Last updated on January 28th, 2023
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I vividly remember my childhood drives to school along the South Fork of the Clearwater River in central Idaho as a spectator sport, watching all the figures in chest waders dotting the river’s surface and hoping to see one of them land a fish.
Spring steelhead were running up the still icy flow, and they certainly attracted more than a few fishermen looking to snag one of these large and tasty fish. Not much has changed since my childhood, and steelhead continue to run in a multitude of Pacific Northwestern rivers, which draw anglers year after year.
Technically, steelhead are an anadromous (meaning ocean-going) trout, though by the time they return to their birthplaces to spawn, they tend to be more reminiscent of salmon than their freshwater rainbow-colored relatives. However, the two should not be confused, despite their similar life habits – steelhead and salmon are not the same thing.
One glaring difference that gives the biologists a headache trying to classify them is the fact that steelhead can be repeat spawners, returning to the ocean as many as three times. While they can reach more than thirty pounds and be over forty inches in length, the more common is the ten to twenty-pound range.
In many ways, they are an ideal game fish, considering they are a blast to catch and have deliciously flavored meat similar to mild salmon with the same red-orange coloring indicating their rich ocean diet. A bonus is that they have thick fillets that make for easy cooking in a variety of ways.
Even with catch-and-release, they often put up a good fight and make for an exciting landing. Sadly, they are facing population decline in some of their historical habitats, though they still constitute a major livelihood for Pacific NW guides and a tasty pastime for dedicated fishermen.
In the United States, the northern Pacific coastal rivers are their natural spawning grounds, and each year, their travel along the major waterways attracts anglers internationally. Interestingly, due to the introduction of rainbow trout to New York State in times gone by, steelhead run on many of the state’s northern rivers.
Whether you are checking out vacation spots, looking for your next big fishing adventure, or just hoping for some suggestions closer to home, here is our list of the top 10 steelhead fishing locations in the U.S. for you to check out.
DISCLAIMER: If you’re anything like me when I check out top ten articles, you might be wondering just how these locales have been selected and what makes them the best. Well, the truth is… they might not be!
However, based on the fishing reports, historical fish numbers, and advice of crotchety old fishermen in bait shops, these ten are among the top choices for anyone hoping for the best steelhead fishing. Let us know in the comments if you think another location should have made the list!
Fishing for Steelhead in 10 Amazing Locations in 5 States
Let’s face it, Alaska is a fishing mecca, particularly for migratory fish. If you believe some of the brochures, you would think you can hardly throw a rock without hitting a fish or some other game animal.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but there’s no denying that the “Land of the Midnight Sun” didn’t get its reputation in the angling community for nothing. This brings me to locale number one…
1. Kenai Peninsula
Consisting of the Moose and Kenai rivers, their confluence, and other tributaries, the many river corridors of the Kenai Peninsula attract fishermen for any number of species. Here might be a prime location to come prepared for more than steelhead, and even check out the coastal fishing as well as that in freshwater.
TRAVEL NOTE: Anchorage is a three-hour drive to the north, meaning that one consideration for those flying in would be considering a rental car, or even a guiding service to sort out logistics. Regardless, Kenai is on my bucket list, hopefully with fishing license and moose tag in hand!
Perhaps the home of the two most surprising options on this list, New York offers the opportunity to snag some steelhead thanks to the introduction of rainbow trout in the 1870s.
The species did well in their non-native habitat, and both recreational and limited commercial fishing for their descendants continues today. This is great news for those on the eastern seaboard who want to know where to catch steelhead trout without having to head all the way out West.
2. Delaware River
This river system is thought of by many as one of the best technical dry fly fisheries in the world. If you are located in the east and are wanting the full experience, this just might be the best choice for you. In nearby towns are a variety of reasonable drift boat and other gear rentals, or fully guided services, if DIYing isn’t what you had in mind.
3. Oswego River
This popular section of water is home to huge runs of steelhead as well as other migratory species. As the season generally runs from September through May, it makes for an ideal winter excursion. Access is reasonably easy on account of dammed sections. If I were to find myself in the Empire State, this would be my go-to spot.
The Apple State, generally famous for its seafood and fish in particular (Pike’s Market, Seattle anyone?) is a destination for any anglers looking for a change of scenery.
