Steelhead are one of the most notable sportfish around, and anglers admire this species for its beautiful color and shape, the aerobatic and unrelenting fight when you hook it, and the extreme water and weather environments it thrives in. All of these things create a perfect storm, and it makes fly fishing for steelhead all that more challenging and addicting to both veteran and novice anglers.
These anglers will search and hunt for this fish, and they’re some of the most devoted anglers in the fly fishing game. They’ll put themselves through so many obstacles just for a chance to hook one of these legendary fish. They know you don’t get that fanciful tug by staying home.
Did you know a steelhead is a rainbow trout that is born and spends its juvenile life in the river before mimicking salmon and migrating to the sea? After a two or three-year period, the steelheads will return to the streams where they were born to spawn. Many steelheads die soon after spawning, but some make the journey back to the sea several times throughout their lives. The exact trigger of the saltwater migration is a mystery, but it is a legendary journey.
For example, there was a steelhead originally tagged in the Columbia River in Oregon that got recaptured off Japan’s coast. Unlike salmon that travel in schools, steelhead travel alone. This is a unique characteristic that adds mystery to this trophy fish, but anglers ultimately go after them due to their power and size. Steelheads gain massive power and grow to large sizes while in the ocean.
Originally, you could find steelhead in almost every river system in the North Pacific Rim from Baja, Mexico, to Kamchatka, Russia. Habitat loss in the steelhead’s historic summer range makes their northern territory even more critical. Today, the west coast of Kamchatka, Kodiak Island, the Alaskan Peninsula, and British Columbia’s Skeena River watershed are all high-quality places to hunt for the elusive steelhead.
The steelhead is a feisty fish that hits hard and runs once it takes the fly. This makes it a popular sport fish for anglers who want a challenge. You get bragging rights when you manage to haul one of the monster steelhead into the shore. The thrill of the hunt and the adrenaline-packed battle you have with this fish are also major selling points for anglers who pursue it.
Anglers of all ages and skill levels will get a thrill when they feel the tug on their line when the fish strikes. However, it does require patience on the angler’s part, but the reward is well worth the wait. It’s a relatively cost-effective sport to get into, and this contributes to the popularity. You’ll choose from dozens of rods, reels, lines, and flies until you find the one that is best suited for your particular style.
Intrigued? Let’s dive in and find out more about steelhead fly fishing.
Where do Steelhead Stay in the Water?
Where your steelhead will be in the water depends on the temperature. If it’s nasty and cold outside, you’re likely to find steelhead in slow, soft water as you’d find in a tail-out or gut of a pool. During the warmer weather, steelhead like fast riffles. Look at transition spots at the pool’s head because this is where the water slows down and where steelhead like to be in the winter months.
It isn’t unusual for steelhead to travel very close to the shoreline in dirty water when the water levels start to rise in the springtime. Look for areas of quick-moving water. You may even find yourself stepping over fish as they make their way through these areas. The goal is to cover the inside water area with your fly to gain as much exposure to the steelhead as possible.
Fishing for them can take practice and patience because they’re always on the move. But, the challenge of locating these fish makes the reward more worthwhile. Canvas your local streams and see where the fish tend to gather. Chances are, there is trophy-sized steelhead lurking just under the water.
Fly Rod for Steelhead – Tailwater Outfitters Toccoa Fly Rod
This rod comes in a five or eight weight size. It’s a fast-action rod with IM8 graphite that lends excellent performance, accuracy, and durability to this build. The four-piece design makes it a very travel-friendly option to have, and you’ll get alignment dots that allow for quick and easy setup.
There are ceramic stripping guides and chrome snake guides that ensure your fly line gets a smooth and seamless release and reel in each time you use it. The machined aluminum reel on this rod has double-lock rings that ensure it comes firmly attached to the rod. There is a half well cork handle equipped to this rod that helps you avoid fatigue while improving your casting accuracy. You’ll get a four-compartment rod tube included that makes transporting this setup easy.
- uses IM8 Graphite for added durability
- Cork handle helps you avoid fatigue and improve your accuracy
- Available in two sizes
- Storage tube is flimsy
- No warranty on the rod
Fly Reel for Steelhead – Redington Behemoth Fly Reel Spool
This fly reel spool comes in five sizes and four color options. You get adjustable, CarbonFiber drag with a unique die-cast construction that will withstand wear and tear very well. The large arbor design on this reel reduces line memory while speeding up your retrieve.
- Has durable die-cast construction
- Available in a few sizes and colors
- Works well in different environments
- Drag may be too sensitive
- Holds little backing before being full
Fly Line for Steelhead – Maxcatch Fly Fishing Line
This fly line comes in eight sizes, six colors, and it features a welded loop. This forward floating line delivers a high accuracy level. You’ll get a coating on this line that makes it more durable and makes it easier to float. The two-tone color scheme helps you determine your ideal load point before you cast.
- Has a long lead head design
- Braided core gives you lower memory
- Available in several colors
- Spool can pinch the line when you put it together
- May crack with repeated use
When is the Best Time to Fish for Steelhead?
You’ll find trophy steelhead in rivers starting in early September and running through late May. The peak season for steelhead is once in mid October to mid December and again in mid March until early May. These are the best times to get out and find the larger sizes that anglers covet.
The Best Flies and Methods for Catching Steelhead
There are four main methods for catching steelheads. You may have to cycle through them to see which one works best for your style of fishing. The methods include:
- Euro Nymphing – This is a fly fishing technique where the angler holds a sighter when they fish. The sighter detects when the fish takes the weighted flier.
- Indicator Nymphing – When someone indicator fishes, they attach something to the leader. The attachment can suspend flies or a weight while the indy floats. You can use a dry fly, foam, plastic, cork, or yarn.
- Spey Fishing – When you spey fish, you use a casting technique using a double-handed or normal length fly rod. It works in large rivers or for large fish like steelhead.
- Streamer Fishing – A streamer is a bigger fly that you use when you actively retrieve. The flies imitate large insects, crayfish, baitfish, and leeches.
You have a large selection when it comes to your steelhead flies. You can mix and match and bring different styles with you to fish in different areas. The best steelhead flies include but are not limited to:
- Pink Nuke Egg
- Death Roe
- Guide Intruder Size 2 or 4
- Lady Ga Ga Intruder
- Otter’s Soft Milking Egg
- Egg Sucking Leech Size 2 or 6
- Sucker Spawn Size 8 to 12
- Hoh Bo Spey, Size 2
- Agent Orange, Size 6