With general trout season now open it’s time for a little reservoir “steelhead” fishing. Never heard of such a thing? Well, read on…it’s a blast!
My first encounter with a reservoir “steelhead” occurred when I was a kid, fishing a small tributary to a vast impoundment. Walking upstream and flicking a tiny silver spinner into the pools ahead of me as I went, I was felling pretty smug thanks to the three 10- to 12-inch trout that I had stuffed into the zipper pocket of my backpack. As I rounded a bend in the creek, I came to a deep pool just below a 2-foot waterfall. I lobbed a cast to the head of the run, and as soon as my spinner broke through the greasy smooth surface of the pool and began to sink, a great monster of a fish hit it with the fury of a Japanese bullet train. In an instant, the beast rocketed the length of the pool, flashed near the surface, violently shook it’s mighty head and then it was gone…
I felt like I had been cold-cocked. My head was awash in dizziness and my casting arm trembled uncontrollably. I realized I never even tried to reel or set the hook — I just completely froze up. The trout of my dreams had come and gone before I even knew what hit me. At the time, my young mind estimated the fish must have been about 10 pounds, but looking back now, however, I’d say that rainbow — a big spawner that had run up from the lake — was probably about 5 pounds.
Since that day, I have had a love affair with fishing for spawning rainbows, aka reservoir “steelhead,” in tributary streams. Depending on what lake the trout reside in, you can have spawners in the creeks that range anywhere in size from 13 inches up to several pounds.
A quick word on ethics before I get any deeper into this subject: It’s a good idea to concentrate on streams that get runs of truck trout (aka: planter rainbows) rather than wild fish. Most of the time, hatchery rainbows have been in a particular lake at least a year before they think about spawning. A year’s worth of swimming freely, unconfined by concrete walls, and eating stuff that doesn’t come in pellet form does wonders for hatchery fish. By the time they enter tributary creeks, their fins usually have all grown back and they’ve shed those drab colors that most fresh-from-the-farm biscuit eater trout have. The flesh of a hold-over rainbow can also be quite firm and pink — and tasty.
So, leave the wild spawners alone to do their business and have your fun with hatchery fish. In most cases, hatchery trout are planted to be caught and are not to expected to spawn anyway.
Just like steelhead fishing, rainbow run timing can vary drastically from stream to stream, so you’re going to have to invest a little effort before you get things figured out. Most hatchery rainbows spawn in the spring and that’s the time to start sniffing around streams that flow into your local lakes. Rainbows will seek out water that’s 50 to 55 degrees to spawn in, so keep an eye out for that as well.
One of the creeks I like to fish flows into a lake that holds some very fat trout in the 2- to 5-pound class. When I first started fishing it, I would usually hit it around the beginning of March. In the early going I had limited success, but caught just enough of those robust ‘bows to keep me trying. I later talked to a biologist who told me that the particular strain of rainbow that gets planted in that area spawns in December and January. By fishing in early March, I was tapping into the very tail end of the run. Armed with that information, I changed my game plan and began fishing that creek earlier in the year. Needless to say, I did much better on that stream from then on.
Of course, you need to check the regulations before you go astream — most creeks in this area are open from the last Saturday in April until the middle of November, but there are waters with special regs that allow you to fish year-round.
Tackle & Techniques
Once you’ve found a likely stream in which to pursue reservoir steelies, gearing up is going to be based on what type of water you’re going to fish. You can find spawner rainbows in several different kinds of tributaries ranging from brush-lined shoulder-width trickles to big rivers that you can run a drift or even jet boat on. Gear choice is also going to depend on what size fish are in your particular stream. When fishing for run-up rainbows, I have used everything from a 4-foot ultralight rod to a light steelhead casting stick and everything in between.
Since there are so many water types you can encounter, I’m going to have to make some generalizations here. Starting with small creeks, I like to use very light spinning gear with 2- to 4-pound test. Tiny pieces of roe fished with dinky splitshot or even no weight at all can be about as deadly as anything on trout migrating up out of a lake. A half of a threaded mini ‘crawler will also work, especially later in the spring. When the water is extremely cold, I like to give lethargic trout an eyeful with large spinners up to size No. 3.
If you prefer to flyfish, egg patters like Glo Bugs are always good to start with. Woolly Buggers and bright patterns like Coachman Streamers will also work at times, as will various nymphs like APs, Pheasant Tails and Zug Bugs.