Steelhead are rad. Sorry to have to go to the vault and bust out a 1980’s adjective there, but it really does fit, doesn’t it?
Everything about them is cool: The way they crush a plug or mash a swung fly. Their ability to cartwheel 3 feet out of the water and then burn 50 yards of line in a nanosecond. Their incomparable beauty. The incredible places they live. Pure and simple steelhead are indeed…rad.
But how much do you know about these amazing critters? Well, here are some random factoids to give you a better understanding of steelies…
Where do they go in the ocean?
Precious little is known about their wanderings in the ocean. While steelies eat some of the same prey items that salmon do, they obviously don’t hang around much with them – otherwise we’d catch a lot more steelies while hunting kings and coho.
Back in the early 1990’s when California’s offshore salmon fishing was going gangbusters, I asked a deckhand on one of the most popular charter boats out of San Francisco, the Wacky Jacky, if they ever caught any steelhead during the summer season. He said that they caught one once. Back in those days, the boats would load up with 30 anglers and get limits (2 per rod) of kings every day…and sometimes twice a day…all summer long. Do the math: that’s a lot of kings and not so many trout!
I also have a couple commercial fishermen buddies who echo the same story. In all their thousands of hours out on the briny blue, they’ve caught exactly one steelhead. Strangely enough, it was taken about 26 miles off the northwestern corner of California on a big plug being trolled for tuna.
What we do know is steelhead seem to roam great distances in the saltchuck. According to NOAA, a steelhead tagged south of Kiska Island in Alaska’s western Aleutian Island chain, was recovered about six months and 2,200 miles later in Washington State’s Wynoochee River. Info I received from the University of Washington tells the story of a steelie released from a hatchery in Idaho that swam to the center of the Gulf of Alaska, a distance of about 890 nautical miles, in only two months. Another from Oregon’s Alsea River hatchery was caught south of Kodiak Island, Alaska five months later after swimming at least 1,200 miles.
Far from the green river valleys and fog-shrouded redwoods where we typically think of steelhead living, once there were actually spawning populations of steelhead in…get this…Mexico!
Located about two-thirds of the way down the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, the Rio Santo Domingo used to see some small runs of anadramous rainbows on wet years. Those fish, of course, are all gone now, but what a cool combo trip you could have put together back in the day – a little steelhead fishing in the morning, followed by some roosterfish off the beach and maybe cap off the day with some wahoo and dorado.
Those were the days!
Speaking of Southern Steelhead, there are still a few stragglers each season in Malibu Creek near Los Angeles. In the 1950’s, the Los Angeles River used to produce good steelhead fishing and the nearby Ventura River had an annual run of around 4,000 adults prior to the construction of Matilija Dam in 1948.
Now of course steelhead in the L.A. River are nothing more than an April Fool’s gag and all other southern populations are either extinct or residing on the Endangered Species list.
Fun with fecundity
Four thousand, nine hundred and twenty three. That’s the average number of eggs a female steelhead carries in her cargo bay. That being said, can anyone please explain to me why it is still legal to keep wild steelhead in some places??
Not my first rodeo, cowboy!
Steelhead are unique in that they don’t necessarily die after spawning. While many of them succumb to the rigors of the journey, a percentage of fish beat the odds and return to their natal streams more than once.
Rates of repeat spawning for post-development Columbia River steelhead populations range from 1.6% to 17% (Hatch, Branstetter, Whiteaker 2001).
In Alaska, where there are generally shorter steelhead drainages with fewer man-made diversions and habitat infringements, the incidence of repeat spawning can be significantly higher. The rate can be from 11% to 38% with an average between 25% to 33% (Brookover and Harding 2003).
On the Situk River in 1994, 907 steelhead were captured and sampled for age and length and 51% of them were found to be repeat spawners (Johnson 1996).
Yep, you heard that right. There are steelhead in the Atlantic. There’s a nice population of sea-run rainbows in the Rio Santa Cruz in southern Patagonia.
The steelies that run right-to-left up the Santa Cruz are not native to South America and, allegedly originated from fish transplanted from the McCloud River (a tributary to the Sacramento) in Northern California around the turn of the century.
The love for steelhead has also inspired more than just legions of anglers. Brewmeisters across the nation also seem to be captivated by these fish – and let’s face it, nothing puts the finishing touches on a great day on the water like having a cold one with the boys.
