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How to Consistently spot Steelhead

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No, sorry, this isn’t a dissertation on my youth and its addictive lifestyle, nor is it about swimming into toilet bowls and/or breaking the law to get a fix.…

Actually, wait—maybe I could write a dissertation on some of that, at least as far as youth and addictions go.

Growing up on the Canyon Rivers of the North Vancouver, rivers dominated by deep pools and tail-outs, giant boulders and cliff faces, I found waters that fit my addiction to fishing like a glove, as they had my paternal father’s and his father’s before him. Some of the pools are actually our namesakes. I learned these waters intimately and thoroughly.

But, I didn’t just simply stroll out and start beating the waters here; approaches were often down trails to canyon lookouts, steep descents into a mossy and wet canyon micro-climate. From these lookouts, the vodka-like clarity of the river demanded a good, long look first, for deep in the waters there were often fish to be seen, then strategies hatched, and then casts made. 

About the third Steelhead I ever caught was spotted. Not at its first appearance, but rather after it turned away from my fly and settled back to the river bottom. I watched its return to the boulders and noted its shape. I was trout fishing, actually, and it was June, so this summer-run didn’t look three feet long and stand out like a flashing light; it was more just a big trout to me, 25” or so, hovering under a foam line deep in a boulder-filled tail–out.

But, there it was, and after several fly changes, a tippet up-grade and a few casts, it was mine, and it forever changed my approach to fishing rivers where fish could be seen. Over the years, I would see many fish in these spots, sometimes single, often in pairs or more.

Getting ready

Spotting Steelhead does have a few critical prerequisites. First and foremost is a pair of good polarized glasses, preferably an amber/yellow or honey-brown coloured lens for Steelhead waters, since light is often low and a good contrast lens is vital. I prized my old amber Action Optics more than my rod and reel when I was young, and many a time I turned the truck around when I forgot them.

Understanding where Steelhead lie is also key, but not all lies are visible, of course, nor are they easy to notice, like canyon tail-outs. But the standard fish-holding characteristics of cover, boulders, shade, current edges and bottom colour apply.

It’s important to note what Steelhead don’t like. They hate sand (and it seems that fine, substrate river bottoms are a close second). I’m not sure why, since a bright fish would seemingly disappear over a lighter sandy bottom easier than a darker one but, nevertheless, I rarely see fish over that type of bottom. (They also don’t like swirly, twisting waters, preferring a steady current.) The only exception to this rule is an old Salmon red. Steelhead love redds, largely because they often provide the perfect depression for them in areas of little cover. A flat full of redds is often full of Steelhead later in the season, and since redds are often in shallower waters with decent current speeds, the fish are fairly obvious to the eye.

Steelhead seek out rocks and boulders, logs, shade from overhanging tree limbs, and the cover of dark river bottoms with a walking speed current. These are the places to look.

Another key to seeing fish is the lighting, not bright, sun-lit water either, but light coming from the right place and providing the surface penetration required to illuminate the bottom clearly. Even in relative low light, fish can been seen, if the light is right. Light and light angle are probably the most important things I look for, and in this I include back-drop shade, meaning the dark shade a high bank or tree casts over the water, so when the light is right, the water looks like a giant TV screen. Sometimes walking a few feet to several meters up or down stream can be the change needed to peer into the spot you expect to see fish and get around surface glare, hopefully without revealing oneself to the fish, either. On that note, let’s discuss clothing.

Being invisible

There is a reason most angling clothing is relatively drab and earth-toned in nature; it blends in. Climbing a tree or hovering on top of a cut-bank in a bright coloured jacket is akin to waving a flag at fish, especially from above, and although that nice, bright puffy jacket looks great in Instragram pics, it has no place in spotting fish regularly.

Most of my clothing and tops are earth-toned or flat-out camouflage. (Since I enjoy hunting and work with Sitka gear, a specialty hunting camouflage manufacturer, I have lots of camo.) Sure, it can make following me through the forest a challenge for clients sometimes, but is well worth the stealth factor.

