No other North American game fish is cloaked in as much mystery as the steelhead. They are purported to be the hardest fighting, the finest looking and the wiliest of our freshwater game fish. While I would be the first to agree that some steelhead put up magnificent battles and that the steelie bows to no other game fish in a beauty contest, the pure truth is steelhead are not a bit smarter than most other game fish. And, contrary to popular belief, they are often much easier to catch than salmon, trout or bass. The reason they have such a mystique of invincibility is that steelhead seldom can be found in big numbers and conditions for fishing them can often be poor. However, if you find good numbers of undisturbed steelhead in decent river conditions, they can be downright easy to catch. All that is needed to successfully catch steelhead is a basic knowledge of their habits and preferences as well as a bit of patience.
To catch a big steelie, an angler should really get to know the rivers they want to fish.
The first step to becoming a successful steelheader is to learn one or two local rivers and learn them well. Hike every yard of the rivers you choose, taking time to learn the location of every underwater rock, back eddy and undercut bank. Once you are familiar with a river or two, spend a bit of time on the Internet chatting with tackle shop owners, or talk with fishermen you meet on the river to learn when the runs peak. Many rivers have few or no steelhead for months at a time, with the vast bulk of the year's run arriving in a two or three month window. Don't bother fishing for fish that are scarce. Limit your search to the months when the fish are most prevalent. Rule number one of steelhead fishing: Fish when there are lots of fish.
Learning Where The Fish Are
The next step to becoming a successful steelheader is to learn where the fish hold. Ninety percent of steelhead will be found in about 10 percent of the water. Whenever possible, steelhead will hold in water that provides protection from predators and a comfortable temperature. They will seldom hold in water less than 3 feet deep or in water more than 10 feet deep. In terms of current speed, you need to look for water that flows at roughly the speed of a brisk walk. Steelhead want protection from the constant push of the current for the same reason a person doesn't like crossing an open field in a howling wind. The person will seek protection behind trees, buildings or anything else that will break the wind. Steelhead do the same in the water by seeking the protection of rocks, logs and bottom structure.
As you hike along your chosen stream, look for water that meets all the steelhead's needs for depth, current speed and current breaks. If you fish only in the areas that meet these requirements, you will find you are eliminating a great deal of the river. Now you are fishing when the fish are present and where they want to hold. Your odds of success have already increased considerably.
Rivers are living environments that constantly change. To consistently score with steelhead, you need to consider the daily fluctuations in river height and clarity. The absolute worst conditions for steelhead fishing are high, dirty water on a rising river. While you have some chance of success when the river is coming up, you would be better served to wait until the river begins to drop. The absolute best river condition is just after a high water, when the river has dropped to nearly its proper depth, the clarity has increased to at least 3 feet, and the flow in most runs is roughly the speed of a brisk walk. Steelhead can be taken when the river is low and clear, but extreme stealth is required. For the beginner it is best to limit your efforts to prime times.
Bait, Lures And Strategy
Learning to fish with one or two baits or lures that the angler knows very well is one step toward mastering steelhead fishing.
There are about a million things that steelhead have been known to strike, but novice steelheaders would do well to limit themselves to one bait and one lure. Learn these intimately before attempting to learn other baits and techniques. The most successful angler is not the one with the most lures, but the one who knows the most about the lures he or she has. The best way to assure a skunk is to constantly switch lures to try to match what worked for someone else. Rule number two: Stick with what you know!
Steelhead bite a bait or lure for one of three reasons: anger, curiosity or hunger. Cured salmon eggs are picked up by steelhead for the latter two reasons. An ancient instinct causes steelhead to pick up, and sometimes swallow, steelhead and salmon eggs. I am confident eggs have fooled more steelhead than any other bait or lure. Therefore, I strongly suggest you begin your hunt for that first steelhead with cured eggs.
You can often purchase well-cured eggs from local tackle shops. Failing that, you will need to purchase one of the commercially available egg cure preparations and cure your own eggs. Your eggs will last longer and look better if you tie them onto a small square of nylon stocking or cloth mesh made for that purpose. Best baits are typically about the size of your smallest fingernail. In high, dirty water, go with larger baits. In low, clear water, go with smaller baits.
When fishing eggs, your best bet is to suspend your bait under a balsa float. Select a float that is sensitive and cylindrical in shape. The combined weight of your bait and lead weight should hold the float so that only a small portion extends above the water. Adjust the distance between the float and the bait so that the bait rests about 1 foot above the bottom. Simply cast the float above where you think a steelhead may be holding, let it drift through the area and repeat as necessary.
Work each area carefully to assure that even reluctant biters have a chance to look over your bait. Once you have covered an area thoroughly, move to the next promising run and do it all over again. Successful steelheaders cover a lot of water. Remember, skip the poor water and work the good areas hard, but always be ready to move on. Most strikes will come on the first pass through the steelhead's lair. There is no reason to stay on one rock all day!
Some rivers have bait bans and sometimes a lure will actually outperform bait. For those reasons I suggest you select one lure to use whenever you can't—or don't want to—fish bait. Again, you are better served to choose only one lure and learn to use it well.
Of the many dozens of lures available I would suggest a jig. Jigs are relatively easy to fish, inexpensive and excellent steelhead lures. Every river and area has its favorite jig. Your best bet is to ask at several local tackle shops to see what they recommend. It will quickly become obvious which jigs are favored in your area. In the West, favorite jigs are 1/4 to 1/8 ounces, and favorite materials are marabou and rabbit fur in various shades of pink.
Weather conditions are not as much of a factor as river levels and current speed.
Jigs are fished much like cured eggs. The best presentation is beneath a float. Rig your jig so it is approximately 2/3 the depth of the run you are fishing. Jigs do not need to be fished as deeply as eggs, because steelhead will often move a long distance to get to a jig. As with the eggs, cast your float and jig combo 10 or more feet upstream of the suspected steelhead lie, letting the current carry it through the area, then repeating as necessary.
Many novice anglers fail to notice steelhead strikes or mistake them for trout nibbling. Steelhead often pick up a lure or bait out of curiosity. They may mouth the bait for a few seconds and spit it out before you ever notice that you had a bite. If fishing with floats, watch for any unusual motion. If the float moves sideways—STRIKE. If it dips under, even a little—STRIKE. If your float suddenly pops up—STRIKE. Any unexpected movement of your float may be a sign of a subtle bite. If you strike and nothing is there, that's not a problem. But failure to set the hook every time you think there may be a steelhead nibbling will surely cost you missed opportunities. One of my favorite steelhead sayings is "Jerk or be one."
One last bit of advice is to never give up. I can't count the number of times I have seen anglers go home with the smell of skunk heavy about them, only to have good bite come on just after they left. Steelhead are one of our most unpredictable fish. They may go days without biting, then feed with careless abandon for a few hours. If you fish when the run is strongest, fish only high percentage water, and stay on the river as many hours as possible, you will soon land our most desirable game fish—the steelhead.