Summer and Winter Techniques for Steelhead Trout

News & Tips: Summer and Winter Techniques for Steelhead Trout...

Of all the different freshwater game fish available to anglers, one of the favorite target species for fly anglers would have to be the steelhead trout. The steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is a very important member of the migratory species found from the East to West Coast and the Great Lakes. Steelhead are a special class of fish that are not only found in freshwater, but also have ocean relatives that are known to run thousands of miles before coming back to there respective spawning grounds.

Steelheads found in the rivers and lakes greatly resemble rainbow trout.


Steelhead trout resemble another fly angler favorite — the rainbow trout. Both species have similar body contours, colors and markings, but these two fish differ greatly in their sizes and behavior. Rainbow trout never make the journey out to the big lake but rather stay resident in the rivers all year round, where as steelhead only spend a few weeks every year in the crystal clean flows where they were born.

As far as size is concerned, steelhead of the great lakes and ocean can be anywhere up to 10 times the size of their river counterparts. A mystical fish to most anglers, the steelhead can be a very elusive prey to inexperienced fisherman. Long hours fishing coupled with a good understanding of the steelhead will help put the odds back in your favor.  

Steelhead Life Cycle

In general, steelhead can be divided into two separate seasonal groups: summer (spring) spawners and winter (fall) spawners.

Summer steelhead, like their name states, migrate back to the streams where they originated during the early summer months. These summer spawning fish can start their long journey back up the rivers as early as May, while other summer spawners can wait until the later summer months like August or September to run. Overall the summer run steelhead make a further journey up the river than the winter run fish, but the length of time that the fish run lasts longer for the winter runners.

Winter run fish usually head from the rivers in the early winter months but keep running all the way until early spring.   After the spawn has lapsed and the millions of fertilized eggs are laid upon the stream bottom, the incubation process begins. Fry emerge and it takes anywhere from one to three years for the fish to mature before they make their way back to the ocean or lakes. North American steelhead commonly spend around two years in the ocean before they enter freshwater again to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead are able to return and spawn multiple times over the course of their lifetime.  

Fishing Techniques

When thinking about successful steelhead fishing techniques, a wide variety of systems and flies can be used to get the fish to bite, but tailoring yourself to the specific personalities of the seasonal groups of fish will definitely increase your chances of hooking that lunker you have been waiting for.

Though greatly sought after by fly anglers, conventional tackle can be used to catch steelhead trout.

Winter steelhead — A as a group, winter steelhead are less prone to chasing fast moving presentations and flies fished with erratic movements. The reason behind this lackadaisical behavior is the colder water temperatures associated with the winter and early spring months.

A good technique to utilize when fishing winter run steelhead is to use a nymph fishing setup. Nymph fishing is a very subtle presentation for easily spooked fish. Nymphing gives you the chance to repeatedly place your fly in the strike zone, while at the same time allowing you to softly drop the fly to the waters surface.

In addition to this, trout feed almost 90 percent of the time on aquatic insects so it does not hurt to target these little critters. Your best bet for nymphing in these cold-water conditions is to use a floating line coupled with long leaders. Heavily weighted flies are a good bet to get down to where the big steelies lie while bright indicators will give away even the lightest of strikes from fish.

Summer run fish — For summer run fish and more temperate water conditions, long swinging presentations paired with timely strips can produce a voracious bite. Traditional anglers fish this summer group of steelhead with a wet fly swing and flashy streamer patterns.

The wet fly swing is accomplished by casting downstream at a 45-degree angle and letting the fly swing slowly across the current until it reaches a position below the angler. As you continue to move and fish, your angle to the target will change, so now you cast across and dead drift past the target, showing the fish a different presentation. Letting the dead drifted cast straighten and swing occasionally teases a lackadaisically following fish into a strike. Being able to cover all of the potential holding water with a combination of a drifting and swinging fly will give you the best chance to get a strike.

Another approach to fishing these summertime steelhead is to attach a sink tip line to the end of your fly line and actively strip flies through pools or heavy structure. This energetic approach to fishing can sometime trigger a reaction strike from fish.  

