As the days start to warm up and there are more daylight hours to enjoy, winter is coming to an end and spring is just around the corner. The time for getting out and fishing for steelhead is here–swing time is here! Fall tends to get the hype for swinging flies, but some of the best fishing for steelhead is in the spring.
Winter Mode and Transition of Steelhead
When the water temperatures are in the low to mid 30s, the steelhead in our rivers are still in their winter mode. Their metabolism has slowed way down, and they are sitting in the slow water seams, often surrounded by wood.
However, as the conditions change, so does the fish behavior. As water temperatures begin to warm in March and the hormonal drive to reproduce kicks in, steelhead become much more active. Fresh fish will begin to course through our river systems, and the winter holdover fish will start moving out of their winter holding water and begin orienting themselves around prime spawning gravel.
Springtime Steelhead Fishing: Techniques and Locations
Springtime steelhead fishing allows you to fish in many types of water, from small creeks to large rivers and slow pools to fast-moving riffles. You can choose different ways to float the rivers, from larger powerboats to small inflatable rafts. You will be able to utilize many different techniques, including indicator and chuck-and-duck fishing, nymph fishing, and swinging flies.
Swinging Streams for Steelhead
Another active method of chasing spring steelhead is to swing streamers. If I’m wanting to get an arm jolting take or looking to work a run thoroughly, I drag out my switch rod. You might not get the numbers of fish like you would dribbling nymphs but when mister chrome takes your bug – hang on tight!
Early Spring: Prime Time on Small Waters
The early spring (March) is prime time on the small waters. The smaller waters tend to warm faster than the larger river systems. This is key to finding more aggressive fish willing to eat a swung fly. When these water temperatures hit 40 degrees and above, it is game on and you should take advantage of it. These small waters continue to fish well into the month of April.
Larger Rivers: Challenges and Rewards
The larger rivers tend to hit the 40 degree mark in early April. The fish are active, but boat traffic can make swinging a fly more difficult due to a lack of space. Fishing these waters is often more effective during later spring (late April through early May) due to fewer people on the water.
The numbers of fish have decreased but water temps are on the rise and the fish that remain are looking for an easy meal. This late season fishing can be excellent with good shots at steelhead and some of the larger trout of the season.
Gear and Fly Selection for Swinging Streams
When heading to the water, switch rods or full two-handed rods will enhance your experience swinging flies. Switch rods in the 11 foot range or short two-handers work well for the smaller waters and most of our larger rivers.
The Skagit-style lines will work well for both types of water, just bring an assortment of tips to adjust to river conditions. Flies can range from large and flashy to small and drab. Change it up until you find the magic fly.
3 Favorite Streamers
Guide Intruder (Size #2 or #4)
The Guide Intruder is perfect for high water and murky conditions due to its large profile. Available in various colors, it’s designed for swinging and can reach deeper waters thanks to its dumbbell eyes.
Lady Ga Ga Intruder (Size #1, #2, or #4)
Created by Travis Johnson, the Lady Gaga Intruder mimics a small rainbow trout, triggering aggressive responses from male steelhead. It’s effective in both clear and high waters, with color variations to suit different conditions.
Skagit Minnow (Size #2)
Designed for big waters, the Skagit Minnow has a large profile and marabou feathers for great water action. It’s best used on the swing in high waters, with color options including red/black, pink, and blue.
Nymph Fishing: A Personal Favorite
Nymph fishing is a very effective way to steelhead fish many types of water. From slow-moving pools to fast-running ripples, nymph fishing has become one of my own personal favorite ways to fish the rivers.
In the springtime, the steelhead enter the river system when the water is the coolest. The fish will first hold in deep pools and near log jams along the river. Nymph fishing allows you to fish over top of submerged or floating timber that you normally would not be able to access by other traditional fly fishing techniques.
The Spring Run Progression and Post-Spawn Fishing
As the spring run progresses, the water temperature will increase, which leads to the fish being more active and willing to move for food. These post-spawn fish are very hungry and aggressively looking for hearty meals. This makes it an ideal time to swing flies.
Fly Selection During Spring
Fly selection during this time of year can vary greatly. Eggs of course are still excellent producers, but there are many days where nymphs will outshine eggs. Top nymphs include hexes, caddis, fry patterns, woolly buggers, and of course, stoneflies. Stoneflies will start becoming active on the warmer, sunny days in March. Many times you will see them crawling on the snow. When these bugs get active, the fish will really key in on them
Three of My Favorite Nymphs
Pink Nuke Egg (Size #8-#14)
The Pink Nuke Egg is a proven pattern for steelhead. It’s tied with a thin yarn veil that imitates the goo holding eggs together, which seems to draw more strikes than your average egg. It’s best fished dead-drift beneath a strike indicator.
Death Roe (Size #10-#14)
The Death Roe is a bead and hook setup designed to look just like a real salmon egg. It’s perfect for ensuring that you hook the fish in the corner of the mouth instead of burying a barbed piece of steel in their gullet.
Flashback Hare’s Ear (Size #12-#14)
The Flashback Hare’s Ear is a tried and true pattern that works well for steelhead. It’s particularly effective in clear water conditions when the weather is clear. It should be fished beneath a strike indicator for the best results.
Safety Precautions for Spring Steelhead Fishing
While the thrill of the catch is a big part of fishing, safety should always be your top priority. As you venture out in spring, be prepared for changing weather conditions. Dress in layers and always have rain gear on hand. Also, be sure to familiarize yourself with local fishing regulations to ensure you’re fishing responsibly and legally.
Equipment Maintenance for Optimal Performance
Maintaining your fishing gear is crucial for its longevity and performance. After each fishing trip, clean your rods, reels, and flies to remove any dirt or grime. Store them in a cool, dry place to prevent any damage or wear.
Dry and repair waders, it seems like I always discover leaks on the coldest steelhead trip. Regular maintenance not only extends the life of your equipment but also improves your overall fishing experience.
Conservation and Responsible Fishing
As anglers, we have a responsibility to protect our fisheries for future generations. Practice catch and release whenever possible and handle fish with care to increase their survival rate upon release. Remember, we are visitors in their underwater world.
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One More Cast for Spring Steelhead
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of feeling a steelhead strike your fly. One of my most memorable experiences was on a cool, early spring morning. The river was quiet, the air crisp. As I cast my line and the fly hit the water, I felt a sudden, forceful tug. The fight was on, and after a few heart-stopping moments, I reeled in a beautiful, shimmering steelhead. It’s moments like these that make all the preparation and patience worthwhile.
In conclusion, spring steelhead fly fishing is an exciting and rewarding activity. With the right techniques, gear, and respect for nature, you can enjoy this wonderful pastime while also contributing to the conservation of our waterways. So gear up, head out, and enjoy the thrill of steelhead fishing this spring!
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