Steelhead require much the same cover and structure as trout, so logs, overhanging branches, deep pools or fast riffles may be prime areas to focus your attention. Now that we’re starting to think like fish, we have to understand the priorities of steelhead once they reach the river. Their goals are to feed and to travel up-river as far as it may take them to reach the proper spawning grounds.
One of the major things I’ve noticed, is the energy they use in making their way up-river. It’s absolutely necessary for steelhead to take breaks in between bursts. In many rivers and streams, there are long, unforgiving stretches of fast water with very few holding spots for the fish to rest. Once they hit that slow, deep stretch of river, they tend to relax. This can result in multiple hook-ups!
As anglers, another important aspect is paying attention to the stream itself. This gives us an understanding of why steelhead behave the way they do. Each year, the rivers change, deep holes get filled in, main channels get turned into side channels, large tail-outs get washed away, logs and debris are carried down-river. Last year’s prime spot may be totally different, or non-existent— and since the fish have to readapt, you will too. You will learn their new travel routes, new structure, and and current holding areas.
You may get lucky upon arriving at the stream, to find minimal changes since the last time you fished—this will work in your favor. The longer the river remains the same, the better, since steelhead are creatures of habit, as if they remember being in that river or stream the year prior. It appears they use the same type of holding water or migration routes throughout the river, and you may often catch a fish behind a certain rock that has produced for you in the past.
When you sit back and think about it, there is always a good reason why fish are where they are—nothing is by mistake. For example, if a fish is hiding behind a structure, he is seeking cover that will provide a safe haven. Continually adapt your fishing according to their behavioral patterns.
Keep a log of each productive area and the current conditions with GPS coordinates, so you can revisit that scenario the next season. This is an important factor, as it eliminates guess work and allows you to utilize your fishing time more efficiently.
One of the last behaviors I’d like to cover, is feeding. Some may argue this is the most important, however, I feel they are all of equal importance as they are all linked together.
When spring steelhead first enter the river or stream, the first thing they do is acclimate to their surroundings. Next, their focus becomes getting to the spawning area as quickly as they can. Now, let’s skip ahead a bit, and imagine they’ve been migrating up-river for a day or two, looking to feed and replenish energy. This scenario is early in their migration process, and I find bait fish imitations work the best. Perhaps these are the last thing fish remember eating.
The longer the steelhead are in the river, the more they become like their smaller counterpart—domestic trout. Many of their feeding habits become similar, keying in on your smaller macro invertebrates, such as May Fly nymphs, stone flies, caddis larva, and scuds, if available. They also eat some of the larger food sources available such as crayfish and various minnow species.
For fall run fish, they’ll become opportunistic and start feeding on salmon eggs and eggs of other species, along with chunks of flesh from dead fish.
Once you know what they are eating, you then, simply, find the feeding lanes.
What this all comes down to, is taking the time to observe, study and record. You can read all the books and articles you want, but in the end, it’s your own observations and previous personal experiences that will lead you to success.
Take time to observe what’s going on all around you, and enjoy your time on the water.