Cougar Country Card Crushers: 7 Deadly Eastern Washington Steelheaders
TRI-CITIES—Can’t say this Wazzu grad has ever been prouder than the day earlier this fall when I got an Excel file from a source at WDFW which showed that 12 of the 17 steelheaders who turned in full punchcards – 30 fish – after the 2007-08 campaign lived on the crimson-and-gray side of the Cascade Curtain.
The Mutts of Montlake may be winning football games again, but by god, we’re kickin’ ass when it comes to fishin’!
A COUG BATTLES AN EASTERN WASHINGTON STEELHEAD. (ANDY WAZZUGAMOTT)
Of course, not everyone on the Eastside is automatically a Coug (Steve Emtman, you miserable traitor), but that disparity was intriguing. How could it be, especially considering the bulk of the state’s steelheaders (and population) live on the wetter side of the mountains?
Are the boys in Richland, Walla Walla, Spokane, Wenatchee and Clarkston just better anglers than Huskysiders?
Do the fish bite more in the land of sage, pines and fine wines?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, is Eastern Washington actually the Evergreen State’s steelheading paradise?!?
As much as I’d like to answer those three questions affirmatively, to preserve the magazine’s last shreds of journalistic integrity, I have to admit that it’s actually very difficult to make Johnagold-to-Crab Apple comparisons.
Realistically, it probably all comes down to health of the runs. To crack lots of noggins, you must first have lots of noggins to crack. Case in point, 2009’s massive run up the Columbia and Snake.
Awaiting all those fish are the following seven punchard-filling fish filleters, guys who were surprisingly eager to share their knowledge. Here’s who they are and how they crush ’em:
THREE-PEATING Go ahead, pass drift boater Eric Stein.
He doesn’t mind, really.
ERIC STEIN OF YAKIMA WITH A GRANDE RONDE RIVER STEELHEAD. (ERIC STEIN)
The Yakima building inspector will pull aside rather than get into the morning’s race down to the next hole with the hordes of other steelheaders on the Klickitat and Grande Ronde these days.
“You’ve got to figure out ways to find the fish with that many guys on the river. I’ve found that with steelhead fishing, you don’t race. You end up skipping water if you do. I’d rather fish behind boats than race and not catch any fish.”
It also allows Stein, 43, to better put into effect the third of his three personal rules for punching a card.
“You’ve got to cover the water multiple ways,” he says. “I believe fish are in different modes. I don’t spend a lot of time, but if I know there are fish in the hole, I’ll try two methods, if not three.”
On the Klick, which he typically floats 30 times from June through November, it means throwing size 4 Blue Fox spinners, drifting Corkies and eggs or shrimp, and running jigs with or without eggs, shrimp or plain prawns under a bobber.
He uses the latter two methods on the Ronde, which he runs 10 to 15 times a winter.
Stein focuses completely on knowing every single rock, deflection point and holding spot in each hole.
“Small pockets will hold these fish – and a lot of guys ignore them,” he says.
That touches on his second rule – “You’ve got to cover a lot of water.”
And Stein’s first? “You’ve got to go fishing.”
LYONS HEARTED The 41-mile drive across the dirt and scabrock of the western Palouse between Ritzville and the Snake might put some to sleep, but self-described “old fart” Lowell Becker has his eyes wide open once he’s on the river.
“You pick up something every time you go down,” says the 74-year-old retired military man. “No one thing works day in and day out.”
That said, he’s fond of his homemade 1/4-ounce jigs – which feature black, purple and a “touch” of red deer hair, as well as Crystal dubbing – baited with shrimp for the steelhead that pull into Lyons Ferry, where there’s a hatchery.
“There are no big secrets. Just keep at it,” says Becker.
Nonetheless, he did give me a few more details. For starters, he likes his bait only 4 feet under his float, which is actually just a cheap (“Twelve for $7”) chartreuse or orange plastic casting bubble like you would use to wing a fly way out on an alpine trout lake. And he uses wax to keep his line floating on the surface of the Snake to better set the hook.
