The environment where steelhead live is in constant change and the fish are continually adapting. Time of day, water clarity and temperature, atmospheric conditions, light intensity and the behavior of prey items are all things that can change daily or even by the hour in a steelhead’s world. Being able to understand how these things affect a steelhead’s behavior will increase your success on the water.
However, steelhead are also creatures of habit and different fish can often be found in the same spots time and time again. The key is to identify these patterns and to identify the specific water conditions that can subtly alter them. Focusing primarily on highly productive spots in highly productive runs given a day’s conditions is key to catching fish.
For example, everyone knows that Sapsucker Bend is a great steelhead run, but narrowing your focus to the inside break over the tail out, for example, can create success in five swings vs. fifty under certain conditions. Then you’re down to the next good run and you’re making presentations in only the most productive area of that run for the day’s given conditions. It’s a no brainer that if the average day has time for three hundred casts, putting your fly in front of a steelhead every twenty casts is going to create a more productive day than once every hundred. Knowing how to read conditions and find patterns will allow you to focus only on the best of the best spots and move quickly and efficiently to the next.
Patterning is at the heart of open water fishing, but short of fly choice I find that many river anglers do not put enough emphasis on it. Being a full time guide I get to know the area I fish very well. Being out most days I can observe the subtle shifts in steelhead locations and behavior. Most good anglers I fish with pay careful attention to exactly where each fish came from. We mentally note what water conditions those fish locations were associated with. Developing a sophisticated sense of steelhead patterns takes years of experience, but a basic and productive pattern can be developed after only a few trips.
Once you have caught several fish from a given area of the river, you have established a pattern. Now watch for changes to this pattern, for example, a hot morning bite at the shallow edge of deep water will cool off as steelhead move toward deeper cover or the reverse as the day heads toward evening or clouds move in.
You will also want to look at patterns as they relate to streamer size, colors and presentation styles. Having quick success is a tough trap to get out of. As an example, if you got a fish right off the bat on a 4″ red/black bunny, most of us would stick with that pattern for the day, especially if we touched another fish or two. But wouldn’t we be missing out if today was a great bite for a 3″ white/pink bucktail? This is tough with only one angler, but with two, another fly pattern can be tried.
Size and color is pretty straight forward but presentation style is a bit tougher to determine. Do we only get bit while dredging bottom or are they willing to come up for an offering? If the steelhead are aggressive and willing to move for the fly, you would be wasting time and energy dragging, snagging and re-tying. While tougher, determining a presentation style that is successful when the fish are in a particular pattern is all about paying attention to the details while your fishing. We’ll go into detail on presentation styles later in the series.
Here are some rules about water conditions and how they affect steelhead patterns that I have found to be generally true. Many, in fact, hold true for all kinds of fishing from spring time trout to farm pond largemouth.
Time of Day – Like almost anything to do with wildlife, dawn and dusk are periods of increased activity. In cold water, late afternoon and dusk can often see an increase in feeding activity as water temps hit their daily peak following the warmth of the day. This is especially true on sunny days in the winter.
Water Clarity – A nice stain to the water equals cover. The clearer the water, the more steelhead relate to deeper water and to cover and structure.
Water Temperature – For the most part, Great Lakes steelheading goes hand-in-hand with cold water. The general rule is that cooling water turns fish off and warming water turns them on. As we have already discussed in this series, simply remember that cold is slow and warm is fast. Even in extremely cold water, 30-32 degrees, a slowly swung streamer with a several second hang down will often produce fish.
Atmospheric Conditions – This category covers a lot of bases and I’m afraid that I don’t confidently know how most of them affect steelhead. Though it should be noted that steelhead often become very active just before a colder change in the weather occurs, then they go close-mouthed.
Light Intensity – Steelhead are most active in low light conditions. When I see a heavy gray sky it makes me want to hit the river. Again, dawn and dusk are best.
Food Items – Steelhead are opportunistic feeders and are not going to miss a good and easy meal. A good hatch, prey fish migration or activity and spawning fish will all create feeding opportunities and you can bet the steelhead are going to be interested.