By Mike Willis
It is tough to deny that living and playing out west is one of the greatest things that an outdoor enthusiast can do. Breathtaking landscapes and endless pursuits captivate the minds and hearts of those seeking an adventure. Among the endless opportunities that the west offers, steelhead fishing is among the greatest.
Many people are surprised to learn that a steelhead is the same thing as a rainbow trout. The difference (the reason they have two names) between the two is that the steelhead left its native waters and migrated to the ocean. These ocean dwellers can become impressively large and account for some of the most enjoyable spring and fall time runs in the nation. After living in the ocean for three to five years, these fish will return to the same waters where they were born.
Steelheads weigh between four and twenty pounds, and measure between 23 and 37 inches of full-on fight. Even with a medium-heavy action rod, you can feel their heads shake violently as you attempt to haul them ashore. With massive nets and screaming reels, a steelhead adventure is sure to be a memorable one.
After gaining much popularity, the steelhead fishery nearly crashed. Dedicated industry professionals worked tirelessly to preserve the incredible tradition. After years of persistent efforts through conservation, opportunities are still widely available throughout the west. For those seeking to expand their fishing portfolio, give steelheading a try, but never take the opportunity for granted!
Steelhead are hailed by anglers as the ultimate gamefish. The game of shoreline tug-of-war is still a “kick in the pants” for even the most experienced anglers. While fishing for steelhead is one of the greatest western-fishing experiences, don’t be fooled into thinking that it comes without opposition. Fall and springtime runs can be brutally cold. Standing on icy boulders along steep riverbanks is the cost of doing business.
Fishing on below-freezing days is challenging as your rod’s eyelets plug with ice. Standing stationary for hours on a small section of rock initiates a feeling comparable to rigor mortis. As you feel like your body is shutting down, your mind will keep you aware that you are very much alive! Slow days of fishing will test your resolve, but the reward makes it all worthwhile.
To boost steelhead populations, hatcheries are found throughout the west. Steelhead are capable of spawning for multiple seasons. However, human-made dams stand in the way of their safe passage back to the ocean. For this reason, you will see many steelhead with a clipped adipose fin. This mark indicates that the fish was hatchery-reared. Wild steelhead still have their adipose fin and must be released back into the water.
For those looking to try steelheading, there are multiple techniques one may use to catch these fish. The most popular method of catching steelhead is to use a bobber and drift a jig through a strong current seam. Others choose to drift a corky and yarn rig attached to lead. The lead weights are sized to allow just the right action as it bounces off of the rocky bottom. If those methods don’t appeal to you, some anglers will even use the plunking technique.
Angler Beware: Be prepared to donate lots of tackle to the river while you are learning.
Eight and a half or nine-foot medium or medium-heavy action rods are perfect for catching steelhead. Most seasoned steelhead anglers prefer to use baitcasting reels, as there is a significant amount of casting associated with river fishing. Eight to twelve-pound test line with plenty of backing is perfect for your steelhead fishing trip.
Depending on how far into spawning the fish are, meat quality can vary. Early on in the run, the meat is fabulous and a favorite among the fish-smoking community. Later in the season, these fish become very red and hook-jawed. During this time, you can see the condition of the fish begin to deteriorate rapidly. Catching them is just as much fun, but the best-eating fish are caught in the early part of the run.
This season, give steelheading a try! Enjoy this incredible tradition and appreciate its opportunity. Remember to respect the laws and protect this incredible fishery for the seasons to come.