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Fly Fishing Steelhead and Salmon

Fly Fishing Steelhead and Salmon
Steelhead and salmon are anadromous which means they hatch in fresh water, the young migrate to the ocean or a large lake where they grow to maturity; then the adult fish return to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn and the salmon die. Ross Purnell Photo

How to catch the fish of a lifetime fly fishing steelhead and salmon 

Steelhead and salmon are anadromous fish, which means they hatch in freshwater rivers and streams, but then migrate to the ocean where they grow large. When they reach maturity they return back to their freshwater birthplaces to spawn.

There are five species of Pacific salmon native to North America: Chinook (king), coho (silver), sockeye (red), chum (dog), and pink (humpy) salmon. Pacific salmon die soon after they spawn, and when they are close to their spawning time, they change color and deteriorate, making them unattractive as gamefish.

However, when Pacific salmon first enter fresh water (or while still at sea) they are "fresh": they don't merely have spawning on their minds and they still aggressively attack flies. Their long migrations have not yet depleted their energy stores and they are still strong fighters, making them excellent fly-rod targets. 

West Coast steelhead streams are often large rivers tumbling from coastal mountains. Great Lakes steelhead streams tend to be smaller, with fish concentrated in shallower water. The two water types usually require different tactics. Ross Purnell Photo 

Sockeye salmon are usually considered the best-tasting salmon, but they feed on plankton and other small food items at sea and don't react as positively to flies as some other salmon species.

Chinook and coho salmon are the most sought-after as gamefish. Chinook are the largest of the salmon familytheir size and brute strength are their best quality. Coho or silver salmon generally travel and hold in shallower water, take flies near the surface, and they jump like trout when they are hooked, making them the most exciting and attractive (to fly fishers) of all the salmon species.

Steelhead are a coastal variety of rainbow trout that migrate to the Pacific Ocean, then return to freshwater to spawn much like salmon. However, steelhead don't die after they spawn and more importantly don't deteriorate like salmon, making them wonderful gamefish even weeks or months after they enter fresh water.

Steelhead have the size of a salmon (except Chinooks), the fighting quality of a rainbow trout, and they are beautiful fish no matter whether they are fresh, chrome-bright fish from the ocean, or they have a broad, bold red stripe. They may be the most exciting freshwater fish on the West Coastespecially in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Atlantic salmon are also anadromous (although some are landlocked) and, like steelhead, they do not die from the rigors of spawning and the associated migration. They are considered by some fly fishers to be "the king of fishes."

Unfortunately, loss of habitat, overfishing, dams, and other factors have extirpated most Atlantic salmon from the United States. Some streams in Eastern Canada still have excellent fishing for Atlantic salmon but it's a distant and difficult fish, not recommended for beginning anglers. [Rainbow trout are not the only trout that migrate to sea. Brown trout also are anadromous in places such as Argentina and Europe where they are known simply as sea trout. Brook trout also travel to and from the ocean in some places. The Editor.]

Steelhead Swing: Use a floating line or a sinking-tip line for the wet-fly swing. Cast across or down-and-across and allow the current to draw the fly across the current and come to a rest directly below you. Step downstream and then repeat the presentation. In faster water, you may have to make an upstream mend (not shown) to slow the progress of the fly.

In their native ranges, wild salmon and steelhead are frequently suffering from low populations, or else are in remote wilderness areas that are far from home or difficult to access.

However, the Great Lakes hold good numbers of stocked and wild salmon and steelhead in easily accessed rural and suburban areas. Major population centers such as Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Rochester are all within an hour's drive of fantastic steelhead, salmon, or lake-run brown trout fishing.

In their native areas, steelhead and salmon migrate to and from the ocean. In the Great Lakes, the lakes are a substitute for the ocean environment and the fish return to the tributary streams flowing into them. As on the West Coast, the steelhead are most aggressive and in their best physical condition when they first begin their migration.


Steelhead do not return as solitary individuals, they come in "runs" which are waves, or pulses of large numbers of fish that are driven not only by spawning urges but also by weather and environmental conditions.

Some Great Lakes-area streams have summer runs of fish like the Skamania steelhead runs on the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York; other streams have winter runs, spring runs, or a combination of two or three seasonal runs. In smaller rivers, the runs are highly dependant on stream flows and if the rivers are low, the fish wait in the lake for higher flows, or ascend an alternate stream with more water. 

Great Lakes steelhead often react best to smaller dead-drifted flies such as Glo-Bugs, Blood Dots, and other egg imitations; and trout nymphs like Hare's Ears, Pheasant Tails, and Prince Nymphs. This fish took a beadhead stonefly nymph. Ross Purnell Photo 

Most Great Lakes steelhead runs coincide with rain, snowmelt, or other weather events that increase the river flow. Experienced fly fishers often wait for a heavy rain to swell the river, then wait a day or a week (depending on the watershed) for the water to clear so they can begin chasing the steelhead.

There are two primary tactics/techniques to catch steelhead and salmon: The wet-fly swing ("swinging") or nymphing.

The wet-fly swing is the traditional method of catching steelhead. It is similar to the streamer fishing technique shown on page 61 where you cast across-stream and allow the fly to swim across the current until it comes to a rest on a tight line directly below you. The difference is that with streamer fishing you often strip or twitch the fly with short jerks to give it an erratic motion. With the wet-fly swing, your goal is to get slow and deep; so you don't twitch or strip line as the fly swings across the current. Instead, use a sinking-tip line heavy enough and with a long enough tip to reach to the bottom, then mend (lift) the floating rear potion of the line upstream as the fly swings to prevent a belly of line from pulling the fly upward or moving it too quickly.

On bigger Great Lakes streams, the traditional method of "swinging" for steelhead with swimming flies is rapidly gaining popularity because you can cover a great deal of water quickly, looking for the most aggressive steelhead. On smaller streams where there are many steelhead stacked up in small pools, depressions, and along rock ledges, it doesn't make sense to "cover the water" with a swinging fly technique. Often, you can see the steelhead in clear water less than 3 feet deep. In these situations, dead-drifting a nymph below an indicatormuch like you would while trout fishingis a better technique.

The best Great Lakes flies for dead-drifting are small, brightly colored salmon egg imitations such as Blood Dot, Glo-Bug, or Sucker Spawn patterns. Beadhead trout nymphs (especially stonefly and caddis imitations) also catch steelhead; particularly when the water is low and clear and the steelhead are skittish.

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