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Winter Steel: Tips for Sea-Run Rainbows

Reading rivers, plus other how-to tactics for catching winter steelhead.

Winter Steel: Tips for Sea-Run Rainbows

Finding a river that is holding fish is just the first step to catching a winter steelhead. You must also be able to identify fishable flows. (Shutterstock image)

Landing a winter steelhead is an accomplishment by any angler's standards. Connecting with them consistently throughout the season is mastery of the sport. To reach this level, you need to understand steelhead and their rivers. In order to zero-in on a spot where you can connect with a winter steelhead this season, first, you must find a river with fish. Next, you need to identify the fishable flows. Finally, you must employ the right technique.

With a migratory life cycle that reaches the shores of Japan, many unknowns remain in our understanding of North American winter steelhead. For eons, ocean-going rainbow trout have returned to the coastal rivers of their birth to lay their eggs. These runs now number from a few hundred to a few thousand steelhead, with a few larger systems sometimes seeing more than 10,000 fish. These are rare trophies no matter how you figure it.

Winter Steelhead Trout
Releasing wild steelhead is essential to the future of the sport. Doing your homework is key to catching them in the first place. (Shutterstock image)


Oregon and Washington have winter steelhead runs in most coastal rivers and lower Columbia River tributaries west of the Cascade Mountains. California has fishable runs north of Cape Mendocino. State fishing regulations limit the fishable water to those river miles downstream of spawning areas and during the migration period.

Consider fishable steelhead to be present from December through April. Runs in smaller systems peak during January and February, with larger systems seeing new fish entering through April. Hatchery steelhead runs designed for angler harvest usually peak in December and January, with wild steelhead generally returning later in the season.

Hatchery stocks are known to race for home during high-water periods, offering little opportunity for anglers. This prompted the creation of programs in which fish are "recycled" and brought back downstream for another run through the fishable stretch of river below the hatchery.

To address declining angler opinions related to hatchery steelhead fishing opportunities based on run timing and the speed of their in-river migration, Oregon implemented wild brood-stock programs. A progressive shift in hatchery philosophy was to improve angler opportunity and minimize the potential genetic impact of hatchery fish on wild stocks. This method of production involves local guides and anglers who collect wild adult steelhead from throughout the run that are propagated and released separately from traditional hatchery stocks. The belief is that wild steelhead move slower through the system in search of their spawning area and return over a longer period of time. Around 100 adult steelhead are used to produce about 100,000 ocean-ready smolts for release into the river.


River flow is a large factor in your success. Being able to "know the flow" at which different spots fish well is crucial. As your skills improve, success will come at a variety of river flows. You will learn where fish are located and what techniques work under different conditions. Tracking this flow data over time, you will find the optimum flow for each of your spots.

Flow is the volume of water measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). When you get home after a day of fishing high water, you can tell your spouse you caught one in 10,000 cfs to sound tough. Stage height is the river level measured in feet from a known elevation, usually the lowest point on the streamflow gauge. The stage, or height, of the river is then calculated into a volume and reported as flow.

Searching the internet or eavesdropping at the local watering hole might get you in the zone by knowing, for instance, that 4 to 6 feet on the Sasquatch River gauge is when it's fishy. Searching the online gauge data, you will find the river stage height reported to the second decimal place, i.e. 5.35 feet. This doesn't mean the river is 5.35 feet deep. It means that the river is 5.35 feet above the bottom of the gauge at that spot in the river.

If the river rises to 6.35 feet overnight, that means the river rose one foot overnight and might be rising out of the fishable sweet spot. One foot of water across a 200-foot-wide river is a lot of flow, or volume, in cubic feet per second. To become a successful steelhead junkie, you will learn this stuff or have a good fishing partner who does. Type "[your state] river levels" into your web browser and select the USGS result. Here, you will find rivers listed by basin. Clicking on a station number will usually provide two graphs—one of the river flow and another of the stage height.

