I spent the Christmas holiday in Pacific City, Oregon with my fiance’s family. Pacific City is an amazing home base for river fishing. There are the Neskowin, Three Rivers, Little Nestucca, and Salmon Rivers all nearby and holding fish. There is a winter steelhead hatchery on Three Rivers, but typically of any winter hatchery steelhead river the rush of fish brings a rush of crowds to the banks. I overheard at the tackle shop in Hebo that the vehicles at the hatchery hole were “stacked in like cord wood”. Katlin’s family has a farm above the hatchery and I’ve had success fishing for both native salmon that are passed through the hatchery weir and resident cutthroat which seem to be always around.
The area had been hit by heavy rains and the big river, the Nestucca, had a chocolate milk quality to it and was close to flood stage. I’d spent a couple days trying to get some bites at my favorite hole on the Kellow Fur Farm up above the Cedar Creek Hatchery and decided early on day two to head out to explore the Little Nestucca River and see if it was in better shape.
The Little Nestucca runs along Highway 130, which I headed up via 101 from Pacific City. The river is a thing of beauty and despite the rains had beautiful water clarity, a nice steelhead green. I saw at least a dozen promising pools as I searched for a safe pullout and route down its steep banks to the river. I didn’t have to drive far before finding one of the more beautiful pools I’ve seen in person. There were two fisherman working it with spoons so I initially drove past them searching for some solitude, but a narrow canyon portion above the pool convinced me that I’d have a better chance getting into a fish below the major whitewater I was seeing upstream…so I turned around. I went back to the hole where the two other anglers were fishing and tried to determine if it would be feasible or even polite to squeeze in above them without interfering with their experience.
Lucky for me I watched one of the anglers pack up and climb if the trail to the road. I asked out my window if he’d have any luck and he said that they’d been hooking some cutthroat. I pulled myself out of the truck with my gear and luckily the other gentleman was packing up and heading out as well, leaving me alone at the fishiest spot I’d seen all week.
The pool was perfect for float fishing with all of the components (head, body, and tailout) within one long drift on the centerpin rod. Being by myself, I started my drift at the head of the pool and simply let it float through the body and to the top of the tailout. I had never caught or seen salmon or steelhead in this river but had been told by my soon-to-be father-in-law that they were in there. ODWF describes the steelhead and salmon fishing as “fair” on this river.
With this information in the back of my mind I soon gave up on float fishing and thought I’d switch to some smaller spinners to try and get a cutthroat while I was there. I worked my way down the hole with a small bronze spinner and when I got to the top of the tailout I saw two steelhead swimming nearly at my feet. I stopped putzing around with the spinners and immediately switched back to the centerpin.
While I was in Hebo visiting the local tackle shop I decided to pick up some locally made steelhead jigs. It’s a habit that I believe brings me a a little good luck when fishing away from home. Help support the local economy and use what the locals are using to catch some fish.
I tied on a local 3/8 oz pink maribou jig with a flashy body and within ten minutes landed what I thought may have been a steelhead, but soon realized that it was just a late-run native coho. I was a bit off my identifcation game because I had seen two steelhead (where there’s one there’s another), but had also seen a larger fish rise above the tailout (A coho is more likely to break surface in my experience). The v-shaped tail and hooked beak gave it away for me, but I was still surprised that I was catching a bright-ish coho this late into the season.
After a quick picture I retrieved my jig and revived the fish and he swam away with strength. I have to say that the coho didn’t fight much, a few head shakes but no real runs that would normally have me on my toes with the centerpin. Still a beautiful fish and I felt lucky as I always do when I catch a native fish in a beautiful setting.
I took Sunday off from fishing and our plan was to head back to Seattle around noon on Monday. I carefully broached the idea of me going out one last time to my fiance with the idea that I’d be fishing before anyone woke up anyways and back with enough to time to pack and say some goodbyes to the family. She was alright with that and so I headed out before dark on Monday morning, hoping to be the first (or even better, only) fisherman at the hole at sunrise. Highway 130 is a narrow, curvy road with a view of the river and its many fishing spots for miles. You can bet that if you see a vehicle parked on the side of the road that means a fisherman is down on the bank getting a line wet. The river’s access does not suggest any sort of combat fishing and on the contrary, seems to lend itself to the kind of reclusive style of fishing I prefer: Away from the hatchery crowds and elbow-elbow, synchronized casting gong show. I’m bringing this up because if I see a truck parked at a spot where I know there is a fishy stretch of river, I keep driving. There are too may great spots to crowd another angler looking for solitude.
So I got to the hole early, probably too early as I had about a half hour to kill before there was enough light to see a float going down. I started at the head of the pool, using a orange and white maribou jig with a white head. This is a pattern that I have caught some coho on before and an appropriate one for the ever-so-mildly colored up water this early in the morning. I saw a fish surface right at the top of the pool behind a tree that had fallen down the steep opposite bank and into the pool. Long eddies were swirling on both sides of the head as the pool was being fed by a narrow canyon portion that was frothing with white water just up river.
WIth no bites or bumps twenty minutes in, I was starting to go over in my mind potential adjustments to my offering. Just about when I settled on a change the float goes down. I set the hook and had a couples strong head shakes before I see my line go limp, soon realizing the fish has swam directly across the bottom half of the pool body. I have to put a quick spin on my reel to get caught up and get tension on the fish again. As soon as I get pressure again the fish takes a run in the opposite direction, peeling off line.
Knowing that what I had was more significant than the other fish I had caught in the pool (more energy, stronger head shakes, and violent runs) I started going through the inventory in my head of all the things that could go wrong. Knots and weak points being at the foremost of those thoughts. I couldn’t do anything about that at this point and snapped back to worrying about the fish taking my line across the lip of the shelf in the pool or heading downstream below the pool. The steelhead took about four more significant runs before I had it close to the bank. I had lost a coho earlier in the year horsing it in because of some serious logs in the river, so I was careful to let it tire out significantly before I banked it. My arm hurt and my heart was thumping as I quickly snapped a photo, popped the jig out of its mouth and released it.
Photographs are important to me for not just memories but also to help keep track of the elements in my gear that work. I’ve caught all my steelhead and salmon on the centerpin using Drennan floats. They’re expensive but if you’re careful with them they’ll last a long time. Flourocarbon line and well-spaced split shot (spacing depends on the water speed) are other elements that I never change. A photograph reminds me of my leader length and size as well. I don’t love knocking any scales of a fish but am more careful with my salt water catches than river ones. Many of these fish, especially in a rocky river like the Little Nestucca, have beat themselves up on rocks just getting upstream. Regardless, I’ll spend as much time as it takes to revive a fish and make sure that jig hooks avoid snagging gills and pop them out with care. Here’s a good article from Northwest Sportsman on handling native steelhead.
I was pretty happy with myself after this and paused for a ten minute break before getting my line back in the water. This fish had fulfilled a goal I have every winter of just getting one steelhead. Any more than that is a bonus and any less leads to a long off-season of self-doubt and disappointment. The fight this fresh fish put me though stacks on its value. It assured me that I’ve come a long way in developing and implementing a system for centerpin fishing that works for me. With all of the variables and opportunities for failure, having a fish really put me through the ringer as I fight it is rare experience and one that I won’t forget.