Here snowmelt streams turn into icy rivers winding their way down from the Cascade Range and the Olympic Mountains. If you are looking to combine a fishing and hiking trip, there are some amazing trails along the river corridors through which steelhead run aplenty.
4. Bogachiel River
If you’re in the Pacific Northwest over the Christmas season, this just might be a great spot to check out. The winter run is quite significant and lacks the crowding of other rivers.
It’s located on the Olympic Peninsula, complete with breathtaking scenery and hospitable small towns. Additionally, if you wanted to make a trip of it, take along the skiing equipment, as the slopes are never far away.
5. Cowlitz River
Offering summer and winter steelhead, the Cowlitz located in the drainage of Rainier boasts the largest production of hatchery steelhead in the state. With the target-rich environment, this is an ideal spot at most times of the year. It’s also only two hours distant from Seattle for those flying in.
When it comes to steelhead fishing in Idaho, my home state, I might be just a tad biased. Growing up as the daughter of a whitewater rafting guide on the Salmon River has a load of perks, not the least of which is the fishing!
Idahoans might be known for their potatoes, but perhaps we should be known for the sheer volume of public land and waterways our state contains.
6. Clearwater River
Consisting of the North, South, and Middle Forks, this river system is a hub of inland fishing, especially at the height of the spring run. Access is reasonably convenient with highways running along each river, and small towns spaced along the length for convenient lodging, bites, and brews.
7. Salmon River
The deepest gorge in North America, (Yes, even deeper than the Grand Canyon) the main Salmon River and nearby Little Salmon are the spawning grounds of monster steelhead each year. A fun combo trip might be to book a spring rafting trip complete with huge whitewater along with time to wind down while fishing from shore or a drift boat.
Further down the Pacific Coastline is Oregon, which boasts some of the most plentiful steelhead fishing locations in the lower 48. Year-Round fishing for steelhead in Oregon is possible in a variety of areas, and there is a host of other species worth trying for if the steelhead aren’t biting.
8. Rogue River
Besides being the destination for any number of boaters each year, the Rogue is home to steelhead as well as salmon spawning locations. It actually contains 215 miles of fishable water and is floatable by drift boat all the way to the ocean from the main hatchery at Lost Creek Lake.
This is another destination on my personal list in the near future, hopefully on a trip requiring paddles.
9. Clackamas River
This river’s claim to fame is its accessibility, which compared to some of the other Oregon waterways is a huge plus. If you aren’t the sort to rough it or merely want an utterly laid-back fishing trip, this could be for you.
After all, trying to hack one’s way through thorn brush in waders with a pole in hand is never all that fun. Both winter and summer runs flood the river with steelhead, for an exciting excursion.
10. Nestucca/Three Rivers
This is an area encompassing the Nestucca River and the Three rivers tributary housing a hatchery. Both are worth mentioning, as Three Rivers often beats out the Nestucca in the number of caught fish because of its bank access and hatchery. Early and late winter runs are when the largest volume of fish is seen, though seasons extend beyond this.
How to Plan Your Steelhead Fishing Adventure
Now, here I could give you a perfect packing list and tell you all the correct gear to take, but that would make it my ideal steelhead fishing trip, not yours. So, here are some guidelines, and you can run with the rest.
Travel – How Far Are You Willing to Go?
It might be that you want to plunge headfirst into the fishing adventure of a lifetime, and this article is one in a long string you’ve read, practically salivating at the idea of the perfect trip, complete with chartered boats and the latest gear.
It might also be that you are more casual and steelhead sound like an intriguing change of pace. Either way, you should decide on how far you’re willing to go and how much travel expenses will be. Select your trip location based on your needs and budget.
Check Your Regs!!!
Steelhead fishing regulations change from state to state and even from river section to river section. If I believed in reincarnation, I was a game warden in a previous life, so I think this deserves a mention. Particulars are numerous, but frequently only hatchery fish may be kept, bait may be restricted, and closures can change throughout a normal season.
Long story short, be aware of ethics and sportsmanship. Get a copy of the state fishing regulations when and where you get your license.
Boat or Bank?
Another consideration in your choice of location would be whether you plan on bank fishing, using a drift boat, or taking along waders. If you own a boat, you may want to choose a location with easy boat ramp access.
