Put simply, steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are nothing but migratory rainbow trout. Yet, they are oh-so-much-more than that. Just ask any reeler who’s tried to hook one.
Fishing for steelhead is a lot like golf (the way I play, anyway): Hours and days of frustration sustained only by the hope of hitting that elusive sweet spot. That’s why reelers call steelhead “the fish of a thousand casts.” Getting one to the net makes the other 999 casts worth it.
Where are they?
Steelhead are native to the waters west of the Rocky Mountains, where their natural range stretches from California to Alaska. Because of their popularity as a sportfish, though, they’ve also been introduced to the Great Lakes region, where reelers have taken up the addiction to chasing these wily swimmers.
Migration is the key difference between a rainbow trout and a steelhead. Rainbows stay in the same body of freshwater, whether a lake or stream, for their entire lives. Steelheads, on the other hand, spend much of their time in ocean or Great Lakes waters, and then run up the stream where they were born (or stocked) to spawn.
Unlike salmon, which usually die after a spawning run, steelhead will make many spawning runs throughout their lives — as long as 12 years — returning to the same stream or river season after season.
The upstream runs make them stronger, as they take in a lot of oxygen and feed voraciously to fuel their metabolisms. The telltale pink stripe that gives rainbow trout their name fades on steelhead. Steelhead take on a more silvery color (hence the moniker) and develop a slimmer, more streamlined profile.
They also get much bigger than typical rainbow trout — and are a lot harder to catch.
Steelhead guide Ashley Lewis calls them “educated fish.” Years of growing, spawning, and evading predators make steelhead fast, wary, and smart.
The bigger the steelhead, the wiser the fish — and the harder it’s going to be to get it on your fly, let alone into your net.
How big do they get?
The average steelhead weighs around 10 lbs., but they can get much bigger. Twenty-pounders are not uncommon. The IGFA all-tackle record — which doesn’t differentiate between rainbow and steelhead — was a 48 lb. lake-run specimen. Sean Konrad caught this beast in 2009 on Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan.
What do they eat?
Young steelhead eat zooplankton. Adults eat insects, minnows, crabs, clams, mussels, and even fish, including trout. Steelhead are fiercely territorial and will eat the eggs of other trout and salmon to protect their own bloodlines.
When fishing for steelhead, think about what’s natural on the water you’re fishing: Fish the hatch.
They are opportunistic predators. But steelhead are also wily and wary. They tend to stay near the bottoms of streams, and if a presentation doesn’t look natural or reach its strike zone, the steelhead won’t even give it a second glance.
How do they taste?
Steelhead are trout, so they taste pretty darned good. However, throughout much of their western range, Steelhead are classified as either endangered or threatened, due largely to dams preventing them getting upstream to spawn. So, even though you may have 10 pounds of delicious fish in your net, consider putting it back so you can catch a 12-pounder next year.