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Love that dirty water

A few days after a rainstorm, while his fellow steelheaders are home tying egg-loop hooks or shortening their honey-do lists, Buzz Ramsey knows where he needs to be.

"I've had some of the best fishing days of my career when the water was too high or dirtier than what other people think is fishable," says Ramsey, a Washington angler who is brand manager for Yakima Bait Co.

"You have plenty of fish around, lots of moving fish and no competition," he says.

But you don't need to be one of the Pacific Northwest's more famous steelheaders to catch fish in not-so-perfect conditions.

Finding success when the water's too high and too dark for conventional fishing comes down to a matter of knowing when, where and how to target steelhead — be it from boats or off the bank.

And the next two weekends are when anglers should be putting these tactics to work for themselves on the Rogue River. Forecasts call for it to rise and crest today after this week's rains and do the same again next Friday after approaching storm fronts move through.

Most seasoned steelheaders know that the fishing is far better when the water is dropping and clearing after a storm instead of rising and muddying during or immediately after a storm, when runoff peaks.

As the water rises and dirties, steelhead migration all but ceases. If anything, they will drop down in a river in search of a cleaner-flowing tributary to take refuge from roiling and turbid flows.

It's illegal to fish for winter steelhead in any Rogue tributary except two, the Illinois and Applegate rivers. But the mouths of other smaller tributaries — even intermittent ones that flow only during and after storms — are targets of choice, provided their water is cleaner than the mainstem Rogue.

"If you've got a little creek running in, stick a bobber and a worm in there," Ramsey says. "You might catch something."

The vast majority of winter steelheaders' high-water success, however, comes as the water drops and clears, when steelhead are really on the move. But just how clear is clear enough is a conundrum solved differently based on where you are on rivers such as the Rogue.

In the Grants Pass area, the answer comes from, of all places, the Grants Pass Water Treatment Plant.

One of the plant's many gauges is a turbidity gauge, which measures water clarity in Nephelometric Turbidity Units, or NTUs. That's why the website at http://bit.ly/1pyTvkw is bookmarked on the computers of many middle Rogue steelheaders.

"I say anything below 13 (NTUs) is when to go, but some guys say they can catch steelhead in as high as 20 (NTUs)," says Dave Bradbury, a steelhead lifer who owns Bradbury's Gun and Tackle shop in Grants Pass.

Steelheaders elsewhere on the Rogue must do a little calculating, because federal Natural Resources Conservation Service gauges on the Rogue and Applegate rivers no longer take turbidity ratings, just flow levels.

But those are useful for upper Rogue anglers, as well.

First, go online to the website for the Northwest River Forecast Center (http://1.usa.gov/1fu0TuH) and check the flow levels at Dodge Bridge, where Highway 234 bisects the Rogue near Eagle Point, and Gold Ray.

Then call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' flow phone at 1-800-472-2434 to get the outflow into the Rogue at Lost Creek Dam. If the dam outflow is more than half the Dodge Bridge flow, you're likely find the Rogue in a good, deep-green hue that's prime for steelhead fishing.

If math's not a strong-suit, travel up Highway 62 and stop at each bridge or boat ramp. As soon as it doesn't look like something out of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," start fishing.

At worst, fish upstream of the mouth of Big Butte Creek near Casey State Park. That's the first tributary downstream from Cole Rivers Hatchery, so the water will be clean regardless of flow.

But knowing when and where to go won't create success. Anglers need to change the water they fish to find steelhead in post-storm conditions.

Instead of nosing into currents, the steelhead will he outside the current line in slower water, often a few feet off the bank. Deep tailouts and flats that driftboat anglers ignore most of the year now come into play.

"Any place where the water slows down can be dynamite," Ramsey says. "Whatever you do, you've got to slow everything down."

When doing so, save your roe for the spring chinook salmon season.

Many high-water steelhead come to the net after biting large, bright corkies or Spin-Glo's either drifted through a slow run or fished off the bank using side-planers or by plunking — using a heavy tear-drop sinker to keep a Spin-Glo spinning in place on a gravel bar in as little as 2 feet of water.

The trick is to use something steelhead can see and smell in dirty water.

Scents ranging from crayfish to anise to various Smelly Jelly gels help entice steelhead to bite.

"Even in that high, muddy water, you can catch them close to the bank if you have some stink on it," Bradbury says.

Pink rubber worms also work well in turbid waters, as do nightcrawlers and watermelon-colored corkies.

Driftboat anglers often like to take advantage of migrating fish by using large, bright-colored plugs, often with rattlers. Chartreuse, red and pearl-white colors are good options, especially when fished in shallow water along the inside turns in gravel bars — migration lanes steelhead use as the water drops and clears.

Either highlight these spots on a particular river stretch or park in one and wait.

"When the steelhead are moving, they can come to you," Ramsey says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

This winter steelhead fell for a green and silver K-11 Kwikfish below Shady Cove last weekend. - Jamie Lusch