May 04, 2015
They come in from the Pacific—the most expansive aquatic environment on earth. They find ribbons of water that cut canyons through mountains. They stage and acclimate to the fresh melt of snow and glaciers. Sea lice still clinging to their sides, they run into those confined environments and swim uphill.
Into forests, deserts, and mountains they come. Under dripping redwoods, they mill in green pools. They hide in the shadow of glaciers. They slip through arid high country. Some traverse a thousand miles of river before their tour of duty ends.
Anadromous rainbow trout, better known as steelhead, are sleek and powerful—beautiful and fascinating. Built to shed current and cover water, gleaming across the miles in their silver chain mail, steelhead tell a spectacular story about life on earth.
Steelhead are native to watersheds that empty into the Pacific Ocean. Their native range includes Russia, and was extended over 120 years ago to include the Great Lakes. From there they entered the St. Lawrence Seaway, and now inhabit a few streams that empty into the Atlantic. But the Pacific is their true home, and the region that put steelhead on the map is North America's West Coast.
We talked to well-traveled steelhead icon Buzz Ramsey, a Yakima pro staffer, about the ten best steelhead rivers on the West Coast—where salmon and trout have always been the most popular fish region wide. These are his top-10 picks.
Bulkley River, British Columbia
A backdrop of rugged mountains topped with gleaming glaciers looks down on the Bulkley River as she makes her way to the mighty Skeena. Often referred to as the Mecca of steelhead angling, anadromous rainbows over 30 pounds are more common in the tributaries of the Skeena than anywhere else.
"The Bulkley is the number one summer steelhead fishery in the world," says Buzz Ramsey. "The runs are massive, the fish are massive—even the scenery is massive."
Fly fishing is the preferred method of most who visit or live here, and with good reason. The Bulkley is wide yet relatively shallow and wadable in many areas, offering plenty of room to get away from the forested banks and work a Spey rod. Not all steelhead rise to a dry fly, but—like Atlantic salmon—the giants of the Bulkley are world famous in their zeal for bushy flies skated across the surface. Mouse patterns, the Waller Waker, and Sofa Pillows are must-haves here. A relatively good fly fisherman can expect multiple hook-ups each day—even double-digit days—during the prime months. The primary draw is getting a quality shot at a double-banded, hook-jawed male weighing 20 to 30 pounds.
Between Houston and Hazleton, British Columbia, the Bulkley provides roughly 94 miles of fishable water. It's remote, flowing through fairly high country. Most anglers fly in and the bulk of the fishing is for summer-run fish, so the season generally begins in late July or early August and runs into November—which can see significant snowfall. November means purple fingers but rewarding results in rarefied air.
The lower canyon of the Bulkley is truly remote and wild. The lower river is only accessible by rubber raft and requires a two-day drift through some of the most lightly-fished steelhead on the continent. Prime time on the Bulkley is September through November, so dress warm.
Contacts: Bulkley River Lodge, 435/649-4949; Frontier Far West Lodge, 877/846-9153.
Situk River, Alaska
Bob Miller owns the Situk River Fly Shop, probably because it places him in close proximity to the biggest run of huge steelhead up any small river on the planet. "I like to use a 6-weight fly rod, but most use an 8-weight," Miller said. "We see lots of fish in that 36- to 46-inch range."
Uh. Come again? A 36-inch steelhead might weigh 17 pounds or more. A 46-incher weighs in the rarified 30-pound range. "About 5- to 10-percent are that size on the Situk," Miller said. "We catch some giants. The oldest steelhead ever aged was caught here. Half of all the steelhead landed by anglers in the entire state of Alaska are caught on the Situk every year. Yet, it's a small river. Therefore it has to be one of the top 5 steelhead rivers in all the world."
The Situk ambles sedately through flat country in the Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska. "It flows past about 10 miles from town," Miller said. "There's really nothing on it. The Situk is only 18 miles long, from headwaters to tide waters. So many fish on such a small, clear river—the fish crowd in and react to just about everything. Pink Plastic worms, nymphs, beads, spinners, streamers—they hit a variety of flies and lures. Most people drift yarn balls or glo-bugs with fly tackle."
Miller's favorite fly on the Situk River is an olive green, size #2, egg-sucking bunny leech. "The river is easy to wade just about everywhere," he said. "It has only two main access points. Most of the river is bordered tightly by overhanging spruce and alder branches. The entire floor of the river is floored with gravel from one end to the other. It's all spawning habitat. You have to go all the way up to Situk Lake to find any rocks."
Key times are April and May and again in November. "It's a little strange," Miller said. "About a third of the total run comes in during November and December. By early April, those fish have spawned and left. About two thirds of the fish run in spring, with the first week of May being the peak time. In April it's mostly Alaskans here, camping. Come May, people from the lower 48 and Europe come."
