When it comes to fishing or should I say when it comes to “Catching” you can peruse through many a fishing book or magazine and what does a person always find? The same ol’ rig a maroll…The same ol’ him and haw. What to use, what colors work best, what to buy, how to rig up this that and the other thing, tip this, tip that, tip tap, and again most importantly WHAT DO THE JONES BUY… but does anyone address the most important issue.? It seems to always be just glossed over as “Fish biting” but why are they biting? Why aren’t they biting? What difference does it make what Mr. Jone’s fabulous pole you have if you don’t know why the fish do what they do and what is this “WHY” anyway? This WHY is called fish behavior.

Yes, fish behavior and knowing fish behavior is your ticket to becoming a successful fisherman. Understanding the fish will separate the men from the boys, the catchers from the skunked, the experienced from the beginners, the losers from the winners, the happy husbands from the empty handed husbands. I think you get my point. You can know all the tips in the world and own all the most expensive equipment but I guarantee you, if you don’t know about how the fish thinks the guy with the cheap ugly stick, 10 pound test line, piece of lead, hook and bait that knows how fish behave is going to kick your sorry butt every time.

I have observed that most fishermen refuse to acknowledge this fact that fish behave in certain ways. Once they have caught a fish in one spot they will go back to that spot year after year after year not realizing that it is not productive because the water isn’t high enough like that magic moment years ago when the fellow had once found a fish there. It will never produce another fish again till the water level and the time of year, along with the position of the moon and venus are aligned exactly right. Another grave mistake fishermen and even guides make is that they don’t take into allowance that spots that produced last year will not produce again due to the fact that the rivers may have change and your honey pockets have all filled up and won’t hold a fish. What is the point I’m trying to make, you ask? You have to make fishing into a science, and like in the real scientific world, only the intelligent and most innovative scientist will get the Nobel Prize or how bout the 20 pound steelhead in our case?

So when I was fishing up in Northern British Columbia, it dawned on me about the intricate behavior of the moving fish. I had realized a lot of this stuff before but never quite realized it in it’s entirety because I had never had so many fish to observe, and remember the four steps to the scientific method in school. One was to observe. So please enjoy my analysis on “Steelhead Behavior…. And Moving Fish” Maybe you’ll learn something maybe you won’t, but remember fishing is like life not one person knows everything about it (and if you do I’m sorry you must be really bored) and if you keep an open mind and try new things it will keep the quality of your life and fishing… REALLY EXCITING!

When the river levels are at the right height the fish move in. That is why after heavy rains waves of fish will move in, in large numbers. If the river is low they will sit out in the estuary and wait till conditions are right to make their move from salt to fresh. I have contacts all over my favorite river that I like to call after a heavy rain to find out how many fish are on the move in. Then I calculate when they will hit my favorite places to fish where I can get access to them. These favorite places are usually around spawning areas because here’s a real newsflash, all fish, be it wild or hatchery move as fast as hell till they reach what I call spawning holding areas. Who are my contacts you ask? Why, the lowest form of life on the River… the legendary Plunkers. They sit and wait for these waves of fish to move through so they know what’s going down. A Plunker can be your best friend.

So just what happens when these fish hit the fresh water, well they will pause for an hour or two to acclamate in the first couple of deep holes they come across, acclamating till they get use to the fresh water and then they will be on the move and they will move fast. Occasionally they will hole up below or above a major rapid but don’t let that spot fool you. I observed in a perfect static situation a large rocky flat below and above a rapid and noted that the fish did not stop but kept moving on through.

Has anyone ever noticed that certain lower parts of the river are never fished by fishermen? Is the reason being that the area is no good. Wrong. The fish are not pausing or holding up until they begin to hit the spawning grounds. A lot of successful fishermen especially fly fishermen can do fairly well in these long stretches that the fish move through fast by continuously casting in one spot till one lucky fish runs into their fly but the only trick here is that a fly has to come into contact with the fish so this is all based on luck unless you have a lot of fish moving through the stretch at one time. Have you ever seen perfect holding water and never caught or saw a fish holding there? That’s because they move right on through it because there is nothing to keep them there, they are not feeding they are moving to their spawning grounds to spawn and die or return, and they want to do it as fast as possible.

