Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Steelhead (Pacific)
By Chris Santella

Steelhead (Pacific)

Quick Facts


Oncorhynchus Mykiss (Chomer, Steel, Metalhead . . . Unicorn)


Summer run fish: 5 to 20 pounds (depending on drainage)
Winter-run fish: 8 to 25 pounds (depending on drainage)
World Record: 42 pounds, Southeast Alaska (in salt on conventional tackle)


Summer-run fish: 7/10
Winter-run fish: 9/10


Freight train-like takes on swung flies; tail walking acrobatics and lightning-fast runs; inscrutability (which leads some anglers to believe that they are as real as…unicorns)


California (Winter—Eel)
Oregon (Summer—Rogue; North Umpqua; Deschutes; John Day; Grande Ronde. Winter—North Umpqua; Siletz; Nehalem; Clackamas; Sandy)
Washington (Summer—Klickitat; Grande Ronde. Winter—Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, Skagit [if they’re open!])
Idaho (Summer—Salmon, Snake and Clearwater rivers [sadly, these runs are severely depressed and likely to become extinct if removal of four Snake River dams does not occur]
British Columbia (Summer—Dean; Skeena and its tributaries. Winter—Squamish; Kitimat.)
Alaska (Karluk; Situk; Anchor; the many small rivers of southeastern Alaska)

On the taxonomical chart, steelhead are classified as rainbow trout—albeit rainbow trout that have access to the salt and migrate to and from the ocean. (Some recent studies at Washington State University have suggested that rainbow trout might actually have evolved from steelhead that became landlocked and unable to migrate back to the Pacific.) When they first hit fresh water, steelhead are a study in monochromatic tones—gunmetal gray/silver/white—hence their nickname, “chromers.” The longer they linger in their home rivers, the more they assume rainbow characteristics—fine spots, and a band of red/magenta along their flanks. (Some bigger fish may boast two bands of red.) Chrome-bright fish with just a hint of magenta on their gill-plates are something to behold!

Steelhead exhibit a variety of lifestyles depending on the drainage in question, but a basic breakdown goes like this: summer steelhead enter their natal rivers sexually immature; that is, they won’t be ready to spawn for several months (in some drainages, up to six months or more). “Summer” can be a bit of a misnomer, as summer-run fish enter some rivers as early as March and April, others as late as October and November. Winter steelhead enter their home rivers ready to spawn, and generally get the job done within a month of returning. They can be found anywhere from late November to late March, again, depending on the river. Though generalizations can easily be dispelled when it comes to Pacific steelhead, a few can be made:

Winter fish tend to be larger; on rivers in Oregon and Washington, winter fish are more likely to hit the magic 20-pound number (though some northern BC summer-runs sometimes eclipse 20 pounds) Summer fish—even the small one-salt fish that return in July to rivers like Oregon’s Deschutes—tend to be feistier. They’ll move further to take a fly, take a fly harder, run faster and jump more frequently than winter fish…though some of winter fish’s more subdued behavior when hooked is a result of cold water.

The phrase “the tug is the drug” is applied these days to every fish from smallmouth to snook, but it originated with steelhead. Perhaps it’s because of the raw power of a steelhead’s take on a swung fly. Perhaps it’s because there are usually long periods of nothing between grabs—sometimes days. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.) But there is something magical and absolutely addictive about the moment when a fish takes. Though I’ve hooked hundreds of steelhead in the 22 years I’ve been at it, I still can’t help screaming like a 12-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert when the tug comes. It just doesn’t get much better in fly fishing. And if the take isn’t enough, the steelhead’s lightning fast runs and aerial displays won’t disappoint. Now and again you’ll find a lethargic fish that just wants to dog down. But that’s not the norm…especially with summer fish.

The notion of “fly fishing Zen” has become a bit cliché, but I can’t think of any angling pursuit that’s more Eastern (as in Far East) than steelhead fishing. Find a stretch of water that’s moving about the pace of a modest walking stride, that’s two-to six-feet deep, preferably dotted with structure in the shape of boulders or ledges. Cast, swing, step, step. Cast, swing, step, step. The whole run. Then hike or float to the next one and…repeat. I seldom have deep thoughts, but if they are to occur, it’s going to be while steelhead fishing. It’s truly a chance for your mind to race to…nothing. With a sprinkling of possibility. The idea of doing nothing is essential to success. For as jarring as the aforementioned tug can be—especially if it comes after nine hours of stepping and casting on a 37-degree, rain-falling sidewise outing—lifting your rod tip or grabbing your line is likely to end your encounter before its even started. Some like to hold a loop; others like to set their drag light. Either way, let the fish take the fly and DO NOTHING. More often than not, the fish hooks itself.

Some of the—I won’t call it monotony, but perhaps sameness—is relieved by the joy of throwing a spey rod. There’s a simple grace to the motion. But there’s also the raw thrill of casting 100 feet of line—a feat beyond the reach of most of us (unless you’re Steve Rajeff or Brian O’Keefe). When I picked up my first spey rod in 2000, 1/3 of the anglers I’d see on Oregon steelhead rivers fished spey rods; these days, 95 percent are spey fishing, with increasingly light sticks. (Personally, I don’t like to go lighter than a 6-weight so I can land fish in a reasonable amount of time.)

