By: Brad West
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
Mint-bright and punching well above her weight, this 35” hen was all Brad West could handle
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
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).
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
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.
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.
Marty Michaelis looks
exhausted after a 15-minute battle with this spoon-caught buck
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
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
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.
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.
This big buck hit in 3’ of soft water as Brad West slowly reeled up.
Pictures taken by Jason Harris, Jason Dory, Brad West and Marty Michaelis
Pictures taken by Jason Harris, Jason Dory, Brad West and Marty Michaelis
Ó 2002 Brad West