For example while fishing a large river I was referred to a nice flat that was great for producing fish. It was exciting to fish because you could see 100 yards down the fish rolling once they got into the flat. Later on I realized why they slowed down in this spot. They had to go through 4 miles of fast water with no holding spots, pockets or even boulders before they reach this flat with large boulders where the water finally slowed down to a crawl. My partner and I would pick a good trough where they would move through and just hammer it with a spoon and time it as the fished rolled up to us. It was a very exciting way to fish and very productive. The only hazard we encountered was having to hook the fish “On the Hang” and to make that work we just followed the spoons progression with the rod tip and when the fish hit we set the hook towards the shore. A little trick that always works, because remember when a fish takes a fly or spoon it almost always turns and goes out to the middle of the river. I said almost always, sometimes they will charge you, hold that rod high and reel if you can’t run back and sometimes they will just thrash in the water and you pray the hook stays in. (A treble hook is almost always foulproof in this situation).
Now why are the moving fish always within 5 to 20 feet of the shore? Think about it, shallow water, weaker current they have to work less. The other priority for the fish besides spawning is that they want to conserve as much energy as possible to make the journey. So never go past your knees, this is why when some “Experts” wade up to their necks and cast as far as they can, catch less fish. The fish is not going to be in that deep heavy water… Unless of course they were scared there by YOU.

Other things I observed were that the fish were again right next to the shore in less than two feet of water, I saw this all over the place. I figured they were sunning themselves because this wasn’t the first time I have observed this. As I stood above a big pocket I would watch large fish swim right up to me and just move to the side, I think I had more fun watching fish than catching them.

Another observation I made were the positioning of the fish if there were several different species in one stretch… The kings would be from the head to the main part of the pool, the steelhead in the tail away from the kings and the pinks at the very head. So what does this mean? No one likes kings and where they are the other fish you’re after won’t be. For instance I noted that the sockeye in numbers of 4 to 5 would attack the kings. So does it mean that the sockeye don’t like them personally? No I heard they don’t like their smell. Kings just stink.

What really put inperspective my theory of moving fish was this… We tried conventional methods that we use on holding fish down here in Washington and none of them worked. You may ask why is that, maybe you weren’t doing it right? There were so many fish everywhere that there was no way we weren’t doing it right they just weren’t interested. We know that our plugs, our eggs, and our drift gear went past thousands of fish but they just weren’t interested because they had other things in mind like just getting to their spawning grounds and that was it.

Now that we have discussed why the fish move so fast and why they don't hold till they get to their spawning grounds what do we conclude from this?

1. When fishing the mouths of rivers that empty into salt water, the fish as they move in will move in with the high tides (2 hours before and an hour after) or heavy rains They will hold for awhile in the first deep poles to aclamate themselves from salt water to fresh. To fish for them one can sit on such holes with plugs wrapped with sardines or continuously cast spinners, or bait (because sometimes they will keep feeding on entry).

2. They will normally move fast till they reach spawning areas. Now remember it may not be that particular fishes spawning habitat if the main river has several tributaries but they will begin to slow down maybe to try to recognize the area. Water in the lower river that looks like perfect holding water for steelhead never holds steelhead because there is no reason for the fish to hold there.

3. They will sometimes hold and rest below a large rapid or after moving through large sections of fast moving water at the first spot the water slows down, but they do not slow down much or hold for very long.

4. Steelhead want to conserve as much energy as possible while moving to their spawning grounds. Which means they will travel along the shoreline in the shallower water instead of the heavy middle waters of a river. Steelhead will swim in two feet of water if not disturbed. So going over your knees, especially in the early mornings is a fatal mistake.

5. Steelhead when conserving energy will pick the shortest course to travel upstream, sometimes in a diagnol. When looking downstream at a stretch of river, note the slower spots and think to yourself. "If I was a steelhead, what path of least resistence and shortest length would I chose to go up?"