If you’re serious about steelheading, be prepared to go without much sleep. Low-light hours are by far the best—you’re up before the sun and not returning to camp/motel before dark. During long summer days, hardcore anglers may go to sink-tips and bigger flies during the afternoon, trying to dredge a fish or two up from deeper pools/runs. I prefer to do a bit of trout fishing or examine the selection of craft beers that my angling friends have taken care to stock in the cooler.

NOTE: I’ve heard that there are people who attach bobbers to their fly line and fish nymphs or egg patterns for steelhead. That topic is not going to be discussed here.

Pacific steelhead range from southern Alaska to central California in the eastern Pacific, and along Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in the west. They once could be found as far south as Baja California, but those runs are largely gone…and populations through central California are sparse at best. (That being said, there is a recent initiative to bring steelhead back to the mostly concrete Los Angeles River…who knew!) In truth, steelhead populations are not faring well in most of their traditional range. Habitat degradation, dams that block access to historical spawning grounds, bycatch by commercial and tribal fisheries and the various problems posed by hatchery fish all contribute to declining fish populations. Like other salmonids—perhaps even more so—steelhead need cold, clean water. A commodity in shrinking supply.

Steelhead are born in fresh water. In their nascent years, they feed on small insects, much like a trout. (They are formally classified as steelhead trout, after all!) As they grow to smolt size—10 inches to 12 inches or so—they migrate to the Pacific. Assuming they make it past dam turbines and predators, some fish will spend a year at sea before returning to fresh water to spawn; others spend two or three years at sea. Unlike Pacific salmon, all five species of which die after spawning, some steelhead return to the salt for another year(s) of feeding and growing after their first spawning…and do it all over again.

Some fish—like those returning to the upper tributaries of the Snake River—travel over 500 miles once leaving the salt to reach their spawning grounds. There’s ongoing debate about whether steelhead feed once they return to fresh water. Some insist not; others are adamant that they’ve seen 30-inch steelhead feeding on PMDs alongside 12 inch rainbows. Frank Moore, WWII hero and dean of the North Umpqua in southern Oregon, debated this point with author/angler Roderick Haig-Brown. To bolster his stance (that steelhead DID eat), Moore is said to have once mailed the stomach contents of a fish he’d killed (back when numbers permitted such harvest) to Haig-Brown. The stomach was filled with caddis. My position on this question—they sometimes eat.

As mentioned above, on the larger rivers, like the Deschutes, the Queets, the Bulkley, the Dean, spey rods have become the tool of choice. If I’m fishing a floating line with hair-wing flies or skaters, I usually go with a 6 or 7-weight; if I’m throwing sink-tips and/or weighted flies, I go to an 8-weight stick. (If you’re starting out spey casting, a fast-action rod makes it pretty easy to jack a fair bit of line…though a more medium-action rod may make you a better spey caster in the long run.)

Line technologies seem to have been accelerating at a breakneck pace; I lost track of the cutting edge back around 2007. Though I imagine there are pockets of aficionados who have returned to traditional lines, shooting-head setups–Scandis for floating lines and Skagits for tips—now seem to rule the day. Again, paired with a fast-action rod, they’ll have the new spey caster making 60-foot shots after a morning’s tutorial. Winter anglers—and those willing to dredge in the more clement months—definitely want an assemblage of tips. I have lots and lots of tips—mostly because the markings on the line indicating respective sink rates quickly become illegible (at least to my eyes), and I’m never sure what I’m actually throwing…so I buy a few new ones each year…and then forget which is which again. This problem could be addressed with a simple classification system in my tips wallet. Maybe a winter project.

Like everything surrounding steelheading, there’s great debate on the best reel for the job. Some don’t feel a good drag is necessary—or any drag at all, if you’re in the Hardy camp. Others go all in for the four-figure Saracione or Bogdan. Personally, I do like a reel with a drag—a hedge against playing a fish too long, or losing the fish of a lifetime. Whatever reel you get, be sure that the tolerances between the frame and the spool are tight so your running line can’t sneak through. On the last day of a trip to the Bulkley several years ago, I lost five fish in a row thanks to a reel with loose tolerance. As cheap as I am, I replaced said reel quickly after that trip.

Flies—another point for long debate, preferably fueled with powerful brown liquid. Light skies, dark flies; dark skies, light flies…or is it the other way around? Skaters? Maybe; if a fish can see a hair-wing fly from 6 inches below the surface, it can certainly see a waking Muddler or some other gurgling surface presentation. Bigger profile flies? Probably a good idea for off-color water and/or winter fishing. As a friend who once operated an Atlantic salmon camp in Russia has said, you need only two flies: Confidence and Doesn’t Matter.

Chris Santella
Chris Santella is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die, and carries frequent bylines in the Washington Post and The New York Times. When not writing, Santella creates and plays music, or chases steelhead from his home base in Portland, Oregon.