What is a Steelhead

STEELHEADLONG1

Oncorhynchus mykiss

Johann Julius Walbaum, 1792

“We met because she crossed thousands of ocean miles to negotiate this narrow corridor of freshwater currents … These few minutes become our first and only meeting, and I always find in that bittersweet fact the ultimate wildness of these remarkable creatures. Once you have caught a steelhead you can’t go back to the river and say, ‘This is where my steelhead lives,’ for the fish of your memory may be ten miles upstream or thousands of miles offshore, near lands you’ll never know.”

– Trey Combs, Steelhead Fly Fishing

Each year, a sturdy population of tiny, but energetic, steelhead fry grows a bit larger and begins the journey of a lifetime, a watery trek that will take them from their sleepy home tributaries to the raging mouth of the Pacific Ocean and ultimately to the other end of the world.

Each collection of migrating fish will grow from fry to adult steelhead, aided by the bounty of their new surroundings. Eventually these hearty fish will tire of grazing the vast open waters and will begin to find their way home. Driven now by the raw and instinctual urge to spawn, these quite large and commanding adult steelhead swim stoically to their natal stream to procreate and begin the odyssey anew.

Each fall, as these great wild fish begin to make their return trip, fly anglers across the reaches of the Pacific Northwest from California to British Columbia, within the volcanic confines of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and throughout the Great Lakes regions of North America flock to large, fast, tree-lined rivers and their myriad tributaries to “chase chrome.”

Naming the Steelhead

Steelhead are complicated and compelling creatures, worthy of great reams of literature, intense study, and much fireside mythology. These powerful, steel-grey fish have given biologists and ichthyologists fits and have driven generations of fly fishers crazy. Fly anglers who have plied waters for and caught steelhead generally develop an obsessive connection to these fish and for good reason; steelhead are some of the most striking, strongest and most aggressive fighters in freshwater, and a great deal of knowledge and attention to detail are absolutely necessary to catching a steelhead. These beautiful and brilliant fish have also been dubbed “the fish of 1,000 casts” and there’s nothing quite like some good old-fashioned perseverance when fly fishing for steelhead.

Part of the steelhead’s unique complexity stems from the species’ somewhat confusing naming history. For all intents and purposes, steelhead are migratory or non-resident rainbow trout. This has not always been the contention. When initially named, these fish were thought to be more closely and generically related to Atlantic salmon populations, and accordingly, the species’ initial classification was Salmo gairdeneri.

The publisher, In 1836, Sir John Richardson, included this new classification in Fauna Boreali Americana based on information provided by a doctor by the name of Gairdner who was working on the broad banks of the Columbia River with the Hudsons Bay Company at Fort Vancouver. Nineteen years later, the rainbow trout was classified as Salmo irideus by the founder of the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. William P. Gibbons. It was later established that Gibbon’s “new” species was not new at all as his observations were based on a pre-migratory steelhead specimen taken from San Leandro Creek (a beautiful creek located in Leland’s back yard and home to what is possibly California’s largest population of rainbow trout). In an instant, steelhead became anadromous rainbow trout and rainbow trout became non-migratory steelhead.

The separate, but equal classification of rainbow trout as Salmo irideus and steelhead as Salmo gairdeneri survived until 1989 when the Committee on Names of Fishes assembled by the American Fisheries Society threw a knuckleball at all who knew and understood the species of migratory rainbow trout as cousins of the Atlantic salmon population. The committee announced that all species of trout native to western North America would be re-assigned the generic name Oncorhynchus, linking the trout of western North America to the Pacific salmon.

Once established as a Pacific species, more than the Salmo designation needed alteration. In 1792, the prolific German taxonomist, Johann Julius Walbaum classified several species of Pacific salmon as well as the Dolly Varden char, and the rainbow trout of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. It became clear that the steelhead was a more likely cousin of Walbaum’s Kamchatkan rainbows (Salmo mykiss) and, according to the strictures of scientific naming conventions, the populations of steelhead native to western North America should take Walbaum’s earlier species classification of mykiss. In a flash, steelhead morphed, at least in the land of nomenclature, from Salmo gairdeneri to Oncorhynchus mykiss. Such is the steelhead’s complexity.

An Anadromous Adventurer

Like their genetic counterparts, rainbow trout, steelhead are born in freshwater and are known among fly fishers for their aggressive jumps and long runs. Steelhead will spend anywhere from six months to three years in their home rivers and tributaries before riding the strong outgoing currents and migrating to the Pacific Ocean or to one of the Great Lakes of North America (the species was successfully transplanted to the Great Lakes region during several stocking campaigns during the mid-1800s).