Contacts: Situk River Fly Shop 907/784-3087; Alaska Fish & Game: 907/784-3222.
Umpqua River, Oregon
"You always have a shot at your personal best on the Umpqua River," says Todd Harrington, owner of Living Waters Guide Service. "The scenery is different from most rivers in Oregon. The makeup of the valley is shale and basalt. It's a big, intimidating river with bright green water. It's a unique, unbelievable color. It draws you back."
The Umpqua flows to the Pacific about 2.5 hours south of Portland, Oregon. The steelhead of the Umpqua are as distinctive as the river itself. "We can look at pictures of steelhead and be able to identify Umpqua fish consistently well," Harrington said. "They have big shoulders and a unique profile."
No telling how many steelhead actually run this wild and scenic river. "We have a summer and a winter run with no way to count the real numbers," Harrington said. "We mostly fish the 11 miles of the main Umpqua below the fork where North and South branches meet. About 25,000 steelhead run up the North branch each year, but the South branch has no weir. Most rivers have lots of hatchery fish. This river has mostly wild fish. After 20 years of steelheading here, I've seen an average ratio of 10-to-1—wild fish over hatchery fish."
Harrington is primarily a gear guide. "The Umpqua doesn't lend itself to fly fishing all that well in most areas," he said. "There's no dam, and it stays high for long periods when the water goes up. It can be unfishable for a month sometimes, which doesn't help us so much but really helps the fish survive and grow big."
The bread-and-butter technique is side drifting with yarn balls or roe. "We also pull plugs and 'bobber dog,' which is a technique that's been around for only about 3 years. Instead of a typical float rig, you have weight slipping along on bottom under a sliding bobber with the stop set at 10 feet. Clients can easily see where their line is. The fish moves back into position and the float starts slipping back upstream then pops under. We use Thill and locally-made slip floats. Customers cast to the side and the guide maneuvers the boat to keep the baits drifting along at bottom speed by fighting the current a little bit. The best months are late November through March. The bulk of the fish are in January through February."
Big K Outfitters, 541/584-2295; Todd Harrington, Living Waters Guide Service 541/459-2276 (livingwatersguideservice.com).
Deschutes River, Oregon
The green rush of the Deschutes River flows out of high desert country east of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. "It has to be one of the best rivers in the world for summer steelhead," says Jack Smith, owner of All Seasons Guide Service since 1984. "Steelhead are in the river for 6 to 8 months. The key months are July through October."
The Deschutes—a National Scenic and State Scenic Waterway—drops down out of high, arid country to the forested banks of the Columbia River. Above the mouth it falls over a quarter mile in its last 100 miles through canyons with walls more than 2000 feet high—a world-famous destination for white-water rafting enthusiasts.
"All anadromous fisheries go through ups and downs," Smith said. "But when the Deschutes is down, it's still good. It's one of the most consistent rivers in the state. Dams control the lower 100 miles, so it has a consistent flow. It's not a great day on this river until you get into double digits—over 10 steelhead. The average size would be 7 or 8 pounds, but we do see fish in the 20s every year. Most of those big fish, though, are bound for the Clearwater River in Idaho, and are simply ducking in to avoid warm temperatures in the Columbia. The Deschutes is about numbers."
The Deschutes doesn't entertain a true winter run. "However hold over summer runs are present through January," Smith said. "however the best time to fish the Deschutes for steelhead is July through October."
Fishing is not allowed from a floating device so anglers are required to wade fish. Smith's primary techniques are casting spinners or plugs, swinging flies, drift fishing drift bobbers or utilizing side planers. The river is encompassed by high desert—sage brush, salt bluffs, mule deer, and big horn sheep. "It's not typical steelhead country," Smith said. "It's a special environment."
Contact Jack Smith, All Seasons Guide Service 503/842-6313, 503/842-6313). (allseasonsguideservice.net)
Bogachiel River, Washington
The Olympic Peninsula in Washington is basically a mountainous rain forest that spawns some of the finest steelhead rivers on earth. The Hoh, Queets, Quinault, Humptulips, and Sol Duc flow here. With the possible exception of the Skeena in British Columbia and the Situk in Alaska, these rivers are home to the largest steelhead in the world.
"Lots of alders, huge trees, big ferns, emerald green water, and perfect steelhead runs," says Mike Zavadlov of Mike Z's Guide Service. "Best months are February and March. No dams. Timing is the key. Later in the season is better—in March, because the weather is more reliable. Anything under 2000 cfs is really good, if you're checking the flow charts."
