Steelhead trout, which are sea-run Rainbows, look and act very much like Atlantic salmon. They are long, silvery fish that run from three pounds up to about thirty pounds, which is not far from the Atlantic salmon size range.
Steelheads take a fly just about as Atlantic salmon do.
Both fish live in the sea, come up the rivers to spawn, and return to the ocean. Pacific salmon never return to the sea after spawning.
Steelhead spawn all the way from February to June, depending on the location and water temperature.
There is also a fall run of Steelhead in the Pacific Coast streams.
The standard fly fishing technique for Steelhead is to cast downstream and across, with a wet fly, streamer or bucktail. These are usually fancy type flies, fished by the action method, with a rhythmic lifting and lowering of the rod tip. The method and results are again like those traditionally used for Atlantic salmon.
Steelhead leaders run from 7 ft. to 12 ft., tapered from .020 to .010, with usual fly sizes No. 4 and No. 6.
I fished almost entirely in this standard way the first season I was fishing for Steelhead. As I lived on the Umpqua and Rogue Rivers for a number of years, I gradually tried modifications of all the trout fishing methods on Steelhead. In the right conditions, they all work. I have taken a lot of Steelhead on a dry fly—some up to 22 pounds. I have taken them with a wet fly fished upstream by the natural drift method. That is very effective.
Steelheads will take flat bodied nymphs too. Also I’ve seen times when they will take No. 10 and even No. 12 trout flies when they would refuse the regular No. 4 and No. 6 Steelhead flies. I’ve seen places where you had to use an 18 ft. leader to keep from alarming them, too.
A spinner-and-fly works well, although I don’t like to cast this lure on a fly rod. Of course live bait, especially salmon eggs, will take Steelhead in some cases where they won’t touch a fly. Trolling with spoons and spinners also accounts for many big ones.
Bait casting with wobbling spoons, medium depth and deep running bass lures is about as successful a way of hooking the big boys as you will find.
Steelhead are much more liable to stay in the main current of the rivers, probably because they are just in from the sea where they are used to big waters; partly, too, because they may be following their instinct to travel up the heaviest current of their home streams to reach their spawning beds. Except for this main current variation, Steelhead will be found in the same kind of places as other Rainbows.
As to water temperature, Steelheads react again like other Rainbows. They prefer 50° to 65° water. In temperatures under 50°, they take salmon eggs or live bait, near bottom, better than anything else; between 50° and 55°, a wet fly; above 55°, either a dry fly or wet fly. At these temperatures they are usually in fairly shallow water—that is, shallow for them.
Steelhead are more liable to be in the pools just because the water is deeper there, but you’ll find them in deep rapids and along deep rock ledges—in fact, in all the regular trout places.
Everything I have told you about trout in general, and Rainbows in particular, goes for Steelheads, too. The only thing is that they are about ten times as big on the average. You will need long range casting for fishing some spots in Steelhead rivers.
One thing the Steelhead’s size makes necessary is to play a hooked fish on the reel. Don’t try to play a big Steelhead by stripping in the line with your left hand. You are liable to lose a finger as well as the fish.
A good stout bass bug rod, a salmon type reel and 90 feet of tapered HCH or GBF fly line with 300 feet of backing are fine for Steelhead. With them you’ll find there just isn’t more glorious sport than fly fishing for these “Atlantic Salmon” of the West.