Once in their new, larger (and, for some, saltier) homes, these fish feed hungrily on a fat smorgasbord of baitfish, squid, and crustaceans. Here, the species trades its pink band for a new set of chrome silver sides and translucent fins. The fish will retain its deep green back and dorsal spots as well. Steelhead will spend one to five years “a sea” and, like ocean-going salmon, will utilize their strong sense of smell to sniff out the unique chemistry of their native waters and return exactly home, sometimes hundreds of miles upstream to spawn. These fish don’t just get close to home, tagged steelhead have been observed returning to precisely the same spawning bed from which they were born, actually closing the loop on an incredible journey.

The most famous runs of steelhead occur in the late summer months and continue throughout the fall to November. However, steelhead can be caught year-round and, since the early 1900s, winter steelhead fly fishing has steadily increased in popularity among fly anglers, especially in California, Oregon, British Columbia and the Great Lakes region of North America. When on the spawn these fish will slowly regain their pinkish banding and will begin to look more like the resident or non-migratory rainbow trout.

Step, Cast, Mend … Step, Cast, Mend …

Perhaps the most important and most difficult task to master in fly fishing for steelhead lies in understanding how to read steelhead water. Gaining such understanding takes fly anglers years to acquire and is truly a life-long pursuit. This is not to say that steelhead cannot be caught on a fly by a novice angler, but experience in steelheading makes a big difference in an angler’s ability to secure hookups and land fish.

During their upstream migration, steelhead are most interested in conserving their energy, and this is especially true of steelhead returning to streams located farther inland. Idaho steelhead populations, for example, must pass several dams and cross high mountainous regions, while battling fierce currents along the journey of several hundred miles. In this effort to conserve energy, steelhead will often make short, powerful upstream runs, separated by longer periods of rest out of the main current. The virulent upstream runs can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days and rest periods can range from a single night of quiet to several long days of relief.

Fly anglers enjoy their best chances at steelhead while they are at rest. During these times, fish will sit singly or in pairs along the river banks, in shallow pools, in broad tailouts, and along current seams where the moving water provides travel weary fish with much needed and appreciated pockets of lesser resistance. Learning to find and fish these parts of a river and types of water is invaluable in the steelhead game.

Unlike their bull-headed counterparts, the Atlantic salmon, steelhead are ultimately smart about how they use water to their advantage. Rather than simply charging through the main channel, steelhead will choose the optimal pathway up a river, bobbing and weaving from slow current seam to slow current seam until they reach their destination. This quite brilliant behavior is difficult on even the most accomplished fly fishers because the optimal pathway upriver may not always mean the steelhead in front of you is holding in the slowest current in front of you; the fish may have determined that holding in a slightly faster current at an angler’s position in the river will optimize the aggregate journey. Again, such are steelhead.

Due to the wide variety of water in which steelhead can be found as well as the wide size range steelhead take on (steelhead can be as small as a foot long like the Klamath River “half-pounders” or as large as twenty pounds in British Columbia’s famous Kispiox River), a host of methods for chasing steelhead with a fly fishing rod have been productive throughout fly fishing’s history.

When chasing steelhead, many fly anglers utilize and swear only by a classic approach of swinging dry flies on floating lines. Techniques within this category include pure “greased-lining” and “skating” steelhead bomber and skater fly patterns. Recently, a small group of more adventuresome traditionalists have discovered success in “chugging” their steelhead bugs to imitate the rhythmic motion of hatching caddis. Other steelhead anglers employ trout nymphing strategy with indicators and floating lines, while other fly anglers borrow equipment and flies from Atlantic salmon fly fishing traditions to catch their steelhead. In larger rivers, two-handed Spey casting techniques are employed to efficently cover the vast amounts of water required for success in steelheading.

Steelhead fly fishing rods can range from small 4-weight single-handed trout rods for smaller steelhead to large 10- and 11-weight Spey rods of 14 or 15 feet in length for the largest, and usually British Columbian, members of the species. Despite the tremendous variation in tackle and technique, the preferred steelhead rod today is a 7-weight two hand rod, running from 12 to 13 feet in length. By far, our favorite steelhead fly rod is Loop’s Cross S1 7120-4.

This rod bridges the gap between summer and winter run fish.  It elegantly delivers topwater flies, yet can still turn over heaver flies and fast-sinking tips.

