5 Steps to Steelhead Fishing Success
January 17, 2018
Here's your plan to start catching more when steelhead fishing.
In his classic book, "The Seasons of a Fisherman," Roderick Haig-Brown writes of an angler's home river: "All that matters is that it should be the stream he knows best, fishes most regularly and has adopted as his own."
Haig-Brown's careful observations and experimentation on his home stream, the Campbell River on Vancouver Island, led to astute discoveries of which only he might have imagined.
You might consider embracing the same diligent approach to steelhead fishing in your neck of the woods.
KNOW THY SYSTEM
Steelhead fishing is an angler's version of hunting.
You look for features that attract your quarry and you target those areas. Because rivers and streams are dynamic systems, the features that steelheads favor will change seasonally as flows respond to rainfall and snowmelt events.
In rivers managed for hydroelectric generation, flows may be altered on a daily basis in response to demand for power.
So what habitat features attract steelhead?
A primary concern for steelhead once they enter freshwater is not feeding but finding places to rest and hide prior to spawning. What's important to their survival is cover in the form of depth (i.e., deep water affords protection from terrestrial predators), a break in water surface such as a current edge or turbulence, shade from overhanging brush or trees, submerged boulders, and logs or root wads.
Do these places present a challenge to casting? You bet, but if you aren't losing gear, you are ignoring some of the best places to fish.
Perhaps the most important trip of the year is a pre-season check.
Walk your home stream at low flow before rain and snowmelt bring in the first freshet. Look for logjams, undercut banks, rapids and holes scoured out by high flows.
Where are likely holding areas located? Which side of the river should you focus your efforts? Are there places where you might cross safely? Use Google Earth to gain a landscape view.
If your favorite stream is large enough to launch a drift boat, inspect bottom features with the aid of a portable underwater video camera (but be sure to have someone else do the rowing). Several models are available for as little as $200.
You'll be surprised at what you learn. Note the pattern of gravels, cobbles and boulders on the river bottom relative to predominate current and shoreline features.
Create a mental map in your head of cover and predominate current patterns. How do these features relate to places where you or others have hooked a steelhead?
Gathering this information will help you draw connections between what you see on the water's surface and the underwater world of steelhead.
FACTORS THAT SHAPE A RIVER'S MOOD
Stream habitats are shaped by the amount of discharge or flow relative to the surrounding geology and physical gradient of a watershed. Stream flow is important to steelhead because it provides cover in the form of depth and turbulence.
Seasonal changes in flow are important because they trigger steelhead movement. Spend time understanding flow patterns in your home stream and you will catch more steelhead.
Under a declining hydrograph, pools, runs and riffles come into shape and wading becomes safer. As a result, most steelhead anglers prefer to fish when flows are stable or dropping.
One theory is steelhead stay within casting distance for longer periods of time under these scenarios than when water levels are on the rise. The down side to limiting yourself to this approach is that increasing flows stimulate fish movement to lower velocity areas, including side pools and edge habitat.
Boulder and debris dams also attract under these conditions. A challenge is reduced visibility due to turbidity or increased amount of suspended solids in the water column. Larger baits and lures having contrasting color become important during high flow periods, while stealth is critical when water is low and clear.
Knowing stream conditions in advance of a trip will make you a more effective steelhead fisherman.
Plan ahead by dialing up stream flow information from regional U.S. Geological Survey websites. Observe your favorite steelhead stream over the course of the year and note how the hydrograph responds to rain and snowmelt events.
What is the relationship between stream discharge and water surface elevation? How quickly do flows subside after each freshet event? Under what conditions do steelhead enter a stream? What factors trigger their movement to upstream spawning areas?
Dedicate yourself to tracking the run throughout the season and under all flow conditions. Become a walking book of knowledge about the physical characteristics of your home stream.
NATURE OF THE BEAST
The more you know about steelhead behavior the better angler you will be. For example, do steelhead enter and hold over in selected areas, or do they migrate directly to a headwater spawning area? When and where do they spawn?
I am reminded of a friend who spent over a month fishing a Columbia River tributary wondering where all the steelheads went because he did not understand basic migration behavior. Meanwhile, the main run had long since migrated several miles upstream.
