The same principles you use to find small-stream trout can help you pinpoint chromers, even on the largest waters.
[by Dana Sturn]
STEELHEAD TO A FLY: It’s one of the great achievements in freshwater fly fishing and a pinnacle within the sport. For the committed (“afflicted” might be a more accurate term), steelhead fly fishing moves beyond passion and sport and becomes something else altogether.
Once bitten, steelheaders think they must meet several challenges in order to complete the experience. The first steelhead, first steelhead on a dry fly, and first 20-pounder are all-important milestones that may take a lifetime to achieve. But for many, steelheading’s ultimate challenge is catching fish consistently on big water.
What exactly is big water? It’s places like the Skeena and Thompson in British Columbia, and the Clearwater and Snake in the United States—large, wide rivers that make you squirm a little. If the surface area of the river intimidates you, chances are you’re fishing for big-water steelhead.
But don’t let big water scare you. Despite what you might believe, if you have any kind of steelheading or trout–fly fishing background, you can put your hard-earned skills to good use on any steelhead river—even the big ones.
I came to steelheading from a trout background, fly fishing back in the early 1990s. Much of what I learned from articles, books, videos, and the limited wisdom imparted by the experienced suggested that thinking like a trout angler wouldn’t hook me many steelhead. Steelhead, I learned, were different from resident rainbows. Steelhead are big, difficult fish that tend to hold in big, difficult-to-fish places where you wouldn’t normally find those voracious and cooperative resident fish.
On a trout stream, you find out pretty quickly if you’re doing things right. The fish give you clues, like riseforms. A steelhead, on the other hand, doesn’t offer a lot of feedback. With steelhead, you can fish without any indication that you’re doing anything right (or wrong). Unless you’re fishing rivers like the Bulkley, where in a good year every fish in the river seems eager for a photo op, it takes a long time to get good at steelhead fly fishing.
Steelhead are big sea-run rainbow trout. They spend a few years as juveniles in fresh water, then head for the sea, where they’ll spend a few more years feeding and growing before returning to their home rivers to spawn. Juvenile steelhead tend to hang about in the same sort of water as resident rainbows— which makes sense because they are the same fish. Biologists have established that a steelhead can have one or two resident rainbow trout parents—it’s nature’s insurance policy in case of catastrophic events in a river or the ocean.
When steelhead return home, you can often find fish in the same sort of water as their resident cousins. Fresh from the sea in the morning light, they shine like justice. Once inland, their chrome becomes a sturdy gunmetal, and the big males take on spawning hues.
Steelhead generally don’t actively feed in fresh water, so they aren’t looking for good lies to intercept food as resident rainbows do. However, a good feeding lie is often also a good resting or holding lie for resident fish, so even though steelhead aren’t actively feeding, there is a good chance they will hold in places that a trout angler will recognize as good feeding lies—along current seams, along drop-offs, behind boulders.
Like resident rainbows, you can find steelhead in character water—that is, places where something unique about the water would make it an attractive holding spot. Changes in water velocity, changes in depth, areas of shadow on an otherwise well-lit pool, riffle water at the heads and tails of runs, and depressions in a run with a relatively uniform bottom are all places someone might confidently prospect for trout. A big-water steelhead mother lode can be found among them, too.
On one of my favorite runs, it is common to find several 16- inch resident rainbow trout actively feeding on emerging insects at daybreak in the same water where I’ll hook a 16-pound steelhead. Had I presumed the presence of resident rainbows signaled the absence of steelhead, I would ignore this water, but over the years, it has proved to be among my most productive spots. In this run, the slower currents and numerous boulder-strewn slicks and seams provide great spots for resident and sea-run fish to hang out while waiting for my Thompson Stone to swing by.