As Orvis Boy and I discussed why the plugs, bait and other implements of destruction didn't work on moving fish, it came to me. As I sat there and watch a hungry grizzly bear scope up a half dead mummy king in front of a huge creek, the thought crossed my mind about hatchery fish and why you can't really catch them unless they're hanging around the hatchery. For years and years, it has been a myth that the reason why hatchery fish race up to the hatchery was because they were genetically inferior. I would like to take this myth and destroy it.

Hatchery fish race up to the hatchery or wherever they were released as fry because that is where they are imprinted to where they spawn. Ever notice that hatchery fish seldom hold anywhere but the mile around the hatchery? Ever notice that they stack up in some pool above or below the hatchery.? This is not because they are genetically inferior but because that is the only imprint they have as to where they should spawn because they were released there.

But Miss Angie... what about the hatchery fish you find maybe 20 miles away trying to spawn in another tributary or upstream? What about that hatchery fish? Well, if we look at steelhead and evolution we find that some steelhead and salmon stray from where they usually spawn. This is nature's way of adding new genetics into an existing species gene pool of other rivers. Also, during the ice age when the fish were wiped out it was only a matter of 5,000 years for all of the Northwest region's river to become repopulated with salmon and steelhead. This straying factor helps keep the Earth's rivers populated with fish and help keeps the strain of fish from getting too inbred and adds new blood.

So when you catch these strays, in a totally bizarre area these are the fish genetically encoded to go "Seek out new worlds and boldly go where no steelhead has gone before and spawn."

On observation in some of my favorite rivers, I have noticed that where there were once old hatcheries that that area of the old hatcheries we find a different looking steelhead. Snakey and Skamania like, without the basic wild features of the wild steelhead distinct to that river. They also spawn earlier then the the wild fish. So can we consider these fish wild? Especially if they have been doing this for more than 10 years? I don't really know this is an ethical question. One to be answered by the fisheries department that put them there and forgot about them. What this also means is that these old hatchery areas if surrounded by spawning gravel could be another good place to fish. I have discovered one such area on one of my favorite rivers. One thing I love about it, is that it provides me great fishing in January (10 fish days). These hatchery fish have evolved to be large fish because the spawning gravel is pretty big. Again, only the strong big fish are able to spawn there.

This is one of the main reasons I personally think that the WDFW should get off their fat and lazy arses and instead of stuffing rivers full of a completely different species they should naturally broodstock rivers with their own species, so if this sort of thing happens it would be kept to the natural order of things instead of playing with genetics and messing with species that shouldn't be tampered with. Just my opinion anyway. I think we should never mess with "Mother Nature".
Insert picture of spawning bed

We are going to take a look at three different types of spawning habitat for the steelhead, since they tend to spawn in three different places depending on the river. The three different places would be upper versus lower main stems of the river, or creeks. We also have to take the cases of summerruns versus winterruns into account also.


Let's do the creeks since it is the easiest. As we have stated above, fish will move fast till they get to their spawning tributary. If they are heading to a creek this is a very easy scenario to explain. They will not hold in the creek but will hang out above or below the creek in the main river's holding habitat. Which would be nice slow runs, four to five feet of water, with boulders or rocky depressions with rocks the size of a large softball.

Sometimes the mouth of the creek will be conducive to hanging out and a the creek will drop off into a nice large hole. The steelhead will surely stack up in there to hang. Most likely holding in the tail out of such a pool or in the upper riffles depending on the time of day it is, clarity of the water, and how heavily the pool is fished.

Around the creek you will find the steelhead holding below or above it. If there is no holding water directly in front of the creek. If the fish came in early and are going to hang around for a couple of weeks they will hold in these areas. Till conditions make it right to move up the creek and spawn. Which is usually dependent on a heavy rain or warmer conditions. Fishing around creeks is easy.


The fish that come in to spawn in the lower stem of a river, usually come in early February & March do their thing and are out fast. These fish I find are also sometimes bigger and better fighters. To find out where these puppies will be depends on how well you know your river. There will be large tracks of spawning gravel usually the size of two to four inch rocks. The fish again will be holding in deep pockets on the edges of the spawning beds or in boulder gardens above or below it.

