Spring Steelhead Primer


by Justin Hoffman (c) 2000

As winter makes way for spring, the world, once again, starts to flourish. The ice melts away, the birds return, and the creeks and rivers become alive with silvery-sheened steelhead! Spring signals the spawning urge in these very adaptable fish, and they begin their long journey up the many tributaries that they once called home. By learning what to look for once you're out on the stream, the tackle and bait which performs best, and some tips and techniques to up your odds, you'll be on your way to becoming a streamside authority, and a bonafide "steelheader."

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Picking a Stream

Steelhead, or rainbow trout as they are commonly called, have an uncanny ability to return to spawn in the same river, or stream, that they were born in. By doing a bit of investigative work, you can discover which stream or river has the greatest runs come spring. Once you have this information, however, it is time to make a difficult decision. Either fish a "well-known" stream which has a good resident population of steelhead, yet may be overcrowded, or find a more "out of the way" creek, which may not have as many fish, but will be less pressured. Try to fish both varieties this spring, and decide which you prefer best, but always be on the lookout for that undiscovered gem.

What to Look For In a Stream

Fast Moving Water or Rapids
Rainbow trout always spawn in relatively shallow, fast-moving water. Look for groups of males pressuring a single female in the rapids, or fish using these areas to move between pools. Fishing in rapids can sometimes be tough due to the faster moving water, but they are a guaranteed fish producer.

Pools
Pools, or holes, as they are sometimes called, are areas of deep, slack water, which often hold a lot of fish. Some pools may range in depth from two to 10 feet, and are usually above, or below, rapids, or stretches of shallow water. Pools have a number of different uses, but the primary one is as a resting area. A further reason trout hold in these areas is in anticipation of heavy rains, which makes the river swell with dirtier water, which, in turn, creates a more safe and comfortable trip for the steelhead.

Wood and Undercut Banks
No matter what river or stream you fish, you're bound to find a good assortment of fallen trees and undercut banks. These two objects provide safety, comfort, and shelter for many of these fish. Look for fish to lay hidden under these spots during bright sunny days, or low water conditions.

Tackle Talk
There are two basic conditions that you will encounter when targeting spring steelhead, and those are, clear water, and dirty, "chocolate milk" water.

Clear Water
For clear water, I prefer to use a 9-and-a-half foot long noodle rod. They can reach lengths of up to fourteen feet, and are all thin and whippy, with some backbone in the lower third of the rod. I match my rod up with an ultra light reel, loaded with line in the 4 or 6-pound-test range, in clear monofiliment.
There are a variety of different baits and lures for clear water trout, but live or prepared bait seems to be the best starting point. Salmon eggs, and worms are the two top choices for stream anglers. These can either be suspended under a slender float, or slowly drifted down using a few small split shot to keep the bait bouncing along bottom. Spawn sacks come in a multitude of colours, from hot pink, orange, and chartreuse to more subdued whites, and dull yellows. For clear water always stick with the most natural colour you can find, as well as the smallest spawn sack you can get away with. Hooks in the size range of fourteen and sixteen are your best bet.

Other good bets for clear water steelhead are tiny spinners in the zero or 1 size, with silver and black getting the definite nod for colour. Small tube jigs, such as the ones you might use for perch or crappie, can be dynamite out on the stream. Small Flatfish or "mini" baits are also perfect for holding in the current, or letting slip into cover, or along side undercover banks.

Dirty Water
During the springtime, rain is a common fact of life. During these heavier rain periods, the streams will undergo a tremendous change, namely flooding and water clarity.
I use the same rod for dirty water fishing as I do for clear water, however, it is now possible to make adjustments to your line configurations. Since visibility in the water may be next to nothing, heavier line will be the norm. Anything in the 8 to twelve-pound-test seems to work well.
During this off-coloured flow, go with large baits, brilliant colours and plenty of action. Brightly coloured spawn sacks are now your best bet, as well as bright yarn flies and sponge balls. Spinners or plugs, in larger sizes and brilliant colours will now be needed in order for the fish to see the bait, or even hear the bait.

Techniques and Tactics
One of the most important aspects of stream fishing is stealth. Steelhead are a very wary fish, and if they are aware of your presence they will either scoot away, or refuse to bite. Use the trees and bushes for cover, and always keep a low profile by staying well back from the bank.

Always move upstream, as well as cast upstream. This gives the most realistic and natural presentation.

Turn over rocks and boulders to see the type of bugs and crustaceans the fish are feeding on. Match your presentation to these "real-life baits", and see your success soar.

For many, steelheading is a rite of spring. Once you've hooked that first rainbow, you will fall prey to its magical spell, which will keep you returning, year after year, to the same stream, much like our friend the steelhead.


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