Let’s start out with a simple, golden rule: warm is fast and cold is slow. This just about covers the bases for steelhead. Water temp dictates digestive rate and overall metabolism, presentation speed and preferred holding waters, though the calendar is a rule breaker when spawning is involved.
September (50’s) through Mid November (40’s):
If spawning salmon are in the area you’re fishing, fish near them. Steelhead sniff out and focus their attention on the salmon. The feeding opportunities for a steelhead behind spawning salmon in the deeper water are obvious, eggs. You also have aquatic insects being dislodged as the female salmon excavate their redds, as well as smaller trout, bait fish, and crayfish that are swept into the pocket as they try to get into the egg action.
Without spawning salmon, steelhead will hold in areas that offer good feeding opportunities and enough depth or cover for them to feel secure, and this changes depending on water clarity. I also find that steelhead avoid holding in slow sections of river or the deep dark slow holes that we often refer to as “frog water” until the water gets cold.
Late November (30’s) through February (30’s):
Steelhead are transitioning to medium and slow water. Winter is a time of energy conservation, eat when you need to but don’t waste energy. The tail outs of holes are some of my best spots in cold water. When the water temps dip into the 30’s, we often fish through our favorite holes that had been fishing well all fall and are disappointed. But then, while covering the tail out, we put a fish in the boat. As the water cools down, always fish tail outs and even a bit farther onto the flat.
March (30’s) into May (40’s and 50’s):
With the exception of post spawn or “drop back” females, steelhead are going to be focused around spawning areas. The bigger and better the spawning area the more fish it will hold.
A section of quick riffles or a deep dark run is often what comes to mind for anglers when they imagine fast and slow water, but you can find fast and slow seams and pockets throughout a river. Steelhead can and will hold and travel through whatever water they need to in order to find cover, feed, or spawn but are relatively consistent in where they hold in relation to the calendar and water temp.
Of course there is never a substitute for experience. Steelhead are often caught year in and year out in the exact same specific locations, and knowing these locations is a huge key to success. But by following the golden rule, you can usually go out and find a few for yourself.