An Expert Guide to Fly Fishing for Steelhead

Steelhead fishing is a very unique branch of the fly fishing world. Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith explains everything you'd need to know about steelhead fishing!

Two men kneeling near water and each holding a steelhead.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Among fly fishermen, steelhead fishermen have a lore unique to themselves. Very few people will brave icy waters to spend a day fighting iced-over fishing rod guides and bitterly cold conditions to hook up with just a handful of fish. The allure of steelhead fly fishing is almost cult-like. Perhaps it is the dopaminergic rush that fills your brain from the explosion after a hook set that allows you to recover from the bitter agony of having a monster fish break the tippet right after a ten-minute battle of give and take. Perhaps it is the overwhelming sense of accomplishment after landing a steelhead after a long, cold day of casting in freezing-cold water. Whatever the reason, to truly understand steelhead fishermen, you must appreciate the fish itself. Once you come to appreciate the fish, you will understand why fly fishermen hunt these unicorns.

Steelhead Fish

A man holding a steelhead just above the water.

Photo by Joseph Smith

What exactly is a steelhead? In short, a steelhead is simply a rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that is hatched in a freshwater stream, swims to the ocean to eat and get big, and then returns to that stream to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon species that die after spawning, these fish then return to the ocean to repeat this cycle every year. Although this explanation seems rather straightforward, as with most things in life, there is more to it.

On the West Coast, this is true. Steelhead fish, though, have been transplanted to the Great Lakes, and instead of migrating to the Pacific Ocean, they migrate into these lakes where they grow before returning to spawn. Die-hard Pacific Northwest steelheaders will claim that these fish are not true steelhead (there might be some truth, as Purdue University has found that Great Lake steelhead have evolved to remain in the freshwater environment). However, if instead, you approach it as a small fish swims to a large body of water and becomes massive quickly, then returns to the stream where it came from, fights with explosive power, and does not behave like the mild-mannered rainbow trout that spends all of its life in the stream, then they are the same.

There are also different strains of steelhead. Summer run steelhead, Skamania being the most encountered, are exactly as the name implies. They start their migration in the summer months. The rivers they spawn in tend to be further from the coast and will often stay in the stream system for a year prior to spawning in the spring. The females enter the river systems sexually immature with eggs that only mature closer to the actual spawning season. These summer fish tend to be smaller than winter-run strains but are known to take flies much more readily and are livelier fighters.

Winter-run steelhead, on the other hand, enter the stream system in the winter. Their spawning rivers tend to be closer to the coast and they may only spend a day or two in the stream before leaving. The fish enter the water sexually mature and females have mature eggs. These winter fish tend to be larger but often will ignore flies that are placed in front of their noses.

Finding these fish is often a matter of timing—coinciding with the weather and water-flow rates. Fresh fish tend to be silver in color and much more rambunctious after taking a fly. This is why anglers will closely follow weather reports and change plans instantaneously. For a steelheader, nothing is better than fresh chrome. The longer the fish stays in the water, the more vivid the spawning colors become on the fish.

Other factors include hatchery-raised versus wild steelhead. Although there are wild steelhead runs in the West, a lot of the fisheries are dependent on stockings. This is good and bad, as the behavior of these fish is different from the wild strains. Although these fish may look similar (minus a clipped fin or two on the stocked fish), genetically they are slightly different; stocked steelhead are often not successful in reproducing on their own. Whatever strain of steelhead you end up chasing, this fish will behave differently than a rainbow trout, and if you fish for them as you would for rainbow trout, you will be disappointed. These ultra-powerful, broad-shouldered anadromous fish will get you going.

East Coast

A man standing in a river holding a steelhead.

Photo by Joseph Smith

On the East Coast, these fish are not native. They have been transplanted to the Great Lakes. Although steelhead runs occur in all five Great Lakes, the steelhead rivers that flow out of Lake Erie have been named Steelhead Alley.

In particular, Pennsylvania has a vigorous stocking program accounting for up to 58% of all steelhead stocked into Lake Erie. For having a proportionally smaller coastline, these tributaries have the highest density of returning fish.

These tributaries though are very dependent on water flow and fish will enter and exit the rivers often overnight. To fish them, it is best to monitor the weather and plan your trip accordingly. What may have been a hot river yesterday may be slow today and tomorrow.

As far as technique, anglers here tend to use one-hand fly rods. Typical Great Lakes steelhead fly rods are 10-foot, 7-weight, single-hand rods. Switch rods, however, are gaining in popularity as anglers can also have the advantage of a two-hand rod with these rods.

