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SPOONS AND COLD WATER = STEELHEAD MAGIC

MASTERS OF THE SPOONIVERSE  

By: Brad West  

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Jason Harris stays awake long enough to cradle a pretty hen

Brad West and fishing buddy Marty Michaelis (of www.Steelheader.net) fished for nine days across several BC rivers. Despite throwing the tackle box at the steelhead, the big natives wanted only spoons, spoons and more spoons. In this article Brad explains where and how to fish spoons for cold, clear and/ or low water steelies, as well as endorsing braided line for spoonchucking. (See also “In Praise of Braid” for the complete story.)

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Mint-bright and punching well above her weight, this 35” hen was all Brad West could handle

Use Any Lure You Want, as Long as it’s a Spoon!

 

Steelhead Jedi Marty Michaelis and I began our long-anticipated BC trip staggering to the Air Canada check-in counter under the weight of drift gear (from tiny to king-sized), plastic worms, Colorado blades, spinners, jigs (from 1/32 to ¼ oz) and spoons. Every day of the trip we mixed up the order to try to find a winning combination. Nevertheless, spoons hooked over 90% of the steelhead we touched, with a drift fished plastic worm and Colorado blades hung under a float accounting for the rest. Very surprisingly, I failed to hook a fish on a jig of any description despite this being a proven method in years past. Even when I knew where the (stale) fish were holding and drifted a tiny, clear water jig down the seam I didn't come up with a single "Bobber down!"

 

Throughout our trip the water was falling and clearing with visibility starting at 3’ and ending the trip closer to 10’. Water temp was a more or less constant 40-41F. The steelhead were all natives and we fished in non-retention, no-bait areas. In general the fish were fresh, as the rivers had been blown out much of the prior month. Towards the end of our time, we began catching fish that had been C & R’ed recently (based on hook marks and a lack of spunk in their fight).

 

Under Lower-48 late fall conditions, there simply wasn't another lure that provoked the steelhead like a spoon. We had particular success with teardrop-shaped wobblers, though the more traditional ovals also took plenty of fish. This article addresses two important topics. The first is how we fished the spoon for best results. The second touches on how to use braided line for drift and lure (spoon) fishing. (For more detail see In Praise of Braid). Taken in tandem – spoons and braided line fished using baitcasting gear – you have a very effective method for provoking strikes from large late summer- and winter-run steelhead.

 

Let’s first begin by identifying the best water to fish spoons. Spoon water is any water where you can swing your lure into the prime holding area. This means most heads, guts and tailouts. “Dancing water” or “pillow water” that steelies like to lie in is perfect spoon water as long as you have reasonable visibility and the water temp isn’t too high (or you may spook the fish with a large, bright spoon). Acceptable water includes swirly deep holes, frog water, pocket water, and shallow flats (“fly water” or “spinner water”). Water that’s hard to fish spoons in includes deep, narrow cross-river slots; deep holes on the near bank; close to cover; timber-strewn water; and swift runs in general. Boulder gardens and spoons do mix, but expensively. In the gardens we first tried jigs and blades under floats, but soon confirmed that these were no match for spoons in drawing strikes.

 

Low and Slow” for First Strike Steelhead

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Top gun Jay Dorey admires a canyon-caught doe

 

As a disciple of Bill Herzog’s book Spoon Fishing for Steelhead, I’m not going to repeat his how-to advice. But I’m not going to contradict it (too much) either. Start by reading the book. Then ponder the following eight tips for swinging a spoon in low, clear and cold water conditions:

 

1. Think of a spoon as drift gear and fish it accordingly. You want to be fishing low and slow, bumping bottom occasionally. The goal is to drift the spoon at the minimum speed needed to elicit the maximum wobble while staying within one foot of the bottom. That’s it!

 

2. Like most steelheading techniques, the devil is in the detail. It’s difficult getting a lighter or broader profile spoon down to the fish’s level so that the current alone (perhaps aided by a very slow cranking of the handle) imparts the ideal action. This is where using braided line is a godsend. Braid allows you to make long casts and quick mends in rapid succession. Because braid floats, mends are easy. Alternatively, use a premium mono in 10-12lb size and coat the first 80’ in Mucilin or another fly line floatant. This gives you the ability to mend and the advantage of avoiding having to learn a new knot (see below).

