Firstly, what is a steelhead? Basically, they’re rainbow trout but with a big difference. Although they might look a little like rainbows – but bigger and more vividly coloured – they are rainbow trout that at some point in their lives decide to go to sea and it’s this dose of the salt that makes them so special. After two years or sometimes more of stream life, steelhead parr begin their down river journey to the sea. At this time, increased activity of the thyroid gland makes the small fish lose their rainbow-like markings and adopt a silvery sheen. They’re now technically smoults, undergoing the same changes as small salmon. Steelhead then go on to spend several months and up to four years at sea before returning to the streams of their birth to spawn.
Some fish come up the rivers in spring and others in the autumn and this difference seems to be genetically controlled. Mind you, there is a great deal of doubt still over the steelhead biology and a lot remains to be learned. What is quite certain is that the fish do return, either in the spring or the fall, that they can be caught, that they go on to spawn and that unlike most salmon they can return to the rivers to recuperate and repeat the process up to several occasions.
I’ve said that steelhead are a fish of the Pacific seaboard, essentially British Columbian. That’s true but today good runs of stocked steelhead occur in tributaries of the Great Lakes, for example, the Au Sable which flows into Lake Michigan along with various tributaries of Lake Ontario.
How about size of steelhead? Well, the rich marine diet certainly piles on the pounds. Any steelhead, of course, is a capture to be absolutely proud of but they start getting serious at eight to ten pounds. Fifteen pounds is considered an excellent fish, and twenty pounds as quite obtainable, a fish of a lifetime, as it were! The record, however, is over forty pounds so you can see what there is in store. My own best fish is eighteen pounds but I lost one that my guide put at twenty-five pounds or more…the fly simply pulled away on its third leap…an experience I still feel with a broken heart to this day. And, moreover, the fish was a massive, fresh-run, silver female. And steelhead fishing doesn’t come better than that.
Much like salmon, steelhead do colour up the longer they’re in the river: the really silver fish tend to be fresh-run, just in from the sea. And it’s those that fight with the most bewildering speed, cunning and tenacity. But more of that later.
So how do you catch steelhead? Well, you can spin for them and that’s great fun. Try a number 4 or number 5 Mepps spinner. Professionals swear by a silver blade in dirty water and a golden blade when the river is running totally clear.
Bait fishing is also a great catcher of fish, especially on the west coast. There are many baits used for steelhead – worms, grubs, minnows and so on all produce steelhead, even chunks of raw fish. However, the vast majority of bait fishermen will use fresh fish roe wrapped round the hook or sometimes put in small bags. There’s a good reason for this: steelhead delight on taking up position behind spawning salmon and eating the eggs as they roll past in the stream. You could say it’s their gastronomic delight, their favourite treat. For this reason, roe on the hook is most anglers’ first choice.
If it sounds easy, it isn’t. Steelhead show amazing cunning and they’ll often just tap and sip at a bait going past them. That means you’ve got to be constantly in touch with the bait, constantly aware of a take. You’re going to have to use a float for this job – certainly in my experience. Set it so that the bait trots just over the bottom, occasionally sliding over a protruding rock perhaps. Both watch the float and also feel the line for a take. You’ll be amazed just how delicate a bite can be.
Long trotting is an art form and shouldn’t be scoffed at and, believe me, if you hook a fifteen pound steelhead at sixty or seventy yards range it’s an experience you’ll never forget. However, it’s fly fishing that is generally considered the ultimate in steelhead fishing. Most flies tend to be big, gaudy patterns, generally with splashes of orange about them. Once again, the idea here is to mimic a salmon egg as closely as possible. However, those in the know will also use big nymphs, especially in very cold, slower water. The important thing is not to flog a pool with the same fly over and over but give the steelhead there a bit of variety. It’s important that whatever fly you’re using is working close to the bottom. If you’re in shallower water then a floating line is fine but if the current is really deep and strong then you’re probably going to need a quick sinker to get down to where the fish are lying. Just as in bait fishing, the take can be very delicate so don’t expect the line to be ripped from your hand. Look out for the line simply pausing, gently tightening or even falling slack depending on the angle you’re fishing. Concentration, absolute focus, is the key.
The Skeena river system is generally held to host the most dramatic of all steelhead runs and whilst this may be true, my own happiest memories of this fantastic species are based around the Kwinimass River. And one day above all sticks in my mind…
We’d spent the night on an old trawler bobbing around in the estuary of the river. And what a night it was: the sky was crystal-clear and very cold for April. We’d feasted on crabs and prawns, caught from over the side of the boat and drunk beer and vodka until the early hours. From the shore came all the noises of the night – the howl of the wolf, the growl of the bear and the ghostly calls of innumerable owls. A little after dawn, we were up and about, heads like sore bears ourselves. Then, after a greasy breakfast that was definitely kill or cure, we were into the jet boat and speeding up this enchanting river, searching out the steelhead holding pools. It was an exhilarating ride through thick, dense forest with occasional pasture where deer bob-tailed away from our sight. The mountains crowded around, all capped with fresh snow that had fallen sometime during the dark hours. The air was crystal. The river looked like gin. It was one of those days that it was great to be alive and to be a fisherman.
Any angler could suss out the steelhead runs – steady pools of deep, swirling water and, if you looked closely, occasionally you’d see the fish themselves like yards of silver lying close to the bed.
Petr picked up a coloured fish early in the day, an eleven pounder that fought as though jet-propelled. I rolled a fish on the fly on the same pool and cursed my bad luck…Bob, our guide, cursed my inexperience.
It was slightly before lunch that my world rocked. I’ll remember the pool to my dying day – placid, swelling, dark water running between majestic pine trees. My first trot down with a float and eggs was explosive. No gentle take this, the float buried, the rod hoped round and the line absolutely hissed through the water. If a fish can run to all points of the compass at once, then a steelhead is the one to do it. For thirty seconds I was out of control, punch drunk, totally floundering. When, eventually, I tightened up and found myself still in touch with the fish I was amazed. As was Bob. As was the steelhead! After that thirty seconds of mayhem the rest of the battle, I suppose, could be described as routine…if surging eighty-yard runs can ever be thought of as normal. At last, after some twenty-five minutes, a stunning fish was beached: a fresh-run female steelhead of some fourteen or fifteen pounds. The blue sky. The snow-capped mountains. The deep, mysterious forest. This fish from the bowels of the sea. What a day!
"So John, you’ve done it the easy way. Now get out that fly rod of yours!" Thus Bob commanded and so I obeyed. Third drift down the line (a number 9 floater) zipped tight. I didn’t need to strike. The fish was on and, for a second time, I was lost. Absolutely marooned. This time, a minute went by before I could exert even the slightest hint of control. My knees, honestly, were shaking. I’ve never felt more faint with a fishing rod in my hand. This fish must have been the partner of the first…a majestically coloured male of perhaps sixteen pounds. Hook-jawed, sturdy in the body, a beautiful bruiser of a fish. We put him back in the water and, believe me for this is the truth, a few minutes later saw a hen and cock fish in the mid-teens of pounds climb the quick water at the head of the pool and disappear towards the mountains.
The rest of the day was quite awesome, utterly brilliant: a sighting of a bear, eagles in the sky, some otters on a bend in the river, and later, some wolves howling at the moon. Another couple of steelhead for us and a big char. All quite magnificent but it was that eighty or ninety minutes on my own special pool that stuck with me and always will. I stood on the deck of the boat later that night looking out across the bay up to the darkening mouth of the Kwinimass and just thanked the Lord for creating steelhead trout.
DOS AND DON’TS