In dirty water, steelhead often migrate closer to shore. Light is able to penetrate through the shallow water column more easily, enabling them to see predators and obstacles better, as well as having a much better view of your fly. Large, bright nymphs and egg patterns work well while the stream is still high. As the water clears up, more realistically colored nymphs and egg patterns will outproduce gaudier fly patterns.
When the water recedes to low levels, the fish do two things. If the tributary is short in distance, the steelhead will scurry back to the lake. On larger tributaries, steelhead will seek the deepest pools and stack up in them. When this takes migration place, the steelhead can be difficult to catch and fishing becomes a low-light game where dawn and dusk are the most productive times to be out there.
Whether fishing a tailwater river or freestone stream, eventually anglers must contend with the leaf hatch. Leaves are a major issue no matter whether you are swinging flies or nymphing. Migrating steelhead have to dodge leaves as they swim upstream, and a fly that is the same color as the leaves (especially orange and yellow) often gets ignored because it blends in with the leaf drift. During the migratory period, try fishing a contrasting color, such as blue or chartreuse. Also, leaves throughout the water column cause a problem when swinging flies for steelhead. You will constantly be taking leaves off your streamer. When there are a lot of leaves in the water, nymphing can be the only game.
HOOK: TMC 2457, sizes 8 through 14.
THREAD: UTC 140 to match body.
EGG BODY: Yellow, orange, pink, chartreuse, cerise Glo-Bug yarn.
YOLK: Steelhead Orange Glo-Bug yarn or a color to contrast the body color of the egg.
This pattern can work well in a variety of water types and situations. It can be tied smaller and more realistic when the water is low, or you can make it large and gaudy to attract attention when the water is high or stained.
Working a Steelhead Pool
There are two distinct places to target migrating steelhead—the head or tailout of any given pool. They use these two areas either to rest or as a place to set up and move through the next fast section of river. One thing to keep in mind is that steelhead, although they are a trout, do not use the river in the same manner that a trout would. They are using the river as a path to get to where they need to spawn. So the main difference is that they are not using these lies to feed, but rather to stage or gather up. When approaching a pool, look for bottom structure, such as boulders, that breakup the current and provide the fish with a place to hold and feel safe.
Migrating steelhead often hold in the head of a pool before moving upriver. Where the fish will hold within the head of the pool is dictated by the temperature of the water. When the water temperatures are high, such as in the 50-degree range, the fish will be found in the fastest water. Conversely, as the water starts to cool down, the steelhead’s metabolism slows down, much like a trout, and they will gradually move to the softer edges and seams. When steelhead are in the head of a run, they can easily be caught because they are aggressive and often will take a fly because they want to move it out of the path upriver.
When the water is warm, fish will also hold in the faster water near the extreme tailout of the pool. Even the slightest current break will hold fish. Recently, while filming a DVD project, we noticed that the fish would move up in pods and would all stop together. The weather was extremely sunny, so you could see the fish. They would all move into the same exact spot, almost as if they had an atlas on how to navigate New York’s Salmon River.
When fishing for fall steelhead, remember that these fish are constantly on the move. Too many anglers make the mistake of moving around too frequently. You want to pick an area of the river that has a few good tailouts and some nice quick water at the head of each pool. Calmer water that is above a long stretch of faster water also provides steelhead with a good place to rest and hold during their journey. Last year, while filming the same project, we fished only two spots for an entire morning. One of the spots was a tailout and the other was the head of a pool. We hooked and landed or lost dozens of steelhead in less than a half day.
The lesson here is to let the fish come to you. When they are on the move, they will arrive sooner or later. Of course, there is a limited supply of steelhead coming up the river. There will be lulls in the action between the pods of fish that are moving through. However, when a pod moves through, odds are that you will have a 10-pound plus, dime-bright steelhead tugging at the end of your line.
Aaron Jasper is a teacher from Paterson, New Jersey.