Becker also targets a specific water temperature range: “I like to hit it when it hits 48 to 50 degrees,” he says.
That means he’s fishing in late fall, but he’s not afraid to put in long days. “We fish from o’dark thirty to 3 or 4 p.m.”
BIPPES’ TIPS Walter Bippes remembers the days you drift-fished the lower Snake, before the four dams were stretched across the mighty river.
Then came a period when the retired pipefitter and former city of Walla Walla employee plunked for steelhead.
But these days, the 73-year-old College Place resident can be found floating bobbers and bait along the Columbia, Snake, Tucannon and Touchet rivers.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Bippes.
Part of the fun, no doubt, is also making his own lures. He crafts 3⁄8-ounce jigs on light-wire hooks, which he baits with dyed shrimp.
Then, at the river, he’s constantly tinkering with the bobber stop.
“I’m moving that jig up and down every other cast. I’m moving it until I find the right depth they’re at. A lot of guys don’t do that. I was at Little Goose two weeks ago,” Bippes said in late September, “and caught nine, the other guys nothing. Finally one asked how deep I was fishing, and I said 18 feet.”
The others’ baits weren’t even half that far down.
Watching fish counts, Bippes follows the steelhead up from the Columbia into the Snake. And he freely admits to high-grading – downwards.
“The best-eating ones are the little A-runs, 8, 9, 10 pounds. The B-runs are too fat,” he says.
PURCELL’S TRENCH You’ve heard of Baileys and coffee, but how about a “Baileys’ Sandwich”?
Both would serve you well if, say, you’re bank fishing the north end of that defile known as Hells Canyon in late fall and winter – the former to stay warm, the latter to catch steelhead.
Steve Purcell of Clarkston learned about this drift-fishing cocktail from longtime Asotin County steelheaders Morris “Buck” Bailey, Stan Bailey, Curt Yount and Roy Bartlett, who he says have been angling together since “before the Korean War.”
Purcell’s steelheading career began much more recently. Back in the late 1990s, he worked with Buck’s son, Mike, who kept telling him about all the fish they caught.
“They claim that if two fish came up the river, Mike would catch one and Buck would catch the other,” Purcell laughs.
He grew curious and before long was Buck’s apprentice.
“I’ve been steelheading 12 years on this method, and I’ve caught close to 500 from Asotin to the mouth of the Ronde,” he says.
So what is this cyanide-deadly concoction they use?
“It’s a piece of ’crawler and shrimp, and they argue about which goes on first, but I was trained by Buck, so the worm comes first,” says Purcell, a 50-something graveyard shift employee of Clearwater Paper in Lewiston.
Some of “the amigos” run multiple Corkies to keep their bait off bottom, though Purcell uses a single anywhere from the smallest to the largest drift bobber made.
After that, it’s a matter of paying attention to that age-old adage about drift fishing.
“I suppose that’s the biggest secret,” says Purcell. “You really have to hit the bottom. Cast out at 1 or 2 o’clock and be on the bottom at noon. If you’re not touching, you won’t catch any fish. Touch too early and you’ll snag up.”
While the amigos have no qualms about clamboring off Snake River Road to a dozen spots in an outing, Purcell works five or six. He serves up Baileys’ sandwiches from mid-November through early February.
THE ALABAMA SLAMMER When I talked to Charles Parker, I had a Forrest Gump moment. The Alabama native, who lives in Hood River, Ore., fishes a lot of shrimp.
I mean a lot of shrimp.
“I go through probably 20 or 30 pounds a year,” says the 68-year-old retired U.S. Forest Service employee.
He special orders it from an Anacortes, Wash., skipper who cooks the 11/2-inch-long shellfish on the boat but doesn’t freeze them. Parker mojos the shrimp with Pro-Cure, mostly Redd Hot Double Stuff, for three or four days, adding a dash of salt to toughen them up even more.
Then he’s ready to fish the lower White Salmon and Klickitat rivers, and below John Day Dam with the rest of his rig: a slip bobber and size 2 or 4 red octopus hook.
“You catch a lot more with bait than you do with plugs,” he claims.