Nymph patterns dead drifted are the preferred fishing method. Anglers typically add enough split shot to get the fly to the bottom of the water column and bounce it along the bottom under an indicator. Casts are made across stream; the line is mended to allow the nymph to sink and get ahead of the line and the rod tip is kept low and follows the nymph through the swing. When the fly gets below the angler, allow the fly to dangle there, slowly rising in the water column. Often strikes will occur at this point. Steelhead strikes when fished this way can be very subtle.

Anglers should strive to feel the fly bouncing off the bottom like keyboard keys moving while typing. A hook set should occur after any pause. Often a steelhead will have taken the fly. Look for seams in the water where steelhead can rest. Steelhead like to hold in water that is flowing at a comfortable “walking pace” and often in water that is 3–6 feet deep. “Ankle deep and 20 feet” is a saying that steelheaders will say when describing where to wade and cast.

West Coast

A man kneeling on the side of a river holding a steelhead.

Photo by Joseph Smith

On the West Coast is where anglers will find the storied steelhead runs on rivers such as the Deschutes. Washington, Oregon, and Alaska all have steelhead runs. Here the rivers are larger and die-hard anglers will claim the fish are tougher—as these fish mature in the ocean where they must avoid sea lions, orcas, and other predators that do not inhabit the Great Lakes.

Due to the differences, the techniques are different. Swinging streamers and wet flies on a two-hand rod is the norm. A typical fly rod is a 11-to-12-foot spey rod. In smaller streams, a 9-foot, 8 weight single-hand rod will often work.

Spey casting is the preferred method to cover water. Due to the low water flow of summer runs, a Scandi line and longer leader is used for summer steelhead, while a Skagit line with a sink tip is preferred for winter steelhead fishing to get the fly deeper in the water column.

Here the presentation is a swing of streamer and wet flies. Cast across the stream, mend the line, and let the fly swing through the targeted water. Again, once the fly is beneath you, let it dangle before picking it up to cast again.

Finding fish is similar to that of East Coast fishing. Look for a “pace of a walk” water flow and fish the seams where fish can rest. Cover water and, if you are lucky, on one cast you will connect with fresh chrome.

Tips

A man standing in a river holding a steelhead.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Here are some general tips to make your trip successful.

  • Stay on a hot fish: If you get a subtle take, keep working that fish. You may need to take a step upstream to get a better angle, but do not give up. Often diligence is rewarded.
  • Learn your stream: Good steelhead anglers know every run down to every pebble. Fish will tend to hang up in the same spot year after year. Knowing where those locations are will increase your efficiency on the water.
  • Bow to the steelhead: This is good advice for setting the hook. Do not become over-excited and rip the fly from the fish’s mouth. By taking a bow, you will release some tension and allow the fish to take the fly and increase the quality of your hook set.
  • Let the steelhead run: These are large, powerful fish. Use a good reel with plenty of backing and let the fish take it. You might have to chase the fish downstream, but these are fish that will not be horsed in.
  • Use proven flies: Although the actual pattern is not that important, colors do seem to be. Egg-sucking Leeches, Glo Bugs, Max Canyons, Kaufmann Stonefly Nymphs, and Purple Burlesque flies all seem to work well. You are not matching a hatch though, so do not become too hung up on the fly.
  • Patience, patience, and some more patience: These fish are considered unicorns, or the fish of a thousand casts. Be patient. You will catch some.
  • Get a mentor: This can be a hard fishery to get into. Find a friend or mentor to help. Do not be afraid to use a fishing guide and pick their brain. Learning from others will shorten the learning curve for you.
  • Work the banks: Remember the adage, “ankle deep and 20 feet.” Far too often, over-eager fishermen scare steelhead that are close to the banks of the river by overzealous wading.
  • Alter the swing depth: By adding or subtracting mends to your fly line, you can alter the depth of your swinging fly.
  • Sharp hooks: Since fish may be scarce, do not blow opportunities by not having quality flies. Do not be afraid to sharpen the hook points prior to fishing a fly.
  • Learn to tie strong knots: Strong knots will hold. Even the best drag will not protect tippets that use poorly tied knots.
  • Dress appropriately: Remember you will possibly be fishing in cold conditions. Dress in layers and make sure to fix leaky waders.

Final Thoughts

Two fishermen stand in the water. One holds a fly rod and the other holds a steelhead.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Steelhead fishing can be extremely addictive. It can become a passion of yours. Put it on your bucket list. If you have any questions or need help with your gear, feel free to reach out to me or another Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. We would be happy to assist you in preparing for your next adventure. Tight Lines!

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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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