The Fish Sniffer - Figuring Out The Mysteries Of Steelhead
Figuring Out The Mysteries Of Steelhead

Written By: Dan Bacher, February 8, 2013
Location: American River - Lower, Feather River- Lower, Eel River- Main, Eel River- South, Klamath River, Trinity River,

Figuring Out The Mysteries Of Steelhead
Figuring Out The Mysteries Of Steelhead

Steelhead, like white sturgeon, are a very unpredictable fish to target. A day on the river with wide-open action will be followed with one with not a single bite.

As Phil Desautels of Phil’s Smiling Salmon Guide Service, who guides for steelhead on the Smith, Chetco, Klamath and other rivers, says, “One day you are a hero, the next day you go home scratching your head.”

That principle seems to apply wherever you fish for steelhead in California and the Pacific Northwest. I’ve fished many times for steelhead on the Feather, Sacramento, Klamath, Trinity and Eel rivers, but have spent most of the time targeting the American because it is just several miles away from my home in Sacramento.

The steelhead can be finicky at times – and other times they can be more aggressive than just about any fish, becoming willing to hit just about anything in their path. They are one of the few fish that I have seen hooked and/or caught twice in one day, for whatever reason.

One strange example that comes to mind is in February, 1999 when local steelhead enthusiast Don Carlson and I were bank fishing on the American below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Rancho Cordova. I had just retied a swivel onto my line and clipped a 2/5 oz. battle-hardened silver/blue Little Cleo to it. I usually double-check the knot and swivel before making a cast after putting on a new lure, but I didn’t do it this time. Just moments after I cast out, I hooked up a big steelhead.

The fish made a couple of hard runs and after about a minute came flying out of the water. The line suddenly went slack – the fish had just broken my line.

“Did you see that fish I just lost?” I told Carlson, who had seen the fish jump. “It was a 12.5 pounder.”  

“I don’t think it was that big,” he commented.

About five minutes later he hooked a quality steelhead and got it up to shore fairly quickly. “I think it has your Cleo in in its mouth,” he stated.

Sure enough, I walked over to him and confirmed that it was indeed my Little Cleo in the fish’s mouth. After breaking my line, the fish decided it was still hungry and gobbled up his roe! I took some photos of the fish that both of us had battled and went back to fishing.

He weighed the fish on his scale and it weighed exactly 12-1/2 pounds, as I had said it was!

Another time, in the winter of 2002, I was fishing below the hatchery when Bill Back of Orangevale hooked and landed an 8 pound steelhead while drifting roe. I took a photo of him holding the fish before releasing it. Twenty minutes his fishing buddy caught a steelhead and Bill called me over to get a photo.

As I took the photo, both Bill and I realized that this fish was the same one that Bill had released earlier. The hungry fish, after being released, decided to hit another piece of roe, in spite of just having been hooked.

Steelhead are one of the most exciting fish to catch, since they make long runs and lots of leaps. But other times, you will hook a fish that doesn’t want to fight until it gets right up to the boat – or decides to slide right into the net after a brief battle.

I remember catching my first two adult steelhead weighing 6 and 3 pounds on the American while casting Little Cleos at Sailor Bar in February 1980. I landed each in just over a minute, even though they were fresh fish. Of course, it helped to have an experienced netter who helped me to land the fish.

In other years, the fish are particularly scrappy like this year when every steelhead I’ve hooked on the American except for two have put up spectacular, memorable fights. The fish, ranging from 8 to 12 pounds, have gone absolutely beserk in a series of leaps and runs that gives me reason to go back again and try to hook another one.

While steelhead are unpredictable, there are some general principles I’ve observed that help even up your odds of hooking these exciting and mysterious fish. First, I’ve found putting scent, Pautzke Bait's Liquid Krill and Gel Krill in particular, on my bait and lures greatly help my hook-up success.

Before I let out a Wee Wart on a recent trip on the American, Rodney Fagundes reminded me to put lots of Krill on before putting my lure out again. In the next couple of hours, I hooked three adult steelhead, landing two beautiful fish to 9 pounds while using Hot Shots, each time making sure I “freshened” up the lure with Krill before sending it out again. You can be sure I won’t forget to re-apply the scent before putting my lure back in the water in the future.

Second, I’ve found that steelhead, being opportunistic feeders, will hit just about anything at the right time. Besides the usual roe/puffball combos, nightcrawlers, Little Cleos, Blue Fox spinners and flies that are most popular with anglers in California, anglers hook them on Rat-L-Traps, bubble gum plastic worms, Power Eggs, marabou jigs, small trout spinners, cocktail shrimp, live ghost shrimp and crawdads. The most successful anglers are the ones who are willing to use different baits, lures and flies, in a variety of colors, until they find the one that works that day.

Changing retrieves of lures from slow to fast until you find the one that gets the fish’s attention is also a proven way of hooking steelhead.

Third, the “early bird doesn’t necessarily get the worm” in steelhead fishing, although the early-rising angler is able to get the prime fishing spots when fishing from the bank. Particularly during the winter when the water is cold, below 50 degrees, the fish may not bite until 10 am – or maybe in the late afternoon just before dark.

This was the case when I caught and released a beautiful, bright 9 lb. steelhead on a plug while fishing from a drift boat right before dark this January. After Rodney, Yoshi Itamura and I had lost three fish while fishing hard all day, the fourth one actually stayed on.

I remember one angler who used to come down to the American and take the water temperature with a thermometer before fishing – and wouldn’t fish until the conditions were prime. He said that the best time to fish was when the air and water temperature reached the closest point to parity. The first time I saw him do this, he caught a limit of steelies when everybody else was struggling.

For an often elusive, unpredictable fish like a steelhead, not only is the willingess to change your bait, lures and presentation necessary to success, but patience – and fishing each cast with the confidence that is the one that will produce a fish – is essential to productive steelhead fishing.

In the 1980’s, a legendary angler named “Tak” on the Trinity River, who usually fished nightcrawlers with a spinning reel on a fly rod, said his secret to success was that he fished every cast like it was going to produce a huge steelhead. His patience and dedication usually paid off, since he caught more fish than just about anybody else from the bank.

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