The complexity of the steelhead game continues as there is a great deal of observed but poorly understood behavioral traits occurring in populations of steelhead from river to river. To this end, how a fly fisher presents the fly to a holding steelhead at a particular location on a particular river, is an equally important component that must be considered rigorously before even the very first cast is made. Ask around about and read up on how local steelhead behave in the river you’re going to fish. Knowing even a small amount about how aggressively the steelhead you’re after takes (or leaves) a well-presented fly or if they are more apt to take a deeply-dredged nymph along the bottom of a pool than rise to a properly swung dry fly at the surface can be a skeleton key for hooking a steelhead on your trip.

When practicing reading steelhead water, it is important to clearly define where each pocket, tailout, seamline, and pool are located. A good pair of polarized sunglasses with copper or yellow photochromatic lenses will ease the strain of this challenge. Make sure you look for well-defined water features where fish may hold and cast to these areas. It may take a couple of passes through a run or pool to learn at which depth in the water column the fish are stacking and how aggressive or non-aggressive the fish may be, but only with patience, experience, and experimentation, are steelhead caught.

What’s on the Menu?

Hardcore steelheaders can easily spend more time thinking about what their beloved quarry eats and what flies to tie than actually casting to fish. This outwitting of fish is not uncommon in fly fishing and is perhaps the sport’s most enduring trait, but steelheaders take it to an extreme that others in the sport do not frequent. Subsequently, there are three leading and competing theories about how steelhead feed. There is no consensus on which theory should rise to the fore of the debate, but it’s most likely that none of the theories are wrong and that steelhead use some combination of the three when choosing what to eat.

Some steelheaders are convinced that the chromers they’re after feed off of surface bugs most like the caddis they ate when they were smolts. These anglers will often cast only caddis patterns and more recently chugging bugs. These fly patterns are thought to imitate most closely the movement and appearance of the juvenile steelhead’s earliest diet. The thought is that once the fish are back in their native waters, they will revert to their very first feeding patterns and habits.

Another camp is of mind that steelhead feed instinctively when in the open ocean and that only movement and profile should be presented to a fish holding in a river.

These modern steelhead fly anglers believe that these fish develop an almost purely instinctual feeding response while maturing and feeding in the ocean environment. This instinct-driven feeding pattern is thought to follow the fish back to their home water, and fly fishers of this ilk and belief will confidently say that size, movement, and profile are the three most important characteristics in creating a successful steelhead fly.

The last group believe that the most realistic patterns should be fished at all times – the trick is to imitate closely what was in the ocean from whence the fresh steelhead came or to mimic precisely what bugs are in the river as the fish work their way upstream. These steelhead anglers choose to cast more realistic flies and within this camp there are anglers who favor baitfish, squid, and crustaceans (staples of the ocean-going steelhead’s diet) over the freshwater nymphs, shrimp, and dry fly patterns touted by still other hardcore steelheaders.

The debate on the best steelhead flies rages on and the result is an incredibly creative and prolific catalog of successfully tied and fished steelhead flies.

Flies commonly used to catch steelhead range from standard trout patterns to streamers and baitfish patterns to the most modern and innovative tube flies and marabou recipes. Spey and Atlantic salmon flies have also proven to be successful choices, especially on the large rivers of the western United States and British Columbia. The Green Butt Skunk and the General Practitioner are more traditional flies that will work well in the Pacific Northwest. Lage marabou flies like the Marabou Spey or the Popsicle will raise steelhead in Alaska and British Columbia and really wild marabou patterns (usually tied as tube flies) and large sculpin patterns will be productive on Russia’s pristine steelhead waters. Leland’s Keith Westra has tied and fished successfully his favorite marabou pattern with a bunny strip tail for British Columbian steelhead and Leland’s Proprietor Josh Frazier loves the action produced on the famed North Umpqua by Scott Howell’s Ska Hopper, a newer deer hair and foam chugging bug.

Steelhead are haunting creatures. They enter a fly fisher’s life suddenly and with the powerful burst of a rumbling freight train. No matter how hard an obsessive fly angler prepares for each steelhead trip, or how an experienced steelheader expertly tries to reach the edge of a distant and promising pool, or how well a practiced and polished Spey caster mends line in anticipation of a long, smooth swing, the strike of a fresh steelhead is always unexpected. Steelheading’s seductive draw lies in this unexpectedness, this uncertainty, and it is with this stinking irony that the steelhead has been quietly humbling the generations of fly fishers who have chased her. The suddenness of a fly angler’s connection with a wild steelhead is compounded by its brevity and finality. Legendary steelheader, Trey Combs, writes of this
feeling eloquently, and it’s this feeling and understanding, that an angler is just a single signpost on the steelhead’s long journey, that keeps serious steelheaders dreaming of the next sweet cast, unexpected take, and boundless run.