Steelhead Trout fish identification, its habitats, characteristics, fishing methods.
Steelhead are the migrating version of Rainbow trout, they are really the same species of fish. Steelhead migrate from the ocean into freshwater to spawn, and then swim back to the ocean or stay in freshwater, while Rainbow trout are remain in freshwater throughout their life. Steelhead do not die after spawning like Pacific Salmon and are able to spawn more than once. But, steelhead are often a favorite of local fishers for their large size and feisty attitude.
Steelhead is the name given to the silver or steel-blue headed ocean-going form of the species. It is native to the Pacific coast of North America from northern Mexico north to the Bering Sea and inland to the Rocky Mountains. Rainbow trout are the inland form and have been introduced around the world and most states in the US.
Steelhead trout - Oncorhynchus mykiss, also known as rainbow trout, or ocean trout belong to the family Salmonidae which includes all salmon, trout, and chars. Steelhead are born in fresh water streams, where they spend their first 1-3 years of life. They then immigrate to the ocean where most of their growth occurs. After 1 to 4 years in the ocean, steelhead return to their native fresh water stream to spawn.
Steelhead trout are almost alike a Rainbow trout with the typical trout-shape body, a dorsal fin with distinct dark spots, and a square-shaped tail fin that has dark spots throughout. Their head is blunt, short jaw does not extend past the eye. Often Steelhead has reddish stripe along sides, gill cover reddish. Their length is up to 45 inches while Rainbow trout range in weight from 2 to 16 pounds and in length from 16-30 inches. There are many small spots on a silver body and 10 -12 anal rays. A square tail with spots over the entire tail in radiating rows.
Steelhead are more silvery in color. Though noted for the broad red or pink stripe along the middle of its sides, the stripe may not be readily apparent on sea-run steelhead or immature specimens in clear lakes. The mouth and gums are white.
Steelhead prefer cool, clean, fast, deep, running water during all portions of their life cycle. They like water that is between 53-57°F (12-14° C). Higher water temperatures (>70°F) holds less dissolved oxygen and increases susceptibility to disease; it can greatly impair growth rates of juvenile steelhead if there is not enough food.
Steelhead habitat change as they go through different life phases. Adult steelhead need to have access to their natural streams for the spawning occurs in the upper reaches of tributaries. Adults also need access to spawning gravel in areas with sufficient flow and cool, clear water. Steelheads for spawning purpose prefer cover such as deep pools and logs, undercut banks.
For the Steelhead eggs and fry, the most important is cool water with enough dissolved oxygen without excessive fine silt or sand. During their first summer, juvenile Steelhead are typically found in relatively shallow areas with cobble and boulder bottoms. They reside at the downstream end or in riffles 2 feet deep or less. Juvenile Steelhead prefer woody areas with a lot of logs or tree roots during summer and winter. Surface turbulence provides another source of cover during the summer months. As juvenile steelhead grow, pools with abundant escape cover like large woody debris, undercut banks, root masses, and large boulders become an important habitat component.
Steelheads eat small fish (up to 1/3 of their length), insects, crayfish and other crustaceans. When young, insects make up a large portion of the diet. As they grow, though, the small fish became more important. While in flowing waters populated with salmon, trout will eat salmon eggs, alvein, fry, smolt and even salmon carcasses.
Like salmon, steelhead are returning to their original hatching ground to spawn. And unlike salmon, steelhead typically spawn more than once, fish 28 inches and up are usually repeated spawners. The steelhead fry usually remain in the river for about a year before move slowly downstream to the sea, while salmon normally return to the seas right away. Different populations of steelheads migrate upriver at different times of the year. "Summer-run steelhead" migrate between May and October, before their reproductive organs are fully mature. They mature in freshwater before spawning in the spring. "Winter-run steelhead" fully mature in the ocean before migrating, between November and April, and spawn shortly after returning. Steelhead may make several spawning trips between fresh and salt water.
