All The Fish

Called to Sea: Steelhead Answer

Metallic. Salmon turn steely too when they enter the salt as young smolts. And while they may share the same genus and species as Rainbow Trout, something bigger draws Steelhead to leave their birth rivers for the open water.

Steelhead Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). 📷 Mark Hieronymus
man holding a trout in the water
Mark Hieronymus admires a Steelhead in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. 📷 Trout Unlimited/Joshua Duplechian

In the beginning, rainbows and Steelhead share the same habits and habitats. But in the spring of their third year, Steelhead turn silvery and head to sea. They may traverse thousands of miles over the next 2–3 years, growing large on ocean prey before returning to their natal streams to spawn.

What if you were to lay a Steelhead between a mature Rainbow Trout and ocean-bright salmon?

“One of my friends derisively calls them “pencil fish” because they’re not big and fat like a salmon.”

Steelhead tend to be long and skinny compared to a Coho or King Salmon.

If it’s longer than 23 inches, it’s considered a Steelhead. 📷 Mark Hieronymus

Compared to a salmon the same size, their tails tend to look a little larger. And their heads a little smaller. Steelhead often have cryptic coloration in the form of a line that runs down their length almost in sync with the lateral line. It’s dark above and bright below.

a steelhead showing cryptic coloration
This camouflage works well in situations where predators are looking up from below at a light sky above or down from above at dark waters below. 📷 Tyson Fick

They’ll have a rosy patch on the cheek as well. But you’ll rarely see incoming fish with those rosy cheeks. When they’re in that interface between salt and fresh, they’re pretty clean looking.

Is there any debate around classifying Steelhead as salmon or trout?

This debate has been going on for quite a while, especially around their scientific name. Steelhead, Rainbow Trout, and Coastal Cutthroat Trout are grouped with Pacific salmon in the genus Onchorynchus.

What kinds of habitat do they like?

“Steelhead is kind of an inappropriate name for them here in Southeast Alaska. They should call them “woodheads” because they’re under log jams. They’re next to downed trees.”

a steelhead under a log
Learn more about why fish love trees here. 📷 Mark Hieronymus

Returning fish will hold off the river mouths starting in February. They’ll just idle around. Especially the bucks. They generally come in first to spawn. When you’re fishing rivers in spring, look for slow deep pools with cover. Steelhead are creatures of the deep until that really brief period—it might only be a day that they’re actually engaged in spawning behavior.

“Whereas Pacific salmon just turn into total spawn-zombies, right? They’re just crowding in there like “MUST MAKE BABIES.””

When you see a steelhead out on a flat like a river tail-out that’s probably getting ready to spawn — that’s the one you don’t want to catch. For the bulk of your season, you want to be fishing that deep cover that doesn’t look like spawning water.

a man stands on the bank next to a fallen tree
Scouting for Steelhead. They love cover like downed trees. 📷 Trout Unlimited/Joshua Duplechian

How do you fish for steelhead in Southeast Alaska?

Fly fishing and conventional spinning gear are both really popular. I prefer fly fishing. It’s actually easier.

“If you’re fly fishing for Steelhead, you can break the lure “presentation” into two groups—nymphing and swinging. You’re either fishing a tight line or you’re fishing a dead drift.”

a person fishing a river with a mountain in the background
Casting for Steelhead in Southeast Alaska. 📷 Mark Hieronymus

Nymphing is usually done upstream or across from you.

“Cast your offering upstream and then allow it to drift dead at the same speed as the current down through a run.”

When it gets down to the bottom, strip it back in and throw it back out.

With swinging, you’re generally fishing below you and allowing the current pull your line straight and tight. That swings your fly across the current in front of the fish. Strip it back in, then step downstream a couple feet and throw it back out again.

📷 Mark Hieronymus

“They’re naturally curious. Some of the steelhead flies that I’ve seen people throw I’d be curious about too because it’s like, “what the hell is that?” Let’s go take a look at that.”

Steelhead eat everything. But generally speaking, roe [eggs]. Egg-looking flies are a good place to start. Beads too. For swinging flies, you want something that’s got inherent motion built into the fly. Meaning you can hold it in the current and when it flutters or moves it looks like ocean food—shrimp or a squid—because those are their two really big food groups in the ocean. You can catch Steelhead using any color, but orange and black are tough to beat the closer the Steelhead are to salt and the newer they are in the ocean. Black is tough to beat anywhere.

📷 Mark Hieronymus

Further along in the spawn, pink and cerise start become go-to fly colors.

What kind of gear are you putting behind those lures?

The environment that you’re fishing for them has a lot of wood — a lot of obstacles. You want to be geared up so you can get these fish in once you hook them. Remember they’re on their spawning ground, and it’s all almost all catch-and-release in Southeast Alaska. There’s very little opportunity to actually keep a Steelhead, which is great because there’s not a whole lot of them. You want light enough tackle to make it fun for you, but stout enough tackle to make it okay for the fish. I generally use an eight weight rod — a nine or 10 footer. I use 16 or 20 pound test fluorocarbon for my tippet. Anything lighter and you’re doing a disservice to the fish.

Southeast Alaska Steelhead. 📷 ADF&G Yakutat Office

“After that initial hook set and about the first 30 seconds of fight, it’s like “alright, clock’s ticking. We need to get this fish back in and get it back out there to spawn.”

What kind of landing gear gives these fish the best chance of survival?

“Not the beach. That’s the number one.”

Keep them in as much water as they have body depth so they don’t turn on their side and hit their head on the rocks and brain themselves. Landing nets are great. I know folks occasionally use gloves, but gloves can remove slime. If you do use them, hold the fish with as little pressure and as small of a handprint as you possibly can. A rubber net is a great idea. Oftentimes, I’ll just grab the leader and run my hand down it as quick as I can to get the hook. With my other hand, I’ll grab by the tail, especially if I fought a fish for a while, then I’ll turn them back into the current until they swim free of my hand. You never want to turn a fish way and have it glide into deep water and then all of a sudden be in need of reviving.

Southeast Alaska Steelhead. 📷 ADF&G Yakutat Office

If you open up a steelhead, do the fillets like more like a salmon? Or a trout?

They’re a little lighter in color than most of the salmon. If you have an opportunity to eat one legally, please enjoy it. They’re really good eating.

“They have a cantaloupe colored flesh. It’s slightly oranger than Dolly Varden, but not as orange as my shirt which I just realized that nobody can see.”

If you’re familiar with ocean-bright Pink Salmon flesh, take out one rose tint.

Where I am in Juneau, it’s all catch-and-release on the road system — there is no retention. But as you move around in Southeast Alaska there are places where retention is a possibility. I would just strongly discourage it for most folks.

Giving back

There are about 330 known steelhead streams in Southeast Alaska. I would put the real number closer to maybe 550–600 streams or so. I think less than 50% of Steelhead runs have been identified. And I think they deserve a little bit more respect than that. Part of my job with Trout Unlimited is doing habitat and Steelhead surveys. We’ve added seven new Southeast Alaska Steelhead streams to the Anadromous Waters Catalog. If you’re out fishing and want to do right by these fish , take a couple photos the stream you’re fishing doesn’t have Steelhead listed in it. You need two fish in hand to nominate a stream for the catalog. Take those to your local Alaska Department of Fish and Game office and say “hey, you know, there are Steelhead in this creek and they deserve to have the same conservation measures that all the other salmonids have.

Learn more about Alaska’s Anadromous Waters Catalog and how to nominate new waters.

Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs in Alaska. Thanks to our guests Mark and Roger. Listen to the full podcast episode here.

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