I vividly remember my childhood drives to school along the South Fork of the Clearwater River in central Idaho as a spectator sport, watching all the figures in chest waders dotting the river’s surface and hoping to see one of them land a fish.
Spring steelhead were running up the still icy flow, and they certainly attracted more than a few fishermen looking to snag one of these large and tasty fish. Not much has changed since my childhood, and steelhead continue to run in a multitude of Pacific Northwestern rivers, which draw anglers year after year.
Technically, steelhead are an anadromous (meaning ocean-going) trout, though by the time they return to their birthplaces to spawn, they tend to be more reminiscent of salmon than their freshwater, rainbow-colored relatives. However, the two should not be confused, despite their similar life habits – steelhead and salmon are not the same thing.
One glaring difference that gives the biologists a headache trying to classify them is the fact that steelhead can be repeat spawners, returning to the ocean as many as three times. While they can reach more than thirty pounds and be over forty inches in length, more common is ten- to twenty- pound range.
In many ways, they are an ideal game fish, considering they are a blast to catch and have a deliciously flavored meat similar to a mild salmon with the same red-orange coloring indicating their rich ocean diet. A bonus is that they have thick fillets that make for easy cooking in a variety of ways.
Even with catch-and-release, they often put up a good fight and make for an exciting landing. Sadly, they are facing population decline in some of their historical habitat, though they still constitute a major livelihood for Pacific NW guides and a tasty pastime for dedicated fishermen.
In the United States, the northern Pacific coastal rivers are their natural spawning grounds, and each year, their travel along the major waterways attracts anglers internationally. Interestingly, due to the introduction of rainbow trout to New York State in times gone by, steelhead run on many of the state’s northern rivers.
Whether you are checking out vacation spots, looking for your next big fishing adventure, or just hoping for some suggestions closer to home, here is a list of the top ten locations for hooking some steelhead for you to check out.
DISCLAIMER: If you’re anything like me when I check out top ten articles, you might be wondering just how these locales have been selected and what makes them the best. Well, the truth is… they might not be!
However, based on the fishing reports, historical fish numbers, and advice of crotchety old fishermen in bait shops, these seem to be ten of the most likely choices for anyone hoping for an unforgettable steelhead season. Let us know in the comments if you think another river should have made the list!
Let’s face it, Alaska is a fishing mecca, particularly for migratory fish. If you believed some the brochures, you would think you can hardly throw a rock without hitting a fish or some other game animal. That might be a slight exaggeration, but there’s no denying that the Land of the Midnight Sun didn’t get its reputation in the angling community for nothing. Which brings me to locale number one…
- The Kenai Peninsula – Consisting of the Moose and Kenai rivers, their confluence, and other tributaries, the many river corridors of the Kenai Peninsula attract fisherman for any number of species. Here might be a prime location to come prepared for more than steelhead, and even check out the coastal fishing as well as that in fresh water. TRAVEL NOTE: Anchorage is a three-hour drive to the north, meaning that one consideration for those flying in would be considering a rental car, or even a guiding service to sort out logistics. Regardless, Kenai is on my bucket list, hopefully with fishing license and moose tag in hand!
Perhaps the home of the two most surprising options on this list, New York offers the opportunity to snag some a steelhead thanks to the introduction of rainbow trout in the 1870s. The species did well in their non-native habitat, and both recreational and limited commercial fishing for their descendants continues today. This is great news for those on the eastern seaboard who might not want to head all the way out West.
- Delaware River – This river system is thought of by many as one of the best technical dry fly fisheries in the world. If you are located in the east and are wanting the full experience, this just might be the best choice for you. In nearby towns are a variety of reasonable drift boat and other gear rentals, or fully guided services, if DIYing isn’t what you had in mind.
- Oswego River – This popular section of water is home to huge runs of steelhead as well as other migratory species. As the season generally runs September through May, it makes for an ideal winter excursion. Access is reasonably easy on account of dammed sections. If I were to find myself in the Empire State, this would be my go-to spot.
The Apple State, generally famous for its seafood and fish in particular (Pike’s Market, Seattle anyone?) is a destination for any anglers looking for a change of scenery. Here snowmelt streams turn into icy rivers winding their way down from the Cascade Range and the Olympic Mountains. If you are looking to combine a fishing and hiking trip, there are some amazing trails along the river corridors through which steelhead run aplenty.
- Bogachiel River – If you’re in the Pacific Northwest over the Christmas season, this just might be a great spot to check out. The winter run is quite significant and lacks the crowding of other rivers. It’s located on the Olympic Peninsula, complete with breathtaking scenery and hospitable small towns. Additionally, if you wanted to make a trip of it, take along the skiing equipment, as the slopes are never far away.
- Cowlitz River – Offering summer and winter steelhead, the Cowlitz located in the drainage of Rainier boasts the largest production of hatchery steelhead in the state. With the target rich environment, this is an ideal spot at most times of the year. It’s also only two hours distant from Seattle for those flying in.
