Oregon winter steelhead fishing in full swing


I was finishing out a beautiful tailout, lifting my fly as it rounded a boulder, then dropping it into a promising bedrock slot. Matt had wandered down river with his switch rod. Our morning, so far, had been blissful. I started the day farming a fish after some solid head-shakes, so I figured I was done. The river served up one gorgeous run after another, all with the right depth and speed, all with juicy boulders and pockets that screamed “Steelhead!” And not a soul in sight.

Winter Steelhead Oregon

As I reeled up, Matt reappeared with a worried look. “How does it look down there?” I asked, hearing the thundering of a big drop below. He paused, then slowly explained, “Looks really crazy, man. I mean REALLY nuts.” I smiled, but I was nervous. Matt’s been in the front of my boat enough to know my respect (read: fear) of whitewater. And here he was again, braving another hairball float that neither of us had ever seen.

One giant boulder sat square in the middle of a tight, fast chute. I could imagine my beloved drifter pinned to that batholith, and the thought brought a lump to my throat. I’m that guy who passes out at the sight of other people’s blood. My overactive imagination visualizes the worst scenario as if it has already happened. I’m also overly attached to my boat. I really love it, and I know I’ll never find another one quite like it. Walking closer to the river’s edge, I tried to judge the width of the passages on either side of the boulder. There was plenty of room on the right as long as I could dig in with the oars. Tim Wagner, our steadfast navigator, and an experienced whitewater guide, assured me it was a piece of cake.

We loaded up and dropped into the rapids. No problem. My confidence was building. We swung another sweet, fishless run, then Tim got suddenly serious. “Okay, so the next one’s nothing,” he said. “Just down the middle. But right after that you’re going to have to pull over hard right. We’ll have Matt hang onto the boat while you and I scout the bad spot.”

Matt tended to the boat while Tim and I stood over the chute. There was one sharp rock that could not be avoided. I thought I could go left, but Tim said that was a VERY bad idea. I finally opted for the cheater’s route and roped the boat over a skinny side channel. The really big drop was still coming up, just around the corner. Here the river compressed into a narrows, with gothic walls of columnar basalt rising on both sides. We rounded the corner in slow motion, and there it was–the spot I’d been avoiding for ten years. We pulled over and scouted again. It just didn’t look wide enough, especially with a few feet of oar sticking out from either side. I fixated on a sharp rock that sat a couple of inches under the surface where my right chine would come down. It looked like a boat-splitter to me. But there was only one way out of the canyon, and this was it.

Winter Steelhead Oregon

Matt got out to snap a few photos while Tim and I ran the rapids. I pushed into it. One little turn, line her up, and WHOOSH! Intense speed, a split-second of stress as the boat was pushed toward the left wall, then total relief as the pillow on the wall pushed us back into alignment. Nothing to it. From there down it was smooth sailing, and all I could think about was doing it again. Over and over.

Winter Steelhead Oregon

We ended the day with one fat hen to the bank, two lost. Glorious by winter steelhead standards. Matt headed back to Eugene to be with his family. Tim and I drove into beautiful downtown Tillamook for a dinner date with Hickmanimal. La Mexicana is a little preserve of ethnic culture in an otherwise whitebread town. I always order the special, no matter what it is, and it’s always excellent. Especially with a cold Carta Blanca. Or two. That night Hickman and Sitka had the good fortune of sharing a room with me. I can only imagine the mental trauma suffered by Jeff and his wolfdog that night. I’m still living with the guilt.

Winter Steelhead Oregon

Next morning we ditched my rig in a parking lot and headed up a different river for another wild ride. Miguel Morejohn met up with us on the way, HD camera in hand. He’d been commissioned by the Native Fish Society to interview River Stewards for a film that was to be featured at the April fundraiser (don’t miss it!). Miguel already had some great footage in the can, having spent some quality river-days with Marty and Mia Sheppard out east. But Hickman was the golden goose, and Miguel followed him around like a Paparazzo. I showed up slightly hung over, and in no mood to be interviewed. Jeff and I started off a little surly. We were both a little uncomfortable having someone film the river we both liked to keep quiet. Miguel could sense our apprehension, but he played it cool. We all loosened up after a couple of miles.

Winter Steelhead Oregon

Around mid-day we came to the Money Water. It’s a quarter of a mile with four consecutive runs that all consistently produce fish. Right on queue, there came two scrappy sonsabitches scrambling down the slope to beat us to it! I really hate bank maggots when I’m in a boat! The same way I hate boats when I’m on the bank, or the way I hate jet boats when I’m drifting. Dammit!!! Then I realized they were both good friends of ours. Jeff gave them a wide berth and pulled into the lower half. Miguel announced that this very spot had produced his best fish of ’09. We suggested he stow the camera and jump in, and it didn’t take much coaxing. He swung a red and black Intruder, wading through a tricky boulder field. About two-thirds of the way through, he let out a howl and started thrashing his rod on the water.

“I think Miguel missed one,” I observed. “Yeah,” Jeff agreed. “Must have.”

Jeff followed Miguel through and had a bump, but nothing solid. I rigged a Ninja-black Intruder and followed both those goons for some sloppy thirds. Now I don’t know about you, but a lot of times just before I’m about to hook a fish, I’ll get this intense itch on my ass. It’s way down there under the waders, and if I try to scratch it above the waders, it just gets worse. So, as it often happens, I had one arm down my waders, scratching my ass, the other hanging onto the rod. Sure as hell, this angry buck ripped down on the fly and started freaking out. My other arm miraculously came free and I started for the bank. Miguel ran for the camera and filmed my rookie technique as I brought the fish into a soft little cove at the shore. It looked bigger close up–maybe ten or eleven pounds. And what a specimen! He didn’t show even a hint of rose on his gill plates, and had that blue tint around his eyes that says, “Yesterday I was in the Pacific!”

“Hey, Rob, hold him for some still shots,” Miguel requested.

I went for his tail and had him for just a second. He must have thought I was up to no good, because he shot out of there so hot and fast, he skipped out of the water in an arc, literally swam over a rock outcropping, hit the water and skipped across the surface. The hook had come free, thankfully. “Awesome!!!!” I yelled, laughing my ass off.

Winter Steelhead Oregon

I’m still pumped up over that fish. It’s strange how one experience like that can erase a mountain of fruitless effort. Just one of the reasons I love swinging flies for winter steel.


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8 Responses to Oregon winter steelhead fishing in full swing

  1. C says:

    Friggin’ sweet.

  2. banknote says:


    Ha ha, jk. I like to believe that you and that fish have been on a collision course called destiny since the beginning of time. I’m gonna try scratching my ass and see if I can catch up with some destiny of my own a little more often.

  3. Great post, was that this week? I’ve figured the water to be too low over there, but then again, this is my first winter steelheading, and most of what I figure turns out wrong!

  4. Matt Eifler says:

    So enjoyed the writing and pics. Thanks for a great read!

  5. Rob R says:

    Spencer, you’re right about the low water. The last two weekends down there have been low and clear. Usually I prefer higher water, or to be low in the river. But there are so many boats down low!! I’d rather swing over clear, fishless runs up high and explore new waters. Even if the fish are few and far between 🙂

  6. k8 says:

    Love this story! The rapids and the reward. Nice.

  7. duffy says:

    good sh$t. last time i went fishing i spent most of my time in the brush trying to resolve some excruciating p cramps

  8. Rob R says:

    mike, have you mentioned this to your doctor?

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