Learn About Steelhead

Learn About Steelhead
Learn About Steelhead

What Are Steelhead?

US Army Corps of Engineers

If you are not quite sure what exactly steelhead are, then you are not alone. Many anglers who are just getting started get confused by the way that people talk about steelhead fishing. The common misconception is that steelhead are a form of salmon. This is not the case as steelheads are actually an ocean going (also called sea run) rainbow trout. This means that they return up stream to spawn where they were born and then they head back down the streams and rivers of their birth to the sea - the Pacific Ocean off the coast of North America being the most populous location.

For the most part, steelhead will stay at sea for 2 to 3 years before they head back up to spawn again. When the steelhead are running back to the ocean after spawning is generally the time when both salmon and steelhead fishing take place. Because of this, and the relatively large size of these particular rainbow trout, people often think of steelhead fishing as a type of salmon angling, but this is technically not true. While salmon or steelhead fishing can certainly both be enjoyable past times, they are not one and the same.

It should be said that there are also steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes where some of these fish will go instead of the ocean. This is due to the way that the rivers flow because of the Rocky Mountains that run down the middle of the North American continent. Similarly, there are steelhead off the coast of Australia, but there they are known by the name of ocean trout.

One thing is for sure, in many parts of the United States and Canada, fishing for steelhead is one of the most popular forms of angling due to the size of the fish and the sheer flavor they offer to those who are looking to have a delicious meal.

Life Cycle Of Steelhead

Understanding steelhead means understand that these are predatory fish that return to the location that they hatched in much the same way that certain birds migrate north or south during certain seasons. They actually look different when they are not spawning, being more silver in color, but when spawning they throw off darker, more vibrant shades closer to red or pink that display their readiness for spawning. This habit of returning to their place of birth is the main reason for why steelheads are often associated with salmon.

US Army Corps of Engineers

These fish generally start out in the streams and rivers of their birth, born predatory and feeding on insects, eggs of fish and small fish up to one third of their size, along with crayfish and other small shelled mollusks. These young fish are called fry and later, smolts, the stage they are in when they head out to sea. Usually, smolts stick around their home river for about a year and during this time they get much larger in size and capabilities. This is unlike a salmon, which head for the ocean closer to being hatched. The year-long delay gives steelhead a better chance of surviving than their salmon counterparts. As they get older they will spice up their diet to include anything they can get a hold of.

There are both winter and summer run steelhead, depending on the time of year they make their transition between the sea and their home streams. Those that are running during the summer migrate between May and October, but they do not possess fully matured reproductive organs so they will mature in freshwater and then spawn in the spring time. This is what the steelhead of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest are known for. The winter run steelhead, on the other hand, mature in the ocean and then migrate between the months of November and April, spawning right after they return.

In all, steelhead can live up to a decade, returning to spawn several times over the course of their lives.

Important Things to Remember for Steelhead Fishing

It is important to keep in mind that regulations absolutely must be followed when it comes to steelhead fishing. In the past, these fish have suffered at the hands of poor management and so conserving them has become crucial to their health of the steelhead populations, making sure they will be around for generations to come. Most commonly, anglers will enjoy spring steelhead fishing as the winter run fish head back out to sea. The other option is fall steelhead fishing as the summer run steelhead are going back out to sea. Since seasons can also overlap, there is summer steelhead fishing, as well.

Laws are in place to protect steelhead during spawning seasons, so as to increase the chance for them to reproduce and help maintain a healthier population. Be sure to get your licenses where you need them, and pay attention to the catch and length limits for your area.

Steelhead Fishing Techniques


There are many steelhead fishing techniques that you can try out. A popular choice is fly fishing in a river or stream. As steelheads grow much larger than their freshwater rainbow trout brethren, employing a steelhead fly fishing guide can make a big difference, especially to a vacationing angler in an unfamiliar location. The right guide will have all the steelhead fishing tips you need for success. Bank fishing for steelhead is the most popular form of fly fishing, but casting rods work as well. The key is mobility as this requires you moving up and down the shoreline, casting around and changing lures until you find the right hole. Bank fishing is a great option for those without a boat.

If casting and jigging isn't your style, you can still get success on the banks simply by tossing out a float (or bobber). A slip bobber is generally preferred as the proper setup and is much easier to cast, as this method allows the live bait to do the work for you. Lures and baits can include nightcrawlers, plastic worms, jigs, sand shrimp, minnows and eggs.

Another popular method of fishing for steelhead is trolling. Usually, a steelhead fishing guide will take an angler or a group out during the summer before spawn. The summer steelhead fishing done this way makes heavy use of spinners, spoons and smaller end crankbaits. Plug fishing for steelhead is a popular choice among steelhead enthusiasts. Plugs, which are hard-bodied lures that come in a variety of fish-mimicking styles, are best used in currents, where the movement of the water puts some natural action on the lure that steelheads can't resist. But trolling on still water works, just remember to yank back your head a little bit at intervals of at least 15 seconds to keep your plug lively.

Steelhead Fishing Resources

Those wanting to learn more about the best steelhead fishing tips and techniques can browse through a wide range of printed and video material on the subject. Not only are there steelhead fishing videos that are easily found online, there are also steelhead fishing books which go into detail on the fish themselves and all of the various methods used to catch them. Depending upon the style of learning that works best for you, a steelhead fishing video is a great way for those who need visual guidance for this popular game fish.

Of course, when first starting out, a steelhead fishing guide is advised for their wealth of knowledge and experience, plus they know all the rules concerning the steelhead fishing season you will be fishing in.

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