Steelhead Fishing in Upstate New York

Without a doubt, the Steelhead Trout is one of those species that are hard to pin down.  Every year anglers will trek to either their favorite fishing hole or some distant water that supposedly holds the trophy for which they have sought so long.  A hearty battler in all sizes, Steelhead fishing is usually pursued with light tackle in order to get the full enjoyment from the strong fights that these fish put up.

Indentifying Steelhead

The easiest way to properly identify a Steelhead is by simply counting the number of rays located on the animal’s anal fin.  If the fish has 12 or fewer rays then it is definitely a steelhead.  Other identifying marks include the white color of the gum line and the mouth.  In the spawning season anglers will notice a pink or reddish band that stretches from the head all the way to the beginning of the tail.  Outside of the spawning season the most visible color on the fish is chrome.  Steelhead has spots all over the body but is predominantly located on the back of the fish.  Depending upon the region of the Steelhead fishing, the head of the Steelhead might be either light green or a deeper color closer to olive.  The southern regions boast of the largest fish but the steelhead found in the north are usually older and in bigger quantities.  Although the exact world record is still contested by many anglers, most people have settled on the number of 42 pounds

Steelhead Fishing Areas

Steelhead fishing is practiced by various people in almost every temperature range imaginable.  Most successful anglers agree that the optimum range of temperatures is between 30 and 60 degrees.  The vast majority of anglers that pursue the Steelhead are found in North America and more specifically in the United States of America.  Steelhead makes their way from the oceans or seas into the fresh water in order to breed. The migrations occur based on the seasons (summer, fall, winter and spring).  Various Steelhead fishing tips apply to each season in order to maximize the chance of landing a trophy.  Scientists have documented some Steelhead that have survived for as many as 18 years.  The typical age range is usually from 6 years up to 9 years. Although it would seem the older fish would be the largest specimens, the location of the fish plays a larger role in the size than their age.  Due to the generally warmer temperatures, southern Steelhead do not normally live as long as their northern brethren.  However, the northern fish do not grow as big as the average southern fish.  Scientists have found that the various forms of parasites, fungus and various diseases in the southern waters are the main reason for the shorter life span.

Steelhead Fishing Techniques

Steelhead are literally caught in rivers and lakes all over the world.  However, since the fish does not have a domesticated fishery which makes them harder to catch.  Of the various Steelhead fishing techniques drift-fishing seems to be the most popular.  This particular method uses the water’s current to the angler’s advantage.  This technique can be used in a multitude of ways from a pier, a boat, shoreline or even just the bank of the river.  Along with drift-fishing there are some other techniques such as using spoons, plunking, float-jig, spinners and fly fishing.  One of the most attractive features of Steelhead fishing is the fact that the animals can be caught all year long.  Local rules and regulations will apply to when there is an open season for Steelhead.  The best time to catch one of these fish is normally at the middle of the migratory run for the season.  For example, after the fall run starts around September, late October all the way through the end of November would be the best time to hook a Steelhead.

Physical Characteristics of Steelhead

A Steelhead is basically a rainbow trout that lives in salt water.  The gum lines, along with the mouth, are both white.  The twelve or less rays on the fish’s anal fin make it easy to identify.  Starting at the gill plate and running along the lateral line of the fish is a red stripe.  As the seasons change the stripe will darken up until the spawn.  Several anglers use the salt age when referring to Steelhead.  A fish that has been in a salt hatchery for three years is really four years old.  And native fish will spend approximately 2 years in their natal stream.  These two years are then combined to the salt age.  Thus, a native fish that spent the past three years in the ocean would be five years old.  Much study and reporting has yielded an effective way to determine the age of a fish based on the size.  This means that the scales do not have to be removed and prevents the spreading of any fungus.  Using the length of the fish as an estimate for the animal’s age allows anglers to catch and release a fish without the need to actually land the beast.  The following templates have been recognized by the National Wetlands Research Institute for the United States of America and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  In addition, several national and state agencies also use the following chart.

Estimating the age of Steelhead:

Estimating Steelhead Age

18-19 inches for 1 year

27-28 inches for 2 years

30-32 inches for 3 years

34-35 inches for 4 years

Steelhead Feeding Trends and Food Sources

Steelhead like to eat a wide variety of food sources.  Some of the most popular items are crustaceans, squid, copepods and small bait-fish like the smelt and sand-lance.  Although salmon like to swim in the same type of areas as Steelhead they prefer a different diet.  One of the difficulties in Steelhead fishing is trying to accurately predict a food source since steelhead do not travel in schools like salmon.  Steelhead prefer much deeper water and avoid the common lanes. The lures and baits that produce good Steelhead usually are bigger than offerings for Coho but small than the offerings for Chinook.

