Slap on your earmuffs and grab that tacklebox, it’s winter steelhead season here in the Pacific Northwest! Steelhead, which are sea-run rainbow trout, call out to devoted anglers like a siren’s call. There’s just something special about these fish. They are elusive and wary. Some fishermen go their entire lives without landing one. These silver bullets are well worth pursuing, however. They make delicious table fare and put up terrific fights. Winter weather can create extra challenges, but it just makes netting these beautiful fish even more rewarding. Many anglers are tight lipped about their steelhead tips, which can make steelhead fishing intimidating to beginners. Let’s go over some tackle ideas, clothing tips, and hot spots to help make your first winter steelheading trip as productive and safe as it can be.
In order to understand how to catch winter steelhead, you must know that there are some differences between summer and winter steelhead. Summer run fish head into the rivers early, and mature in the river over several weeks or months. Winter runs go into the river mature and ready to spawn. In general, winter steelhead are less aggressive. The cold water slows down their metabolism and makes them less willing to grab your offering. If you’re able to entice one into striking, hang on! Steelhead are famous for their long, athletic runs. Winter steelhead are often a bit bigger and fatter than their summer-run cousins as well.
One of the most convenient things about winter steelheading is that they are perfectly willing to bite cured salmon eggs! Around this time, I always have a fresh supply of eggs leftover from the previous salmon season. They are one of the best baits for winter steelhead! However, you’ll generally want to use a different strategy for curing them. Steelhead generally like a sweeter cure than salmon do. Most egg brines meant for steelhead create a harder, more durable egg, while salmon cures will make a softer, “milkier” egg. You can either drift your eggs or float them with a bobber.
If you’re all out of salmon eggs, don’t fret. Winter steelhead absolutely love sand shrimp and coon shrimp! Make sure to tie a good egg loop knot and tuck your bait inside the loop. You can use stretchy thread for extra security. You can use a combination of eggs and shrimp to make your bait even more enticing.
If you’re fishing on a river where bait isn’t allowed, or you don’t feel like covering your winter gloves with shrimp and dye, spinners, spoons, and jigs are deadly effective on steelhead. Just remember that the fish will be holding near the bottom, and let your lure sink before reeling it in. Bring a variety of different colors and weights: river flows and depths change constantly, and you may need a heavier lure than you were using the other day just to reach the bottom. Steelhead can be surprisingly light biters despite their size, so make sure you are attentive and ready for the strike. One of the most popular ways to catch steelhead is to float a 1/4 oz jig under a bobber. Make sure to adjust your bobber stopper so that your jig is floating just above the bottom, however. You can tip your jig with a bit of prawn if bait is legal where you’re fishing. There are a wide variety of jigs out there, and many anglers even tie their own! Experiment with a variety of colors and jig materials until you find what the fish are keying into.
Nothing can ruin a fishing trip like the cold. Layers are the winter steelheader’s secret weapon! The fish don’t wait for good weather before moving in, and you may not be willing to wait weeks or days for a clear day. Check the forecast, but we prepared for sudden inclement weather too. Neoprene waders offer good insulation from cold water, but a good base layer and loose, warm pants can also work. Wool socks are a must! Gloves can make a huge difference. Even on relatively mild days, my hands can get cold, making it difficult to switch lures or apply scent. Hand warmers have come a long way these days. In addition to disposable, shake to activate handwarmers, there are also reusable ones. Many sporting goods stores in the area offer lighter fluid powered and battery powered hand warmers. Test out your options and figure out what you like best. Propane space heaters are also great options. My friend recently put a diesel heater in his Thunderjet, and it makes a world of difference. I’d recommend pre-tying your leaders, to minimize the amount of tying you have to do while fishing. It’s a good idea to bring a change of socks too, just in case. Nothing will make you feel more cold and miserable than wet socks. Earmuffs, hats, or head bands will help, but partnering them with a warm scarf will make all the difference on those frigid winter days. Be prepared! I would recommend gearing up the day before and spending some time outside. If you’re already cold, pack on a few more layers and try again until you’re comfortable.
More so than any others, steelhead fishermen tend to be the most tight-lipped about their secret spots. While it’s not my intention to “blow up” anyone’s honey hole, I do want to at least steer beginner anglers in the right direction. I’ll always remember the euphoric rush from landing my first steelhead, and I wouldn’t have known where to go without guidance. As previously mentioned, summer steelhead enter the rivers sooner in their life cycle, and spend months maturing and moving upriver.
By contrast, winter steelhead don’t travel nearly as far upriver, and some spawn within a few days of going in the river. Check the WDFW hatchery escapement report daily for updated numbers. The Skykomish River, Cowlitz River, Humptulips River, and Wynoochie River all boast good returns of winter steelhead every year. The Cowlitz River is usually open every year, but the Humptulips and Wynoochie River may be closed if they do not reach their escapement goals.
You can try coastal rivers such as the Hoh, Sol Duc, and Calawah if you are willing to make the drive. Make sure to check the regulations though, several of these rivers do not allow fishing from a boat. Be respectful of private property and tribal land. Drift boating is always hazardous, but the frigid waters during winter create extra danger. It’s never a bad idea to go out with a guide on your first winter steelhead trip. They can show you the right way to drift the river safely. Remember that rivers change every year, and always be on the lookout for submerged rocks and trees. While looking up popular locations for steelheading can be a good way to get started on your journey, you should also be able to recognize water that fish are likely to be holding in. In case your desired location is already full of anglers, or you just want to try a new spot, familiarize yourself with “steelhead water”. These fish are looking to spend the least amount of energy to get upriver and will take the path of least resistance. Sometimes the path of least resistance is right next to the shore, so make sure you fish your lures all the way to the bank. Look for calm waters near tailouts where fish are likely to be resting. Also check behind boulders and logs, but be careful of snags. I’d recommend thoroughly fishing one hole before moving on. Try both bait and lures, you never know what the fish will want that day. Winter steelheading can be a bit of a grind, but you’ll forget all about the cold and your numb hands and ears when you’re fighting a 15 pound silver bullet!
Wherever you decide to fish for winter steelhead, make sure you check your rules and regulations. Familiarize yourself with catch and release best practices. All wild steelhead in Washington State must be released. Make sure to check for an adipose fin before removing your fish from the net or pulling it into the boat- it’s illegal to remove wild steelhead from the water. Never grab a fish you intend to release by its jaw or gill plate. Wet your hands before touching the fish, to avoid damaging its protective slimy layer. Rather than just throwing the fish back, it’s a good idea to gently put the fish back in the water, facing it into the current so that water can flow over their gills. Let it swim off when it’s ready. If you must take pictures, take them quickly, and prioritize getting the fish released as soon as possible. Wild steelhead are beautiful, rare creatures that should be treated with the utmost respect and care.
Good luck on your winter steelheading adventure! Bundle up and stay warm out there!