Steelheading For The Beginner

Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Species: Steelhead

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Steelhead!… Just hearing the word starts my adrenaline flowing. If you’ve caught one you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t its tough to convey in words the speed, power, and tenacity these sea run battlers poses.

A steelhead is basically an ocean run rainbow trout. Steelhead are born in freshwater streams, where they reside from one to four years, before migrating to the ocean. They roam the ocean for one to four years and then return to their streams of origin to spawn. The life cycle of the steelhead is similar to that of the more familiar chinook salmon, however there are a couple notable deviations. First, not all steelhead die after spawning. Some of them run back to the ocean and make up to three spawning runs during their lifetime. Second, unlike salmon that don’t feed once they hit freshwater steelhead continue feeding aggressively on a myriad of forage items including salmon roe, minnows, crayfish, and invertebrates.

If you’ve ever drifted bait in a trout stream you’re well on your way to catching steelhead. The technique is much the same except the tackle used is heavier to deal with big water and large fish. I landed my first steelhead on a 7’ trout rod, but within a week I’d acquired a real steelhead outfit. The proper gear will result in more hookups and less frustration in the long run.

Steelhead rods typically measure 8’6” and poses great sensitivity and a light responsive tip. The premise behind effectively drifting for steelhead is that the bait must drift naturally in the current. The less line that is contact with the surface of the water the easier it is to accomplish a natural drift. The long rod greatly aides in keep the line off the surface. This not only makes for a natural drift but it aides in detecting light strikes as well, since minimal slack will develop in the line.

Steelhead fishing is largely a light tackle endeavor with lines and leaders testing less then 10 pounds being the norm. This factor combined with the strength and speed of the fish makes a reel with a line capacity of at least 250 yards and a smooth drag essential. Some experienced anglers prefer conventional casting reels, however I‘ve had great luck using a spinning reel. The best thing about using a spinning reel is that you don’t have to worry about backlashes.

Currently I’m using an 8’6” Lamiglas MBS 36MH spinning rod balanced by a Abu Garcia 176 spinning reel. This rod offers plenty of power without compromising sensitivity. The Abu Garcia reel holds well over 300 yards of 10 pound monofilament and features a silky smooth drag.

The terminal rig used for drifting consists of five components and is easy to construct. Begin by passing the main line through the eye of a snap swivel, slide on a bead and knot on a swivel. To the swivel attach a 24 to 30 inch 8 pound fluorocarbon leader adorned with a barbless No. 6 Gamakatsu octopus hook. Snap a slinky weight on the snap swivel above the bead and you’re ready to bait up.

A steelhead’s strike zone is down near the bottom so you want your sinker ticking the rocks. If you used a conventional sinker snagging would be a major problem. A slinky is a piece of nylon cord that is filled with lead shot. Slinkys are flexible and tend not to wedge between rocks.

When it comes to bait cured roe is the most popular, followed by nightcrawlers. Small live crawfish and shrimp are two of the lesser known baits that knowledgeable guides often employ with great results.

Now that we’ve got a handle on the tackle, terminal rigging, and bait needed it’s time to put it all together with a sound on the water strategy. All successful steelhead anglers have the ability to read the water, meaning they can look at a stretch of river and predict were the fish will be holding.

Typically, steelhead won’t be directly in the current or in rapids instead look for them to be holding above or below rapids where the water deepens and slows, in deep runs, or in pools. The down stream side of features such as fallen trees, large rocks, or boulders are prime spots because these objects break the current, allowing the fish to hold in fast moving areas while expending minimal energy.

A lot of steelhead anglers fish from boats, however since this article is focused on the basics we’ll restrict our discussion to bank fishing.

Bank fishing is a highly effective method and the same basic approach taken when bank fish will also work from a boat. The first thing to keep in mind when approaching a perspective piece of steelhead water is to stay back from the bank and try to maintain a low profile. Steelhead often hold right next to the bank and are very wary of danger approaching from above when they are holding in shallow water.

The basic presentation consists of casting the rig up stream at a 45 degree angle. Once the rig sinks, reel in most of the slack until there in only a slight belly in the line. Then follow the rigs progress downstream with the tip of the rod. Once the line tightens and the rig begins to swing across the current slowly reel it in and cast again.

As the rig drifts you should feel a series of taps as it drifts across the bottom. If you’re not feeling the bottom, put on a heavier weight. A strike is most often signaled by a series of sharp taps or the line simply stopping. At first every “tick” will feel like a bite, but with a some experience you’ll be able to distinguish the bottom from a bite with little difficulty.

Fish each piece of water thoroughly before moving on. It is wise to begin fishing the water closest to the bank first and then progressively lengthen your casts until the whole stretch has been covered. Using a systematic approach like this ensures any fish holding in a given stretch will see the bait and it also limits the number of fish that are spooked. Remember each stretch has the potential of holding multiple fish. The last thing you want to do is begin by hooking a steelhead out in mid stream only to spook two or three potential strikers holding closer to the bank as you battle the fish.

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