Try any of the entries from the Steelhead Brewing Company in Eugene or check out Steelhead Slammer IPA by Bearded Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. My all time favorite: Steelhead Pale Ale by the Mad River Brewing Company in Blue Lake, CA
We all know steelhead are fast, but did you know that they can hit bust speeds of 26 feet per second? Think about that one for a minute — 26 feet per second is pretty impressive. If you hook a fish right at the transom of your jet sled, it could be several feet off your bow in the blink of an eye!
If you do the math, a steelhead traveling at that rate for an extended period of time (they can’t), could travel a mile in about 3½ minutes. So, the next time you’re left there dazed and confused on the river bank, with a blistered thumb and a limp line, you’ll have a better idea of what just happened to ya…
Kurt Corbin says
One Sac River hen steelhead ascended 6 times to spawn according to a CA DFG study. I read this in one of Trey Combs’s books. If true, I can’t think of anything more fantastic in the natural world.
Tommy G says
Hey Jd ,
Great facts on the elusive steelhead. I will Have a Mad river pale ale the next trip down the Wynoochee for this river for me is the holy grail..
Thanks again for my Monday morning (wishin i was fishin preveiw)
You won’t be disappointed with the Steelhead Pale Ale (they have some cool logo gear too!). Only fished the ‘Nooch a couple times but it was a rally cool stream!
Nice thread JD
Jim Mitchell says
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdOiF_qdQLI ha ha ha yea the river is high and blown out can you tell IM U TUBING IT ENJOY
Jim Mitchell says
Hay jd let me know when you have time and want to fish the Smith we can trade trip for trip if you like ok thanks Jim
Jim Mitchell says
We launched the drift boat at Ruby park at 640am seen a couple fish rolling in the lower end of the hole. We backtrolled some K-16 sardine wrapped kwickfish and some k- 15 sardine wrapped as well. Before we got to where the fishing where rolling joel had his k-16 get SLAMMED but it didnt stick . We continued down to where we saw fish showing .Kent k-15 gets Slammed Hard and the fish takes over 200 feet of line runs straight out I push forward on the oars fast while kent kept the line tight because of the barbless hooks as we got closer we realized it was a big steelhead 16 pd native took a k -15 had the single long shank hook in the lower part of his jaw we got a nice video it will be on here shorly . We put boat back on trailer and launched as high as a driftboat can go on the Smith and took out where we started ruby park about a 15 mile drift the last rain pushed alot of Salmon up to there spawning areas. (which is a good thing )seen many pods of steelhead in the tail outs while backtrolling Salmon plugs i will have my side drifting steelhead rods in the boat next trip seen several pods of steelys OH YEA
I ran salmon charters @ Winchester Bay Oregon for years somtimes catching close to 3,000 fish/season, and in Alaska for 4 yrs salt and fresh and can only recall one summer fish also. August on a pink mini bug hootchie. Why is it that all the folks that have mentioned catching a steelie in the salt is only ONE fish? Way weird huh?
Yea I don’t know why the state of Oregon/ODFW allows retention of wild steelhead either. Those days of keeping wild fish is long long gone. Especially small rivers like the Elk Sixes and med sized river like the Chetco, all the pressure goes to those rivers…no common sense there.
Thanks for the great information and sharing it JD! (o:
Thanks for chiming in, Chilly!
Tony S. says
While it seems probable that the steelhead of Baja’s Rio Santo Domingo are a thing of the past, it’s upper reaches still harbor a prolific trout fishery.
A friend of mine from Oregon used to tell me about catching sea-run cutthroats in the streams near his home. Are these fish classified in the same category as steelhead?
Nomad, sea-run cutts and steelhead are both anadromous salmonids, meaning they spend time in salt but spawn in fresh, but they have different life histories. Steelies seem to roam far and wide at sea, while coastal cutthroat stick close to shore and estuaries.
Great Info on the Silver Bullets!!! Still wondering where and how they hide in the big blue, Ive pondered that for years!!Is there one set-up you like for bank fishing lets say the american,trinity and smith? ( 2pce pole,spin reel,line) I remember you suggested a 7’2” stick but what make &weight?
chuck edwards says
lets go forc silver speed!!!!
Don Brier says
Thanks JD. This is just another reason to make Steelhead fishing my favorite pursuit.
Jake White says
Nice work, great info. Just in time to firmly plant the steelhead bug in the brain. Now we have to wait for all this water to drop and clear…