Pocket Water Steelhead

March 15, 2013

The early signs of spring make the outdoors more inviting than usual, and that’s especially true for adventurous anglers who hike extra miles into deep river canyons to cast lures for Oregon’s “Pocket Water Steelhead.”

When you tag along with Mark Anderson for some pocket water steelheading, be ready to put in your time scrambling and rambling down and then back up steep sloped river canyons. Anderson loves to explore places that make you feel more mountain goat than two-footed angler.  And we kept moving along a small Oregon coast range river, looking for the small pockets of whitewater where the “eager biters” like to hold.

It was a day marked by brilliant sunshine during an unusually extended dry period. “Pocket water is the very head of a river’s run where it riffles before it levels off and smoothes out,” noted the longtime angler.

Anderson likes to cast into a river’s hidden places where water narrows and races so to reach deep holes that hold big fish. “Fish will tuck in at the head of that hole because it provides cover for them and they feel safe,” he said.

He entices fish to bite colorful hand-tied feather covered “jigs” that ride the river under a simple bobber. It is easy to admire the simplicity of his rigging, for it’s back-to-basics fishing: a lure, some leader, a bobber and a cast, and you’re fishing. It’s so simple anyone can try. Even me!

I reach for one of Anderson’s offerings: a bright, red-feathered jig that is wrapped around a “twin barbell” weighted jig. Anderson called the jig one of his “Sure-fire, can’t-miss lures.”

I cast the entire affair and it splashed into milk white foam to ride the downriver current; this was pocket water steelhead fishing at its finest. “Hey, hey, hey – there we go!” I shout as Anderson’s bobber disappears into the cloudy foam. “A big buck native steelhead,” he cried. “It was resting right there in that current and grabbed the jig as it rushed past. Wow!”

The big, ten-pound steelhead, marked by a red crimson bar the length of its lateral line, charged deep toward the river bottom and then twisted and shook the hook as it swam away to even deeper water.

The big fish was down and then gone in a heartbeat, but Anderson said true anglers are never down and out when it comes to pocket water steelhead. “I love it too,” he said with a grin. “Because all of this – the lures, the bobbers, the other gear – all made in Oregon and it’s important to support the local angling shops.”

Mark’s the owner of his favorite local shop called “First Bite Jigs.” It’s his Oregon-grown business and he has created thousands of feathered jigs based upon a lifetime of experience that often has him thinking like a fish. “The first thing a fish sees is the color. The color is critical in attracting them and then it’s the action and the presentation. So, shrimp-pink is just an all-time favorite color for salmon, steelhead and trout. It’s akin to something they have seen before,” he said.

For the past 12 years, Anderson’s First Bite Jigs has been out in front and successful in an increasingly competitive fishing lure business. He insisted that spreading the word about jig fishing for steelhead and salmon is his ultimate goal – no matter how many competitors he faces each year.

He loves to spread the word about how much fun it is to go jig fishing and he has even produced a program, “The Art of the Jig” that shows others how it’s done. “That is probably the biggest project I’ve ever done. How to spot fish, casting to the fish and hooking a fish – it’s demonstrated and tied all together.”

These days, his customers range across the planet and they are tied together by common appreciation for the native Oregonian’s work. Anderson owns scores of worldwide photos that his customers have sent from South America through Europe, Alaska to the Great Lakes. It seems that no matter the water and location, the fish that live there are crazy eager to try a First Bite Jig and the photos are marked by grinning anglers and usually a colorful jig hanging in a trophy fish’s jaws. “The old saying, ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words,’ is so true,” said Anderson.  “You can tell the story but if you have one picture it completes it.”  He added with a grin, “Plus, the bigger the fish, the bigger the story, so it’s all pretty neat.”

Back on the river, local angler Steven Randolph told us that pocket water steelheading is “pretty neat” too. We watched as he landed and carefully released a gorgeous ten pound wild steelhead. “Awesome and epic,” said the young angler with a mile-wide smile. “My second steelhead ever and that was my first native fish. This is just fantastic!”

Anderson likes to move – a lot – and you need to be in tip-top shape to keep up with him. It’s the way he was taught for he was a young “tag-along” with his dad, a dedicated fisherman who fished for salmon and steelhead every month of the year. Anderson has learned that it is important to be on the move. He rarely spends more than thirty minutes at each spot because more pocket water steelhead wait around each bend. “I never really quit steelhead fishing. It’s my year round passion and I always seem to have a rod that has a jig on it for steelhead in April and May for the winter run – and then the summer runs take over. Oregon is blessed with opportunities and I so love that about my home state.”

At a favorite location, high in the rivershed, Anderson cast across a small pocket of whitewater where he thought a fish might hold.  In a matter of seconds, his bobber disappeared. “There he is!” noted the confidant angler who had experienced this routine many times before.

It was a wild steelhead – about 8 pounds – somewhat dark and sporting the tell-tale crimson bar across the length of its jaw. He quickly landed and released the fish, then began casting his jig into the foamy water again and said, “That was great – maybe we’ll get another one!”

It was a promise that made the day long hiking adventure that included hours of bouncing from spot to spot, and was so worthwhile. Anglers should spend a day and get to know a river well by exploring for Oregon’s pocket water steelhead.

In addition, check out the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s new guide to Summer Steelhead fishing. It will help you take advantage of a forecast run size of more than 400,000 summer fish returning to the Willamette and Columbia Rivers beginning in May.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.