Here, in Ontario, the early fall rains, combined with the cooler overnight temperatures, will trigger the initial runs. As a rule, fall run fish are what I call “transition” fish. They are naturally reproducing fish that enter the system earliest, as they will migrate further inland to their original spawning areas.
Spring run fish will enter later. Generally, they will spawn lower in the watershed with a relatively short migratory path.
Do some pre-season scouting. During the fluctuating water levels of summer, study your target areas thoroughly, making mental notes so you have some history on where runs, pools, and boulders are located so you can find these areas during high or turbulent flows.
During higher flows, keep in mind that the fish want to exert as little energy as possible. These higher flows will usually have stained or ambient water, which can work in your favor as the fish will not be as spooky. Fish the seams and current breaks closer to shore than you would during low flow conditions.
As clarity and flow improves, adjust your strategy.
In crystal clear water, it will be important to fish undercuts, banks or bedrock, shaded areas, deeper runs and pools, or areas with a broken surface. Sometimes a brightly coloured bait presentation will out-produce a more neutral colour. Steelhead are very opportunistic and will strike for many different reasons—they may strike out of hunger, anger or predatory instinct.
In my opinion, the importance of water temperature is the most underestimated aspect of fishing. A digital thermometer is mandatory! Technology has advanced to the point that we can now just point and shoot a laser to get immediate surface temperatures, versus the old, slower and less accurate mercury style. Don’t forget to take temperatures away from the shoreline or stagnant water, to get the most accurate readings.
These readings will dictate to me where to start my day, and as the day progresses, whether there will be a change of strategy. As the water temperatures drop, fish will try to conserve energy, therefore I will try to fish the slower seams and mid-pool to the tail-outs.
As the water warms, I can now attack areas closer to stronger currents, towards the head of the pool.
As the water temps dramatically increase, the fish will gravitate toward highly oxygenated water, with enough cover for them to feel secure—most likely in the riffs at the head of the run.
When daylight hours shorten, plan your trip accordingly. As water temps hover around 32-35 degrees, wait for the sun to warm the water a degree or two. You will catch fish early on cold days, but you will see a marked increase in hook-ups once the water warms and the fish become a little more active.
Have you ever seen a pool quiet for an hour, and then suddenly one, two, three fish get caught within minutes? Chances are, they were there all along, but just not ready and willing to strike. In such conditions, when a fish is finally hooked, I will let him fight a little bit more aggressively and longer, to purposely activate any lethargic fish.
Another helpful tip is that some of the best fishing occurs at the river and stream mouths, and anglers often overlook these areas. As fish are waiting for high flows, they often stage in these zones. Once there’s a rise in water level, the old fish that were staging will push through, and often a fresh run will join them.
Timing here is crucial. If you miss this push, you’ll be fishing behind the concentration of fish.
To time it right in the old days, we’d hop in the truck and drive from system to system looking for rising water levels in anticipation of the big run.
Today, the internet does the work for us. Websites, flow charts, Youtube, and chat rooms, take out much of the guess work and provide us with current reports, that in turn, place us right on the fish.
It is usually the small details, such as these, that will place you into the elite 10% of anglers who catch 90% of the fish.