Complete Guide to Fall Steelhead
written by therockyriver.com staff
They don’t call them “Silver Bullets” for nothing. Fall Steelhead put up arguably the hardest fight of any freshwater river fish. These bright silver migrating trout are aggressive and will move long distances to slam flies and lures in the early fall season. Fishing is fast and fun, if you know what you are doing and when to get in the river, your arms are going to be limp noodles by the end of the day. This article will help you understand how Steelhead behave during different times and conditions in fall. We’ll tell you where to go and when to get there, what to equipment to pack, and the most productive presentations for a successful trip.
TIMING THE FALL RUNS
The behavior of Steelhead is 99% temperature-based. While some will name specific months or weeks that they believe are best, the truth is fish do not function based on the human calendar. Steelhead operate on their biological clock, which is based solely on temperature. The fall runs will begin with a few early swimmers, which can begin to appear when the water temperature drops into the 66 – 68°F range. In the Great Lakes region, Steelhead will begin to move toward the mouth of tributaries when the lakeshore temperature drops to 68°F. When the mercury hits the low 60s, fish will begin to move into the rivers in waves, feeding actively. As the temperature drops into the 50s, more fish will move into the streams, however they will become less aggressive feeders. In spring, the magic number for active spawning fish is 40°F. In fall the mercury is headed down the glass, so the magic 40° mark signifies the opposite, and the beginning of the winter season.
The important variable in fall is to fish around weather fronts. The best time to get on the stream is after the peak of the high water – the time when the level is starting to drop and clarity begins to increase. During this period, the water will become an emerald green color, with average visibility. Since rivers are a living body of water, conditions change very rapidly. This ideal period of green water after a weather system will only last 24 – 36 hours at best, so it is important to keep up on following the conditions of the river.
In the West/Northwest, it is a little easier to time the natural fall runs. Steelhead will always begin their run from the ocean into tributaries after the King Salmon run has ended. Call a fly shop or ask around, and find out what the King Salmon are doing. Once their run is coming to a close, it’s time to start looking toward the mouths and lower stretches of the streams where Steelhead will be gobbling up drifting Salmon eggs.
The best advice in any geography is to call your local guides or fly shops in the area, and ask to get a read on the current water conditions, temperature and behaviors of the fish.
BEHAVIOR AND LOCATION OF FALL STEELHEAD
Like Salmon, Steelhead undergo a change in their internal organs, most importantly the atrophy of the stomach. When Steelhead enter freshwater tributaries, they begin to prepare for the spawn. Their stomachs shrink and they can no longer digest food. Biologists explain that the fish stop feeding and begin to live off of their own body fat. This is not bad news for the fall angler, however. The term “feeding” means the fish stop eating for sustenance, because their bodies cannot process the byproduct of the food. They do however continue to “eat” in the streams, which biologists explain is purely out of habit. So the good news for stream Steelhead fisherman is that while Steelhead are not feeding for nourishment, they are still in the “bad habit” of attacking prey and slurping up drifting food.
Fall Steelhead will concentrate below and above obstacles that require extra energy to pass – areas like dams, small waterfalls, or long areas of skinny, fast water. Fish will hold below these obstacles, waiting for a rise in the water level and the energy to pass. The majority of anglers will fish below these barriers. However, fish will also be found above the barrier, as they’ll need to rest after the expending the energy to pass the obstacle. This means the intelligent areas to focus on in fall are the heads and tails of pools that frame these tough obstacles, not just the pools below. Early fall fish are active, so pay close attention to moderate to fast runs as well – particularly those at the heads of pools. The surface break up of the riffles will provide overhead cover for the aggressive fish, which are preparing to move up to the next stretch of river. As the fall drags on and the temperatures slowly drop, the Steelhead will do the same. The fish will move to slower, deeper water to save energy, as winter gets closer. In all instances, Steelhead prefer the dark substrates of small rock or gravel, so when you are targeting the areas we’ve indicated above, pay close attention to the bottom composition of the spots.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is how early or late it is in the fall season. It makes sense that if the fall season is just starting, the Steelhead are just starting to move up into the streams. Therefore, in early fall, Steelhead will not be found higher upstream. At the very beginning of the fall runs, focus at the mouth of the tributary, or as close to the mouth as possible. The main variable in the fall runs is always rainfall and runoff. Until the area receives a few good rains that make the river levels high enough for fish to migrate more easily upstream, focus your fishing from the mouth of the river, up to the first major obstacle, like a dam, ford, waterfall or super shallow stretch of water. The hard part about this time of year is because of the small area of where the fish are staging, anglers may be elbow-to-elbow trying to land the same Steelhead.
