too, but most of the bank fishing is a little further upstream, according to Hewitt.

"Some of the best bank angling is near the mouth of the Walla Walla River," he says. "Near the grain terminals. Walk about 400 to 500 yards to the river, across the railroad tracks. They do pretty good right there."

He says the same bobber-and-bait set-up normally works fairly well there.

Anglers in October can expect to catch primarily the smaller 6- to 10- pound "A-run" steelhead in this part of the Columbia, but it is also possible to catch a bigger "B" fish, 12 to 20 pounds or bigger.

Not everyone is going to catch one of those big hawgs, but with so many steelhead in the river this year, there is a good chance you're going to catch something. Now's the time, and the Columbia River near McNary Dam is the place.

Rob Phillips is a freelance outdoor writer and partner in the advertising firm of Smith, Phillips & DiPietro.
Plenty of Steelhead There for the Taking
Yakima Herald-Republic, October 3, 2011

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