 

Mending gets the spoon down quickly with minimum line bow. As soon as you feel the first bottom tap, stop mending and wait for the current to begin working the spoon.  About 75% of the time you’ll sense that the current will force the spoon towards the surface (or at a minimum cause it to wobble too rapidly or even spin). When that happens, feed the line into the drift by pressing down on the thumb release button and letting line out in two-to-three foot bursts under light tension using a lift-and-drop method with the rod. (This is what Bill Herzog dubs “drift mending” in his book and in subsequent articles for STS.) Be ready to clamp your thumb on the spool and strike hard as about 20% of the hits come on the drop or the feed. Stop giving line and feel where the spoon is. If it is clanking bottom or not pulsing, get on the reel or perhaps jerk the rod tip 6” or so to start the spoon working. If it’s gently throbbing as it swings, then you’re fishing!

 

I like fishing spoons standing in water that’s between knee- and nut-deep. That way I can let the spoon swing all the way till it’s straight below me, and still know that a following steelhead has enough water to keep him on target. I don’t have the patience to let the spoon hang below me for a long while before retrieving, though this is certainly good advice. What I do instead is slowly crank the reel for ten revolutions at the end of each swing to give any followers a last chance to hit. After ten dead slow cranks, I put the reel in overdrive to get the spoon back. My fishing partners and I have caught 20lb’ers on the retrieve up through water that was little more than knee deep. I don’t know whether these brutes were followers or just lying there undisturbed in the early morning calm. Just remember that sometimes big fish will be in very close to shore in low light, unpressured conditions.

 

3. Start your spoon campaign very high in the run – maybe even across from the white water at the head. You have to be far enough upstream that a long cast, plus up to four or five line feeds into the drift, still puts the spoon swinging seductively into the very top of the potential holding water.

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 Marty Michaelis looks exhausted after a 15-minute battle with this spoon-caught buck

4. Modify the traditional “grid”. Whenever you start fishing a new piece of water, you do begin by fishing the grid (i.e., casting multiple times from the same spot, with the distance between casts lengthened by an amount equal to the clarity of the water). You’re ready to move when you’ve made your longest cast across the current and achieved a good drift (i.e., the right speed with a couple of bottom ticks). Step down the run a distance equal to the visibility of the water: three feet of viz, step down three feet; ten feet of viz, step down ten feet. The first two or three times you step down, you stick with the grid pattern of three-to-five short-to-long casts. This ensures that the holding water directly below you (the “near water”) is well covered.

 

Once you’ve stepped down 30 feet or more, and made your 3-5 casts at each point along the way, the near water has been covered. There’s no more fresh water touched by any cast other than the longest one. Abandon the grid. Instead you can cover all the new water by banging out your longest cast and fishing it all the way through. As you’re looking for “first strike” fish (fish that hit the spoon the first time they see it), there’s more to be gained by fishing fresh water than re-hashing old water. To repeat, once you’ve covered the near water with a series of short casts, you only need one cast from each new spot to cover all the new water.

 

Keep moving! One of the big advantages of spoon fishing is that you cover more water more quickly. You won’t catch every fish, just the aggressive ones that most often hit with the subtlety of train wrecks. If you keep moving you may well end up catching as many or more than anglers using any other method (including bait). Along the way, you’ll confirm that spoons really do provoke assaults from larger than average steelhead.

 

5. Don’t despair if the majority of your drift appears to be wasted with (lots of) mending and feeding line and relatively little swinging/ wobbling. The traditional approach of “Cast across stream, let the spoon sink and crank the handle slowly” is working the spoon too high for maximum effectiveness. Any time I see a gear fisherman working a spoon in that fashion, I know I can pick his pocket fishing right behind him. The majority of the fish are not going to come up two or three feet to hit a spoon. And even if they are willing, their ability to see/ sense a spoon is far less than if the spoon is swinging towards them at more or less eye level. So unless you’re directly overhead a kamikaze fish, having the spoon wiggling higher and faster is of little use. Even worse, when this high spoon reaches the prime water it’s out of the zone.

