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Steelhead are almost mythical to many anglers. Except in the Northwest portion of the United States and in British Columbia where most anglers are introduced to steelhead early in life, steelhead often hold an unfilled space on the fisherman's bucket list of "must catch" fish species. The truth is that with a few hints, tips, and techniques, steelhead can be easily enticed and brought to the boat for a great photo opportunity. IT'S ALL IN THE NAME
The first thing to remember about steelhead is the name itself. They have a notoriously hard and bony mouth - thus the STEEL in the HEAD. While they are simply very large rainbow trout, the mouth of this fish is not like a trout at all. You'll need very sharp, very strong hooks preferably with a microbarb if you want your hook to penetrate and hold. Often I will use foreceps or pliers to pinch even the microbarb as the initial penetration all the way to the bend of the hook is more important than the barb keeping the fly in place.WHERE STEELHEAD LIVE
Steelhead are a unique strain of rainbow trout that have found out that the ocean has way more food in it than the rivers they were born in. Juvenile steelhead trek to the salt about half way through their first year of life riding the high waters of the late spring and early summer rivers of the great Northwest.
Because they are voracious eaters, they usually grow rapidly gaining up to ten or more pounds in the first two years of life. In the spring of year three in the steelhead lifespan, they make a return trip to the river of their birth negotiating dams, fish ladders, predators, and a maze of fisherman along the way back to propigate the species on pristine gravel bars of small tributary streams.For some reason unknown to me, it is extremely rare to catch a steelhead in the saltwater. Once the fish are in the rivers, they become fair gamefish. Steelhead will "hold" or lie in a variety of different water types while making their journeys upstream to spawn.
One thing that is common to almost all steelhead fishing is that these fish love to hang in tailouts. When floating in a driftboat on a steelhead stream I will often pay careful attention with my casting and my eyes as the boat gets near the place where the river begins to pick up speed after a slower pool and before the next set of rapids. Steelhead seem to really like the current here. One theory is that they are resting here after making the hard swim upstream through the rapids, but my evidence suggests it is more than that. I think they wait in tailouts because the current and depth make it easy to stay and the food sources are more readily available than in deeper faster water. That said, I often find steelhead in deep pools and right in the middle of faster currents around boulders. They could be anywhere - so keep fishing!
SECOND CHANCE SWEEPSTAKES
The time steelhead spend in freshwater varies depending on the length of their overall journey and other factors. But an important fact to remember is that unlike salmon, steelhead do not necessarily die after spawning in freshwater. They get a SECOND CHANCE! If they run the gauntlet of predators and anglers and nets and dams to spawn, they will go back to the ocean and come back to fresh water after more years at the saltwater buffet. It is these "three or four salt" fish that become the trophies of steelhead fishing. In British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, you can catch fish in excess of thirty pounds. So Rod and Reel Adventures encourages the gentle release of ALL WILD STEELHEAD in an effort to preserve and protect this legendary species.WHAT STEELHEAD EAT
Steelhead are not like salmon. When a salmon enters freshwater its digestive system begins to deteriorate and gets absorbed into its body transforming into a reproductive system. Because salmon die after spawning, they don't need to eat. Steelhead, on the other hand, have the second chance at life at sea, so they keep eating. Like their youthful and smaller rainbow relatives, steelhead are aggressive and opportunistic when it comes to meal time. In the early season when fish are fresh from the ocean we like to use baitfish imitations like spinners, jigs, and generally bigger flies. And we'll swing these imitations down and across the current to imitate a baitfish that is having trouble negotiating the flow. The strike of the steelhead during this type of fishing can be an electrifying WHAM or a subtle pull of spongy weight flexing the graphite in your rod.
Later as the water levels drop and the fish become accustomed to their freshwater surroundings and food sources, I fish for these steelhead like I fish for big rainbow trout. I have caught ten pound steelhead on a size #16 caddis larvae pattern. They eat insects just like trout - stonefly nymphs, grasshoppers, mayfly nymphs, soft hackles, anything a trout would eat, so will a steelhead. Just remember they are BIG - so you need to make sure your flies are not tied on light wire hooks. The tiemco 2457 scud hook is a good choice for any small flies. Steelhead also eat salmon eggs, baitfish, leeches, and shrimp. So be creative in your choices in flies.
STEELHEAD FISHING TACKLE
For flyfishing for steelhead I generally use a seven or eight weight flyrod with a weight-forward floating flyline. Your reel should have at least 100 yards of backing and 200 is not overkill, especially in larger rivers where a big steelhead in big current can take you to your backing very quickly. Your reel should have a good drag system and I prefer the newer large arbor reels for speed of line retrieve and line capacity. Sometimes you will hook a fish in fast current and you will think there is no chance of landing him from your position. One interesting trick that I have used on many big steelhead is called SLACK LINING. If the fish starts downstream in the current and you are afraid he'll go through the rapids or you don't have enough backing - ease up on the pressure and even strip line out to give the steelhead the impression that his nemesis is giving up the chase. Especially in longer freshwater systems and later in the year, steelhead don't like to give up ground that they have made in their freshwater journey. Often they will turn and head back into the pool or tailout where they were hooked and you will be able to get your line back on the reel and resume your battle. By this point the fish has often lost his initial intensity and can be easily brought to the boat. But sometimes, there is nothing you can do but pull the anchor and hold on tight and try to get him in the next pool. I love steelhead fishing!
STEELHEAD FISHING DESTINATIONS IN ALASKA, BRITISH COLUMBIA, OREGON, AND WASHINGTON
BRITISH COLUMBIA STEELHEAD FISHING LODGES
Westcoast Fishing Adventures
WASHINGTON STEELHEAD FISHING
Klickitat River Outfitters