Tackle and Gear
Fishing for steelhead is generally done with either a spinning or fly outfit.
Regardless of the type of rod and reel used, there are other gear requirements.
A good pair of waders is essential. Chest waders give greater versatility and
allow you to reach deeper areas that might exceed the height of hip boots. In
times of low flow, or on the smaller creeks, hip boots will be adequate. In the
colder months, insulated waders are essential. Many anglers opt for neoprene
Many anglers use boots with spikes for traction. Although "corkers" are not as
popular on these tributaries as they are in other places, they are sometimes
seen. In the early season, the creek bottoms can still be algae covered and very
slippery. Even after the algae is gone as the water gets colder, the shale
bottom can be quite slippery. If you are not sure of foot, spikes and/or a
wading staff are a good idea. Felt-sole waders generally work better here than
rubber-soled boots (except when there is snow on the ground).
Whether to carry a net on the creeks seems to be a point of debate. Many anglers
release all the steelhead they catch, and often they carry no net. Others new to
the sport carry can be seen carrying a traditional trout net that will have a
very difficult time holding an 8 pound steelhead. Steelhead can be "beached" in
many places, and therefore taken without a net. If you want to be sure you land
the fish you hooked, and don't mind carrying a net with you along the creeks, a
net is a good idea.
Like any trout fishing, a good fishing vest or chest pack is a must. In the
winter, gloves are also necessary. When the water is not too high or cloudy,
steelhead can be "hunted" or spotted in places in the creeks. A pair of
polarized sunglasses is another necessity for spotting steelhead in the creek.
If you plan to keep any fish, a good stringer is necessary. If you fish with
skein, a scissors works well to cut the eggs.
A well-stocked fishing vest contains the following: either fly boxes or a small
plano tackle compartment with hooks, small pinch-on sinkers and assorted lures,
slip-on bobbers or floats, clippers, pocket knife, hemostats (for hook removal
and opening split shot on really cold days), spare spools with different test
line for different conditions, leaders and tippet, various baits, lighter and
compass (as a precautionary holdover from hunting), stringer, stream thermometer
Line and Hooks
Spinning gear still seems to predominate on the tributaries, although fly
fishing has become increasing popular. In normal conditions, six pound line
works well. Many experienced anglers use four or even two pound line, especially
in clear water conditions. Use some sense when selecting line. You will have a
difficult time stopping an eight pound fish on two pound line once the fish gets
into fast water and heads for the lake. Likewise, if you are fishing in a
crowded area, your fellow anglers will not be pleased as you take 20 minutes to
try to land a fish on ultra-light line.
No particular type of hook is needed. However, the traditional salmon or
steelhead hook, which is a strong, short shank, eye-up hook, is often used. The
hook size depends on the steam conditions and the type of bait used. A size 6
should be big enough under any circumstances. A size 10 or 12 will get more
strikes in clear conditions, but landing a fish with this size hook can be
challenging. Experienced anglers, who don't mind trading more hook-ups for fewer
landed fish, will fish with hooks in size 14 or smaller.
The common rod for spin fishing is an
(e.g., nine foot) light rod designed for four to eight pound line. The
"noodle rod", which is very long (often 10 feet or more), and extremely soft for
fishing very light line (e.g., two pound test), is becoming less popular on the
streams. Most steelhead fishing in the creeks is drift fishing. For drift
fishing, many prefer a short butt-end to the rod. A longer rod allows you to
keep more of the line off the water to get a better drift, and the short butt is
easier to handle. Steelhead can take a hook very lightly, so a sensitive rod is
helpful. On the other hand, they can be aggressive fighters, and a rod with some
backbone is also helpful. Local tackle shops can recommend a good rod for this
type of fishing.
Using a spinning reel on a fly rod is not uncommon. The fly rod is sensitive,
long, and has a short butt.
No particular size of reel is essential. As long as the spool has the capacity
for enough line to play the fish and a drag strong and smooth enough to
withstand the stress, the reel should work. Large reels used on the lake are
overkill. Even with six pound line, a spinning reel with a smooth drag is
essential. (Front drags seem to be smoother). I use a 2000 series Shimano
front-drag reel, and it works well for this type of fishing.
Line and Leader
Floating line is the norm.
The creeks are typically too shallow for any type of sinking line. Be sure to
use sufficient backing to be able to play the fish.
