Steelhead: the name itself evokes grace, strength, desirability. On every criterion, they are a transcendent fish; few others compare. Steelhead are born in clean, cold water, and as young smolts they make their way to the cold, dark Pacific (even in Russia). There are a few introduced steelhead populations in the southern Atlantic, but they are strongly associated with the Pacific Northwest. These clean, rugged rivers add to the steelhead mystique; rarely do you find a steelhead stream that’s ugly.
In those cold water rivers swim a fish of impressive strength. Usually, when hooked, steelhead valiantly take out line on both gear and fly reels, sometimes running a hundred feet or more, making spectacular jumps while they’re at it. The second steelhead I ever hooked hit my fly on the run, ripped out fifty feet of line and went right into a spectacular, belly flopping jump. For some people, the fight alone is worth chasing these fish. They grow to (for a huge one) thirty pounds or even more, requiring stout tackle. Two handed spey and switch rods have, in the last thirty years or so, gained popularity and become the preferred steelhead gear of fly fishers. They use those rods to swing flies - casting across the current, allowing the fly to sink, and then holding on to the line as it “swings” and covers a wide swath of water downstream.
Conventional anglers typically use spinning rods, bobbers and jigs, plugs, pink plastic worms, bait, and spinners and spoons. The conventional lures, especially those that are dead drifted down deep, outfish the fly by at least six to one. A good conventional angler, dead drifting jigs or plastic worms, can hook ten steelhead in a day in some rivers on the Olympic Peninsula, even in this day and age. So can a good nympher. That’s absolutely unheard of in fly fishing on the swing.
But it’s about more than the fight. Steelhead are some of the most beautiful and stately fish in freshwater. Their eyes, icy blue, seem to exude the mystery of the ocean. Who knows what they have seen out at sea? There's something about their faces– which are largely unique to each fish. They’re just handsome, whether they're “black and white” and totally chrome, or colored up with a pink gill plate and red stripe. They are also cloaked in mystery. From the egg to the spawner, every life stage navigates treacherous obstacles, whether ouzels or kingfishers, or seals or otters or nets. I wonder what their life is like in the Pacific. Where do they go? How do they hunt? As I understand it, they largely eat squid and mackerel. But what does it all look like? Do they slash through dense schools or hunt down individual squid? Do they ever school up? There’s so much we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know. Like salmon, many spawning steelhead die after the rigors of spawning - especially males, who often must fight for the right to spawn. But a significant portion of them survive and make it back to the ocean. These fish have the potential to get very large.
Then there’s simply the challenge. Steelhead don’t come easily, as their populations have never been great, unlike salmon. Steelhead were always relatively rare (although their numbers today don’t compare to historical numbers). Saying you got a nice steelhead, especially on the fly, has always been a badge of honor. Those who put up high numbers of steelhead may become locally, or even nationally famous.
You may be familiar with the phenomenon of “trout bums.” These are people who eschew normal, productive lives in favor of a lifestyle centered around trout fishing. Well, “steelhead bums” can be even more extreme, living in trailers or even their trucks. The gravitas of steelhead attracts steelhead bums wherever they reside. Some likely places for steelhead bummery are British Columbia, the Olympic Peninsula and the Deschutes River in Oregon. One prominent angler lived in a trailer for some time in British Columbia, and is known to have eaten a staple diet of raw potatoes!
The most steelhead I’ve ever landed in a day is three, hooking six. And that was in British Columbia in a historically good year. And I was thrilled with those numbers. The fish up there seem grabbier than in other places and there are many more of them than we Americans are used to. Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Skagit River are far more challenging, although some rivers, like the Sol Duc, have relatively strong runs.
I’m guessing that my lifetime record on steelhead is right around fifty percent. Very painfully, I’ve lost five in a row on two occasions, only to land five in a row just days later. It’s almost like they sense your anxiety as you send some sort of vibrations of fear through your line to the fish. One or two jumped and got off, but the rest just popped off shortly after being hooked. Simply put, they’re good at getting off.
There are many reasons I love steelhead. It’s the totality, the mystique. Perhaps they wouldn’t garner so many accolades if they were really common, like a pink salmon. But I think the only difference would be that anglers would be really happy for the opportunity. I think their appeal goes beyond their rarity. Objectively, they’re a captivating, mysterious, beautiful fish that should never be taken for granted.
Some great news for steelhead is that the three dams on the Klamath River are going to be removed in the coming years. This will allow access to much spawning habitat that has been closed off for decades. When the two Elwha River dams were removed, practically overnight steelhead reached habitat that had been unreachable since the early 1900s. They are both exciting developments in the world of steelhead.
Steelhead are fragile. They require pristine spawning habitat, intact, shaded nursery habitat and safe passage for adults. We have to take care of them, take care of the rivers, to make sure we have steelhead always.