If there is a spawning bed you know of without holding water but has deep pockets or troughs around it this is where the fish will be and there will be a wondering buck scouring the surface or in the tail out waiting for hens that will come in drop her eggs and get out fast.

Remember the holding water you are looking for is usually under a seam (where the fast water meets the slow),is about the speed of a man walking and will be able to hide the body of a large fish. Though depending on fishing pressure and water temperature, I have seen fish in such runs sitting clear as day right next to a log lethargic and not willing to move.


These fish will come in anywhere from February to April to make there long trek up from the mouth of the river to the upper stretches to do their business. These fish are sometimes not in a hurry and will take their time and slow down in the lower part to find their spawning habitats. How do I know this? I have caught fish holding in the main river that was meant to make his way to an upper tributary. These fish have a long way to go and the only reason why they are able to be caught in lower sections of spawning areas is due to the fact that they are trying to figure out where the heck they are going and I believe they do this by their sense of smell.

The bulk of these fish come into the river mainly in late March and April. Again they will hold in the same areas of the upper river with the difference being that because they are going up higher that the river will be on a smaller scale and you will have easier access to them. By the time they reach their destination, they are not as bright and have lost weight, but may still be worthy opponents. I dislike fishing for fish in this condition and prefer to catch the brighter earlier fish. Since they seem to get in and out of the river faster sometimes not even staying in the river for more than three days, I feel like I will hurt one less by harrassing it with my fishing gear. There is more of a chance of exhausting a fish that stays in the river longer and has farther to go. So again this is a matter of ethics.
Insert picture of summerrun

The summerrun is a totally different fish. Summerruns will come in from August till December and hang out till March and April to spawn. These fish when they first come in are fat and highly aggressive. It is believed because of their long wait to spawn in the river that they are still feeding and that is why they are more susceptible to dry flies. Also the warmer water temperatures make them more aggressive. Remember the fish is a cold bloodied animal.

If the water is unusually warm we will find these fish in fast heavy ripples. When the water is warmer the water has less oxygen and thus the fish are going to go to these ripples not only for cover but for the oxygen. They may also be found at the bottom of huge dead deep pools. Where the sunlight cannot reach them and the waters are cooler with more oxygen.

Summerruns are more prevalent as we head up to the Northern reaches of North America and are more of an inland steelhead. Since they sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles to their destinations. Before dams were built all over the Columbia River, summerrun steelhead had made their way to the farthest reaches of Montana. These fish were once mighty and huge averaging in monster trophy sizes. Unfortunately dams have wiped most of these summerruns out but they can still be found on the Kispiox and other Northern BC inland rivers and the Thompson.

Summerruns are the most aggressive of all steelhead. Going for dry flies, spoons, spinners or bait. They are succulent and fat because of their long stay in the rivers. Depending on their stay in the river they come in a range of brillant colors. Summerruns are the best fish to go after on the fly because of this aggression.
Insert picture of a winterrun

The winterrun is a finicky fish. Due to heavy rains, dropping and rising water levels, off color to gin colored streams, and changing temperatures, everything or anything can put them off the bite. My favorite way to fish for winterruns is after a heavy rain. When the rivers rise allowing waves of fish to move in. Once the river drops to a good level you can always find a new fish in your favorite holding spot. In early winter fishing I don't go first thing in the morning because the fish don't get active unless the water is over 38 degrees. They are lethargic and I find they are better takers in mid morning temperatures.

Winterruns are almost impossible to get on the fly in January and February but if you find that the days are warmer and the nights are cold to keep the rivers in prime fishing shape you can catch them. The most important thing is to fly fish for steelhead when the conditions are right. Heavy sink tips and big ugly flies are always your best bet. You want to get that ugly fly in front of the steelheads nose and you want it to piss him off. Hitting flies for winterruns is usually a territorial reaction not a feedihng reaction (unless you are trying to imitate food). I find that a steelhead will head bunt a fly first before taking it. So if you feel that weird head butt be prepared to get a strike next go around. You have pissed off the fish and irritated him so the next cast may get attacked or just thoroughly ignored. Putting on a totally different fly after a head butt can usually entice his irritation.