 

6. Use the lightest spoon that works properly for the water conditions. I am indebted to Jason Dorey and Jason Harris, two Terrace BC steelheaders, for challenging conventional thinking with this viewpoint. Therefore, the order of preference is always from lightest and most action to heaviest and least action. I prefer "Marty’s Mutts" (5/8 oz teardrop wobblers patterned off the Gibbs K-3 design and available via www.steelheader.net), Mortac #2's (2/5 oz), Mortac #3’s (2/3 oz) and, finally, a one ounce Gibbs Croc, Luhr Jensen Croc or Daredevle-type spoon body for the heaviest water.  BC Steels, Gibbs Ko-hos and Little Cleos (among others) can be freely substituted for the Mortacs.

 

The heavier, narrower spoons get down quicker – perhaps so quickly that you can dispense with the mending and feeding line – but the problem is that they are too heavy to work with maximum effectiveness in light or average steelhead holding water. Given a choice, I’ll always “Cast, mend, mend, mend, feed line, feed line, engage spool and then follow the drift with the rod tip gently throbbing” in preference to “Cast, count to three or four and begin cranking in fast enough to keep from snagging/ feel the spoon wiggle.”

 

Sometimes when fishing particularly slow, shallow or snaggy water we quarter the cast downstream, and then feed line (usually one or two bursts) into the drift before letting the current work its magic. Sometimes we have to begin reeling back in after the first bottom bump to get the lure working properly (or avoid a hang up). Later on in the same cast, as the water deepens, we may feed line to keep the spoon flashing and twisting away just off the rocks.

 

The second breakthrough imparted by Messrs. Dorey and Harris (the “two Jay’s”) is that wobblers tell you where the fish lie. If you can find water of sufficient depth so that a swung 5/8 oz wobbler has the optimal wiggle within a foot of the bottom, then you’ve found a perfect steelhead resting spot. Fishing spoons (esp. wobblers) may be the best way to help newbies learn to recognize good holding water. Over and beyond the other two bonuses spoons offer – fast work and attracting big fish – the maxim that “wobblers find holding water” is extremely useful.

 

7. Use metallic colors with contrast to heighten spoon appeal. We fish copper/ nickel-plated 5/8 oz wobblers (dubbed the “Mongrel”) with great success. Other color combinations that work well include silver-plated spoons with a strip of fluoro pink tape on the concave side; copper backed with green tape; and gold with fluoro yellow tape. For the brighter days, very clear water and/ or worked-over fish a hammered black ½ oz wobbler backed with green tape takes otherwise stale steelhead. In general, early and late in the day find us using silver, with copper and gold preferred when the sun is on the water. We also carry a variety of garish fluoro yellow, red and orange spoons for off-colored water. We don’t find there is any difference in the attractiveness of hammered vs. smooth finished spoons, either.

 

8. Fish the best spoons money can build. To me the absolutely worst way to lose a fish is through “pilot error” – either a gross mistake such as slack line during the fight, a pulled hook due to a rock-dulled point, or, heaven forbid, straightened out split rings or failed knots. Store-bought spoons seldom if ever feature components that can stand up to 20lb’ers worrying their jaws against river bottom rubble. Use the best quality components you can find. We build our own spoons using saltwater strength #5 and #6 split rings; #7 heavy barrel swivels; and Gamakatsu 2/0 and 3/0 Siwashes. I touch up the Siwash points with a file if they dull, but am quick to change hooks when the points begin looking chiseled. The two Jay’s also reliably inform me that you may also wish to experiment with different hook sizes to impart different actions to your spoons. This can make a difference on tough days. In addition to the hook points, also check the condition of the split rings after every hookup. Inspect your knots, too. If something doesn’t look perfect, re-tie or change it.

 Finally, I check the hook and cut off and re-tie the spoon after every steelhead hook-up. It’s cheap insurance and gives you the confidence to really push your tackle to the limits when you’ve got a big fish on.

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This big buck hit in 3’ of soft water as Brad West slowly reeled up.

Brad West is Singapore ’s keenest steelheader, though he began fishing spoons only three years ago. Several of the ideas described in this article were developed in bulletin board exchanges on www.steelheader.net and in emails exchanged among Marty Michaelis, Jason Harris, and Jason Dorey. Pictures taken by Jason Harris, Jason Dory, Brad West and Marty Michaelis

 

Ó 2002 Brad West