What the Heck is a Steelhead?


What the Heck is a Steelhead?

Drawing of a steelhead fishOkay, I have to admit that before I started working on the Stone Harbor web site, I had never heard of steelhead, so the guys at the store schooled me on these beautiful silver bullets. What follows are the basics I’ve gleaned so far. (By the way, if you are already an avid steelhead fisher, you might want to skip today’s blog. For those of you who are new to steelhead fishing, read on.)

Believe it or not, Lake Superior’s steelhead are not native to the area. Back in 1885, the U.S. Fish Commission (now the National Marine Fisheries Service) brought steelhead here from the McCloud River in California. Lake Superior turned out to be a nice fit for the transported fish but the surrounding tributaries were not all so accommodating–of the 60 North Shore rivers and streams available for steelhead migration, only about 20 of them can support a significant steelhead run.

While steelhead are sometimes called steelhead trout, they are actually in the salmon family. Like their salmon cousins, these fish are anadromous. Ana what? For the non-Latin scholars among us, anadromous means they return to their original hatching ground to spawn. And continuing with the Latin lesson: steelhead are also iteroparous, which means they can spawn several times (their Pacific salmon kinfolk can only spawn once).

And this spawning is what gets folks along the North Shore so excited this time of year. The steelhead run is the time when the fish are running up the river to spawn. It occurs when the streams reach temperatures in the 40’s. Usually that happens in April but with the late spring this year, the temperatures are just now hitting their mark.

Because the steelhead are heading up the river to spawn, they may only be caught on a catch and release basis. And if you plan on fishing for them, be sure to have a trout stamp and use only single hooks.

Now that we’re talking about fishing, what is so special about fishing for steelhead? It turns out these little guys are fantastic fighters. They are quite acrobatic once they are hooked, running upstream and downstream, just to get away. Fishing for them requires a few tricks, from the rods to the lures to the “chuck & duck” fly fishing technique. And those tricks are best taught in person, so if you want to learn more, check out our Fly Fishing Tours.

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