Fly Selection

Steelhead, as a species, are not extremely particular in what they choose to eat but rather when they choose to eat it. Having the right color and type of fly pattern will definitely heighten your odds of hooking that lunker but still the fish have to be running and willing to bite. If you ever get a chance to look into an experienced steelheaders fly box, you will probably see a dozen or so different colored patterns and styles of flies. Fluorescent yellow, bronze, to dark purple steelhead flies follow no rules. The same goes for the type of materials used to create these patterns such as flashy synthetics, undulating marabou's and peacock herls.  

When trying to decide what fly to use out on your next fishing trip, keep it in mind that there is no single pattern that guarantees you will catch fish. By the time steelhead make their way up the river, they in all essence have stopped feeding and cannot be fooled by simply matching what is hatching.

Tip: One important rule of thumb to follow is to match your fly to the water you will be fishing.

When your favorite steelhead water is running low and clear like it probably does during the hot summer months, a good idea is to size down your choice of fly. Large flies create lots of noise when presented in skinny water. The summer steelhead that you are targeting will likely be spooked unless the angler is able to cast well ahead of the holding fish. Smaller, less colorful patterns are what most anglers choose to use when the bite gets tough. Steelheads are commonly caught on nymph's patterns that get down in size as small as size 6 or 8.

Having the right color and type of fly pattern will definitely heighten your odds of hooking that lunker.

Many seasoned steelhead fishermen carry a summer fly selection and a winter fly selection. The only real difference between these two fly boxes is in the size of the flies. 

After a heavy rain or during the spring ice melt, all rivers will run stained brown while at very high levels, then to greenish as the water level begins to drop. To fish this stained water that has limited visibility, you want to choose a fly that will be conspicuous; large, (sizes 2-4) colorful flies do just that. In these stained waters, steelhead will venture out from their respected cover or deep wells and are seldom spooked by large offerings even if presented very poorly. In these conditions, flies can be used that range anywhere from 1/0 to size 4. As far as choosing the right color for stained or clearing water, flies that use bright fluorescent materials are a good idea. These bright colors help fish separate your flies from other debris floating down the river.

Since steelhead are not active feeders during their spawning runs, the majority of bites are due to the fish's instincts. Fly patterns that provide movement and action will entice steelhead to strike. This undulating type of movement is probably one of the most important factors responsible for triggering an instinctual strike from large predatory fish.  

Weather and Sunlight

The right color flies for stained or clearing water are bright, fluorescent flies.

As mentioned earlier, rain can be a very important variable in catching steelhead. As the level of rainfall increases, the rivers will rise accordingly and trigger steelhead to migrate back to their native streams. The rising water will allow the fish to travel safely up small creeks and rivers that were blocked only a few days previously.

While rising rivers help bring migrating fish upstream, dropping water levels make fish hold in deep holes providing ideal fishing conditions. Trying to plan your fishing trips around these rising and falling water conditions can be very hard, seeing as no one can predict the weather conditions with any degree of accuracy. Ideally fishing is best if you could be out on the river 1-2 days after a light rain or 3-4 days after a heavy rain. The water should be just starting to drop and have a slightly stained color.  

The amount of sunlight plays a critical factor in how successful you are going to be on your fishing adventures especially when you are fishing low clear water conditions. Fish are very quick on picking up shadows on the water so when the sun is high be sure to keep out of the rays and casting your shadow on the water.  

When planning your fishing trip start your day off downstream of where you want to fish and proceed upstream. By fishing upstream you will be approaching the fish from behind not allowing them to catch a glimpse of your shadow just the fly. Another good idea is to try to place more importance on the shaded runs or holes. Fish are constantly looking forward and upwards and sunlight can blind a fish to your fly swinging softly by. Vegetation along the river can also provide some mid-day shade for fish and keep them active and biting all day long.  

There is something special about fishing trout water that harbor large lake run species like steelhead. Many anglers spend countless hours chasing these shy streambed prowlers and hardly ever getting the chance to see they quarry. Steelhead fishing is not for the faint of heart, but if you are looking for the fight of a lifetime then these large trout are for you. There are numerous secrets to catching the big one, but the number one rule is not to give up!  Above all else it takes persistence to catch these fish.