With regards to most scientists there is no difference between Steelhead and Rainbow Trout. However, to us anglers there is a huge difference! Steelhead are similar to salmon in the fact that they are born in freshwater, then spend some time in their natal rivers as smolt before beginning their migration to the saltwater. Here in the salt the steelhead cover great distances hunting their varying food sources. They then return back to their natal rivers to spawn again. Unlike Pacific Salmon who only spawn once and die, Steelhead in the right conditions can spawn multiple times. This incredible life cycle yields incredibly strong, beautiful, and athletic fish.
Alaska is a Steelhead Fishing Destination
Alaska is one of the last strongholds of good Steelhead runs. Writing that sentence pains me greatly…I learned how to steelhead in Oregon, Washington, and California many years ago. Just today I read that the wild steelhead return for the Deschutes is forecasted to be less than 700 fish. Runs in the lower 48 and even Canada are suffering for a variety of reasons that could fill pages and pages and have. I truly hope that Alaska will be spared and our numbers will remain strong and healthy so that my daughter can become the Steelhead addict that I am. Steelheading in Alaska has been a destination for many anglers for many years. Due to our remoteness, lack of dams, catch and release protocols, and decent management numbers of wild steelhead are still strong.
Alaska Steelhead runs are primarily fall and spring runs. Some rivers will have both while other systems will only have one. Fall runs will typically start mid to late September and hit full force by October. These fish will "winter" over until they spawn in the spring. Spring fish can start as early as late March and as late as early May. These fish come into the system, spawn and then return back to the salt. Alaskan steely are generally not as large as some of their Canadian cousins but can still reach over 40 inches. Most steely are in the upper 20's to low 30's with lots in the mid 30's.
Chasing Wild Alaskan Steelhead
Anglers dreaming of catching wild Steelhead should consider Alaska as a location to chase these unicorns for lots of reasons. As mentioned prior our numbers are still high. Also, Alaska has countless rivers where steelhead come to spawn. Some are easily accessible by road while others are only accessible by plane or helicopter. Some runs are on the smaller side such as 200-500 fish while other systems will boast 6,000 – 15,000! My favorite thing about fishing for Steelhead up here in Alaska is compared to the lower 48 there are way less people. Even on what I consider a crowded day up here would be a ghost town for most steely rivers in the lower 48. Our runs are wild which mean strong fish not fish born in pens. In most of our rivers that have Steelhead other species can be fished for as well. In my favorite river there are resident Rainbows, sea run Dolly's, and 2 species of Salmon! That's 5 different species of fish in one river.
When fishing for Steelhead in Alaska anglers first need to check if the specific river system, they're wishing to fish has them. Alaska Department of Fish and Game has an amazing website where this info can be found. Our Steelhead rivers are primarily located in the south-central, south-east, and Kodiak Island parts of the state. Most of the river systems will also have a lake involved where the river begins. So, a good factor to consider when looking at maps for possible steely locations. Many methods can be employed to catch steely whether that be with conventional tackle or fly gear. One of the most effective ways is to drift a bead below a float, bobber or indicator. The bead imitates an egg which is a primary food source for all fish in Alaska. My preferred method is to swing flies on a 2 handed rod. Swinging spoons on conventional tackle is also effective. Having a stout rod is important when targeting steelhead for several reasons. They're insanely strong and acrobatic and have an inherent knowledge of how to beat anglers, they can take many runs, and lastly having a rod with enough backbone to get these fish in quickly to not stress them out to death is of the upmost importance. Most fly anglers will typically use an 8wt. Some of the best flies aren't flies at all but beads ranging in size and colors. Some anglers prefer smaller more natural looking beads while others prefer large brightly colored beads. One's best bet is just come prepared with a variety of size and color. Some of my personal favorite "swing" flies are variations of the Intruder in black and blue and pinks. Another go to swing fly for me is the Hobo Spey, it is a smaller profile fly that can work in all water conditions. Other good swing flies such as the Dali Llama incorporate rabbit strips in the fly. These strips provide great fly movement in moving water. One of the most important things to consider in fly selection is an anglers faith in the fly, if you don't have faith in what your using, you won't fish as effectively if you believe your fly will work!