It may be “hunting season” but for some this means steelhead fishing. Decades ago, I traveled from New England to Oregon on a lengthy fall fly-fishing junket by train to hook my first one.
“Steelhead” as we anglers dub them, are simply rainbow trout that move to the sea, grow large and well-muscled before returning to the inland stream where they were born—or in the case of hatchery-raised and so-called “wild brood stock,” released. They’re sea-run rainbows if you will.
Anadromous fish, the mystery of their seasonal movements builds angler anticipation and makes this pursuit the somewhat mystical (and obsessive) thing it is. You can beat the crowds by four-wheeling further, fishing tackle stashed away.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Back East: New York’s Salmon and Oswego rivers offer shore and drift boat steelhead fishing. Lake Ontario tributaries are stocked annually with fingerlings, sustaining this fishery from year to year. Great Lakes steelhead fisheries include casting along the many tributaries in this broad general region. Michigan’s Muskegon River is one such traditional location.
Out West: The Pacific Northwest holds numerous steelhead fisheries. In Oregon these include the Clackamas River, plus fabled others such as the Deschutes and Rogue river systems. Just to the north, Washington offers steelhead angling on the Snohomish River (formed by the confluence of the Skykomish and Snoqualmie fisheries), isolated haunts in the Olympic Peninsula region, and plenty of others. Points north in western British Columbia, Canada such as the Skeena River drainage, see traditional steelhead runs.
Winter steelhead: So-called “winter” steelhead move into freshwater locations sometime between October and May. They spawn in the same winter and spring they’ve migrated to inland fisheries. As anglers, we base the designation between the two on seasonal availability and timing of the run.
Summer steelhead: This group enters freshwater between May and September. Immature fish may move with this seasonal trend (dubbed “half-pounders,” and good sport on fly rods), but typically the term is used for adult steelhead. In some locations, these fish hold all summer in deeper pools between shallower waters. Some have short migrations; some much longer.
WHAT TO CAST
Flies: The Woolly Bugger is universally reliable for trout and bass, as it is for steelhead. Traditional salmon streamers work well, plus egg-sucking leech patterns, and any high-profile fly. Use a floating line when fishing nymphs or “skating” big dry flies, and a sinking option for getting streamers down deep.
Lures: Flashy spoons and spinners trigger steelhead to strike. Cover the expanse of a deep hole, imagining the bottom structure there. Cast, let it drift... drop. Work upstream to the next pool. Study the currents.
Baits: Fish eggs (a.k.a roe or “spawn”) can be wadded on a so-called “octopus style” hook and bottom-bumped for steelhead. Anglers often wrap the offering in pink or blue mesh. If you don’t have fresh salmon eggs, they’re widely available from regional bait shops in screw-cap jars.
In all cases, check angling laws regarding legal waters, lure, bait and fly regulations—including tackle and technique restrictions—and riding rules as well.