Common Name: Steelhead Trout
Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus mykiss
Appearance: A migratory, saltwater strain of rainbow trout, steelheads are generally sleeker in shape and more silver in colorthan regular rainbows. However, once in fresh water, steelies take on the same red-and-pink coloration as their cousins. Between this and thewidespread interbreeding between the two strains in fresh water, it can become difficult to positively identify a steelhead away from the ocean.
Distribution: Native to the northern half of the Pacific and adjoining streams, steelhead once ranged from Mexico to Alaska to Asia, though now they’re rare below southern California. Steelhead have been introduced into the Great Lakes, where for the most part they have adapted to an entirely freshwater life cycle.
Spawning: In their natural state, steelhead spend most of their life in saltwater, returning to the rivers where they originally hatched to spawn. Spawning can occur most anytime of the year depending on local conditions, though as a rule they only spawn in cool, clean, oxygen-rich rivers and streams with gravel bottoms and a strong, unobstructedcurrent.
Steelhead will school up in the brackish mouths of their home rivers for a period of time prior to spawning, during which they acclimate to fresh water. Once the fish are ready and water conditions are right (usually triggered by a rainfall) steelhead will move upstream, somtimes hundreds of miles, in search of a suitable spawning ground. During this time, steelhead come to resemble rainbow trout in coloration and body shape, particularly the males.
Female steelhead will clear out a small redd (nest) in the gravel using their tail and lay hundreds to thousands of eggs for a male to fertilize. Once fertilized, the female covers the eggs for incubation, the time of which varies based on temperature and oxygen levels. Once hatched, steelhead juveniles will remain in fresh water for a year or longer before migrating out to sea. At first, steelheads are indistinguishable from rainbows, but take on distinctive characteristics as they reach maturity (though some, smaller steelhead will remain in their home river their entire lives).
Angling: Vigorous, flashy fighters, steelheadare considered the ultimate freshwater gamefish by many anglers. Their incredible speed, strength, and leaping ability make for an exciting experience, requiring a great deal of stamina from fishermen and their equipment. The day you boat your first steelhead is a day you won’t soon forget.
The best time and place to locate steelhead is near the mouth of a known steelhead river in the weeks leading up to a spawn. There you’ll find large numbers of aggressive steelies, ready to strike at any colorful, reflective object drifting on, near, or above the surface. Casting from a boat or riverbank or fly fishing with a long rod are the best methods for steelhead in this situation. A passive presentation, allowing the lure to drift with the current, usually works best, as too splashing from casts or movement can unnerve these high-strung fish.
For catching winter-spawning steelhead in rivers, you’ll need a bit more presentational finesse since the cold water slows their metabolism and makes them less inclined to bite. Use live bait or “hop” a weighted lure along the bottom of the river in a manner resembling a nightcrawler or crustacean, again being careful not to spook the fish with sudden, extreme movements.
When searching for steelhead in the open waters, troll or castfish eggs, nightcrawlers,or drifters at various depths. Be patient, and keep your presentation consistent, as it may take awhile to convince a non-spawning steelhead to strike. But once you’ve got a steelhead hooked, you’re in for a real battle, no matter what the season.