Once the tributary gets a good fall rain and river levels rise and fall back down, anglers can begin to look more upstream. Typically after the first average rain, the fish that were holding in the mouth area of the river will have moved up to the second major obstacle, with a few ambitious Steelhead making it to the third. A new run of bright silver Trout will have moved into the mouth area of the river. The rains not only bring new fish into the river with each cold front, but the spreading out of fish also means the spreading out of anglers. As the weeks in fall progress, it becomes a little easier to find some room to fish. The downside of fall’s progression is as the water gets colder and winter approaches, the Steelhead become less active and willing to chase down a fly or spinner.
EQUIPMENT AND CLOTHING
Most people focus on their tackle, presentation and destination and laugh at actually preparing themselves to be able to focus on their fishing. So let’s seriously discuss the bedroom closet, since what you wear can be as important as your presentation. Fall brings a variety of changing weather – sun, clouds, rain or sleet. Often these things can all appear in the course of one day. The key is to dress for heat, cold, dry and wet weather. Like mom always told you around Halloween, put on layers before you go out. Well, her advice applies to fall Steelhead as well. The morning hours and arrival of clouds and wind can make for some cold fishing, but by afternoon the sun can break through. Even on cool days, wearing a lot of layers can get warm during mile long walks through the water and woods. The key is wear multiple layers of light clothing that can be easily shed when temperatures heat up, and thrown back on during the cold. A knit hat and neoprene gloves are important to have on you at all times in fall. You may not need either most of the time, but you will be grateful the first time that you do. Bring a light, waterproof jacket with a hood that you can pack up and throw in pocket of your vest when you don’t need it. Finally, for trampling through mud and water, neoprene chest waders with attached boots will keep you warm and dry. Since many streams are still mossy in fall, add non-slip felt soles to your wader boots. If you do everything right in your presentation, you will have to run after a hooked Steelhead on occasion, so go the extra step to add non-slip. No one needs to get hurt on a relaxing day on the river. EVERYTHING that you wear should be earthy and natural in color, like grays, browns, dark green etc… Do not wear bright colors, or white or black in fall. Steelhead have tremendous vision, and they can see above the water just as well as below – how else would they pick off a tiny insect flowing down a 15 mph run? They will see you too, so dress warmly and wisely.
So now that you’re dressed, let’s cover what equipment to pack for fall Steelhead. Both spinning and fly fisherman need to think long, sensitive-tipped rods to control drifting line and mend casts. The ideal fly rod is 9 ½ to 10 ½ feet, in the 6 – 8 wt. range. Spool up 6 – 8 wt. floating fly line on your backing, followed with a long tapered or fluorocarbon (8 lb. test) leader, cut to a length no less than 8 feet. Fishermen who use tippet use a range of 3x to 6x, depending on the clarity and levels of the river. The lighter tippet (5x or 6x) is preferred in clear water because it is thinner and harder for fish to see. While it will get more hook-ups, the side effect is more snapped off fish. Also, do not skimp and go for the cheaper tippet at the store. Inexpensive tippets are notorious for breaking off, so spend the extra couple of bucks now and spare yourself the cursing and heartbreak later. There is a reason some cost a lot less than others.
Spinning fisherman should be using a 9 to 10 foot, medium-heavy action rod. Spool up 8 lb. test fluorocarbon line (which is invisible underwater) on a spinning reel with a smooth drag system.
