Spring Steelhead Fishing Tips to Land a Big One

Man posing with catch while spring steelhead fishing.
Kelso of Mexico, NY shows a nice sized fish, caught while spring steelhead fishing.

Prime Spring Steelhead Fishing

Spring is prime time for steelhead fishing. This being said, spring can be a very challenging time to fish for steelhead. You have to deal with weather, fluctuating water conditions and the ever changing behavior of the fish as they go through their spawning cycle. What worked yesterday may not work today when you are spring steelhead fishing. 

Adapt Your Fishing Techniques for Conditions

The best tip I can give to any steelhead fishermen is be prepared to adjust to the constant changing conditions, which is often the case with spring steelhead. Fishing for steelhead this time of the year is like fishing against the clock.  You have a limited amount of time before the fish are back in Lake Ontario.  Don’t waste a lot of time waiting for the so-called perfect fishing conditions.  When steelhead are in you have to take full advantage of the limited time you have.

High Water Conditions 

High Waters bring Good Fishing

One thing you can plan on is fishing in high water for at least part of the spring steelhead run in the Lake Ontario tributaries.  High water river conditions are often not as bad as they appear.  During high water periods the increased water flows will bring in new fish and freshen up the fish that have been in the river for a while. 

The main thing to remember is, steelhead are accustomed to high water.  In the spring, steelhead trout migrate upriver to spawn. When fish are moving upstream they will move into parts of the river where the water flow is comfortable for them.

Fishing along the River Banks

 Often steelhead will follow the soft water along the river banks.  At times, the fish will be running in less than a foot of water.  Steelhead can often be funneled into the back channels where you can quickly find yourself fishing small water along a flooded river. This type of migrating behavior is most prevalent during high water flows.  

Warm Water Temperatures

When the water temperatures are right, steelhead trout migrate upriver to spawn. Anglers should look for the fish on the gravel beds near the shoreline.  These are the spots where you would look to wade out and stand in the river to fish.  The same type of water that we find safe and comfortable to wade is the same water the steelhead will like to set up and spawn in.

Steelhead Spawn Behavior

Be Aware of Spawning Fish

Steelhead trout migrate upriver to spawn during the spring. Fishing the steelhead spawn can be controversial. However, we have done this from the beginning. When we handle and carefully release our fish there seems to be little harm done to the resource.  With the status of our steelhead runs lately, I personally do not like to upset too many spawning female steelhead.  We need all the new fish we can get. 

Target the Males During the Steelhead Spawn

What I like to do is target the males and let the females do their work. The majority of the spawning female steelhead will generally ignore a large (size 4 and bigger) fly presented on the swing. Once they have finished spawning and have moved off their spawning beds they will feed. Then females again become interested in taking flies presented on a swing.

A female is working her spawning bed will often be accompanied by several males. These fish are constantly fighting over territory and spawning rights. Large wet flies and streamers, fished on the swing, will often trigger a territorial response from these male steelheads. Often you can see the fish and with a little careful observation you can make out which fish are the males and females and concentrate your efforts on the males.

Spring Fishing Techniques

If you are fly fishing the Salmon River and you do not know what fly to use, use a black stonefly while spring steelhead fishing.  On the Salmon River of Upstate New York, at least, everything will bite a black stonefly and steelhead are no exception.  Stoneflies are one of my favorite nymphs for spring steelhead fishing.  Even when the water is low and the fishing pressure is high, stoneflies are one of the few fly patterns that you can count on to be productive while river fishing.

I have seen times when all that would work is a stonefly nymph. Stonefly nymphs need to be fished on a dead drift along the bottom to be effective.  Often I will use a strike indicator to help maintain control of the drift.  I like to use flies in sizes 6 to 10 in black or occasionally brown color.  When I go spring steelhead fishing, I often fish with a stonefly pattern that has been jazzed up a little.

Sink Tip Lines and Swing a Fly

Drop-Back Steelhead

Drop-back steelhead can be found anywhere along the river. There is never a big concentration of fish at any one spot at any time.  It could make someone think that fishing for drop-backs is not worth the effort but this is far from the truth.

By the time the steelhead start to drop back the water temperatures are in the lower 50s and they are very aggressive.  With their spawning out of the way, the steelhead are now starting to look for food and are behaving more like normal.  This means that when you put a fly near a steelhead it will likely take it.  

Sink Tip Lines are Efficient

This is where spring steelhead fishing with sink tip lines becomes very effective because you can cover a pool quickly and then move on to the next pool.  The more water  you can cover, the more fish that will see your fly, and the more bites you will get. 

Because the steelhead are starting to feed, a great steelhead fishing technique is to swing your fly just off the river bottom. This will make your fly more visible to the steelhead and have more of a life-like appearance. Along with the traditional style of swinging a fly, try working the fly, jigging, or stripping it to make it look like food. Hopefully this spring steelhead fishing technique will trigger a predatory response.

Fish With a Light Drag

Steelhead are known for their exciting fighting ability and this is why we fish for them.  Between the hard hits and fast runs, a steelhead can put a lot of stress on the tippets and rip hooks out.  I like to set the drags on my reels as light as I can, just enough so the reels will not cause a back lash.  As I play the fish, I will slowly add more drag as needed. Keep in mind when there is a lot line out the water resistance on the line cutting though the water will add more pressure to the tippet.    

Assess, Adapt and Enjoy!

I hope that you will find one or more of these steelhead fishing techniques helpful.  As I said earlier the main thing is to be flexible when spring steelhead fishing.  Go with the flow and adjust to the conditions, because the fishing conditions are just like the water.  Wait a minute and it can change.

Original Article By Jay Peck

About The Author

Jay Peck is a fishing guide on the Lake Ontario tributaries. With 40+ years of fly fishing experience including 30 years as a licensed New York State guide, Jay has been applying his knowledge of the sport and local waters to help anglers in their pursuit of migratory fish, inland trout, and a variety of warm water species. Jay is also an accomplished spey caster and fly tyer. He has developed several fishing techniques and fly patterns for fishing the tributaries and inland trout streams. To learn more, check out Jay’s youtube channel, and get in touch with Jay at jaypeckguidesflyfishing.com.

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