During the winter heavy rains can make a river cloudy with silt with barely any visibility. Can a person catch a winterrun in these conditions? If you hang out at a clear running stream you will find that the steelhead will nose up in these clear waters and try to clean their gills and their eyes. Wouldn't you do that if your gills were irritated with silt?

Some of your best fishing can also be done in two to three feet of visibility, especially if their is heavy fishing pressure on a stream. Here is where baits and scents come into play. Fish can be enticed to strike with smell, but again these are certain scenarios. With visibility being bad the fish won't be too spoked by overhead boats going by in a constant parade. These boats too, may work towards your advantage. In a large hatchery hole filled with driftboats in two feet of visibility, I like to throw my bait behind the boat. I know that the boat has just shifted and irritated a holding steelhead that will be so irritated that he will strike at my offering where before he might of just mouthed it or thought about it as it passed.

What I find to be most effective way of fishing for winterruns, is in spawning holding areas. Steelhead are territorial. Once they have reached their spawning areas and as I've said before they will hold above or below a long flat bed of spawning gravel. If the pocket or hole is above the bed we can force the steelhead out by using plugs and a driftboat. A driftboat has two rods set in the front of it in rod holders that have 40 to 50 feet of line out with dancing plugs on the ends. The plugs are 3 to 4 inches long and usually in bright colors. They make whatever is in the hole mad because something large is in it's territory. The plugs will come at the steelhead and the steelhead will do one of two things. Get out of it's way if it's not in a territorial mood, strike it immediately or back up, they will sometimes back up to 40 yards till forced out of the end of it's territory and strike before he's forced out. Again, plugging is pushing it as to fishing for steelhead in their spawning grounds. We again have to ask an ethical question if it is right or not.


After many years of fishing, I have noticed that the wild steelhead and the hatchery steelhead will slowly trickle in and then come in a peak and trickle in again. Like a bell curve where the peak of the curve happens in March & April, April & May or February & March. Depending on the system you are fishing.

Why do they trickle in? We have to remember that in evolution and natural selection that the steelhead have to trickle in and spawn earlier or later. River conditions may change drastically in the peak and a flood or maybe a mud slide can wipe out the whole peak of spawners. Without the bellcurve spawning the fish can be completely wiped out. The lower and upper bellcure is "Mother Nature's Way" of ensuring the survival of the fish.

So let's look at the bell curve of the coho. It is a long one... They start coming in in August and will continue through January. The coho are a very delicate species of salmon and it's smolts will live in the river for up to two years before making it's ocean journey. With such a huge bellcurve "Mother Nature" is assuring it's survival, because two years in an unstable river envirnoment can make it a very "iffy" survival rate for the coho.

When I first started fishing, I believed that the steelhead and salmon runs were declining due to lost of habitat due to dams, over development and logging. After a couple of years of interviewing and talking to a ton of old time fishermen I have discovered that the only real destroyer was the dam and irresponsible logging practices where creeks were cut off due to culverts being too high off the stream to allow the fish to come up. Dams have wiped out entire runs of salmon and steelhead and drove some species to extinction. These fish will never come back, even with the "Afterthought" fish ladders that were put in later.

The worst scenario was the Elwha Dam of one of the Olympic Peninsulas longest rivers. The Elwha produced one of the largest king runs ever known in history. It's Chinook Salmon averaged in the size of 30 to 40 pounds and 70 to 80 pound kings were fairly common. In the 1920's a dam was put in with no thought to putting in a fish lader. For five years the kings would come back and head butt the bottom of the damn not being able to go up. A giant run of kings wiped out of existence by thoughtlessness. There is talk of the dam being removed but it will take hundreds of years before the giant fish come back. Maybe if we take giant kings and broodstock them in the upper reaches of the Elwah to trick "Mother Nature" it might work, but alas, I don't think the fish will ever reach just majestic proportions again.