When it comes to steelhead fishing in Idaho, my home state, I might be just a tad biased. Growing up as the daughter of a whitewater rafting guide on the Salmon River has a load of perks, not the least of which is the fishing! Idahoans might be known for their potatoes, but perhaps we should be known for the sheer volume of public land and waterways our state contains.
- Clearwater River – Consisting of the North, South, and Middle Forks, this river system is a hub of inland fishing, especially at the height of the spring run. Access is reasonably convenient with highways running along each river, and small towns spaced along the length for convenient lodging, bites, and brews.
- Salmon River – The deepest gorge in North America, (Yes, even deeper than the Grand Canyon) the main Salmon River and nearby Little Salmon are the spawning grounds of monster steelhead each year. A fun combo trip might be to book a spring rafting trip complete with huge whitewater along with time to wind down while fishing from shore or a drift boat.
Further down the Pacific Coastline is Oregon, which boasts some of the most plentiful steelhead fishing locations in the lower 48. Year-Round steelhead fishing in Oregon is possible in a variety of areas, and there is a host of other species worth trying for if the steelhead aren’t biting.
- Rogue River – Besides being the destination for any number of boaters each year, the Rogue is home to steelhead as well as salmon spawning locations. It actually contains 215 miles of fishable water and is floatable by drift boat all the way to the ocean from the main hatchery at Lost Creek Lake. This is another destination on my personal list in the near future, hopefully on a trip requiring paddles.
- Clackamas River – This river’s claim to fame is its accessibility, which compared to some of the other Oregon waterways is a huge plus. If you aren’t the sort to rough it, or merely want an utterly laid-back fishing trip, this could be for you. After all, trying to hack one’s way through thorn brush in waders with pole in hand is never all that fun. Both winter and summer runs flood the fish with steelhead, for an exciting excursion.
- Nestucca/Three Rivers – This is an area encompassing the Nestucca River and the Three rivers tributary housing a hatchery. Both are worth mentioning, as Three Rivers often beats out the Nestucca in numbers of caught fish because of its bank access and hatchery. Early and late winter runs are when the largest volume of fish is seen, though seasons extend beyond this.
How to Plan Your Steelhead Fishing Adventure
Now, here I could give you a perfect packing list and tell you all the correct gear to take, but that would make it my ideal steelhead fishing trip, not yours. So, here’s some guidelines, and you can run with the rest.
Travel – How Far Are You Willing to Go?
It might be that you want to plunge headfirst into the fishing adventure of a lifetime, and this article is one in a long string you’ve read, practically salivating at the idea of the perfect trip, complete with chartered boats and the latest gear.
It might also be that you are more casual and steelhead sound like an intriguing change of pace. Either way, you should decide on how far you’re willing to go and how much travel expense will be. Select your trip location based on your needs and budget.
Check Your Regs!!!
Steelhead fishing regulations change from state to state and even from river section to river section. If I believed in reincarnation, I was a game warden in a previous life, so I think this deserves a mention. Particulars are numerous, but frequently only hatchery fish may be kept, bait may be restricted, and closures can change throughout a normal season.
Long story short, be aware of ethics and sportsmanship. Get a copy of the state fishing regulations when and where you get your license.
Boat or Bank?
Another consideration in your choice of location would be whether you plan on bank fishing, using a drift boat, or taking along waders. If you own a boat, you may want to choose a location with easy boat ramp access.
Conversely, some rivers are more conducive to the usage of waders, but others, often those which are dammed are too deep in many places for waders to be as effective.
Boat rental is another option that can be quite reasonable. I personally find a good dory boat to be highly useful and maneuverable. However, unless you are a proficient boatman, it might be unwise to head out on unfamiliar water without some scouting.
Do You Want a Guide?
If you plan on making an un-scouted fishing trip, a guiding service can help to make your experience significantly more pleasant. For myself, I tend to prefer DIY sorts of excursions, but I can definitely appreciate having the voice of experience along with me. Besides, if your location allows keeping your catch, why not have someone else clean them?
Ultimately, this comes down to your own experience and comfort level, as well as your budget. A little research can go a long way in finding a reasonable and reliable outfitter.
What Gear Will I Need?
That depends heavily on you and what you plan on doing. There are locations that only allow fly fishing, you might have some ingrained preferences for a certain tackle, or you might even want to rent tackle to avoid traveling long distance with your own.
Whatever the reason, the important thing to remember about steelhead is that they aren’t actively searching for food while on the move to spawn, so they tend to eat whatever is in their path or makes enough of a nuisance of itself to warrant being eaten. Water level and visibility are more of a factor than preferred diet when it comes to rigging, so be sure your fly, lure or bait is visible even in murky water.
Ready to Hook Some Steelhead?
There you have it, a list of recommendations to fuel your bucket list and pique your interest in these unique anadromous trout. If it has, something to remember is that there are locations where steelhead habitat is in decline and the population is heading the same direction. Anglers are the best advocates for the fish they catch, so the more you know the more we all may be able to get a turnaround for the species as a whole.
Hopefully, you will catch the bug for both catching and conserving this icon of Pacific rivers. Whether you’re an old hand or this is a new challenge for you, steelhead are some of the best fun to catch as well as to eat. I look forward to seeing you out on the river sometime soon!
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