Curious about Steelhead movement

I know that in Nor Cal everyone waits for the rain to open the mouths of some of the rivers and get the steelhead and salmon moving up river. Is that the same kind of thing here? Does the rain get steelhead moving or is there so much water anyway that it does not matter?

John Hicks

Owner and operator of Sea Run Pursuits
Fly Lady,
I by no means am an expert on the subject. I have heard from a few guides that the best time to fish is post rain when the water is comming down and starting to clear. Now this to me means that the water rising stimulates something in the fish to move. I don't know though if anyone has more info please staighten me out.

John Hicks

Steve Buckner

Mother Nature's Son
Steelhead and salmon are "programmed" to head up river when the river is rising. In some cases, on small coastal rivers/streams, when the rivers are low, they are unable to reach the spawing areas until there is sufficient flow.

Fish tend to not hold when the rivers are rising and that combined with off-colored water can make it much more difficult for success. Being that fishing is a game of probabilities, most often your odds are going to be greater for success if you wait for the rivers to drop into shape rather than to fish when they're rising.

East Fork

Active Member
Your question is tough to answer in a meaningful way because of its breath. The question refers to multiple species of salmon and steelhead and a huge variety of habitats and weather patterns that vary from year to year. That said, most of us have observed some fish staging some of the time in the sound, the coastal bays and off the mouths of river tributaries in some years.

If you have a particular drainage or a smaller region in mind, the members here could provide some useful information but it’s hard to do so with that broad of a question.

Jake Smulkowski

Throwing hoppers into baetis falls
Over here on the dry side, we have a bit of a different situation because the fish are already in the system. We have a really strange phenomenon where the Snake River steelhead actually head up the Clearwater in the summer/fall because of the Dworshak tailwater - the Big C can be 10-15 degrees cooler because of that. They then head back downstream, and then up the Snake when it cools down.

We see a similar phenomenon to the NorCal rivers with a few of our smaller steelhead rivers - especially when the flow is low like this. The S. Fork Clearwater is like that... there is a very shallow bar at Kooskia which seems to prevent fish from entering from the Middle Fork, except when the water rises. So they "stage" in the bigger river waiting for higher flows to make their journey easier.

Just got off the phone with my buddy from Tacoma who is driving out for the Cougar game...from his report, it sounds like y'all are getting plenty of rain right now.



Well-Known Member

No river of consequence in WA develops the sort of sand barrier reefs like you observe on the CA rivers. Near equivalents to that phenomenom occur on some small creeks that are tributary directly to the ocean, and perched stream mouths can occur from time to time alongs small Puget Sound tributaries, although I haven't seen any that cannot be crossed by fish at high tide. So no, I don't think rain is ever required to open up river mouths to permit upstream migrations to begin.

However - you knew this was coming, right? - low river flow, and warm temperatures, aren't much of a stimulant to salmon and steelhead that are staging to begin their freshwater migration. As other poster mention, rain raises rivers and increases the discharge into saltwater, and that stimulates migration. Fish will actively migrate on the rising water - unless it rains so much and becomes a flood, in which case they will usually find a place to sit out the worst of the flow. As soon as it begins to abate, the falling water again stimulates active migration. So as soon as the river is fishable after a high water, the greatest number of fresh, active, and best biting fish will be available to anglers. These days typically occur mid-week, when I have a business meeting scheduled and cannot get away to go fishing.

Fishing will remain good unless the rivers drop so much that they become very low and clear, which often correlates with cold water and spooky fish, conditions that are not so conducive to catching them. Then we wait and pray for more rain, hoping for just enough, but not so much as to flood the rivers. And we repeat this exercise all the way through April.


Salmo g.
Dear Lady fisher,
I've had a good bit of tidal water experience on small streams for steelhead in CA and salmon here in the far northern reaches of WA. Each river and stream has its own character in relation to fish runs, tides and flow. Over and over again I have seen fish move into thin water on both the flood and ebb. The common wisdom is to fish the first serious holding water above the high tide mark or the downriver pools on or after the flood where fish may enter to hold or re visit. (yes fish move in and out of some waters) I have seen steelhead and salmon become both active and "Bitey" the beginning and where possible, bottom of an ebb, in this type holding water. It appears the staging pulse of fish "that have become acclimated" to the fresh water in these lies will dissipate up and "down" river on the push- water permiting. I have seen or caught fish at all stages and conditions astream and often look for solitude durring the lesser fished times. (this is agreat way to learn without an audience of hardware swingers stares or accomplished fly fishers glares!).

1i'd po

The point is conventional wisdom, particularly by those with intimate knowledge and experience of the target or regionally similar drainages, should be your primary guide- but never underestimate the always challeging, sometimes baffling, and often amazing, unlimited range of possibilities when on the water! (Its this kind of thing that keeps us yearning and returning to the long rod).
(Never underestimate the always challeging, sometimes baffling, and often amazing, unlimited range of possibilities when on the water! (Its this kind of thing that keeps us yearning and returning to the long rod).[/QUOTE]

O.E.P. that really sums up steelhead fishing! :thumb:

New Fly Lady are you in Washington or in Cali right now? The fish should be in your local haunts now.
Thanks for all of the input. I have yet to get my feet wet here in WA except for all of the rain. :beathead:

Mike,,, I am in WA right now but head back to Cli on Saturday then back here again on Nov. 27th. I am hoping to get out for the first time the weekend of the Dec 3-4 if I can get this living in a 5th wheel down to an art. From the reports I have had the steelhead fishing has not really picked up down there yet but all of this rain should help.