Once in stealthy clothing, you move that way … too … SLOWLY … and use cover to your advantage when approaching the water you expect to see fish in; that includes approaching from downstream whenever possible.

Getting on them

So you are all earth-toned, standing with the sun behind you, peering into the flow.… What now? Sometimes Steelhead, especially fresh ones, will stand out like a glowing neon sign, so much so one wonders how evolution allowed it. More often than not, though, they are right there in front of you; you just don’t see them.

The first keys are, of course, colour and shape. Not too many things on the river bottom average 30” in length, are long and skinny, wave in the current and have angular protrusions coming off their bellies and tails. Sometimes it takes a few minutes of just staring and letting your eyes adjust to the bottom (not the surface) of the river. In areas of heavier current, you may find waiting for a clear patch—or “boil” as we used to call them—to open and offer an almost looking-glass effect to seeing the bottom. Then, swing your eyes downstream with these clear patches and, once you see a suspect shape, STARE at it. If it’s a fish, soon you will notice fins and a tail, eyes appear and, as your eyes adjust, you might even start counting spots. The “holy crap there’s one right there” effect is common to first-time fish spotters, like a ghost or a Sasquatch appearing in front of you out of nowhere.

The other key is to always look at your feet first and work your sightlines out to the opposite bank. Way too often, people look past the fish lying close, and then almost step on it when they set foot forward to look farther across the stream.

For fall-run fish, like big bucks sporting “racing stripes”,” it’s often the red you notice first. After years on the Morice river and its clear flow, I found they oddly didn’t stand out as much, but on the more earth-toned Babine river, racing-striped bucks appeared everywhere to me. (I’m of the opinion the Babine fish colour up faster in the darker water than Morice fish do in clearer waters, but maybe that’s just me.)

Often once you see one fish, you notice there are more. Fish will use the same lies over and over if the water height is consistent, so where you saw fish before will most certainly be where you see them again.

Predators and hydrological fish traps affect behavior

One of the hardest spots to see fish is a riffle, especially a shallow, fast one, largely because the surface distortion caused by the riffle limits visibility. But why are the fish in a riffle to begin with? Two reasons: traveling fish, of course, but, far more often, it’s because of natural predation.

Seals, sea-lions and otters define Steelhead behavior in many systems, and they are a controversial issue on continued Steelhead abundance. As juveniles, Steelhead spend several years avoiding predation before going to sea, and as adults returning, they quickly remember that shallow, fast waters limit the mobility of predators like seals, who regularly follow them into rivers in this day and age, often a very long way from the sea. Otters do, as well, as they often live in the river and can be a daily interaction.

This is where “walking on Steelhead” comes into play, since the average angler always looks at water with the “grass is greener on the other side” mantra, and wades out to knee- to waist-deep water to fish the run. They often can literally step on fish as they crash into the water. The threat of a seal is far greater than the threat of such aerial predators as eagles to Steelhead, so they will happily sit in 20” of water for cover and protection.

Again, the key is to walk up from behind in these spots, looking for longer, irregular shapes, as riffle water is often dominated by uniform substrate. If there are a few bigger rocks, look behind them, since they often also form small depressions. Even if you don’t see fish, apply the rules like you do, cast short, and lengthen each cast until it’s covered; this is simply a great habit regardless.

 A fish trap is a term for a super-shallow bar or riffle caused by either a widening of the river or an island. In low waters, these impede fish movement and fish will often nose right into them or wait in the nearby deeper water for lower light or rising water to move.

I have seen literally schools of Steelhead sitting in these locations, often oblivious to anglers who pass them by. I discovered these fish because I saw them. As is the case with any fish in large numbers in shallow water, the waters get “nervous”:” An unusual push of water, a tail splash counter to the flow, or down-right spooked fish turning quickly. Most river anglers have seen this with abundant Salmon, like Chums, but Steelhead do it too, just more subtly.

Good water observation is always a good angling habit, not only for seeing the spot, but possibly the quarry, too.


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