Parker moved to the Northwest in the 1960s and found a whole different world of fishing.
“When I first came out here, all I fished was bass and walleye,” he says.
Still does, primarily in spring, but with most of his friends heading out for salmon and steelhead, it was only natural he’d try it as well. His 18-foot Lund, or his fishing partners’ boats, can be seen on the water as often as six or seven days a week.
A FISHING-FRIENDLY JOB At 35, James Kesler was the youngest of the Eastside steelheaders with full cards that we contacted. And while his six years of actually targeting the species is just a fraction of how long some of these other guys have been angling, the Kennewick resident has plenty of time to do so thanks to his job driving a lumber truck.
“From mid-October to mid-February we’re real slow, so I have a lot of time to go fishing,” he says.
JAMES KESLER WITH A STEELHEAD. (JAMES KESSLER)
You’ll primarily find Kesler within 45 minutes of home along the Columbia, Snake at Charbonneau Park or the Walla Walla rivers.
And like Bippes, he’s a fan of float fishing.
“There’s not of lot of guess work to a bobber and shrimp,” he says.
But he will vary his presentation based on surface conditions.
“When it’s windy, I’ll fish with a jig, and I’ll use just a 1/0 hook on a calm day,” Kesler says.
One friend ties him jigs with some pretty mean “flash and trash” and another – guide Scott Atwood – sets him up on the bait front.
“I don’t know what he puts in it, but, man, that’s some fish-catching stuff. I’ve known him since high school and he still won’t tell me,” he says.
Maybe it’s the bait or maybe – as with Bippes, Purcell, Stein and Parker – it’s just time on the water that led to that full 2007-08 card, Kessler’s first season after a 10-year “life experiences” layoff from steelheading.
Then again with Kesler, it might be The Touch. He says his very first cast ever for the species, made on the Touchet River 16 years ago, produced his first fish.
“All I can say is, don’t get discouraged if you’re not catching fish. I started this season on June 16, have spent 150 hours on the river and have two fish,” he said in late September. “Once I get that first fish, it’s all over. That’s all I ever think about. If you find yourself waking up at night and setting the hook, you know you have problems.”
CROWDS, WHO CARES? It was interesting. When I called Eric Stein and Charles Parker for this piece, I assumed that they probably both fished at nearby steelhead-rich Drano Lake a lot, but neither did because of the crowds there.
“I can’t stand that place,” Stein swore.
But then I called another Yakima County angler and found out that he pretty much only fishes the cold-water refuge above Bonneville Dam.
“Where there’s good fishing, there’s a crowd, and that’s the way it is anymore,” shrugs the 69-year-old angler who didn’t wish to be identified.
When I spoke with the retired service tech for a major national retailer, he had literally just walked in the door from Drano. He fishes it up to five days a week from mid-July into October, and readily acknowledges that time on the water and a fishy location lend themselves to a whole lot of fresh, smoked and canned steelhead for his family and friends.
But he also credits the bait: shrimp, which he gets at Grumpy’s in the city of Yakima.
“In my opinion, they’ve got the best bait in the area.”
He dyes the holy hell out of it with not just one, not just two, but three different sauces, Bait Brite, Beau-Mac and another Pro-Cure product, to darken and harden them.
“It gets spendy the way I do it.”
A very generous dollop of sea salt also goes into the brine.
He runs a typical Drano setup for double-anchored boats off “the point”: bobber and enough line to fish the shrimp,on a size 2 hook, just off the bottom.
It wasn’t always this way. Ten or 15 years ago, he and others only trolled plugs or fished with eggs on bottom.
And then the float-and-shrimp revolution hit.
“That’s when we started catching fish,” he says.
Up until a few years ago, he’d fill his Washington punchcard at Drano through late summer then top off the smoker with another card’s worth of fish from the John Day in Oregon – all the while finding time to hit the Klick for silvers and hunt deer and elk.
“It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta do it,” he notes.
Indeed, someone’s gotta catch all those fin-clipped fish, and my boys in Cougar country appear to be up to the task. –Andy Walgamott