Combat Drift-Fishing Insights - by Timothy Kusherets (Author) Steelhead & Salmon Drift-Fishing Secrets
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Combat Drift-Fishing Insights

Get fish on the hook faster than any twenty other anglers

Timothy Kusherets

It's not always a bad thing to have many fishermen on the same water at the same time. Combat fishing, as it's called, can produce some insights that are easily overlooked when other anglers are not around: they can approximate some of the best spots to fish and the amount of fishermen can tell you how well the fishing really is; when the pressure is on it's not the gear you do use rather the gear that isn't being used that can make all the difference; pressured fish will also gravitate to holds that on any other days they would not. These three simple things will get fish on the hook faster than any twenty other anglers especially if they're shoulder-to-shoulder.
When fishing is good word spreads fast and fishermen will literally come out of the woods to find the best spots. Ironically, with so many fishermen in the deep recesses of nature it can feel more like a "fishing club" rather than solitary nature it would otherwise be; however, in many cases they wouldn't be there if the water wasn't producing winter fish. It's never a good idea to "squeeze" between fishing buddies even if fish are jumping all around them. Don't leave the area entirely, but don't fish right on top of jumping fish either. Most of the time salmon and steelhead jump they're not in the mood for biting; fish above or below where these acrobatic fish are holding. 
Once a glut of fishermen has been found it's worth sticking around even if you don't like that kind of atmosphere. Finding out what they're using will aid in taking pressure off fish in the same area. Getting a fish on is the same as telling everyone that you've got a secret, and they'll want to know what it is. Once the secret is out everyone on each bank and in boats will be using it in no time, and then the secret that suddenly produced will just as quickly stop. The easiest way to use this social dynamic to your advantage is to find out what's being used and then don't use it. It could come down to types of lines, scents, baits, lures, and weighting systems that pressure steelhead off the bite. "Looking" at those fishing techniques is the single best way to find out what is working versus those that are not. If that doesn't work a polite question of "What are they biting on?" will usually get a quick response. Baits and Scented Baits are just about everywhere winter fishermen go and usually only one or the other is producing, so it's best to take along shrimp, eggs, and worms for baits. Scented baits should be shrimp gel, shrimp liquid, salmon milt, and worm scent; these four are every bit as productive as natural baits. Taking baits and scents dramatically increases the amount of strikes versus those anglers who don't.  It's reasonably possible to spot bait fishermen from gear fishermen at a distance and the holds they're fishing.
River surfaces can tell you everything needed to find the best places steelhead love to hold. Whenever there is fishing pressure schools of fish will gravitate to water they ordinarily would not be found, and that's where to fish for them.  Every veteran angler knows that seams to eddies, tail-outs, pools, slots, and drop-offs are where fish can be found just about anytime of the year. When there is an excessive amount of pressure metalheads can be found near banks where there is very little water and literally appear right at your feet if care is not taken not to look before making that first step into the water. Pressured fish can also end up holding in substrate depressions in the middle of the river where there's no perceivable cover with the only thing hiding them is the refraction of daylight glare; when that happens polarized glasses can seem worth their weight in gold. Schools of fish can be found milling around in riffles no deeper than a foot of water with their backs slightly above the surface. Most fishermen that combat drift-fish don't even know to look for something as simple as that, and it can be that simple. So long as the pressure is on fish can end up holding in strange places, ironically, when they do it's almost always above or below where the pressure is being exerted by only a few yards. Under combat fishing conditions, anglers willing to probe these strange holding spots almost always get strikes within a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. 
It's entirely possible to fish the exact same area of water that is being pressured and get fish on the hook. In many cases it's not about the scent or bait, rather, how it's being presented to fish that keeps them off the bite. I've seen fish bite into offerings that were merely "cast" in a different direction, which can create a different drifting profile. It may sound too simple to be true, but it does work and many anglers have seen it. If all the predominant casts are between the ten and eleven o'clock positions at twenty-yards out then cast at the twelve o'clock position at the same distance. Casting in this way shortens the amount of optimal drift upriver, but lengthens it downriver where pressured fish could easily be holding. If, at the end of the drift, your offering is the only one steelies see then they'll strike at it. It's that simple. Changing up the direction, distance, and depth of a cast can make all the difference in the world.
Whenever taking on the task of a long fishing trip don't give up on a spot of water because it's being fished heavily. Anglers will usually congregate wherever winter fish are found, so that's a good sign to stop and check it out. If the bite is off, find out what's being used and then don't. If all the usual holds are not producing due the amount of fishermen try fishing those that are unusual. Vary the type of cast by distance, depth, and degree. All of these simple little tricks are enough to put pressured fish back on the bite. Be ready to adjust fishing tactics when that first hookup comes because other anglers combat fishing above or below you will race to fish the same spot; if that happens just adjust fishing tactics with one of the other tricks and you'll be back into metalhead hookups in no time.
If you'd like to ask the author about this article or other fishing topics e-mail him at or and for more drift-fishing information log onto his website Top Fishing Secrets@
The gentleman with the enormous grin is Jim. He told me that he had been trying to get salmon and steelhead on the hook using drift-fishing techniques for three years without a single bite. I spent about fifteen minutes showing him the details of his gear that needed changes and that if he was going to fish this river that he should also change his tactics since there were many other anglers fishing it at the same time. Jim had a fish on within another fifteen minutes after hitting the water. He didn't land it but it was his very first hookup. Throughout the day he had on another three; the next day he had on six, and the day after that he had nine, which he ultimately ended up with a whopper of a salmon weighing in at forty-seven pounds.
Here I'm battling a fish hooked while combat fishing a river that was heavily pressured by other drift-fishermen. When fish are pressured like that they will gravitate to waters that they would ordinarily try to avoid. If you're fishing water that has a lot of pressure look for holds above and below any glut of fishermen and start fishing. Take a look at the slinky dangling between the mainline and leader. When fishing pressure is on try using a longer leader, smaller offering, and using a small hook regardless of the clarity of the water.
Fishing tactics have to be adjusted when fishing pressure is on. Salmon and steelhead can be still motivated to strike when you know how. The fishermen in the background were actually doing me a favor without realizing it. Because they were wearing bright clothing both species of fish could see them easily giving all the fish a bad case of lock-jaw. Drift-fishing above them I crouched down as close to the surface as I could and then cast out to hook into this great late running fish. It was released immediately after the photograph was taken.