Steelhead Trout

The steelhead trout almost suffered extinction in the 1940s as a result of human disruptions to the river systems. Dam blocking, urbanized landscapes, and re-routing of water bodies have dramatically reduced the steelhead population. The population decline is alarming, But thankfully, native steelhead trout fisheries have been integral in protecting and conserving the species. As a result, steelhead trout continue to thrive in many areas of the United States. Yet, it’s worth remembering that the steelhead population remains threatened or endangered in some regions. We’ll go into detail in this article, helping you understand where you can fish steelhead safely without affecting conservation risks. 

What does a steelhead look like, and how can you best approach for catching one? We’ve compiled this short guide to help enthusiastic anglers understand the challenges of steelhead trout fishing in North America. 

What is a Steelhead Trout? 

As surprising as it might sound. Steelheads and rainbow trout belong to the same species, called Oncorhynchus mykiss. Despite being from the same species, rainbow trout and steelhead are distinctive fish. Amateur anglers are quick to spot the different trout, as steelhead trout are considerably longer and heavier than rainbow trout. There are, however, significant behavioral differences that can explain the size disparities. 

Both steelhead and rainbow trout are salmonid species that hatch out in freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams. For the first years of their lives, steelhead trout remain in freshwater. However, they leave their freshwater habitat after 1 to 3 years to migrate to the sea. While their rainbow cousin remains in freshwater streams, steelhead head to saltwater areas where they will live for several years. When it is time to spawn, they migrate back to freshwater areas. This makes the steelhead an anadromous type of rainbow trout, aka a fish that migrates from seawater to freshwater for spawning. 

Steelhead have brighter colors than rainbows, which a bright silver or brassy sheen. They also develop heavy spotting in saltwater. Male steelhead trout also develop a hook in their lower jaw, called a skype, which is frequently seen in the species and salmon. However, unlike salmons, the steelhead trout return to saltwater after spawning and can spawn several times in their lifetime. Salmons, on the other hand, dies after spawning. Anglers have found that offspring of steelhead trout can remain in freshwater all their lives, while offspring of rainbow trout can migrate to the ocean to become steelhead trout. As a result, they agree to make the migration process the main identification trait between rainbow and steelhead. 

Where to Fish for Steelhead Trout 

Steelhead are native to the West of the Rockies. The fish has been introduced to most states, making steelhead a sought-after game fish in North America. Steelhead trouts are found on all continents, with the exception of Antarctica. As such, it is fair to say that the fish is not extinct. Yet, the population has declined significantly in some regions. Steelhead trout are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the following areas:

  • Southern California (endangered)
  • California Central Valley (threatened)
  • Central California Coast (threatened)
  • Northern California (threatened)
  • South-Central California Coast (threatened)
  • Lower Columbia River (threatened)
  • Middle Columbia River (threatened)
  • Upper Columbia River (threatened)
  • Puget Sound (threatened)
  • Snake River Basin (threatened)
  • Willamette River (threatened)

Environmentalists have also introduced an experimental steelhead trout population in the  Middle Columbia River. You can’t fish for steelhead trout in these regions. 

So, where do you find steelhead? Thankfully, the fish is present across the majority of the US states. Steelhead love fast-flowing rivers and streams with a ton of oxygenation. For cover, they prefer gravel environments and deep hiding spots, such as vegetation, boulders, and wood. Pacific northwestern rivers are a fantastic starting spot for anglers, as it’s their natural spawning grounds. We’d recommend the following spots during steelhead season:

  • Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
  • Delaware River, NY
  • Oswego River, NY
  • Cowlitz River for summer and winter steelhead, Washington
  • Bogachiel River, Washington
  • Salmon River, Idaho
  • Clearwater River, Idaho
  • Clackamas River, Oregon
  • Three Rivers, Oregon
  • Rogue River, Oregon (beware, this location requires a boat for easy access) 
  • The Great Lakes

Steelhead trout hold up in a variety of areas in the waterway. So, it’s important to read the water correctly. The top riffle, middle section with its pool, and tailwater are the three distinct areas you want to focus your attention on. 

