No doubt about it, winter steelhead fly fishing is a hardy sport that takes patience and discipline. To help you become more successful, we’ve compiled a collection of tips used by pro-level guides. The key to catching steelhead is to understand how approaching winter steelheading is different than how you usually fish, pay attention to changing conditions and what drives steelhead behavior. Here at Fly Fishing Field Guides, we want you to get to better fishing, faster. So we work hard to condense top-notch advice into downright punchy material – enjoy our video that accompanies this article!
Simply put, catching steelhead takes preparation. While planning your trip, frequently check the flow of the river you’d like to fish. Rising water (such as after rainfall or snowmelt) brings in new runs of steelhead, while falling water and especially low water tends to keep them in place. Ideal fishing conditions are after fresh runs come up, but when the water has dropped enough to regain clarity (but not to low that they are spooky). Great steelheaders know the river levels that are ideal, which is based on careful monitoring and experience.
To save time while fishing, we recommend pre-tying your leaders so you can change them quickly, and don’t have to worry about break-offs and snags. After all, the only time you’ll catch fish is when your line is in the water, and with steelhead it’s even more-so important to minimize what can be hours between fish. Also, sharpen your hooks. With the amount of effort you put into catching these magnificent fish, the last thing you want to have happen is lose your connection when it shakes your fly out on a spectacular jump or change in direction. These straightforward measures before your trip will ensure you catch more and land more.
Finally, be certain to check your local fishing regulations, including dates, fishing license requirements (sometimes you need a steelhead tag in addition to your regular license), catch and release stretches, any special restrictions in place, etc.
On The River – Finding Steelhead
We suggest keeping on the move – don’t over-fish any one spot. When they are most likely to strike, steelhead are found together in slower moving channels, pools, behind large rocks, drop offs, etc. After trying several presentations and changing flies, keep moving till you find the fish. “Read the water” to find areas with less current and more fish, and make note so you can come back to the same spots year after year – if they like it this year they probably will next year too!
Speaking of steelhead flies, you should change them often to entice the fish with something new. Don’t expect that what worked yesterday to work today or tomorrow. Keep your offerings fresh and use a variety of patterns and fly types (e.g. streamers, egg patterns, articulated / not).
Here’s one of the key tips for steelhead fly fishing – try to outsmart, don’t compete directly with other anglers. Yes, the excitement runs high when fresh runs come in, but you’ll do better to fish at different times and locations than other anglers so the fish you are presenting too aren’t over-exposed and wary. Not to mention you won’t waste time jostling for position and avoiding tangles. Once I had another fisherman on the other side of the river who snagged my line while playing a fish, keep pulling on what he thought was his fish until we finally got his attention yelling! You’ll even do better fishing after the crowds have left (getting on the river at the crack of dawn isn’t key to steelhead success), especially if you present a unique offering. Expect other anglers to fish the easiest access portions of the river. Instead of competing directly with them, sometimes just a short hike or drift, a little more driving, or fishing a tributary instead of the main stem can get you to fish that are all your own.
How To Catch Steelhead
Steelhead are just large rainbow trout, if sea- or lake-run, so fishing techniques for them should be the same as regular trout fishing, right? Wrong. Many times anglers make the mistake of assuming trout fishing techniques, such as pocket fishing in the riffles will yield results. Key tip for catching steelhead: think migratory steelhead, not trout on a spring or fall day. Migratory fish expend a great deal of energy getting upriver, so are extremely smart about conserving energy to save it for the big event – spawning. We suggest steelhead fishing in the slower moving water in the head, tail and bottom of pools. This is where they are resting to conserve energy before the next push upriver, or you may catch them as they slowly head up-current. It is especially worth noting that in colder temperatures, steelhead retreat from faster-moving water into slower and deeper runs and pools even more than in more temperate water. For this reason, match their pace and rhythm with your casting – swing your cast wide, deep, low, and slow. Experiment with different retrieves just like you might for any streamer fishing, but for steelhead be sure to cover water closer, farther, and at different angles.
Importantly, successful steelheaders understand that the fish change how they move upriver based on flow level. At lower levels and in clear water, they stick to well defined channels and the deepest troughs they can find for safety’s sake. So, if you are fishing in low water, cast far and deep – unless the deep channel is right in front of you for example on some parts of the Deschutes. In contrast, in higher water, steelhead tend to hug the shore when moving or resting and avoid fighting the stronger mid-current flows. So, if you are in high water, cast closer to the shore and try to pick up holding fish that are hugging the river bank or shallower waters.
As we noted above, steelhead fly fishing during falling water levels is best. However, if the only time you can make it out is when the water is rising, don’t hold back! Just make sure it’s not too fast to be safe or productive, then give it a shot by focusing on tight channels, troughs, and pinch points for higher chances of locating and hooking into steelhead.
Safe Steelhead Fishing
Most importantly, be extremely careful – we want you to arrive home with your steelhead on ice, not you! Good steelhead fishing streams have a lot of dropoffs, pools, and deep slow runs. Combined with the extremely cold water and winter temperatures, getting wet creates at a minimum a risk of hypothermia, and beyond that a very real chance of drowning. Don’t join the fish! To keep safe, always use a wading staff, at the same time testing each step as you progress. Belts are mandatory to prevent full waders if you do go in. And always fish with a friend using the buddy system. This way, you can look after each other while chasing after steelhead – not to mention twice as much chance to figure out what is working if you split up the flies you try.
There you have it…our Pro Tips for Winter Steelhead Success! Happy fly fishing!