Finally, always carry a river thermometer, as well as a knife and a good pair of fishing forceps.
Egg patterns of all colors and sizes.
Mysis Shrimp – (HINT: Mysis shrimp make up 70% of a Steelhead’s diet in the Great Lakes – Mysis are not just food, they are a habit… like smoking.)
Plenty of Strike Indicators for Drifting
Mepp’s Aglia Spinners – white, chartreuse, blue
Lil Cleo Spoons – Silver/Blue, Silver/Green, Silver/Chartreuse, Silver/Bright Orange
Rapalas – silver, gold, jointed (HINT: In fall, go a full size larger than you would normally throw.)
Soft Plastic swim baits, like Zoom’s Super Fluke
White Single Tail Jighead Grubs, 2”, 3”, 4”
Spawn Bags, with plenty of small bleeding hooks (like the Tru-Turn D06Z, sizes 10 – 14) and stream floats.
Mini Foo Jigs (HINT: Add live or Powerbait maggots to your Mini Foo Jig)
Don’t count out a small Bass Spinnerbait!
PRESENTATION AND TECHNIQUES FOR FALL
A few general points for both fly and spinning anglers regard the size of the offerings. Early fall is a great time to think big, bulky and flashy, choosing impossible-to-miss lures and flies that create big vibrations in the water. When this approach begins to fail as the weeks progress, OR when the water begins to get lower and clearer, it is time to size down and switch to more natural colors.
WET FLY SWINGIN’: In early fall, fly fisherman find the most success using a wet fly swing for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of water can be covered relatively quickly. Second, fall Steelhead are aggressive and will move across currents to slam a fly. Here is how to fish a wet fly swing:
1. Cast straight across the current and then take a step downstream.
2. Mend your fly line back upstream, to manage ideal speed of the swing. The fly should be moving no faster than the current itself, and if possible, slightly slower.
3. Let the current swing the fly back through the run.
4. As your swing approaches the slower bank water, use your rod tip to keep the speed of the fly consistent, until the fly can no longer swing to your side. Some anglers like to step out a bit further into the river, so that at the end of their swing they can hold the fly in the current, which will cause it to rise up toward the surface film. This is performed more often in spring to mimic emerging hatches, but is also effective in fall, particularly with bulkier offerings.
Here is the thought behind stepping downstream after each cast, rather than the end of each swing. It will allow the fly time to sink and prevents mending it out of the strike zone. Also, there is greater control of the path your fly will travel, basically becoming able to drive it down the target lane. The cast and step method covers all of prime water in a quick manner, and always keeps the fly in front of willing trout.
STRIP A STREAMER: Dead drifting will work in fall, but why start with that? The aggressive fish of the season will chase and slam a streamer or woolly bugger stripped through the current and pools.
DRY FLY DRIFTIN AND SKATIN’: Dry flies will also work in fall if they are drifted in the surface film, however they are often more productive when adding a little violent action. Fall fish are going to attack what they see moving, so try swinging a dry fly through the current by casting up and across stream, and giving a few sharp strips and twitches back downstream. This works very well when the water is relatively clear at below average levels, and water temperatures are teetering at 55°F.
Skating a dry fly is one step above twitching it in a drift. The goal here is to make the fly skate quickly across the surface of a run or pool, creating a V-shaped wake in the water behind it. This method of fishing is exactly what waker and skater flies are designed for, so be sure to have a variety in your fly box. When you see a Steelhead rise up to grab your dry, the natural reaction is to set the hook. Trusting this reaction will cause you to pull the fly right out of the mouth of the fish. The Steelhead attacks quickly and will not realize for a while that what it just ate is an artificial. On a top water take, wait until the fish turns on the fly and takes it down, and then set the hook. If it helps, say the phrase “One Mississippi” and then set the hook. This will give you the needed leverage for a solid, corner of the mouth hook set, and won’t pull the fly from the fish’s mouth.
SPINNING ANGLERS: Spinning fisherman can experiment with a few techniques. For a spinner or spoon, cover the water by casting slightly upstream and reeling your retrieve downstream and across the current.
