BlogNovember 2016

8 Tips for Reading the Water for Steelhead Fishing

8 Tips for Reading the Water for Steelhead Fishing

By Alex West

Nov 11, 2016

When you’re trying to throw a fly or even some gear, it’s obvious that you want to be hitting the spots where the Steelhead are holding.

When you’re trying to throw a fly or even some gear, it’s obvious that you want to be hitting the spots where the Steelhead are holding. Or if these elusive fish are still migrating you’ll want to find the route they take upstream. This increases your chances of hooking these challenging fish. Actually being able to get your fly or gear into these spots is another thing entirely, especially when it’s surrounded by alot of structure. Oh the gear I have lost…..

#1  Understand a steelhead’s behaviour

Knowing how these fish live and survive is important in picking the best fishing holes. The key point in understanding the life of a steelhead is that their life is a very challenging one. These amazing fish migrate for miles and miles to spawn. They’re journey is long and filled with obstacles. Remembering this, look for areas of the river where the water is a little bit slower and gentler. Steelhead are smart so they aren’t going to waste energy trying to fight the fast water. It also means they conserve energy by staying close to the bottom in the cold winter months. Fishing the shallows can be a complete waste of time unless the conditions are perfect, but typically the deep pools will produce results, especially in the winter.

#2 Stay away from back eddies

As a general rule steelhead don’t hang out in back eddies. Also if you’re gear fishing the presentation of your lure absolutely stinks when it gets caught in a back eddy, so these beautiful chrome fish are not going to come out of hiding to attack your line, if it’s floating in all sorts of weird directions caught in a back eddie.

#3 Stay away from sand

This is true of almost all fish. Sand is not a friend of anything that has gills. If you are travelling up or down stream and come across a sandy bottom keep moving. Look for spots that have rock, or boulders. If you can manage to throw a few flies around in the rocky sections and not snag you might be rewarded.

#4 Play the shore, but only if conditions are right

This is especially true when river levels are high. Typically if the river is blown out steelhead will move over into the slower shallow water along the shore line. From here they have an easier time migrating upstream. However if river levels are low, you’ll be hard pressed to find the fish here. Keep an eye on water levels and learn to determine what is high and low for your target river. 

#5 Assess the structure

Trees, rocks and even your drift boat that is parked long enough can provide a nice little break in the fast water. This gives the steelhead a nice little rest stop along their journey. If you are able get your fly or gear right down, as close to the bottom as possible in the slower water right behind the structure, you might catch bottom or a Steelhead. Some people call this pocket water.  If there is a steelhead holding in that spot it’ll have two choices. It’ll have to move or attack your presentation. And they don’t like moving out of the way so be ready. 

#6 Look for Tail Outs

This is the smooth water right before a set of small rapids. This is especially good for fly fishing, unfortunately I haven’t had much luck with throwing gear in these spots, but the fly fisherman swear by these spots. But it has to be at the right speed. Not too fast and not to slow. The super slow water doesn’t have enough oxygen and the fast water is too strong to swim in. Find the sweet spot. A fast walking pace is great.

#7 Look for upslopes in the water lines along the shores.

This is the single best kept secrets of steelhead fishing.

You’re fishing a river so the water is running downhill or down slope, typically off a mountain to the ocean, so you’ll need to look hard to find these gems. Judging by the water line, find the areas that actually have a slight uphill look to them or flatten out. The water still flows freely and doesn’t slow too much but there is a distinct upward trend to these areas but only visible to the detailed observer. These are the glorious holes that legends speak of but no one will tell you where they are. You must find them one your own, you have to earn them. Find this sweet spot and you’ll never leave. These are perfect holding spots for Steelhead, and although they’re constantly moving, they will take breaks here. 

#8 Hire a Guide

Learning a river can take years. Sometimes you end up wasting massive amounts of time trying to get acquainted with a new system. Yes, there are general rules to follow as outlined above but it’s so important to know, every single river is vastly different. If you’re on vacation and want to catch steelhead, this isn’t a good time to be a do it yourselfer, as you’ll probably leave empty handed and a little bummed out. Do your research and find a guide that has at least a few years on that particular river.  Steelhead generally spawn in the very same spot they are from, so the key fishing holes will generally produce year after year.

Now get out there and find your favourite sweet spot!
Alex West
Alex West
Alex West: With 15 years fishing Vancouver Island Rivers I've learned to love and respect salmon, steelhead and trout, and to of course catch them. From an early age I've been learning the best techniques to landing trophy fish and I enjoy sharing this with others. I fish year round but when winter hits the island I'm in full time fishing mode. I've fished all over the world (including Costa Rica- see picture!) but I'm so lucky to call Vancouver Island home and I'm glad to always say I'm a BC fishing guide. No matter where I go fishing enthusiasts the world over know BC is the place to be if you love fishing. For more information, visit his website