Making the move from trout to steelhead; mistakes of a "newbie"


Never been steelhead fishing
It seems to me that making a change in direction for my hobby of choice might have more pitfalls than just changing hobbies. I fly fish. Besides food and sex, it is my favorite thing. I've been a trout fisherman my whole life (live in the east). I'm moving to WA and want to steelhead fish with a fly rod pretty bad.

What are the major mistakes you see from someone who has 20+ years of trout fishing make when moving into the steelhead game? What mistakes did you make when moving into the steelhead game? No secrets, just a discussion if you're willing.

I have a colleague that guided a bit on the Great Lakes for steelhead. He claimed he could take a gear fisherman and fly fisherman, both of whom have never been steelhead fishing before, give them both fly rods and the gear fisherman will be tight to a steelhead first every time. So what do the gear fishermen know that the fly fishermen don't in this regard? Or is this total bullshit?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.


Well-Known Member
The major mistake made by a trout fisherman taking up steelheading in the PNW post-1990s is deciding to fish for steelhead. Seriously. Would you recommend to a friend that he or she take up fly fishing for trout on Montana's Madison River if the reasonable expectation for a reasonably skilled angler was catching one or two trout per week of steady fishing effort?

Steelhead can and are caught on flies in WA all the time these days still. However, those newsworthy catches occur primarily where hatchery fish are stacked up and the fishing experience is crowded. If it is your expectation that you can learn this game and then catch wild steelhead regularly and in relative solitude, then your expectation is probably just short of delusional IMO. A key to understanding the steelhead fishing situation in WA is that the vast preponderance of that good looking water flowing by is empty of steelhead the vast majority of the time.

With respect to your GL steelhead guide, the edge held by the gear fisherman is probably the knowledge of fishing his fly, lure, or bait on or near the stream bottom, as opposed to high in the water column. Steelhead don't typically rise through the water column for any offering unless the water temperatures are warm, and warm is a relative term correlated with latitude and local climate conditions.


bk paige

Wishin I was on the Sauk
I wouldn't wast your time out here now, WA doesn't care about its state fish the steelhead or fisherman. So few opertunities so few fish if I was new I'd stay away from steelheading, it's an addiction with no cure in this state.


Never been steelhead fishing
bk paige, duly noted. I think I'll move to Des Moines instead. LOL.

My apologies for adding another warm body to the crowd.


Active Member
Did you read the saga of DO? You might want to check that one out.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk


Never been steelhead fishing
bk paige, I know. I took it with a grain of salt. Moving out there so my wife can be close to her father.

JS, I've read the whole DO saga. Has he caught a steelhead yet?

There are a few other great threads on here. The one about common mistakes is a great one. You guys are an intense bunch. Maine gets a little boring- mostly old dudes that are not down with fishing with the younger crowd. But you know what they say about Maine: it's old, cold, and poor...


Active Member
Your major mistake would be not having moved to this area twenty or thirty years ago. Numbers of steelhead and the opportunities to fish for them have declined dramatically over the past few decades. Considering the rapidly increasing population of the area, there are currently a many more people competing for a declining number of fish and I see no indication that this scenario is going to change in any way in the foreseeable future. The "new normal" is winter steelhead waters that are only open for a couple of months (as opposed to some rivers which were open practically year-round in the past).

As to your question, I would suppose that any angler who had some experience fishing steelhead would have a better sense of just where steelhead will lie; steelhead are not trout and don't hang out in the same kind of water that a trout would. Winter steelhead, in particular, are near their spawning time and are not feeding, and even summer runs only rarely exhibit what can actually be described as feeding and are more likely to lie up in deep pools where they can live on their stored body fats with a minimum of physical exertion.


Never been steelhead fishing
Preston, Yeah, I hear you about the decline. Seems to be the case for a lot of fisheries. I am bummed a bit to be leaving Maine because the fishing is well above average and the population just keeps decreasing. I guess that explains all the old guys here in Maine. There are a few problems here too and that crowd (or the ones I've met and talked with) have the worst outlook of anyone I know. You know the type. The ones that think, "Everything is fucked and the only way to make it worse is to try and change it."

