Fishing for steelhead can sometimes inspire obsession among those brave enough to battle often bitter fall conditions on the southern Kenai Peninsula’s three main streams.
But this time of year is best for rookies and the experienced alike, said Nick Ohlrich, co-owner and guide of Alaska Drift Away Fishing.
Steelhead, which are sea-run rainbow trout, are usually leaner and meaner than regular trout and can put on an “impressive show” when caught, Ohlrich said. They fight like a smart salmon, he added.
“They are really hard to catch and they are really finicky,” he said. “The bite can be real, real light where you can’t tell if it is a bite or the bottom so sometimes you are hesitant to pull back because you don’t want to pull yourself out of the drift. All of sudden you set that hook and it is like setting into a cinder block. They freak out. They fight hard. They are cool fish.”
The southern Peninsula’s three streams — the Anchor River, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River — all host a fall run of steelhead that starts in early October and usually reaches its peak in the middle of the month.
Paul Tornow, co-owner of Alaska’s Angling Addiction, said he has a hard time picking a favorite stream among the three when seeking steelhead.
“I like them all — it is hard for me to choose one distinct river because they are all different,” he said. “The Ninilchik is a nice slow rolling, meandering river and it’s crazy that you can pull 30-inch class fish out of that creek.
“You’ve got Deep Creek and you can hike up that thing for miles and still find fish. … The Anchor, it seems like it has the potential to pull some huge fish and I’ve had days where we pull triples to the bank — three steelhead on at one time.”
When approaching a steelhead river, Tornow said, anglers should consider two things — water condition and location.
Fishing is best when the water is clear and calm and the river isn’t too high, he said. If conditions are bad, Tornow said he won’t even thread a line. If conditions are right, then anglers can choose between fishing the upper portions of the river or the lower, tidal-influenced areas.
“If you are fishing tidal water, you want to be getting your tide book out and determining when your low tides are,” Tornow said.
Anglers can have luck on salt water flies — smolts, streamers, eggs and darker patterns — as the tide comes in.
“As (the tide) turns and water starts pushing back in that pushes your fish in and you just kind of fish that,” he said. “As the water starts to rise on you, it gets deeper and those fish can sneak by you a little easier.”
Tornow advised leapfrogging from hole to hole.
“Go up to the next hole and it will still be shallow enough and those fish will just be holding in there just kind of waiting for it to get deep enough,” he said.
In the upper river, variety is the name of the game — nymphs, shrimps, smolts, leeches and especially eggs can be fruitful.
“That’s what’s cool about steelhead, they will take all kinds of flies — they’ll even take nymphs and leeches and stuff,” he said. “Sometimes if there are a lot of guys out there bead fishing and you throw a leech, you can be the odd man out and you can nail a couple of fish or a couple of those fish that wouldn’t grab that bead.”
Tornow said anglers can even throw a few dry flies on a sunny, warmer day in the upper portions of the rivers.
“You can even catch some Dollies between your steelhead fishing,” he said.
Ohlrich emphasized variety and experimentation when fishing steelhead, which he said are attracted to shiny attractors, similar in thinking to silver salmon.
“You have to get creative with your bead,” he said. “I think buying a bead and then just fishing it you’ll have some success, but I think you’ll have better success if you get creative and try to make that bead look a little more flashy.”
He suggested adding sparkles to a bead or a coat of shiny paint and fishing ripples, deep pockets and seam edges.
“If it looks fishy, try it,” he said. “Get in a zone and fish that zone for a while and if nothing is going on switch up a bead or put on a streamer — those work really good over there, too.”
Ohlrich said he fish steelhead a few weeks ago, but the water was high and a bit muddy due to recent rainfall.
“We had four guys hit three and landed two,” he said. “I haven’t been out since, but I’m assuming since the Kenai is dropping so should those rivers as well. Once that water drops and you get those windows where the water clears it should be good steelhead fishing.”
“I’ve been out a few times this year and I’ve had some luck and I’ve also been skunked a couple of times and found that the water was too big and too dirty for me to wet a line,” he said.
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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