Conversely, some rivers are more conducive to the usage of waders, but others, often those which are dammed are too deep in many places for waders to be as effective.
Boat rental is another option that can be quite reasonable. I personally find a good dory boat to be highly useful and maneuverable. However, unless you are a proficient boatman, it might be unwise to head out on unfamiliar water without some scouting.
Do You Want a Guide?
If you plan on making an un-scouted fishing trip, a guiding service can help to make your experience significantly more pleasant. For myself, I tend to prefer DIY sorts of excursions, but I can definitely appreciate having the voice of experience along with me. Besides, if your location allows keeping your catch, why not have someone else clean them?
Ultimately, this comes down to your own experience and comfort level, as well as your budget. A little research can go a long way in finding a reasonable and reliable outfitter.
What Gear Will I Need?
That depends heavily on you and what you plan on doing. There are locations that only allow fly fishing, you might have some ingrained preferences for a certain tackle, or you might even want to rent tackle to avoid traveling long distances with your own.
Whatever the reason, the important thing to remember about steelhead is that they aren’t actively searching for food while on the move to spawn, so they tend to eat whatever is in their path or makes enough of a nuisance of themselves to warrant being eaten.
Water level and visibility are more of a factor than preferred diet when it comes to rigging, so be sure your fly, lure or bait is visible even in murky water.
5 Tips for Fishing Steelhead Successfully
So, we have our 10 destinations and some advice on trip planning. To round out the post, I’ll leave you with a few tips to help you land more steelhead regardless of where you fish.
Drift Your Line
When fishing for steelhead, always drift your line at the bottom and if you feel even a subtle change in your drift, go for it! A good area to drift your line in would be at the tail-out of pools where the water becomes shallow as this is a spot favored by steelheads as well.
However, most of the time, you may end up hooking a submerged log or underwater rocks and even break the line. But when that steelhead does bite, it definitely makes it worth all the trouble.
Grab Their Attention
A fly or lure in motion is often enough to excite and push summer as well as winter steelhead into biting. If fly fishing or float fishing doesn’t work for you, your best bet would be to drift your line and reel in a lure or fly through the water in a steelhead resting location.
Using a spin and glo lure, silver spinner or vibrant streamer fly is enough to arouse the curiosity of the seemingly shy steelheads. This is essentially the same as the advice given in the section about steelhead gear. Make sure your fly or lure grabs their attention!
Take a Break
If you’ve managed to just snag a steelhead from a particular pool and have released it back into the water, chances are you can fish in the same location again and other steelhead or the same one might just bite again.
If the fish don’t bite immediately, take a 15-minute break and cast in the same area again. This inexplicably suicidal behavior of the steelhead is something that has worked to the benefit of many smart anglers.
Drop Your Rod Tip During the Fight
As any seasoned angler will tell you, when you hook an active steelhead, expect the fish to fight back with great ferocity. Steelheads are known to leap clear out of the water in their bid to escape, and when they do so, there is a considerable dash underwater before they break the surface enabling the fish to leap high in the air.
As the fish is on its way up, it puts tremendous stress on your leader, which is why it’s important to drop the tip of your rod down, parallel to the river, thereby easing the strain on your leader and increasing your chances of landing the fish.
Be the Hunter
Finally, when you go steelhead fishing, remember that you are the hunter and the fish your quarry. So ‘hunt’ for the fish. Steelheads are known to rest in precise spots in every pool, and if you don’t manage to hook one at these important sites within your first few casts, then you should move on to the next pool.
This way you don’t end up wasting precious time on unproductive waters. Once you do manage to hook a steelhead from a particular location, remember it, since that spot will likely land you much more fish for the rest of the season.
Ready to Hook Some Steelhead?
There you have it, a list of recommendations along with some tips to fuel your bucket list and pique your interest in these unique anadromous trout.
If it has, something to remember is that there are locations where steelhead habitat is in decline and the population is heading in the same direction. Anglers are the best advocates for the fish they catch, so the more you know the more we all may be able to get a turnaround for the species as a whole.
Hopefully, you will catch the bug for both catching and conserving this icon of the Pacific rivers. Whether you’re an old hand or this is a new challenge for you, steelhead are some of the best and most exciting fish to catch… and we can’t forget, they are great to eat as well.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing you out on the river sometime soon!
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