After the spawning, rainbow colors of spring return to a bright silvery hue. Lost fats are restored and adults again visit the feeding regions of their first ocean migration. On rare occasions a fish will return to the stream within a few months, but most repeat spawners spend at least one winter in the sea between spawning migrations.
Steelhead spawn from mid-April and throughout May and early June, in warm areas of California it could be even from December through April. Spawning occurs in small streams and tributaries where cool, well oxygenated water is available year round. A male may spawn with several females, and more males than females die during the spawning period. The female selects a site with gravel substrate where there is good flow through the gravel. She then digs a nest, called redd, and deposits eggs, which the male then fertilizes. The eggs are covered by gravels and cobbles when the female excavates another redd just upstream.
The length of time it takes for eggs to hatch is heavily dependent on water temperature. In hatcheries with carefully controlled conditions, steelhead eggs hatch after 30 days at a temperature of 51°F(13°C). The optimal temperature for egg incubation is between 44 and 50° F (7-10° C). Eggs hatch sooner in warmer water, but the young fish are smaller and generally have lower survival rates. If the temperature goes too high, eggs will not hatch at all. After hatching, the developing steelhead will remain in the gravel for another 4 to 6 weeks. During this time, they are called alevins or “sac-fry” and gradually absorb the yolk sac attached to their body.
By mid summer when they emerge from the gravel, they are called fry, and are able to catch their own food. Newly emerged fry move to shallow, protected areas of the stream (usually in the stream margins). Tremendous numbers of eggs and fry are killed or washed from the stream each year, but by fall 2- to 3-inch steelhead populate habitat that, hopefully, will carry them through the first winter. They establish feeding areas which they defend. Most juveniles can be found in riffles, although larger ones will move to pools or deep runs. Normally, the juvenile steelhead will remain in the parent stream for about three years before outmigrating to salt water.
If all steelhead left the stream at the same age, returned after the same length of time in the ocean, and died after spawning, the adults in a given stream would be of similar age. They don’t. Add to this the complications of summer run, spring run, and fall run fish spawning at the same time and in the same stream, and you have a rather complicated situation. Perhaps nature has conspired to make steelhead life history complicated so that a harsh flood, winter, or drought does not destroy all of a given population.
The most popular bait for stream fishing is a "spawn bag," fish eggs tied in a small ball using fine mesh. Other baits include spoons, spinners, flatfish, and flies fished close to the bottom. Fly fishing is a fun way to catch these fish. Bait including spawn, night crawlers, spoons, and flies often work well here. During mid-summer, some steelhead are caught while trolling.
In the colder months, fishing is great in the cool water discharges of power plants. Spawn, spoons, spinners, jigs, and minnows work well here. Adult steelhead like fast, deep, running water. Fish the deep holes in the stream. Fish the fast, white water areas and behind rocks and log jams. Quite often large holes form in front of log jams and these areas should not be overlooked.
If you fish in the lake in the early spring, anglers fish the lakes and ponds using spinning gear, a light or medium rod, and reels spooled with 6 - 8 lbs test line. One popular rig is simply a split shot or a light weight attached a foot-and-a-half above the hook. Worms, night crawlers, salmon eggs, corn, small marshmallows, and pieces of cheese are cast into water 6 to 10 feet deep, and left to sit on the bottom. Other techniques include suspending the rig three or four feet beneath a bobber and waiting for a school of rainbows to swim near, or casting spinning lures from the shoreline. Troll spinning lures (Goldfish, small gold Castmasters, yellow Rooster Tails), small spoons, buck tails, and streamer flies near the surface. To coax hesitant fish into taking the lure, add a piece of night crawler to a treble hook on the lure. In small bodies of water, a night crawler fished on the bottom of the deepest area often results in hooking summer rainbows.
In the summer when water surface temperatures reach over 65ºF (18°C), rainbows swim for deeper, oxygen-rich water at temperatures between 55ºF and 60ºF (from 13 to 16°C). Surface feeding occurs very early in the morning if the lake waters are still cool, but on stormy summer days the rainbows may actively feed on the surface at all times of the day. When rainbows move to deeper waters, a depth finder and down rigger are generally needed to catch the fish.
