John and Russ

Fly Fishing for Steelhead Part I: The Basics

In the past year, I relocated from Vail, Colorado up to Portland, Oregon. I’m lucky enough to have access to dozens of quality steelhead and salmon fisheries. After decades of trout fly fishing, the transition to steelhead fly fishing has been quite the learning experience. There is a big learning curve. It seems like you have to be fishing on the right day, in the right spot, with the right gear and flies to land a steelhead on a fly rod or just a lot of luck. It is a challenging task but shouldn’t be a daunting task. And for some reason, the challenge is what keeps bringing me back and I’m sure other anglers that enjoy fishing for steelhead. In this article, I focus on clearing up some basic terms for beginners to understand the basics of steelhead as it pertains to anglers. 

Wild Steelhead on a “Swung Fly”

What is the difference between a steelhead and rainbow trout? 

Steelhead and rainbow trout are genetically the same species. They are classified both as “Oncorhynchus mykiss.” The difference is their life strategies. A rainbow trout lives in freshwater it’s whole life. While a steelhead is an anadromous (migrating up rivers from the sea to spawn) fish that spends part of its life in the ocean where the fish matures and then returns to the fresh water.

Rainbow Trout On The Colorado River

Hatchery Steelhead vs. Wild/Native Steelhead

Steelhead also come in two forms, native/wild or hatchery steelhead. The native/wild steelhead are the fish that have never had any hatchery lineage. They are native to the rivers they were born in, live in and die in. The hatchery steelhead are fish that are raised in a hatchery then placed into a wild river, where they migrate to the ocean and then come back to the river. You can tell the difference between a hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead as the hatchery steelhead have their adipose fin clipped (pictured below). An adipose is the small fleshy fin between on the top of the fish between the dorsal and tail.

Summer Steelhead
Hatchery Steelhead (Fin Clipped Adipose)

Winter Steelhead vs. Summer Steelhead

Steelhead are classified in two groups or runs, the summer steelhead or the winter steelhead. The difference between the two is summer steelhead enter the freshwater sexual immature. While winter run fish enter the river sexual mature.  Thus this is directly related to run timing, as typically the summer steelhead arrive in the summer and the winter steelhead arrive in the winter. Summer run fish typically will travel farther to span that winter run fish. 

It is pretty common for the summer run fish to be more aggressive than winter run fish. As the summer run steelhead are will often feed on the surface. Some people also believe that summer run fish are smaller on average that winter run fish. 

Summer Run Wild Steelhead

Fun Facts about Steelhead

  • Unlike salmon steelhead can spawn several times. 
  • Steelhead are very diverse from one another. Some steelhead spend one year and others five years in freshwater before going to sea. The adults can spend a few months to five years in the ocean.
  • Steelhead are known to swim as fast as 35 MPH. That will pull some line off the reel. Typically the “fresher” the fish are, the more fight they have in them. “Fresher” meaning just arrving in the fresh water from the salt. Fish that have just arrived into the freshwater are typically more chrome than colored up. 
  • Steelhead can reach up to 40 pounds with 8-11 pounds being the average.
  • The original life history of steelhead spanned from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula all the way up to Alaska. These days there are still #’s of steelhead in California and to the north. But, due too many negative environmental issues they have been on a steady decline. 
  • Steelhead were introduced to the Great Lakes in 1876. Today successful stocking programs are responsible for today’s fantastic runs in rivers throughout the Great Lakes system.
  • Buck – male steelhead (Look for larger head, elongated jaw, and kype). 
  • Hen – female steelhead (smaller head, rounded forehead, small adipose fin).
  • Sea Lice – a small parasite that attaches to the steelhead. Typically means that the fish has just arrived into the freshwater. As the sea lice cannot live in freshwater long. 

The Techniques: Swinging Flies vs. Nymphing

Fly fishing for steelhead is typically done two different ways, swinging flies or nymphing. Different conditions, rivers, and anglers preferences call for the two different techniques.

Nymphing for steelhead is very similar to nymphing for trout in a river. Anglers will typically use a 9 1/2 or 10 foot seven or eight weight rod with a floating line, with a 9 foot leader, complete with an indicator, tippet and split shot. The fly selection can vary but for the most part, anglers like to use larger egg patterns or larger nymphs. Fishing a smaller steelhead river can be more effective with nymphs as it can be more challenging to cover a lot of water and cast these kinds of rigs.

Swinging flies is the preferred technique for many anglers and had been a traditional way of fly fishing for decades. It is as simple as making a cast across the river and letting the current “swing” the fly around to below your position. The rod’s tip can be altered to  “lead” or “follow” the fly adding control. A mend can also impact the swing of the fly. Typically anglers will throw in an upstream mend in after a cast to allow the fly to get deeper before swinging across the water. A variety of different streamers are used as the fly. 

Variety of different steelhead flies used for swinging

To Conclude:

Steelhead are complex, scientists still don’t really understand how these fish know how to track back to where they were born to spawn. All we know is there genetics allow them to map their way back. Steelhead angling is also complex, hopefully this article can help answer some questions about these elusive fish. Stay tuned for Part II where I discuss the proper gear and techniques to catch a steelhead on a flyrod. 

Patrick Perry @patperry Content Contributor and Former Guide