Having grown up as an outdoor woman in the Pacific Northwest, it was a requirement to fish for Steelhead. As a child, I have fond memories of conventional fishing on the well-known steelhead rivers in SW Washington. Now an adult and fly angler, I have a complete obsession with only catching steelhead on the swing.
The elusive steelhead is one of the most popular sport fish in North America. Despite the numbers decreasing each year, many fly anglers are still obsessed with their pursuit of feeling the tug of these fish. Steelhead fishing requires extreme patience and perseverance, oftentimes fishing in extreme weather, making thousands of casts, and having days with no fish.
Why do we keep doing it? Getting the opportunity to personally release a wild steelhead, “a warrior” who has traveled 432 miles and gone through 8 dams to get to the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, is magical!
The Steelhead is an anadromous rainbow trout, meaning they spend part of their life in the ocean; whereas the resident rainbow trout spends its entire life in freshwater. They can reach up to 45 inches in length and weigh over 50 pounds; however, the typical weight is 8 pounds. Their lifespan is typically 4 to 6 years, but they have been found up to 11 years old. Unlike salmon, steelhead can spawn multiple times (iteroparity), reaching sexual maturity in 2 to 3 years.
Steelhead are categorized as “Winter-Run” and “Summer-Run”. Winter steelhead enter freshwater sexually mature, while summer steelhead enter freshwater sexually immature. What that means to an angler is coastal streams are predominantly winter-run steelhead and inland rivers are summer-run steelhead. Winter-run have a shorter trip to their spawning grounds and summer-run migrate inland to spawn, which gives them time to mature.
As an angler who has fished steelhead for a long time, there are 10 things you should consider when fishing for Steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.
PNW steelhead fishing often means extreme weather. Be prepared for all weather conditions. Summer-run fish can be as early as July to January. Winter-Run are often on Coastal Rivers from January to late March. A proper waterproof rain jacket, large enough waders for layers, boots with the proper soles, and gloves that give you the dexterity to tie flies and cast, are all imperative. Know the river bottom that you’ll be fishing to ensure you have the proper footwear. Many of the rivers are extremely slippery with large boulders and drop-offs. Felt soles with studs might be the best option. This water can be extreme. You want to make sure you don’t take a swim in your waders. Also, don’t forget your wading staff!
TAKE A PRIVATE CASTING LESSON
A good caster is a better angler. Regardless if you’re two-handed or single-handed fishing, it’s a good idea to learn the proper casting mechanics from a professional. It’s best to practice casting before you go fishing.
FORGET THE NUMBERS
If you’re a numbers angler, then steelhead fishing is not for you. As the steelhead numbers decrease each year, the chance of hooking into a steelhead also decreases. Be patient, be persistent, and be on your game with every cast, as the next cast could be “The ONE”. Enjoy the adventure, the beautiful scenery, and most of all the people you choose to fish with.
BE PROPERLY EQUIPPED
It’s best practice to use the proper size equipment for the approximate size steelhead you are targeting. It’s unsafe and unwise to use a 5-wt single-handed rod while fishing for steelhead. Using an undersized rod means the landing time is increased and the likelihood of the steelhead dying after the fight dramatically increases.
In terms of the Pacific Northwest, winter-run steelhead tend to be larger than summer-run steelhead. Using a 7 or 8 weight Spey rod is recommended.
Summer steelhead can be further broken down into “A-Run” and “B-Run” and different size rods are used. A-Run steelhead are found in popular rivers such as the Deschutes, Snake, Salmon, and Grande Ronde Rivers. They return after spending just one year in the ocean, usually June through August. Because of their early return, they tend to be smaller. In this case, using a 6 or 7-weight Spey rod is recommended for the A-team. B-Run steelhead are found in the Clearwater River, however some return to tributaries of the Salmon River. They usually spend two years in the ocean and start their migration later in the summer or fall of the year, usually late August through September. Because of the extra year growing in the ocean, they return as much larger fish. In the case of the B-team, using a 7 or 8-weight Spey rod is recommended.
DISSECT THE WATER
Don’t be intimidated by a large river. Look at a section of water and break it down into small pieces of water to make up the large river. Think like a steelhead and understand the reasons for their behavior. Steelhead typically cover water during low light hours and at night. They tend to hold and rest in specific water types to make their efforts upstream as efficient as possible.
SPEED - Find walking speed water. What does that mean? Walk along a run and if you are walking at the same speed of the current then this is walking speed.
STRUCTURE – look for small to medium-size boulders, channels, logs; anything that will create soft water and holding areas for resting fish.
DEPTH – look for adequate water depth to protect the fish from predators. Try focusing on the 3 to 6-foot depth of water.
WATCH YOUR WADING DEPTH
Luckily for me, being vertically challenged, wading deep is not always necessary when fishing for steelhead. Too often, I see anglers wading out way too far. Depending on your casting distance ability, you may only need to be ankle-deep in the water. If you need to cast farther, then fish the water closest to the shore first before you step out into deeper water.
USE THE AMPHITHEATER CAST APPROACH
Don’t underestimate short casts! For those of you who have taken one of my classes or heard me speak, amphitheater casting is no foreign concept. Amphitheater Casting is starting short (a portion of your tip or leader out) and working your way out until you’ve reached your comfortable max casting distance. This is before you take your first step downstream to continue to fish the run. In the illustration above, you, the angler are the stage. Your first cast is to the pit, fish your fly all the way through and next cast to row 1, repeating until you are casting at a comfortable casting distance. Once you’ve fished the whole amphitheater, then take a step working your way downstream.
CHECK THE WIND DIRECTION
Wind can be an angler’s worst nightmare. It can be frustrating for sure, but it can also be dangerous. It is important to take a moment and recognize what direction the wind is blowing. If the wind is blowing the fly at you, you need to take notice and make the appropriate adjustment. If possible, always cast off your downwind side. Placing your fly on your downwind side is a much safer way to make a cast, as the wind is blowing your fly away from you. Casting off your downwind side also results in more tension in your D-loop, which means that it’s less casting work.
FISH THE BAD CASTS
It’s more disruptive to pick up your line and recast than it is to continue to fish the not-so-perfect cast. Fish don’t know how tight your loop is. Often, I’ve caught fish on the less than perfect casts. Fish it through!
PRACTICE PROPER FISH HANDLING
Did you know that it’s illegal in Washington State to take a Wild Steelhead out of the water? Know the regulations of the rivers you’re fishing. Use the A-OK hold on the dorsal fin and gently caress the front portion of the fish. Wet fish photograph beautifully. Make sure you have a net to safely keep the fish in the water and think outside the box of the classic grip and grin.