Winter Steelhead Trout
Use information found online to track river flows and determine when they will to be at levels conducive to the best fishing. (Photo by Scott Turo)


Fresh fish usually enter the river during gentle (not stormy) seas and when flows are up or on the rise. Steelhead already in the river move during these increased flows as well. It’s these new and moving fish that anglers are after. Traveling upriver, these steelhead are looking for a place to rest before moving on. This behavior puts them in shallow riffles, flats, boulder-strewn seams and pool tailouts. Concentrate on water with 2 to 7 feet of depth and a walking-speed pace. As the river level drops, steelhead seem to move into deeper hangouts, appearing to rest until flows rise again.

My favorite flow scenario is when a river has been "blown out" for weeks, allowing fresh steelhead to pile in and move upstream, followed by a gradual drop for a few days that leaves 2 to 4 feet of visibility when I arrive. This scenario allows me to use the stage height prediction graph to pick the first day the river is going to hit my optimum level. This tactic should put me on fish that have not been recently hooked or bothered. It's true that a lot of stars must align for things to turn on, but that's why I always watch the gauges and monitor all the factors that lead to good fishing.



Part of your e-scouting will involve finding access. Even if you have a boat, you'll want to survey the put-ins and take-outs. I separate river valleys into two types.

"Confined valleys" are the canyon water stretches. They are tough in high flows, but hold fish in lower conditions due to depth. Access is typically via steep trails, and the number of casting stations is usually limited. Preferred techniques take depth into consideration and include drift rigs with bait or a bead suspended above a weight on the bottom, or a classic rig comprising a jig under a slip bobber to control the depth of the presentation. Fish the seams, ledges and boulder pillows. Access to these sites is well-marked by muddy turnouts when fishing is good.

"Unconfined valleys," where the river has room to roam across the floodplain, usually have long, broad runs suitable for swinging flies and casting spinners and spoons. On some river systems, these conditions go on for miles, while on others there are just short stretches. To find fish, look in the heads of long riffles, broad pool tails and the deeper seams along steeper bank lines. As flows recede slightly from their peak, these locations offer optimal conditions to swing flies like the Fish Taco on 8 to 12 feet of T-11 sink tip. With a spinner or spoon, cast quartering downstream like with a fly and allow the lure to reach depth before slowly swinging it across the holding water. Take a step or two downstream then rinse and repeat. Cover all the fishable water to find chrome lightning.

A few years back, on a quest to get my son his first steelhead, we hit a milk run of spots inside Olympic National Park I had located using the techniques described above. Flows were low after a cold snap, so I opted for a spot with a large boulder located in a long, slow run that had produced before. On the first morning, and the third cast, a respectable steelhead took a well-presented nightmare-colored Aerojig under a sliding bobber, just as we had discussed it would the week prior. That fish proved that planning can have a positive influence on luck when done correctly.

Hot Steel Rivers

There are two distinct races of steelhead found in the Pacific Northwest: winter-run and summer-run. The difference is that winter fish arrive sexually mature and ready to spawn in late winter and early spring, whereas summer fish arrive immature, then overwinter and spawn the following spring.

The following are some steelhead rivers you should have on your radar.


  • Klickitat River (June to Nov.): Originating high on Mount Adams in southwest Washington, this glacial-fed, medium-sized river has good runs of both wild and hatchery summer steelhead, plenty of access and a wild feel in the deep canyons.
  • Deschutes River (July to Nov.): The consistent flow of the Deschutes, north through central Oregon to the Columbia River, makes it a steelheader's dream. Flies, spinners, plugs and jigs all produce memories for walk-in anglers.
  • Umpqua River (July to Oct. and Jan. to March): Famous for its 30-mile, fly-fishing-only stretch near Steamboat Creek on the North Fork in western Oregon, the Umpqua produces miles of consistent fishing for strong runs of summer and winter steelhead alike.


  • Smith River (Jan. to March): Flowing through towering coastal redwoods and feeding into the Umpqua near the Oregon coast, the Smith has bright steelhead returning throughout the winter. Guides make two trips through the popular water below the Forks when the fishing is good.
  • Sol Duc River (Jan. to March): A rainforest river famous for its rapids and big steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula, the Sol Duc is a gene-bank river for the preservation of wild steelhead. If you're a serious steelheader, you need to fish the Sol Duc.
  • Chetco River (Dec. to April): Located in southwest Oregon, the Chetco has strong runs of wild and hatchery steelhead. Biologists collect wild steelhead adults for broodstock to support a healthy hatchery run that peaks in January.

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