Steelhead Trout is a name given to the anadromous form of the coastal rainbow trout or redband trout.

The steelhead are native to freshwater and ocean environments across North America, but have been introduced to every other continent except Antarctica.

Steelhead use aquatic obstructions like vegetation, boulders, and fallen trees as protection. Also they migrate to spawn during the summer months and the winter months.

The freshwater form of the steelhead trout is the rainbow trout. The difference between these forms of the species is that steelhead migrate to the ocean and return to freshwater tributaries to spawn, whereas rainbow trout do not leave freshwater. Steelhead are also larger and less colorful than rainbow trout. Steelhead can weigh up to 55 pounds (26 kg) and reach 45 inches (114 cm) in length. They can live up to 11 years and spawn multiple times. The body of the steelhead trout is silvery and streamlined with a rounder head. There are black dots and a red or pink stripe running down the side of the fish horizontally. This silver color and round head is what gives the steelhead its name.

A number of distinct population segments of steelhead trout are endangered or threatened across the United States, mostly caused by the blocking of waterways by the construction of dams. Human interaction has had considerable consequences on reducing the population of steelhead trout.

  • Steelhead trout are the same species as rainbow trout but have different lifestyles.
  • Steelhead can be grouped into winter and summer ‘runs,’ depending on when adults return to freshwater.
  • Steelhead trout are anadromous, meaning they spend part of their lives migrating to, from, and within the ocean. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead may spawn several times before they die.
  • Young steelhead feed primarily on zooplankton. Adults feed on insects, mollusks and crustaceans, fish eggs and small fish (including trout).
  • Some steelhead will stay in freshwater and never migrate to the ocean. Those are known as ‘resident’ trout. Sometimes offspring of resident trout become steelhead and head to the ocean!
  • Steelhead are often called the ‘fish of a thousand casts’ because they are so hard to catch!



Steelhead are native to North America west of the Rockies.

Steelhead occupy freshwater streams or lakes at some point in their lives. They use aquatic vegetation, boulders, and wood as protective cover. Steelheads spend the majority of the year in estuaries or open ocean and only return to freshwater to spawn.


Their diet typically consists of squid, crustaceans, and small fish including anchovies, herring, and sardines, though the capacity at which this dietary intake occurs is highly contingent upon the geographical region where Steelhead choose to migrate.


The fishing

Winter steelhead fishing is a very different game. Instead of long runs in large rivers, many winter fish migrate up small coastal streams to spawn. Winter conditions, rain, snow, icy roads, and high flows rivers all keep many anglers at home and make winter fish harder to find and catch. Skagit lines are a essential to present the larger profile fly (like an intruder) and a sink tip to break the surface tension and get down a bit in the water column to present to fish.

Winter swing fishing requires shorter rods (10-11½’), shorter Skagit heads, and shorter leaders, to swing that juicy fly down and across that tailout to the waiting winter fish. And if you’re lucky your fly reel is going to be screaming for the next 10 minutes while you have an encounter with a unicorn.

Summer-run steelhead start showing up late spring. You can go out and start swinging for the first few fish in the Willamette Valley as early as May. While fishing for summer run steelhead, waders are optional, especially through the summer months. Typically low and clear water leads the angler to swing smaller more traditional patterns.  With the smaller flies comes longer rods (12-14 feet), and longer Scandi lines for more delicate presentations and longer leaders which makes casting very visually rewarding.

Summer fish are more aggressive and will move farther to take a swung fly, so you can move quickly through a run moving 8-10 feet between casts searching for these hot fish.  Summer steelhead grabs can be the most exhilarating experience with a fly line as the fish goes somersaulting 100 feet down river ripping line as you pray to land this amazing fish.


The first steelhead also known as the winter run show up in early February and continue in March and April into the spring run. After the runoff season in May, the summer-run steelhead will enter the rivers in mid July which carries into the fall run from September to October.


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