Know Your Fish - Steelhead

steelhead Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

Ocean Phase Identification Characteristics:

  • Typical silvery sides common to all Pacific salmon
  • Back and upper sides can be green, blue-green, or steel blue with a silvery hue.
  • Small black spots above lateral line, on dorsal and adipose fins and tail fin
  • Square-shaped tail fin with radiating pattern of spots
  • Belly white to silvery-white
  • Inside of mouth and gums white
    steelhead trout fishing Spawning Phase Identification Characteristics:

  • Male has a hooked lower jaw that extends just past the eye
  • Female has a blunt head and short jaw that does not extend past the eye
  • Distinct dark spots on dorsal fin
  • Often has reddish stripe along sides
  • Gill cover reddish Records:

  • Length up to 45 inches
  • Summer-run record: 35.06 lbs, Gilbert Pierson, Snake River, Whitman Co., 11/23/73
  • Winter-run record: 32.75 lbs, Gene Maygra, East Fork Lewis River, Clark Co., 4/14/80
    Sea-going rainbow trout, known as steelhead, are one of our better-known anadromous fish. Steelhead start their lives in freshwater rivers and creeks, migrate to the ocean, then spend one to six years in the Pacific ocean before returning to their natal rivers and streams to repeat the cycle.

    Unlike the Pacific salmon, steelhead don't always die after spawning, although a large number, especially males, don't survive the harsh spawning process. Steelhead may travel as far as 1000 miles inland to spawn, but most are found nearer to the ocean waters. Some steelhead spawn three or four times during their lifetime and return to the ocean to feed for 10 months or so between spawnings. It is believed that the largest of the returning steelhead are first-time spawners. The steelhead's ocean feeding grounds are spread out over the North Pacific, although exactly where remains a bit of a mystery. It is known that they can roam a great distance from their natal rivers and streams.

    Most steelhead spawn from mid-winter to late-spring, but two different runs, summer and winter, return to freshwater at different times. Summer-run steelhead return to freshwater from April to October, and anglers catch these summer fish in good numbers from about three dozen Washington rivers and creeks. Winter-run steelhead return to over 100 Washington streams from November through April. Some of these streams have wild steelhead runs that provide good fishing and a self-sustaining population. But a loss of clean spawning gravel and suitable rearing habitat, coupled with other problems, has greatly depleted the wild steelhead runs in many river systems.

    Most adult steelhead return from the Pacific after two or three years, ranging from about 5 to 14 pounds. The true trophies are fish that stay at sea four to six years. These are the 20-, 25-, even 30-pounders that an angler may get a shot at only once in a lifetime.

    Many fishing methods take steelhead, but drift-fishing is the most popular. It involves casting upstream and letting the lure sink to the bottom, where it drifts downstream with the current. Standard baits and lures for steelhead drift-fishing include clusters of fresh salmon or steelhead roe, live ghost shrimp, brightly colored steelhead "bobbers" and tufts of fluorescent nylon yarn. Casting wobbling spoons, spinner and artificial flies also produces steelhead strikes, as does drifting a leadhead jig suspended beneath a bobber.

    For more information about Washington State's game fish you can download these PDF files: Pacific salmon identification (1446KB), trout and salmon identification (560KB), and selected game fish (2553KB). To read these files you will need the free Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader that you can obtain from Adobe's PDF Reader web page.

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