A Few Steelhead Fishing Tips

When it comes to giving out a few Steelhead fishing tips, one of the most important to understand is the different types of tackle used for Steelhead fishing when you are in the estuary.  Steelhead like two types of lures; buzz-bombs or zingers that dive deep and can be fished slow or the popular spinners fished at deep levels. Cover, as well as scent, is also crucial.  Never try to catch Steelhead directly from the shore.  Get out in the water at least up to your knees in order to prevent being detected by the fish’s sight.  Fishing straight from the bank or shore is a danger sign to Steelhead because the angler is so much higher than the water’s surface.  This makes it easy for the fish to see the angler and will scare them out of the area.

Fighting Steelhead in the estuary is done the same way as fighting one in the river.  These fish are quite the acrobat which makes them tough to land without injury to the fish.  The estuary gives the fish lots of room to move and flail.  Their first response is to make a beeline for the closest structure.  A stump, old tree limb, dock or large rock makes for good structure.  If nothing is close then the fish will come at you at high speed.  Once the fish heads your way move backwards away from the fish, all the while reeling in line.  Always keep a little pressure on the spool with your thumb or palm for a few seconds.  Don’t try to reel against the spool’s drag.  If the fish jumps above the water’s surface you should lower the tip of the rod in order to take up the slack in the line.  After the fish is submerged again pick up the rod tip and continue to play the fish.  After the fish has exhausted his arsenal of tricks it will usually stop fighting.  However, be alert for a last second bolt by the fish when you try to net it.

Of all the Steelhead fishing tips, remember that cover is the crucial element in locating a good fish.  In addition to good cover, drop-offs present a great opportunity to land a large fish.

Winter Steelhead Fishing

The best time for winter Steelhead fishing is after the fish have begun their migration inland.  The fish will usually hang out from the middle of November all the way until the spring.  This is a long time for the fish to basically spawn and eat sporadically.  The winter Steelhead are usually bigger than at other times of the year since the fish is preparing not just for the spawn but also the colder upcoming temperatures.  The excess weight helps keep their bodies warm.  Winter fish will also strike better since compared to the summer fish.

Steelhead Migration Tendencies

Moving through the freshwater for Steelhead is very different compared to salmon.  Salmon typically wait for the water levels in the streams and rivers to rise to a certain level before attempting to migrate.  However, as long as the temperatures and oxygen levels are appropriate, Steelhead will start moving upstream.  Steelhead will even move through the high waters that are full of mud after a big rain.  In contrast, salmon like to hang out near the banks and give the water a chance to recede a little bit, thereby clearing up.  Steelhead fishing in the rivers is usually done with one of two tactics determined by the season.  In the fall and into the winter, the waters are usually very muddy and higher than normal.  These conditions make it easier to get in to good cover spots without scaring off the fish.  In the summer time the water levels are typically lower and clearer.  During this time of year it is best to go to the water just before dawn or dusk.  If the sun is high and bright drift-fishing is the best tactic.

Steelhead Fishing Gear, Bait and Presentation

Since there numerous items in a river to eat, it takes quite a bit of Steelhead fishing gear to land a worthy trophy.  Corkies, earthworms, sand shrimp, eggs, spinners, spoons and flies are just some of the most popular lures and baits used for Steelhead.  However, being familiar with what other anglers are using during the height of the migration will help you land more fish.  By changing your tactics and trying something that is not being used a lot will usually get a good strike.  The Steelhead that come into the rivers for the winter as an adult will normally stay for 1 month or 2 before returning to sea.  Some of the early fish have actually stayed for as long as six months before they finished their spawn and went back to the salty waters.

The Steelhead that arrive to the rivers in the summer are actually sexually immature.  They will remain in the river over a course of months before they actually spawn.  The average time span is normally around 6 months.  Ecologists and anglers have studied Steelhead fishing enough to understand the territorial tendencies of the fish.  Although the fish will indeed strike at whatever prey occurs naturally in the river, the Steelhead is not attempting to eat.  The fish is actually trying to keep its area clean of any unwanted items.  The fish will hold the item in their mouth and spit it out once they have drifted downstream of their primary holding area.  This is one primary reason that anglers typically use mainline in Steelhead fishing that is easily visible when drift fishing.  If the line suddenly stops, it is most likely a strike and it is time to set the hook!

Good Luck Steelhead Fishing this year!