Steelhead Trout Fun Facts 

  • As mentioned, the first thing you’ll notice when you start fishing for steelhead is the size. Steelhead trout are much larger than rainbow trout, reaching up to 45 inches in length and 55 pounds in weight. The average length revolves around 24 inches. The Seattle Times of Wednesday, October 21, 1970, refers to a world-record steelhead catch caught by an 8-year-old child in Alaska waters. The 43-inch-long and 42-pound-heavy steelhead trout remains one of the largest and heaviest ever caught to this day. So, you’d better prepare for some heavy fish if you are going to catch a steelhead trout. 
  • A predatory fish, steelhead have a typical lifespan of 4 to 6 years old. However, they can live for up to 11 years, during which the fish will spawn multiple times. Interestingly, the steelhead trout can accurately identify its spawning grounds. As a result, the fish comes back from the ocean to return to the same freshwater spot for spawning purposes throughout its life. This unique characteristic enables the fish to navigate safely back to its homing location. 
  • Historically, steelhead has been viewed as a prized fish by indigenous populations for its nutritional content and connection to the native environment. Perhaps, it’s no surprise that action-adventure video game, Red Dead Redemption II included steelhead trout in its 1899 narrative, paying tribute to the integral role of steelhead in human history. Steelhead trout are easy to catch along the banks of Flat Iron Lake in the game. 

Top Steelhead Trout Fishing Lures & Tips 

Steelhead trout are a popular catch. So, if you don’t want to head back empty-handed, you need to do your homework. Each river has a unique run timing. For instance, wild fish tend to arrive later. Yet, hatchery fish will often turn up earlier in the season. You’ll need to plan the best moment to maximize your catch. That’s why most anglers recommend choosing a home water, so you already know and understand its characteristics. 

Steelhead trout that reach adult age are tenacious and persistent. They can face the challenges of transitioning and migrating between freshwater and the ocean. As a result, the best freshwater areas to catch them tend to be the most difficult for fishers. Indeed, since they migrate the spawn, you need to use a variety of lures, baits, and casting techniques to appeal to their primal instinct. Steelhead fly fishing is challenging. 

The typical rod length needs to be around 8 to 10 feet for bank casting. They will provide the momentum you need for a precise cast. Cast to cover the entire area, starting short distance and gradually increase until you locate fish. It pays off to diversify your casting methods, including fly fishing, spoon fishing, drift fishing, and spinner fishing. The right line will make a big difference as steelhead are strong. Most anglers stick with an 8-pound line for rivers under 80 feet deep and move to 12 to 16 pounds for larger rivers. 

Typically, you’ll need to experiment with your lures, depending on the type of water and river conditions. Spinner lures are one of the most effective for river steelhead trout. Let the current move the lure for you as you retrieve it slowly. Alternatively, a spoon lure will also work wonders with a slow and low cast. Finally, crankbaits (or hard baits) are, by far, the type of baits that is the most successful for steelhead catching. You can vary the size depending on the environment. They don’t need time to sink down, so you can catch your crankbait straight across the water and retrieve it slowly. 

Can you eat Steelhead Trout?

Steelhead trout looks similar to salmon with its bright-orange flesh. IN many ways, steelhead trout is more affordable and environmentally friendly than fishing salmon. It’s also a healthy source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, B6 B12, D, phosphorous, niacin, and selenium. 

The overall texture is meaty with a little flakiness that makes it easy to prepare and eat. Unlike salmon that can fall apart too quickly through cooking, steelhead trout meat doesn’t break apart. It is also softer than salmon, making it a somehow more delicate option. 

One of the most important qualities of steelhead, according to chefs, is its versatility. Steelhead trout can be cooked in as many ways as you would prepare salmon or rainbow trout. It can be cured, poached, smoked, eaten raw in sushi bars, roasted, pan-fried, pickled, etc. Home cooks often prefer easy methods such as wrapped in foil and oven-baked with fresh herbs and seasoning or pan-seared with butter and garlic. Its dense meat doesn’t dry out, making steelhead trout a safe bet for most recipes. We strongly recommend substituting salmon or rainbow trout with steelhead trout for a dense and rich flavor. In summer, its delicate, flaky texture goes well with tacos and salad, without the same fishy notes you might find in a salmon. For those who dislike strong sea flavors, the steelhead trout is an ideal compromise that can be added to most dishes with little risk of failing.  

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