Although steelhead is the primary species I fish for, this article could apply to many different types of migratory fish in river systems throughout the country.
The water temperature and flow will be the determining factors that start the run and bring you fish. Once they have made it into the river, the water temp will also dictate where they hold and how far they run.
When you think of a free flowing river, it’s like the human body.
Blood must be pumped and circulated throughout the body to our organs so we can live. As we age the blood flow slows and so does one’s life. The river’s current is also the life blood of the stream. All species of fish need the current to survive as it cools and oxygenates the water; it’s also the super highway that brings them food.
Water movement plays a huge role in creating the topography of a system.
The river’s landscape can change every year by God’s design and this is dictated based on that season’s weather and wind, along with the amount of rain or snow melt we receive.
So every year the river system can change by eroding the banks over time, and moving woody debris that falls into the river after a high water event. This process creates the structure needed for fish and creates holding water, runs and most important of all, current.
As you can see fish need this ever-changing process in the river to happen. It helps them survive and creates new habitat.
Sometimes this can be good or bad for you and the fish.
With that being said we must adapt to the conditions and maximize our time on the water and learn it. Once you understand what current is and how important it is to your success, you must use it effectively to help you catch more fish.
Current is what brings food to the steelhead.
These fish are hydro-anatomically correct and can just lie on the bottom facing upstream, waiting for a meal to come by, or reap the better oxygen levels and rest. The surface current is always faster at the top than the bottom of the river. As you make your way through the water column the current gets slower and slower.
Hence why they like the bottom of the river and are almost always holding 8-10 inches off the bottom.
Remember these fish are just big trout and opportunistic feeders.
Fish in general have different metabolism rates, this is Mother Nature’s way to promoting genetic diversity. I only mention it because it does affect where active fish hold.
Middle of the River
Early winter and late fall fish holding in the middle section or faster water are often active fish that are willing to take your offering if it comes by.
This is a much overlooked area that always holds active fish willing to bite. They could be tucked behind a small log, boulder or even a small depression that you cannot see. I once saw several fish holding on a small three-by-three depression in the middle of the river. It offered them holding water with just enough current break. But because of its location any meal that came by would not be missed.
Pools, Runs and Riffles
Learning what a pool, riffle and run are is crucial to success. A pool is basically a deeper section of a stream with slower water. These are key areas for holding fish, especially when temps are really cold. I’ve seen fish move to these slower, deeper pools just to escape fishing pressure or sun light in the fall and spring. But a slow, deep pool is where they will be when water temps drop.
Riffles are shallower sections with faster current. These too can offer cover by broken water, cooler temps and more oxygen. Early fall and spring is when to look for steelhead there.
A riffle is important to the angler because river riffles is what gives you a run. The water of a riffle hits the deepest edge slowing down and this is what creates a run. This is still faster flowing water and will always hold a predator fish. But remember the run cannot be created without the presence of a riffle or faster water somewhere.
Do not confuse this with a river channel. River channels are used by fish to migrate up and down the system. Find a river channel and you will find fish. They are magnets for all migrating fish depending on water temperature.
Look for Seams
Where faster current meets slower currents is called a seam. Steelhead may rely on the current for food and added cover for security by the broken water, but that doesn’t mean that they want to constantly fight the current. All fish will need to take a break at some point and rest. So to conserve energy often they hold in current seams or flat water. Steelhead love that walking-pace water scenario.
Current seams can also be found along any wood or boulder that juts out into the flow and blocks the current. These are great holding areas for steelhead. While resting they are still near faster water that might bring a meal down the river.
Some great tips
First never alert the fish to your presence—always be stealthy and wade upstream if you’re wading. Drift your float at longer distances to cover more water. Stop parking your boat on top of active fish and casting towards shore, or at the seams or the cover. The better choice would be to park at the top of the run and fish it all. If you’re bobber fishing and constantly mending your line because of bad boat or wading position, this constant disturbance to the float will translate into less fish caught.
Tip: active fish will always be at the top of the run or at the bottom of it. Get in front of the run and fish it from a distance. Another tip: if the water is higher that day, fish will hold at the top of the run. If the water is low, they will hold at the back of the run. This strategy works most of the time, but I have seen it just the opposite. When it’s different it's more so to do with fishing pressure and water temperature. The High/Low theory is usually the norm though in my opinion.
If casting spoons, plugs or spinners always cast upstream and retrieve with the current. This looks more natural to the fish that are holding for a meal. Everyone knows presentation is the key to anyone’s success. By presenting your offerings in this manner fish will get a better look at your presentation when fishing these methods. They can’t bite if they can’t see it.
Find the Players
A lot of anglers focus on slack water that is behind different objects. Many think that they will produce fish and they do. I too have caught many fish behind an object, but many forget those fish are usually inactive and are just resting, not actively feeding. Instead make a cast in front of the object; you’re more apt to find a player.
Yes that’s right I said in front of the object.
The players will always be right on the edge of the current or right in the middle of it. Just because the current looks too heavy to you doesn’t mean the fish are not there. Think big but aim small. The target areas of holding active fish can sometimes be very small and fish could be stacked in there. Cover the water thoroughly. Fish can be holding anywhere, especially on a large river system. Pick the run apart and thoroughly fish it with consistency. If you catch one fish, you can find another there.
Make sure you have done your due diligence and tried various colors, sizes and different profile shapes before moving on. A steelhead has great eye sight and can see in color but they have poor depth perception. This is why in my opinion color, profile and size are important when fishing for this species. Depending on the season, river clarity and light conditions can affect what fish see. The color of bait, fly or lure should be the number one thing to try differently before moving on. Many fish have seen lots of lures and baits already, especially later in the season. You are kidding yourself if you think they don’t get conditioned to it.
Never get impatient on the river. Like I said the strike zones on a river are much smaller. So fish your bait or fly through an area well. Once you have found holding fish, make sure the depth of the offering is right. You should never be more than a foot off the bottom. Getting it in their face is the key.
Active feeding fish in a river system will always be on the edge or in the current.
Don’t overlook areas just because heavy current is hitting them. This is the world’s greatest game fish and they can take a lot more current for longer periods than you think. Bottom line—fish for active feeding fish. This will bring more fish to the net.
This article was not written on what magic lure or rig to use, but more on how to approach and read the river—it holds the keys to your success. So understand to slow down and read the clues the river gives you. So you can learn how to fish it more thoroughly and effectively.
The current is our friend - use this super highway to help you catch more fish.
Nothing will make you a better fisherman than time spent on the water. Remember you spend time on land; you live life on the river.
- written by Roger Hinchcliff