Zavadlov says the Bogachiel has 20 miles of floatable water. "It's an easy drift," he said. "The rapids are quite manageable. The Callawah flows into the Bogachiel, which flows into the Sol Duc. We have three great rivers in this one watershed. The Bogachiel has fish in it year 'round. Hatchery fish run in from November through the middle of January. Those fish run 4 to 10 pounds. Then we have wild fish running right through April, and they run 10 to 25 pounds. During prime time, it's not uncommon to catch 15 to 20 fish in a day. Some of those fish will be in the high teens to over 20 pounds. All the rivers on the Olympic Peninsula draw big numbers of fish over 20 pounds every year. Most years a couple over 30 pounds will be caught."
The Bogachiel runs down out of snow-capped mountains through heavy boulders, rocks, gravel bars, and logjams. "The great big tanks and gentler runs floored with gravel are favorites with fly fishermen," Zavadlov said. "I mostly float fish. Clients love it. When the bobber goes down, it's visual. People get hung up less and fish longer. We generally drift jigs under those floats with a little piece of sand shrimp or prawn, but it's a great river for plugs, too."
Contact Mike Zavadlov, Mike Z's Guide Service 360/640-8109 (mikezsguideserivice.com)
Clearwater River, Idaho
Toby Wyatt runs Reel Time Fishing Guide Service on the border of Washington and Idaho. "The Clearwater River gets one of the largest returns of steelhead, numbers wise, of all Western rivers," he said. "And the fish are big. Steelhead average 12 pounds here—which is really high anywhere. Prime time is October through March, and we mostly side drift with roe, puff balls (yarn), and beads."
A highway runs along the entire length of the river, offering great access with quite a few ramps. "The Clearwater is best known for large steelhead," says Buzz Ramsey. "In recent years it also offered spring and fall Chinook opportunities. Summer steelhead migrate through the lower Columbia in late June and don't arrive on the Clearwater until October. Through winter and into spring, it's a great place to be. October though March is prime. A severe winter may slow the angling down, but fish will be holding there all winter. Steelhead are bigger. Not unusual to catch a 15 to 20 pounder. In fact, the majority of big steelhead caught throughout the Columbia River drainage are bound for the Clearwater."
It's a long migration. "Gotta' be 500 miles," Ramsey said. "The steelhead are in freshwater so long on this run they act like trout. They come into the riffles in the evening cruising the surface, looking for insects. They're popular with fly fishermen using both dry and wet flies, but the majority of the fish are caught by people side drifting or pulling plugs. Bobbers and jigs are another good choice.
"The Clearwater runs through a canyon that reminds you of the high desert around the Deschutes," Ramsey added. "The further up the canyon you go, the more timber you see—mostly pine forests. All through the canyon you will absolutely catch multiple fish during prime time. On good days you catch double digits, with a real good shot at a fish over 20. You can only keep hatchery fish. All wild fish must be released."
Contacts: Toby Wyatt, Reel Time Fishing, Clarkston, 208/790-2128; Camp, Cabin and Home, Lewiston, 208/750-1075; Stott's Adventures, 208/503-3878.
Rogue River, Oregon
Charlie Brown owns the Rogue River Guide Service, in the dense forests of the southern Cascade Mountains. "We've been up and running for 6 years," Brown said. "The Rogue has had robust runs of steelhead every year, and it's great steelhead river year 'round. The river is really long and the fish are in the system for a long time. Up to the hatchery it's 187 miles. The farther you get upriver toward the hatchery, it's 50/50 but 3 out of every 4 steelhead caught in the lower river are wild."
The upper 50 miles of the Rogue is flies only "Holy Water" for part of the year. Even above Gold Ray Dam, the Rogue has received runs of over 12,000 summer steelhead each year for the past decade. "August through November are prime for summer runs," Brown said. "Obviously, these fish are in the river a really long time," Brown said. "February and March are the key months for winter steelhead. We fish with gear or fly rods. Side-drifting and running plugs are almost always a guarantee here. Peak times I'd say 5 pounds is a pretty average fish with a 15 pounder being a really big fish. During peak times you can expect to hook 10 and land 6 or so. It's a fun day."
The Rogue flows through a pastiche of unique habitats. "It's hard to describe because it changes every few miles," Brown said. "It starts in the mountains and flows through dozens of areas with different characters—through steep—walled canyons, then past rolling hills of pines and oaks. One area is a complete wilderness of 40 miles. It takes a couple days to drift through, with some great camping opportunities. We see elk, otter, bear, beaver—lots of wildlife."
Contact Charlie Brown, Rogue River Guide Service, 541/326-9486 (rogueriverguideservice.com)
Smith River, California
The drift starts in the National Redwood Forest. The canopy sometimes seems a mile overhead as you slip down one of the last un-dammed rivers in California. No motors allowed here—just drift boats with oars and foot traffic. And the steelhead fishing is the best in California.
"The Smith is known worldwide for its winter steelhead run," says steelhead icon Buzz Ramsey. "January, February, and March are the best times to find steelhead in the Smith."
