Tillamook County is blessed with an abundance of rivers that hide secret prizes and angling adventures. Like the silver-sided prizes called winter steelhead that require anglers to endure tough outdoor conditions to catch them.
Yet, steelhead fisherman Mark Anderson told me that he loves this time of year when winter’s cold and wet conditions rule.
“This is the kind of day you like to be on the water. It’s cold but the sun is shining, no rain in sight – wow,” noted the longtime angler.
Anderson said Tillamook county waterways like the Wilson River hold fast water secrets.
The two of us moved along the banks of the small Oregon coast range river – looking for the small pockets of whitewater where Anderson said, “eager biters” like to hold.
“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.”
Anderson has learned that it is important to be on the move. He rarely spends more than 30 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 river-shed, 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 confident 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.
He then began casting his jig into the foamy water again and said, “That was great – maybe we’ll get another one!”
That was a promise sure to please the gathering of anglers a few miles downriver at the Smith Family Homestead Wayside along Highway 6.
It’s where a Steelhead Clinic sponsored by the Tualatin Valley Chapter of the NW Steelheaders.
The NW Steelheaders is an Oregon based sport fishing and conservation group.
The organization’s President, Tom VanderPlaat, said their clinics teach newcomers tips, tactics and techniques for catching steelhead.
“Well, you got to start somewhere and so we teach them how to put the gear together,” said VanderPlaat. He added, "So we make sure they’re using the right gear; using the right kinds of things that catch steelhead.”
The NW Steelheaders have been doing it right for nearly six decades in 11 chapters across Oregon.
For more than 2,000 members, it’s not just how to catch a fish – but also understand what fish need to thrive.
The NW Steelheaders donate time and raise money to buy expensive aquariums so students can raise eggs to fry in 45 Washington County schools.
We recently joined a group of NW Steelheaders on their so called “delivery day.”
NW Steelheader, Leroy Schultz, held 500 trout eggs that were donated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The eggs become fry over the next six weeks.
The “Eggs to Fry” experience is a launching point for important teachable times as the fish become the foundation for writing assignments, science vocabulary, math lessons and even art projects.
“They’re going to be the keepers of our rivers and lakes and we want them to know that they are going to carry that responsibility and carry on for us in the future,” said Schultz.
He added that there are now more than 700 tanks are in Oregon classrooms and each tank serves more than 90 students.
“Those are our future fishermen in those second, third and fourth grade classrooms,” said VanerPlaat. “They’re learning about the life cycle of salmon, steelhead and trout. They get real responsibility to raise those fish.”
Meanwhile, back on the Wilson River, NW Steelheader instructor, Tim Lenihan, offered hands-on lessons to newcomer Marika Synak.
I wondered how she was doing?
“Well, she’s never cast with a rod and reel until just now and she’s doing great – awesome actually!”
I asked Marika if she’d ever done anything like this before?
“Oh no, but I want to learn – I want to go catch these big fish that I see in magazines or online. This is a great way to start.”
I then wondered aloud, ‘Marika, did you know that they call winter steelhead a fish of a thousand casts?”
“Aahhh, not sure I like that part. But I do like the outdoors and being on the river and maybe I’ll catch one today!”
Marika’s eagerness and enthusiasm was addictive, according to instructor Lenihan. He added that many newcomers fall in love with the Oregon outdoors through the clinics.
“Our idea is to teach them the techniques! If someone catches a fish at one of these events, that’s a big bonus. But that’s not really the goal of getting them out here today. We want to teach the basics and where to cast and how to use the equipment and then motivate them to get out here on their own.”