I might just start my fishing in WA the way I did in ME. Park truck, hike for at least 60 mins, fish. Anytime I've done this I've been totally alone. It can pay handsome dividends in fish too, but can also leave you with sore legs and a skunk in the trunk.

Thanks for the comments.
Besides the aforementioned items:
For me one of the "light bulb" moments was to not be concerned about fishing behind other anglers on a steelhead river (particularly winter steelhead). If you work yourself into a hissy fit about not being able to find any unmolested water you will:
1. Almost never get to fish while you seek out unmolested water (especially places like the well known coastal rivers).

2. Never catch any of the fish that the other guys miss. Despite the fact that there are so few fish around, not all of them get caught. I've had multiple boats go right through a known steelhead lie and not catch anything and 3 minutes later had a fish grab my swing through the exact same spot. Coastal winter fish move extremely quickly - so long runs that have just been swung by someone else can easily yield a fish.

Find good water and learn it well - steelhead rivers tend to be way more dynamic than trout rivers. They will change on a daily basis and by hopping around from river to river you will never truly learn where to be and when. I think the saying is "Be the report, don't chase the report" or something to that effect.

Maybe counter intuitive, but high, muddy water can equate to great steelhead fishing - the fish will often move into lies that are far more accessible to fly fisherman.

There are a lot of spots on a steelhead river that are out of bounds for fly fisherman, but in play for gear guys - trying to fish it will mean you are wasting your time.

Not sure if posting links to non-sponsors is verboten - but go to the Red's Fly Shop Blog and look for the post from November 11, 2015 titled "Secrets to Successful Spey Fishing". I thought that was a pretty good overview for the rank beginner.

Don't become a dedicated steelheader in this day and age - seek out other opportunities and fisheries and I promise you will enjoy the fishing that WA has far more than if you just stick with steelhead.


Active Member

Don't let these jaded old-timers get you down. The steelhead fishing out here is fucking awesome compared to any I did in the Midwest. I only fished the North Shore of Lake Superior, but never really figured it out. Here, after about 2 years of fuddling and not really doing any good, I have confidence that I can at least hook a fish on most outings. For example, I think I caught around 20 steelhead in my first 2 seasons, and that was mostly gear fishing with spinners and bobber and jig. This fall, I switched to a fly rod, and have caught around 35 in the past 3 months. It's all about putting time in, learning the rivers, and getting the fundamentals down.

Common mistakes: Don't let the dogma of fly fishing get you down. Fish the way you want to fish, no matter what. Be respectful to the fish and the resource, but fish the way you like to. I primarily nymph with nymphs and egg pattern beads, and a lot of people hate on that, but it's effective and fun as shit. And if you're wade fishing like I do, instead of side drifting from a boat, it takes just as much if not more skill than swinging flies. You have to know how to cast correctly to get those heavy rigs in the right spot for an effective drift. If you can only cast 20 feet, your rig won't get down by the time you pull it in.

Learn the fundamentals, just like trout fishing: Holding and resting water is the main key. They're not hard to catch, just hard to find. When you do find them, and are nymphing like I do, it's all about a natural drift. That's one reason the gear guys pry hook up more when first starting to fly fish.

One thing I've noticed is that I don't fish spots for as long as I would when trout fishing. After a few really good drifts through a spot, there is either no fish there or they aren't feeding, so I move on. That doesn't necessarily mean moving to a different run, but just fishing different lanes of the same run. Think of the hole/run as a grid pattern, and hit every square before you leave. They can surprise you sometimes.

Cheers and good luck!


the sultan of swing
Join in on the insanity, there are worse ways to spend you day, but be warned its a slippery slope with few rewards if all you are after is catching fish.


Never been steelhead fishing
bennysbuddy, I already swing flies for LLS. It's a pretty zen (forgive the cheese) way to fish in my experience. It's really nice when I know I'm going to be hitting a techy hatch later that evening. I can chill with the swing all day and save the high string for the hatch.

Good point though.


Never been steelhead fishing
sleestak240, Thanks for the words of advice. Coming through a run with a different set of techniques is a great way to catch fish after someone has gone through.


Never been steelhead fishing
sleestak240, Thanks for the words of advice. Coming through a run with a different set of techniques is a great way to catch fish after someone has gone through.

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