Logging, has played a big part in the destruction of our rivers. The silt drainage caused by logging too close to river beds or taking out whole hillsides,wreak havoc willy nilly everytime a strong rain strikes. Run off of deadly mud chokes a stream or creek. People today still think that logging has destroyed the fish but by observation it really hasn't had as much impact as once thought. It just damages it for a time but not permanently.

When the logging silt chokes a stream and finds it's way to the spawning beds it thus smothers the eggs (the eggs if laid to shallow will be at the mercy of the silt) this is why bigger fish have better chances of surviving silt ridden streams because they dig deeper reds. This is usually a short term path of destruction. After a few years the run off ceases, the silt finds it way down river to an awaiting bed and the beds are once again left free. Logging may weaken a run for a few years by wiping out the eggs of a one to two year period, but the next year's returning steelhead will not spawn in the same place and find safer spawning beds. Ever notice that a run once thought to be wiped out will again become strong 10 to 15 years down the road?

Native netting. After the 1972 Boldt decision allowing the Native Americans of Washington State to begin netting the steelhead and salmon, the fish have taken a turn for the worse. Their netting the mouths of rivers 4 to 5 days a week are taking it's toll on the fish trying to return to spawn. Even though the Natives target different fish at different times, the Beginning Bell Curve fish sometimes are completely wiped out. The nets make no distinction on what fish is in season, thus killing every species in it's path. This is bad for the natural order of things.

One good thing about Washington though, are it's heavy rains that allow some smaller fish to escape the clutches of these deadly nets. So what does this mean for the fishermen? To fish successfully on rivers that are netted heavily, fish after these heavy rains or find out the schedule of Native Americans Netting. If it takes two days for a fish in high water to make it to your favorite spot to fish, and the Natives quit netting on Friday, go hit your spot on Monday. It's all in the timing when dealing with heavy netted rivers.

Ocean Conditions play the biggest part and the most mysterious of all. I happen to think this is one of the major reason why the fish don't come back. Warm water currents of El Nino can decrease bait in feeding waters of the steelhead, it can mess up the planktoon and affect all members of the food chain. Steelhead also travel alone in the ocean waters or in pairs. They sometimes migrate as far as Japan. Who knows what forces these fish may run into that they won't survive. My bet is that if there are no bait fish that the steelhead will do poorly. If they have farther to migrate to feeding areas the fish will do poorly. I have heard that a private party hired the WDFW to research what happens to the steelhead in their ocean voyage, but will not allow the findings to be published. I guess we'll just have to wait and see when some other party hires the WDFW to research and maybe they'll publish the findings. I wonder why a private study was done in the first place, maybe I just don't want to know.

Inconclusion we find that the steelhead is a most adaptable creature. They are aggressive, territorial and easy to catch in the right situation. There really aren't any big secrets about the steelhead and they aren't super smart. The reason why people don't catch them is because they aren't there. Since we are dealing with a fourth of the old numbers of yesteryear, we just have to adjust are methods of fishing and actually think about what we are doing. If you open your mind and look at steelheading as a science then you can become a successful fishermen. Just don't fish, think and fish.

When you catch one though, do me a favor. Release it. Until some things are changed the steelhead needs all the help it can get. Don't make yourself one of it's problems. Be helpful, avoid fishing reds, try to rebuild a culvert, don't fish in April, these are just a few of the things you can do to help. Again you can become a solution or you can become a problem. It's up to you, but remember the joy of fishing is something special to be past down to our children. I'm upset that my father and grandfather never thought about, but at least I broke the chain in my generation.

So save the steelhead. Put it back and vote "yes" the next time the vote comes up for "Banning all Nets". The steelhead is part of our heritage and should be treated as such. The Bald Eagle made a comeback, now let's do it with our fish. Remember at one time Washington was the fishing Capital of the World, now Alaska is. I believe if we stop all netting the fish will come back to the numbers they once were in 10 years. I would gladly give up my fishing to ensure their survival and bring back the good old days. Would you?