Stepping into a pre-dawn run, you unhook your fly make your first short cast and the anticipation begins, as you watch your line swing across the current to the soft inside edge. Nothing. Strip another length of line off of your reel. Cast. Swing. Anticipate. As you work your way down the run, you try to only take three steps in between casts, but actually take four. Cast. Swing. Anticipate. The next cast will be in the juiciest water. Every cast and swing comes with chills and you wait for a steelhead to respond to your best fly offering. Cast. Swing. Anticipate. Searching for unicorns…..
So what is a steelhead?
A steelhead is essentially an anadromous rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), or a trout that has migrated to the ocean. Then, as an adult, they return to spawn in the same freshwater system they were born. The life cycle of steelhead is one of the things that makes them so amazing. They spend most of their life in the ocean, gorging on food and can grow to astounding sizes. Unlike their cousins, Pacific salmon, steelhead don’t expire after spawning. They can return to the ocean and spawn multiple times. It is when these adult fish return to spawn in their home rivers that they are targeted by anglers. Check out this blog to learn what makes a steelhead different than a rainbow trout.
Hatchery Steelhead vs. Wild Steelhead
In steelhead rivers across the country there are Wild/Native and Hatchery Steelhead, so what exactly is the difference? “Hatchery” steelhead are simply hatched in a hatchery pond. Hatchery fish have their adipose fin-clipped so that they are easily identified by anglers who intend to harvest these fish.
In my experience most hatchery fish have some other funky fin, usually a dorsal that is bent or deformed in some way. According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, hatchery steelhead are genetically different than their wild cousins within one generation. Hatchery steelhead have less success reproducing when released into rivers.
A “Wild” steelhead refers to any steelhead that was hatched in the river system and usually has wild parents. While wild and hatchery fish may look almost identical (minus an adipose) they are genetically different and will have very different levels of success creating the next generation of these amazing anadromous fish. It is no surprise that more recent studies have shown that hatchery steelhead and salmon can have a hugely detrimental effect on wild steelhead and salmon.
Summer Steelhead vs Winter Steelhead
Steelhead also differ within the species itself. They have very diverse life histories that make each strain a little different. Some specific life histories grow bigger than others, some look different, even act differently. But one key difference is the timing of the steelhead runs, and for the most part, this can be categorized into either a summer run steelhead or a winter run steelhead. The difference between the two is summer steelhead enters the freshwater sexual immature. While winter run fish enter the river sexual mature.
The summer fish typically anywhere from May-November (very dependant on the specific river). They develop and mature for months and months in the river system. Summer run fish typically will travel farther to spawn than winter run fish. Summer steelhead are known to be more aggressive as they will eagerly take a dry fly (many think this to have to related to the longer journey they typically have to travel). Summer steelhead are also known to be typically smaller than the winter steelhead.
Summer run female fish enter the freshwater system with small undeveloped eggs. On the other hand, winter steelhead enter river systems already sexually mature and ready to spawn. These differences and the length of their journeys explain why summer run fish spend much more time in freshwater. Winter fish may be in the river system only a matter of days, and summer fish may be in the freshwater system over a year.
Tactics for Summer Steelheading
Given the differences between the two, the tactics are also a little different for each. Here in Oregon, summer-run steelhead start showing up late spring. You can go out and start swinging for the first few fish in the Willamette Valley as early as May. While fishing for summer run steelhead, waders are optional, especially through the summer months. Typically low and clear water leads the angler to swing smaller more traditional patterns. With the smaller flies comes longer rods (12-14 feet), and longer Scandi lines for more delicate presentations and longer leaders which makes casting very visually rewarding.
Summer fish are more aggressive and will move farther to take a swung fly, so you can move quickly through a run moving 8-10 feet between casts searching for these hot fish. Summer steelhead grabs can be the most exhilarating experience with a fly line as the fish goes somersaulting 100 feet down river ripping line as you pray to land this amazing fish.
Tactics for Winter Steelheading
Winter steelhead fishing is a very different game. Instead of long runs in large rivers, many winter fish migrate up small coastal streams to spawn. Winter conditions, rain, snow, icy roads, and high flows rivers all keep many anglers at home and make winter fish harder to find and catch. Skagit lines are a essential to present the larger profile fly (like an intruder) and a sink tip to break the surface tension and get down a bit in the water column to present to fish.
Winter swing fishing requires shorter rods (10-11½’), shorter Skagit heads, and shorter leaders, to swing that juicy fly down and across that tailout to the waiting winter fish. And if you’re lucky your fly reel is going to be screaming for the next 10 minutes while you have an encounter with a unicorn.
Swinging flies for steelhead quickly becomes an all-encompassing passion. First, intrigued about the longer rods and 2-hand casting lead way to trying to figure out the differences between Scandi and Skagit lines. Then there are the flies. Steelheading includes both the oddest and beautiful flies. Spey casting is easy enough to find success and start fishing, but challenging enough that even an expert finds something to learn each year. Every fishing trip now presents an opportunity to improve and learn Spey casting. But the true reason that swinging flies becomes such a passion is the grab of steelhead at the end of a tight line presentation. I will never forget that first grab, and each eat of the fly by a fish gets filed and stored in your brain to a point that you remember the grabs and fight more than the fish.
For more steelhead specific conservation information check out:
For more spey and two hand expert knowledge and gear in Oregon, check out: Home Waters Fly Shop (@homewatersflyshop)
Article and Photos from Courtney Morris, check him out on Instagram at @sculpinarmy.
This article is presented by Ross Reels, be sure to check out their current line of reels online here.