Let’s be clear, I fish for steelhead for one simple reason: to catch fish. Because I’m a fly fisherman, people often assume I suffer for my art by spending countless hours swinging flies in the relentless pursuit of steelhead, even against long odds..
That’s the mentality many accept when they pursue steelhead with a fly rod, but it’s not reality. Steelhead are a challenging to catch with a fly rod, and I’ve gotten my ass handed to me often enough to accept that.
But I’ve also caught dozens of steelhead in several states and British Columbia, and I can tell you with confidence they’re not mythical beasts. They’re just fish, and if you’re willing to go a little rogue as a fly angler, you’re likely to out fish the traditionalists who adhere to their stodgy methods.
Don’t get me wrong, however a fellow fly angler wishes to pursue a fish is fine by me as long as it’s legal, but when some steelheaders claim their favored method is the “proper” way to fly fish, I have to call bullshit. Not trying to sound like a jerk here, but if you open your mind and don’t handicap yourself, you will be fighting steelhead rather than frustration.
Go where the fish are: Sounds obvious as buy low, sell high, but simple truth is some rivers have big steelhead runs and others have less. Seek out rivers with big steelhead runs and the odds of catching one improves.
Use the best gear: I'm not talking about how much you paid, but what flies and fishing techniques you're using. I often look to what the gear guys are doing and try to emulate them with a fly. If I have to put on a big fly with sink tip to simulate a plug, no problem. If have to drift an egg pattern or a bead under an indicator, game on. I don’t hesitate for a second to swing a classic steelhead pattern through a textbook run if I think it’s the best way to hook a steelhead. Bottom line, different tactics are going to work better on different water, and the more water you can fish the better your chances are of hooking a steelhead.
Hire a guide: I love DIY fishing, but I readily admit a guide will give you a big leg up if you’re hitting a new river. Unlike other fish, steelhead don’t have to eat, and they move around a lot, but they typically have a pattern. It can take years to spot those patterns in a certain river, and it takes a lot of time on the water do it. Experiences guides know where fish are likely to be on a given day under a given set of conditions, such as flows and temperatures, which by the way can change daily. That doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish without a guide, but you up the odds with a reputable, experienced guide.
Know the peak seasons: Every river has a period when a lot of steelhead get caught. It’s usually pretty well known, so don’t go at that time and expect solitude, but the quality of the fishing can make up for hassle of crowds.
Respect the locals: I’ve traveled to new rivers armed with my favorite steelhead tactics from home and been humbled because I was too stuck in my ways. If your guide or the guy at the local fly shop tells you this is what people use to catch steelhead on that river, listen to them. If it doesn't work, you can always go back to your own stuff.
Spring for a trip to a steelhead mecca: The classic waters in Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest earned their reputations for producing excellent steelhead fishing year after year. Yes, there are a few undiscovered gems out there, but those are few and far between. Trust the big names, but be a little skeptical. Some are known for the challenge of landing a single fish rather than big body counts. Know what you're after and find a river that matches up. If you're looking for a challenging river, there are plenty out there. But if you want a hook a lot of steelhead, those opportunities are out there as well.
Enjoy the challenge: Yes, steelhead are a challenging to fish for specifically because they don't have to eat. When you accept that challenge and figure out where the fish are holding and how to present a fly that they will eat, it's a great accomplishment, and it should be on every angler's bucket list.