The largest redwood grove in the world towers over the Smith River. "It's a sought-after as a destination for that reason," says steelhead guide Kevin Brock. "Thousands show up every summer for the redwoods alone. In winter, you float through a redwood forest without crowds, with an opportunity to land a fish over 20 pounds. There is no other place on earth like this. That's why I stay here all winter. We work hard to catch fish here, but it's so rewarding.
"Some days we catch 10 or 12," says Brock. "Some days we're happy to catch one. The river spreads out in three directions. The main stem is only 16 to 20 miles, but the North, South, and Middle forks make it a very long run. Steelhead move 15 miles per day here with no problem. A little rain and the fish move on. We stick with the main stem."
Brock's bread-and-butter technique is side drifting with sand shrimp or prawns. "It was a plug-pulling river, but everybody side drifts now," he said. "Definitely a yarn-bait combination. We don't harvest many fish, so we use a lot of shrimp for bait. The Smith is a gem. Last un-dammed river in California. The strain of the brood stock has never been genetically altered by any hatchery system. There is a hatchery, but there have never been genetics introduced from any other river. The state record was landed here and we boat fish over 20 pounds every year, and that's the reason the Smith belongs on this list."
Contact Kevin Brock, 800/995-5543 (fishkevinbrock.com).
Chetco River, Oregon
Redwoods tower over this southern Oregon river, too. Randy Wells, owner of Oregon Fishing Adventure since 2004, says the Chetco is definitely one of the top 5 rivers in Oregon for winter steelhead.
The Chetco is about 20 minutes north of the California border on the Oregon Coast. "The river has 2 parts—upper and lower," Wells said. "On the lower river you can use a kicker motor. The upper river is a federally designated Wild and Scenic Sanctuary, and it's a pristine and scenic area. Almost no housing, and minimal access with no motors allowed."
Like the Smith, the Chetco has a strong run of hatchery fish. "The hatchery uses 100-percent Chetco River fish for stocking," Wells said. "It's the only river in Oregon using a fish-trap program. When anglers catch a wild fish, we put it in the livewell and drop it in one of the fish cages placed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. They use only wild (unclipped) fish for brood stock."
Oregon allows a harvest of two steelhead per person per day, and only one can be native. "We start catching fish the end of November," Wells said. "The peak lasts into the first week of February, and the season lasts thought March 31. The river closes and reopens in October. During prime time, two anglers often boat 10 to 20 fish per day, with the average fish running 8 to 10 pounds. The Chetco is pretty amazing, with better numbers than most rivers in this region. It's fed entirely by snowmelt and rain. It can go from 100 cfs to 3000 cfs overnight because it has no dam to control overflow. But it drops quickly, too."
This is dripping, lush rainforest country bordering the Redwood National Forest, surrounded by canyons with high-mountain peaks in the background. "The river is solid gravel," Wells said. "Spawning habitat is everywhere. After a rain it turns emerald green, but drops to absolutely gin clear within a week."
Wells plies two main techniques—side-drifting with 6- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leaders, with yarn balls or cured roe lashed to size #2 hooks. "Or we pull plugs like the Yakima Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5," he said.
Contact: Randy Wells, Oregon Fishing Adventure, 541/500-7885 (oregonfishingadventure.com)
Cowlitz River, Washington
The Cowlitz is ol' reliable, producing consistent runs of steelhead for decades. "Spring Chinook fishing is good, too—and it dovetails right into the summer steelhead season," says guide Bruce Warren, Fishing For Fun Guide Service. "Summer steelhead fishing starts around the first of June. The last week of June through July is probably best. We do a lot of side drifting in summer with sand shrimp or small artificials, like a Mad River Egg with a tuft of yarn."
The Cowlitz is often considered to be the best steelhead river in Washington. "It's certainly one of the top 10 rivers in the state overall, and number one for steelhead," says Warren. "It has kings, summer run steelhead, winter run steelhead, and cohos. You can come to the Cowlitz and expect to catch fish 12 months of the year. Any technique you like will work here at any given time. Baits, artificials, flies, plugs, floats—everything works. It's a very congenial river that way."
This is big water. "It spreads the pressure out," Warren said. "You can always find a stretch of water where you only see one or two other boats all day. We have so many late-winter steelhead, the limit was recently raised to three fish per person. Spring Chinooks were coming in and fishing for both species was very good this year. Typically the cookie cutter steelhead are 7 to 10 pounds. Every year we see a few monsters. I caught a 20-pound hatchery fish on the Cowlitz this year. It can be equally good year 'round for steelhead, but the second week of February through the first part of April is considered prime. We sometimes boat 15 in a day.
"The scenery is absolutely incredible," Warren added "Rolling, lowland hill country topped with Douglas firs, cottonwoods, and hardwoods mostly. We see deer, otter, ospreys, and eagles every day.
Contact: Bruce Warren, Fishing For Fun Guide Service 253/208-7433 (fishingforfunguideservice.com)