Winter steelhead are found where they are found. They move around a lot, and thus you may find one in a spot where you did not expect it, nor catch one again. In other words, you have to consider fishing more water than just hotspots.
Having said this, winter steelhead are found most typically in: heads of pools, tails of pools and straight line runs of 3 to 8 feet deep. And there is pass through water and holding water. Steelhead move through pools to the head where they tend to lie under the frothy water, out of sight, with lots of oxygen and being first to see food swept from the riffle above. Make sure to fish that top foot, rather than step into the water.
Tails of pools, other than during spawning when it is unethical to fish them, represent a spot where steelhead have come up a riffle or fast water with higher than usual downward gradient. They stop to rest for awhile before continuing to the head of a pool. Sometimes they may be in direct view, depending on how high you can get above the tail-out. Usually though, they melt into the rocks and are not seen. If they see you, however, then they will not bite.
There is nothing more aggravating than wading down a river and having a steelhead swim by you. Typically, you have disturbed the fish and they move up or down. Do remember these fish as where you find one, you will find another in the future. Make sure your fly or lure plumbs that water before you disturb it by wading.
Runs present a crease in bottom structure where the water is deeper than the rest of the cross-section of the river. Seldom do you see fish, as the water is too deep and flow patterns destroy the windows – calm surface patterns flowing down current that allow momentary sight through to the bottom – but they are the highest percentage spots in most rivers. In these circumstances, steelhead stop for a period of time, many days for example, before moving on.
Note also that you should fish a river often enough that you see its evolution over time. Bottom structure influences fish position and if structure changes, so to does where fish come to rest. In one river, one day, I caught three ‘yearling’ winter steelhead in a small depression caused by scouring gravel beside a shoreline boulder.
Over the next few years, the riffle below changed its bank from the right, where the fish were, to the left, leaving the water little more than calf deep, and without a route directly upstream into it. Not expecting much, but because I had caught fish in the spot now several times, I plopped in the spinner I happened to be fishing one day (I typically fly fish for steelhead).
On the third and going to be my last cast before moving down 50 yards, a steelhead took the lure and streaked to the left and down river. Over the next twenty minutes I chased it 600 yards down river. When finally subdued and hook removed, I held it up and it was longer than from the middle of my chest to the end of my arm, meaning more than 34 inches. That made it more than 20 pounds and the largest steelhead I have ever caught.
The only reason I had caught it was that I had put a lure into a spot that I had caught steelhead before, even though it had become a very low percentage spot since then. Had I done what other anglers would have done and passed by the water, I would not have ended up with my largest steelhead. I surmised the spot must have a cool spring flowing up from the bottom, so in warmer months, fish would lie there, in a second-rate shallow spot, rather than move up.
Since that time, a large Douglas fir has keeled over and into the river at that spot. The river has scoured gravel down seven feet. With the river still a left bank river, it means there is a head of a pool, a riffle, then a tail of a pool, and then a direct line into this deeper water. I have not caught steelhead there since, but many cutthroat trout, and it looks like a killer spot for coho in the rains of autumn.
The most commonly used winter steelhead gear is a baitcaster reel, 9.5- to 10.5-foot rod and a dink float. The float is adjusted up the mainline from the sinker(s) the distance to get the lure to the bottom. The old saying is: if you are not losing some gear, you are not fishing deep enough. I would add to this that the better you know the river, the less gear you will lose.
Many terminal tackle arrangements include variations on a theme: Gooey Bobs, Spin n Glos, Pink worms and so on on a leader of 18- to 24-inches, or longer in ultra-clear water. Tackle is taken to the bottom by weights, of varying description. Hollow core lead can be crimped lightly to the tag end of the mainline below the triple swivel tied on – so that in a bottom snag, it slips off leaving you with the rest of the tackle. To the third eye of the swivel is tied a preassembled hooks, lure and leader of typically 10 or more pounds test, except for ultra-clear water.
Casting pattern depends on covering all the good water in front of you. The gear is cast upstream, and the rod tip is high in the air so that line can be mended so you are in contact at all times with the float. If the float goes down, strike. If the float continually points downstream, the tackle is dragging on the bottom and the distance between weight and float is shortened.
Once the gear passes you and carries on downstream, you are free spooling the reel, a circumstance that lets centre-pin reels shine. The point is to be in contact with the tackle and strike quickly when the float disappears.
You make successive casts run straight down current, each one adding a foot of distance to the cast. In other words, you fish the entire run from side to side and up to down stream. On cold days, you would add less distance in successive casts, or make multiple passes in the water before moving on – remember the 40 casts I put over a male steelhead in a frigid Gold River before it bit.
Comment needs be made on two types of water: pass through and holding water. The first is typically slow water, perhaps the inside of a bend and the incoming steelhead simply swims slowly through it up to the next head of a pool or run. You pass down the water, and then, because new fish can always come through, you can actually fish pass through water again.
Holding water on the other hand is where steelhead sit for some time. Typically, a lower speed spot in faster water, behind a rock – steelhead are found in connection with rock far more than they are with wood, for example, logs and root-balls. Cutthroat, on the other hand favour wood.
When fishing, you need to bear in mind that from holding water, once you are finished you have to move on because you have disturbed the fish there, rather than in pass through water, that can have new fish in it at any time. So, your day, will depend on planning to hit several high percentage spots, and you may fish pass through water more than once.