Is the local steelhead population composed predominately of wild or hatchery fish? In many Western rivers, peak timing for hatchery runs occur earlier than for wild fish. Restrictions on wild fish harvest may also make a difference when and where you wish to fish.
Although these questions are not trivial, finding good answers is relatively easy.
Make friends with local fish and game biologists. Join a local sportsman group. Guides can also be a source of useful information. Movement patterns of adult upstream migrant steelheads in the Columbia and Snake rivers and major tributaries are accessible from websites that track the timing and abundance at mainstem dams and other monitoring facilities.
State management agency websites typically release information on the number of juvenile steelhead released in a watershed. Knowing if the run exhibits a one-salt or two-salt life history helps predict the number of adult fish that might return in subsequent years.
There is no substitute for time spent on the water. Almost every steelhead stream I have fished on has at least one resident angler who fishes rain or shine, morning and night, all season long.
This angler knows far more about the river and trends in the local steelhead population than even the best fish checker. He knows these things because he has dedicated himself to learning all that he can.
PRACTICE NEW TECHNIQUES
It took this old dog several years to figure out that honing the same old trick did not always lead to reward. Growing up a drift-fisherman, there was no better feeling for me than the resonant "tap, tap, tap" of split shot ticking across the bottom of a stream.
I employed this method to present a baited hook regardless of its limitations until another angler stepped in behind me and pulled a mint-bright steelhead from the same location I had methodically worked over.
That fish did not magically appear. However, the other angler was able to put his lure in the strike zone more consistently using a drift bobber. And if there is a secret to catching steelheads, it's about getting your lure in the strike zone for the maximum amount of time.
If your preferred tool is a fly rod and you favor swinging a fly, you might also learn how to nymph pocket water.
In contrast, long slow pools may favor drifting a marabou jig below a bobber.
I've spent enough time with experienced fly-casters to know that all fly rods are not created equal. My ability to hook steelhead in large rivers increased markedly when I added a Spey rod to my arsenal. Adding this rod to my options afforded better line control and longer casting distance.
If you are more comfortable with a spinning rod, then reflect on conditions (such as a stiff breeze in your face or overhanging brush) that favor tossing lures with a spinning rather than a casting reel. A person can never have too many rods and reels.
Every year I try something new and different. It might be as simple as swapping out monofilament for braided line, using a different type or size of hook, varying leader length or tying on a different brand of spinner.
I recently incorporated a Mack's Lure Smile Blade to my shrimp-and-bobber rig for added attraction under conditions of low light. My fly box now includes an eclectic collection of tube flies.
Experiment with variations on the theme. Some experiments will fizzle, others will lead to pleasant surprises, but you will be smarter in the end.
THE HUMAN DIMENSION
A wild card in the deck is competition from other anglers for a dwindling resource. Steelhead runs in many rivers have been depleted in recent years due to a variety of reasons that include predation, dams, habitat loss and adverse ocean conditions.
The number of fish available for harvest has been further reduced in places where wild fish stocks are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Finding time to fish outside of holidays and weekends will provide more chances for arriving when flow conditions are optimum and improve the odds of hooking up with a fish.
Ever break an expensive graphite rod when the thermometer drops below freezing?
It happens. I've broken ice-glazed rod tips rolling up my truck window. I've dropped a tailgate on a rod tip. I've broken rod tips by jerking wildly after getting a lure stuck in a tree. Friends have stepped on rod tips.
Make sure you keep an extra rod back in the truck. While you are at it, lubricate your line with Real Magic to reduce icing and increase casting distance.
I joke with one fishing buddy about the amount of gear he brings along. His standard duffel bag fills the back seat of my truck. But guess who never gets cold or wet when we fish together?
I should know better because I regularly head for my favorite stream when it's sleeting sideways, hoping to have all the honey holes to myself. Spend your time casting, not fixing gear, hiding from the elements or warming your toes in your truck.
And before I forget: a variety of lucky hats should be kept available for every type of weather.
For me, steelhead fishing is a process in self-renewal. I keep in shape, either by working out at a gym, jogging around the block or via regular stretching exercises.
Perhaps nothing is more important than how you prepare mentally and physically for a season on the river. Survey the banks, read the water, assimilate data, prepare for the task at hand and you will become a better steelhead angler.