Steelheading the Valley Part 1

by Vic Carrao

Over the next few months we will be writing a series of articles on Steelhead fishing in the lower mainland. We will try to cover as many subjects as we can, along with some tips and that will hopefully increase your success. Most trout spend their entire life in the lake or stream in which they inhabit, there is a couple of exceptions. Steelhead & their cousin the Cutthroat trout spend a year in fresh water, then they will migrate to saltwater, where they will feed and grow until some unknown trigger, then return to spawn.

Steelhead have been known to perform spectacular jumps and runs in their quest to be free. Stories and memories of chrome bullets cartwheeling down the river, to only have your line snap as though it was 2lb test, are why we dream of the first rumors of Steelhead entering the river systems. This and their sheer beauty is the reason anglers from all over the world converge on British Columbia rivers each winter.

Each river system in the Fraser Valley has it’s own distinct run of Steelhead. We will mostly discuss two main systems, The Vedder and the Chehalis rivers. The Vedder and Chehalis river both contain a healthy run of winter Steelhead. The Chehalis river returns are generally sooner, fish start to arrive into the system in late November. By mid December there are good chances of hooking into one. The fish are smaller compared to the Vedder and the returns are considerably less. In an average year the smolt release in the Chehalis is 40 to 50,000, the Vedder is 120,000 to 135,000.

These fish have been known to ruin the confidence of many experienced fisherman. Some of the smallest details can be the difference between success and frustration. Many anglers who frequent the Vedder & Chehalis in the fall continue on into Steelheading without changing their approach. This is a sure receipt for a disastrous start to the season. Steelhead enter the system over a period of time in small numbers. They will prefer traveling and holding in specific types of water depending on conditions. Therefore you must take into account a few basic principles to determine where, how, and what to use in order to be successful.

By mid December, water levels in the Vedder are generally consistent. The river rises and drops at a slow rate, so changes in water temperature and clarity are gradual. I’ve heard many anglers say Steelhead hold on the edge of fast and slow water. True, in certain water conditions. I’ve heard Steelhead travel at night, true, in the right conditions. Steelhead, like their cousins the trout have certain requirements in order to inhabit a particular type of water. The type of water they will hold and travel in will change with water conditions. Several factors to consider are water clarity, depth, and temperature.

Clarity and depth are generally related to each other. When the water rises the visibility is usually affected; as the water recedes it becomes clearer. Steelhead, like most trout will require some basic needs. Security from predators is one. In low, clear conditions Steelhead will hold in water usually deeper than 3 ft. They will hold on the edge of fast and slower water and where the flow is good to moderate. Deeper pools are a good bet as well as runs that contain good bottom structure or over hanging trees and limbs. As the water rises and clarity decreases, fish will start to move in closer to shore. The current is less, yet there is enough depth and clarity or lack of it to feel secure. Another type of holding water that is commonly overlooked is tailouts. Tailouts provide good cover for Steelhead even in low clear conditions. The turbulent surface makes identifying fish difficult for birds of prey and for eager anglers.

As I mentioned earlier, some of the smallest details can make an enormous difference. Such as your approach to the section of river you intend to fish, your approach to the rivers edge and the all-important first cast. Once you’ve determined the section of the river to be fished, try parking a half mile or so downstream, walk up the river to your determined start point. Stay far enough away from the waters edge so not to spook any fish holding close to shore. But close enough that you can read the water on your way up, choosing which runs, tailouts, slots etc, you want to fish. By walking upstream, you are only fishing the distance traveled. How many times have you walked the river only to discover that you’re now 3 miles downstream from your vehicle.

Presentation is everything! You’ve probably read this a thousand times, and it’s for a good reason. How many times have you heard “first cast, hit a big one” or “I walked in above these guys, 3rd cast, Fish on!” It’s been my experience that most Steelhead are caught within the first 10 casts of anyone offering. Choose the primary lie in any given run. This is the most likely spot a fish would be traveling or holding. Place yourself well above and only enter the water when it’s absolutely necessary. Make your first cast above the predetermined primary lie and allow your offering to drift as naturally as possible.

10 cast rule, bread and butter of most successful Steelheaders. Once you’ve determined the primary lie you need to determine secondary lies then separate the run into sections to fish. I.e.: riffle, runs, tailout, and transition water. Choose which sections you want to fish, take into count, water depth, color and temp etc. Now you’re ready to begin fishing. Make no more than 10 casts in the same slot. If you’re fishing boulder runs, no more than 5 casts. If you feel the need to make more casts, “change the offering.” Sometimes a small change can pay off with a nice fish. Once you’ve made your 10 casts walk downstream staying above the water not fished yet, so not to spook any possible takers. Continue this way throughout the run, you may be surprised with a nice chrome fish. The next issue we will be discussing fishing with bait, artificial lures and spinners, as well as how water temperature affects fish movement.

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