When you fish in streams in early spring, Steelheads prefer streams with fast currents and fallen trees, large rocks, or undercut banks. Bait fishing for Steelheads demands the same responsive touch as the bait moves along the bottom. The bait must be presented close to the fish, because the cold waters reduce active feeding. Many anglers use the same fishing gear for lake fishing as they use for stream fishing, or they use a light spinning reel on a fly rod for better control and response. Worms, night crawlers, salmon eggs, corn, small dead minnows, and live nymphs are excellent baits.
Fly-fishing for Steelheads is exceptional in the summer. When the waters warm, fly-fishermen use weighted nymphs, buck tails, and streamers. Rainbows become selective feeders as the summer progresses, but during the aquatic insect season, wet flies thrown across the current and left to drift downstream or directed into pockets will often produce a strike. In the low and clear streams, rainbows feed in fast water during the day. At daybreak, Steelheads search pools for small minnows, but as the waters warm they look for aquatic insects and grasshoppers. During the early-morning pool feedings, use gently presented buck tail and streamer flies and small spinning lures. During day feeding, use grasshoppers or experiment with different flies until the rainbows respond. After a summer rain, use night crawlers, worms, or spring bait fishing techniques and spinning lures.
In the fall, the fish may sometimes "stun" the lure or fly; in this case, let the fly drift without any movement, or pull the lure once and then let it drift. Use large lures, even in small streams, and experiment with small and unusual flies and lures. The fish in shallow water spook easily, but feed avidly. Try casting spinning lures or buck tails and streamer flies 10 or 20 feet from the riverbank.
Summer fly-fishing in rivers of at least eight feet deep will catch the May to October steelhead. With a standard nine-foot fly rod, a weight-forward sinking line will facilitate easier long-distance casts of weighted flies. There are innumerable steelhead fly patterns, and many anglers check their local fishing or sport shops to discover which seasonal patterns are effective.
Smaller than winter steelhead, summer steelies hold in pools downstream from white-water river riffles. In the summer, the fish are in deeper water and presentation is more important than the fly pattern.
Cast upstream into pools, letting the fly drift, or occasionally twitch the line. If the steelhead follow but do not strike a drifting fly, change the lure to a fly one size smaller. Repeat casting to the same pool; a steelhead may strike after twenty or more casts. When fly-fishing, anglers must be careful not to spook the fish with undue splashing and many false casts.
When the fall rains begin along the Pacific Northwest coast, the bright silver steelhead move into the rivers. Spinning or bait casting equipment works best when fishing the high waters of winter. Protected by large boulders, steelhead lie near the bottom of a moderately flowing river, in water four to eight feet deep.
The same tactics apply to winter fishing as to summer fishing, except the fish are in deeper water, and are comparatively larger. The colder water slows the activity of the fish, and bait works to attract the still fish more effectively than lures or flies. Popular winter baits include canned or fresh roe, night crawlers or single eggs.
One technique is to rig the bait, and tie a three-way swivel to the end of the line. Tie one or two feet of line above the hook to one eyelet of the swivel. Attach a 4 inch piece of 4 lb test monofilament and a pencil sinker to the lower eyelet of the swivel. Bring extra weights, lures, and hooks because this kind of fishing results in many hang-ups on the river bottom.
Cast around 30 feet upstream past a suspected fish, and allow the bait to settle with the current and move along the bottom beyond the lying fish. Steelhead will softly hold bait for a few seconds, and seasoned anglers set the hook the moment the bait stops bouncing along the bottom.
In some areas, lures are more effective than bait. In clear, low water conditions use smaller spoons and spinner lures. Larger bright lures produce in dark water. With wobblers and cherry bobber lures, do not add any weight - sinkers disrupt the lure action. To catch steelhead, lures should bounce along the bottom. If the lure does not produce on a cast, try letting the lure coast in the current at the end of a drift. Replacing treble hooks with single hooks will help avoid hang-ups in obstruction-filled areas.