Leader and tippet sizes depend, as always, to a large degree on what flies you
are using. Many anglers tie their own leaders. Since you are often fishing with
split shot, this is not finesse fly fishing and it is not necessary to have a
perfectly tapered leader. Similarly, the leader need not be too long for this
type of fishing, unless you are fishing in very clear water with a very small
fly. Under normal conditions, a leader and tippet combination that is not longer
than the rod itself should work. A longer leader and tippet combination on the
small creeks will be too long and difficult to handle. Many anglers tie in at
least one length of high visibility line in the upper end of the leader.
Not surprisingly, small
flies (e.g., size 12 or smaller) should be fished with a light
tippet. 5x and lighter
tippet will have difficulty landing steelhead. 3x and 4x tippet is popular.
Whether fluorocarbon tippet actually helps produce strikes remains a point of
dispute in this area.
Anglers typically use
rods from 5 to 8 weight. A 5 weight rod will not give you much backbone to
land a large steelhead, and an 8 weight rod has more than enough backbone. Many
agree a 7 weight, 9 foot rod is ideal.
Any respectable fly
reel should work. An smooth disk drag is certainly helpful for playing a
larger fish. Generally a reel which accommodates a 6 to 8 weight line will work
well. Large arbor reels have become common.
Lures and Bait
Common baits used for spin fishing include the following:
- Live or salted minnows
Power bait or power nuggets
Egg sacks (of either salmon or steelhead eggs)
- Skein (of either salmon or steelhead eggs)
- Nightcrawlers (usually not used during the winter)
Single salmon eggs (the variety in the small jars in oil, or the loose eggs
found at the bait shops)
- Grubs (a.k.a. maggots)
Lures are not too commonly used in the creeks. However, spinners can work.
Occasionally a small casting spoon (like a
Little Cleo) will work, particularly near the mouths. Large lures of the
variety used in the lake a far too big for use in the creeks, and will only
serve to agitate or snag whatever fish might be there.
jig, which is a dressed, painted leadhead, is popular. It is commonly tipped
with a grub and fished below a float.
The two most common flies are the
Glo-Bug (imitates a salmon
egg; tied with Glo-Bug
yarn) and the
sucker spawn (imitates sucker eggs; tied with
angora yarn). The popular flies are available at
FishUSA.com, the sponsor of this site, or
at the local bait shops. For fly
patterns, check the Recipes
page on this site.
Steelhead fishing in these tributaries is heavily dependent on the water flow.
During or just after a good run, the fish may be about anywhere - in the pools,
in the riffles, in deep water and in shallow. If there has been no recent run,
the fish will tend to be in the pools or deeper water (unless they are spawning,
in which case they may be in the riffles). When the water is very low and clear,
typically the fish will be only in the pools. Steelhead are a trout - they tend
to be in the same places in a stream where other trout would be found.
Most fishing for steelhead is drift fishing. The common method is to cast across
and up the stream, and let the line drift naturally down stream. Steelhead are
almost always near or on the bottom. If the hook is fished near the surface, you
have little chance of getting a strike.
A typical spinning rig without a float includes a single hook tied directly to
the line, with several split shot about 8-12 inches above the hook. Use enough
weight to get the line down so you can occasionally feel the bottom, but not so
much weight that you keep getting hung-up on the stream bottom. Carrying split
shot in size BB, 3/0 and 5/0 should cover all conditions.
Another common rig is to use a small float above the hook. This works well in
the deeper pools, and avoids losing so much tackle on the stream bottom. Use the
smallest float and least weight you can get away with.
Fly fishing techniques are usually quite similar. Few steelhead are taken with
dry flies, especially as the water gets colder. Normally some weight is needed
to get the fly down. Either a weighted fly or split shot is used. Many fly
fishermen also use a float or strike indicator.
Steelhead can strike lightly and quickly. However, if you hook up an 8 pound
fish, you will certainly know it. Landing an 8 pound steelhead is not the same
as landing a 12 ounce brook trout. Many novice anglers loose many fish they
hook. The two most common reasons the fish are lost are (1) the drag is set too
tight or does not work smoothly, and (2) the angler tries to "muscle in" the
fish. In either case, the fish is lost either because the hook is pulled out of
the fish's mouth or the line breaks. The drag should be set just tight enough to
be sure you can set the hook. Once the fish is on, you can always tighten the
drag. If the drag is too tight to start with, you will probably lose the fish.
Larger fish cannot be "muscled in." Use your drag, let the bend of the rod work
for you, and play the fish until it tires and you can work the fish toward you.
A steelhead will be difficult to land until it is ready, no matter what you want
If you plan to release the fish, hemostats work well for releasing the hook
without having to handle the fish at all. If you bring a net, remember that a
small trout landing net may have a hard time holding a large steelhead.