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Steelheading 101: Tips and Tricks

They say that steelhead are "the fish of a thousand casts." Unlike salmon that school in large numbers, steelhead often roam alone or in pairs. They also return to the river in considerably smaller numbers, drastically reducing an angler's chance of success.

That being said, with a bit of hard work (sorry) and by following a few basic tips and techniques your chances of hooking and, hopefully, landing a steelhead will be that much greater.

We've put together, in no particular order, our 9 top steelheading tips and tricks. By no means is this "everything you need to know", there are books to tackle that one, but it does cover some important basics.

Hatchery steelhead on the Chilliwack/Vedder River.

TIP #1: BE PREPARED! To a large part, your choice of lure will depend on the visibility and flow of the water, and that can change in a heartbeat. Some go-to gear options include soft beads (BIG & small), a gooey-bob + spin'n'glo combo (Peter McPherson classic), roe, water-hardened egg sacs, rubber worms, and jigs.

Once we get into warmer weather and salmon fry start appearing, drifting a blade or casting spoons will be solid options.

For fly anglers, you need to get down quickly and you need to be seen. Heavy sink tips on a Skagit head with an intruder pattern, bunny leech, or BIG `ole egg-sucking leach are good options. You'll also want to fish water that will allow you to swing effectively. A boulder-strewn run will be triple tough and not a good use of your time. That's not to say you wouldn't ever catch anything in this type of water, but your time will be better spent on juicy water where you can get in a good swing.

TIP #2: FISH IT, BEFORE YOU WADE IT! Cast and drift a few times before letting your waders touch any water. You could easily spook the derby winner by lumbering into a run.

TIP #3: FISH LOTS OF WATER! Fish what's in front of you, and various spots in between. Explore, explore, explore. A long classic, juicy run may not be holding fish. Fish some odd-looking pocket water, or a boulder run with lots of hiding spots for a steelhead to hang out.

TIP #4: FISH DIFFERENT DEPTHS! Don't leave your float at just one depth in the same run. Change it up. Also, many newer anglers don't short float, which can be super effective. Giving an idle fish more time to see your presentation compared to something at eye level.

Steelhead are fairly aggressive fish, so if your lure is close enough to annoy them, they will generally take a stab at it.

A client showing off their winter prize.

TIP #5: SLOW IT DOWN! Keep your float vertical (at the water's pace), and even pull back a bit to slow it down. The longer a fish has to look at your lure, the more agitated it will get. Steelhead are not spending much time eating. Rather they’re conserving energy for the big event. So a lure zipping by is of little interest to a wintering fish - it's simply too much effort.

TIP #6: MOVE. FISH. REPEAT. Standing in one spot isn't that effective, and isn't courteous to other anglers (see tip #9). Work your water, and move along. Work that water, and then move along. These aren’t salmon moving along the river at Mach speed. Steelhead are meanderers, spending months in the river before spawning. If they find a happy place, they will chill out.

Steelhead can also be aggressive. So if you've worked a piece of water to its limits without a bobber down, chances are it's void of any fish - at least one that's interested.

TIP #7: SSSSSHHHHH! Water carries sound 5X more efficiently than air. Approach every run with stealth.

TIP #8: JUST DO IT! Get out there and fish. There's nothing like experience to hone your skill set. And don't be afraid to ask questions of other anglers you might meet on the river. Our team at Fred's are also an excellent resource. We are more than willing to answer any questions you might have, provide advice on locations (we even have a map if you need one to get you started), and go over your fishing gear to help make your outing a bit more enjoyable.

A monster wild steelhead buck.

TIP #9: USE ROTATION ANGLING! Although this applies to fishing for any species on a river, rotation angling (aka. river etiquette) is simply a common courtesy. There's nothing more frustrating than working your way down a piece of water and having someone step in below you (aka.. low-holing) - especially if they catch a fish.

What is rotation angling?

Here's a snippet from a document published by the BC government that explains it quite well:

"The basic rules are:

  • Avoid entering the water downstream of another angler who is already fishing, unless invited to do so;

  • Leave adequate room between the downstream angler and yourself but do not remain stationary unless no one is following you;

  • After catching a fish, step out of the line and return to the head of the pool, or start of the line;

  • If you are not sure about the local etiquette, avoid any problems by first inquiring about the procedures from the anglers already on the water.

Rotation angling is a system, which can work well regardless of gear type, so long as each angler respects the others' methods."

Again, if you're new to steelheading and want more advice, please drop into one of our stores and ask as many questions as you want. If you're not sure if your rod and reel setup is appropriate, bring it with you! It doesn't matter if you buy anything, we just want to make sure you get out fishing and have a good time.

Our guided walk-and-wade and rafting trips are also great ways to get dialled into steelheading. Although the goal of these trips is to land the fish of a lifetime, we also emphasize education (reading water, casting techniques, tackle options, hook setting, presentation, landing, and more). Click here for more information about a guided steelhead trip.

Tight lines!


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