Another technique that is gaining popularity is to carefully position yourself upstream of a current or run, and drop your spinner, blade or Rapala into the current and hold it in place, letting the current put action on the lure. This keeps the presentation right in the face of the fish for as long as you wish. To cover the entire stretch, start with a short amount of line out, and then letting out a few feet of line at a time to slowly work down the entire run. When using this approach, do not cast and reel the lure back up the current. This is unnatural and will tip off and willing fish. Work the run from the top down.
Anglers casting a soft plastic like the Zoom Super Fluke simply want to cast up and across the current, and twitch the bait back down and across the stream, as fly fisherman would work a streamer.
Spawn bags and maggot-tipped jigs are simply drifted with the current.
HOW TO HANDLE A HOOKED STEELHEAD
Locating and coaxing fish is a challenge in itself, but after time spent trying to get the bite, the charge of a fall chromer can catch you off guard. These are mini-freight trains in the river, stripping off 100 yards of line in a few seconds and then leaping 5 feet in the air. If you aren’t prepared, that Steelhead will snap your line in a second. They say if you keep the Steelhead on for the first two minutes, you will land it 9 times out of 10. Therefore, the first and most important step comes before you even cast – set your drag! These fish are going to run, and fights can last 10 minutes. Keep a low drag and plenty of patience once you hook up, and let that fish run. Despite your immediate natural reaction, DO NOT grab the reel or try to turn the fish around during a charge like this, or you will pay for it. Also, be prepared to have to run up or down a bank if that fish keeps going. When the fish grabs, keep your rod tip straight up in the air to handle the first charges of the fish. During leaps, drop that rod tip down in the water so that the tension doesn’t rip the line. The energy of the initial charges will eventually slow the Steelhead down, and when you get the fish turned around, lower your rod to your side, so it is at a parallel angle with the ground. To tire the fish out, keep gentle “pumping” pressure on the tip of the rod as it is at your side. Always keep your rod pressure coming from the tail end of the fish. Many times when a fish is coming in from upstream of where you are standing, and your rod is angled downstream, the angle of the pressure will pull the fly/lure right out of the fishes mouth. Always keep your rod tip pointed the opposite way of the face of the fish. Following this will keep that fish on your line, and will also help land it more quickly, which highly decreases mortality rates. Please see our quick instructional article on how to properly and safely handle and release Trout and Salmon.
Dress warm for the weather, with layers that can easily be taken off and put on, and carry a waterproof jacket. Always carry a thermometer to understand how the fish are behaving. Early in the fall run, target the mouth of the tributary up to the first major obstacle, like a dam, ford or shallow water run. Once the area gets a good amount of rain, then begin to move further upstream to the second and third major obstacles. Fish below the obstacle for fish waiting to move upstream, as well as above for the fish resting to recover the energy lost after passing the barrier. In classic pool – run areas of the stream, target the head and tail of the run for aggressive fish. Fish fast and cover lots of water using a cast/retrieve (spinning) or wet fly swing (fly fisherman). As the fall weeks progress, slow down and fish deeper runs and pools, as well as the major barriers when they aren’t packed with anglers. There is a prime time to fish fall rivers after a rain, when the water is dropping, slightly stained and tinted emerald green. These periods usually last a day or less, so pay careful attention to weather systems and river levels. Chrome Steelhead put up tremendous fights with surging runs and high-flying leaps, so keep pressure on the fish with the rod, not the reel. Once you can get it turned around, gently pump the rod at your side to land it. This will tire the fish out more quickly, but not to the point of exhaustion that threatens it’s survival. If you follow the advice of this article, we guarantee you will put fish on your line – it’s up to you to keep them on.
Special thanks to Gregory Stroup, David Hise, Steve Stracqualursi, Bill Humason and Linda for contributing their beautiful photography to this article.
Visit Gregory Stroup’s page: www.flickr.com/photos/paininthelens/
Visit David Hise’s site: www.castersflyshop.com/
Visit Steve Stracqualursi’s site: www.wayupstream.com