The steelhead (sometimes called "steelhead trout") are an anadromous (sea-run) form of the coastal rainbow trout that usually returns to fresh water to spawn after living two to three years in the ocean. Freshwater forms that have been introduced into the Great Lakes and migrate into tributaries to spawn are also called steelhead. Adult freshwater stream rainbow trout average between 1 and 5 lb (0.5 and 2.3 kg), while lake-dwelling and anadromous forms may reach 20 lb (9 kg). Coloration varies widely based on subspecies, forms and habitat. Adult fish are distinguished by a broad reddish stripe along the lateral line, from gills to the tail, which is most vivid in breeding males.
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These sought-after sea-going rainbow trout are found from the Pacific Northwest in the Lower 48, up the coast of British Columbia and into southwest Alaska. The "fish of 10,000 casts" averages 8-12 lbs with trophy specimens topping 20 lbs. The steelhead is one of the wariest salmonids and rates near the top of the "angling challenge" scale.
The steelhead is a formidable opponent once hooked, capable of mad dashes and skyrocketing leaps. The prudent angler gears up with a 7 or 8wt rod matched to a high-capacity reel with a good drag to battle these chrome rockets. Two-handed (Spey) rods can be used on some of the larger rivers up to a 9-weight. If you are planning on chasing Alaskan steelhead with a single hand rod, we suggest using a 9-10' 7-8 wt rod. If you are using a nymphing/dead drifting technique, a 10' medium-fast action rod is ideal for long line mends. Seeking steelhead with a switch rod is becoming increasingly popular because it is easy to change from nymphing to swinging. The best line for steelhead depends on your chosen method of angling. If nymphing flies or fishing beads is the preferred method, look for a weight forward floating line or switch line that has a medium to long body. The medium to long floating body is important for line mending and management. If swinging flies is the preferred method, short sink tips in both medium and fast sink rates are recommended. A multi-tip line with the standard 15' tips supplemented with super-fast tips can be ideal on a number of smaller steelhead streams.
There are a lot of options when it comes to choosing flies for steelhead fishing. Flies can vary from egg sucking leech patterns, large strung out patterns and small nymph patterns. Recently, anglers have switched to using more egg imitations or yarn balls under an indicator, while some still prefer multi-colored steelhead nymphs. Hot pink and orange are often a favorite, but don't rule out naturals, especially if chasing fish in the fall or winter. Beads were originally associated with fishing for trout during the salmon spawn. They started catching on with anglers in the Pacific Northwest over a decade ago and now have become a staple in most anglers' boxes.
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