Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) haunt the dreams of reelers that chase them.
Sure, you could describe them simply as migratory rainbow trout. But migration makes a huge difference between a mere rainbow trout and a steelhead.
Rather than spending their entire lives in the same body of freshwater, steelhead 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. And this is what makes them “steelhead.”
Steelhead can live for as long as 12 years and return 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 pink “rainbow” stripe fades, and steelhead turn a silvery color. They also develop a more streamlined profile, and get much bigger than typical rainbow trout… especially when they start to run.
“[Running steelhead] are hot and burly, fresh from the ocean, and put up an incredible fight,” says Oregon guide Leslie Ajari.
Years of survival experience and fishing pressure make steelhead wary and wily.
“In some spots, the same steelhead may get caught as many as 10 times on a run — before they even get to spawn,” Ajari says. “This leads to higher mortality and a declining steelhead population.”
What will steelhead hit?
Steelhead guide Ashley Lewis calls the steelhead who survive and make it back to big water, “educated fish.” The bigger the steelhead, the wilier and warier it will be — and the harder to get it onto your fly and into your net.
Steelhead are opportunistic predators that tend to stay near the bottoms of streams. As with any trout, the most successful patterns for steelhead mimic what’s natural, local, and seasonal. Mature steelhead eat insects, minnows, crabs, clams, mussels, and even other trout.
They are also fiercely territorial and will eat the eggs of other trout and salmon to protect their own bloodlines. Lewis, who chases steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula, says egg patterns are a good bet on the Quinault and Queets Rivers.
“But you’ve got to fish the hatch,” she says.
Lewis, who usually fishes a drift boat, will look for salmon and trout eggs in the river and use the beads that mimic the color of the natural eggs — from a pale, natural pink to a smoky orange. If a presentation doesn’t look natural or reach its strike zone, steelhead won’t be interested.
Catching steelhead on the swing
Ajari, on the other hand, prefers to Spey cast, which presents its own set of challenges when fishing a steelhead run.
“You’ve got to take your time to read the water before stepping into it. You can’t just splash into the middle of a run,” she says. “And don’t go out too far, or the fish are going to swim behind you.”
When swinging flies for steelhead, Ajari cautions that you have to start short and work more line out as you go.
“Don’t pile your line and try to cast beyond your max. You may be casting a little farther, but you’re not covering as much water,” she says.
When drifting both Ajari and Lewis will throw salmon flies, like Intruders, to try and entice steelhead to strike. But once again, the bite has to be right for such flies.
Both guides practice strict catch-and-release with steelhead, which are threatened or endangered throughout much of their natural range. Habitat loss, over-harvesting, and probably even climate change have played a hand in their declining population.
This, in turn, makes them harder to catch, but also makes each catch more meaningful.
Steelhead bear the nickname “fish of a thousand casts” for a reason: You’re not going to be pulling them up like panfish in a pond.
Lewis and Ajari agree on a few key things about steelheading. If you’re not fishing familiar waters, hire a guide. Otherwise, a thousand casts may not do the trick.
The guides both stress patience and emphasize that fishing for steelhead is more about the experience than the fish.
As Ajari puts it, “It’s a Zen thing.”