Although steelhead is the primary species I fish for, this article could apply to many different species in any river.
A steelhead is a migrating fish that will start running as early as the third week of September. They will start running the shoreline when temps reach 68 degrees or cooler, waiting for the river to call them up. The run will continue through the winter and spring here in the Great Lakes until spawning is completed.
Now depending on what part of the state you live in, you may even get a limited summer run as well here in Michigan.
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 rivers landscape can change every year by God’s design and this is dictated based on that seasons 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 fall 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 and 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 in helping 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 always 8-10 inches off the bottom. Remember these fish are trout and are opportunistic feeders. Conserving energy is the name of the game for steelhead.
Fish in general can have a different metabolism rate.
Each one has a different metabolic rate, again Mother Nature’s way in promoting genetic diversity, but that’s another article. I only mention it because it affects where the fish hold that are active.
Middle of the River
The early and late fall fish holding in the middle section or faster water is more often the active fish and 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 even see. I once saw several fish holding on a three by three small depression in the middle of the river. The depression offered them some holding water with just enough current breaks. But because of its location any meal that came by they would not miss.
Pools, Runs and Riffles
Learn what a pool, riffle and run are. A pool is basically a deeper section of a stream with slower water. These are key areas for winter holding fish, 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 in the winter always look there.
The 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 the 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
Seams are where the faster current meets the slower currents causing what we call a seam. Steelhead may rely on the current for food and added cover for security by the broken water, but doesn’t mean that they want to constantly be fighting current. All fish will need to take a break at some point and just rest. So, to conserve energy, they likely hold in the current seams or flat water. A steelhead loves 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 still have a view of the faster water that might be bringing a meal down the river.
Some Great Tips:
First never alert the fish to your presence, be stealthy and wade upstream if you’re wading.
Run your float and drifts at longer distances and cover more water. Stop parking your boat on top of the 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 disturbance of the float too much will translate into less fish caught.
Tip: the active fish will always be at the top of the run or at the back of it. Get in front of the run from a distance.
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 the fish will get a better look at your presentation when fishing these methods.
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. Not to say a resting fish is not a hungry fish. Instead make a cast in front of the object as well; you’re more apt to find a player. Yes that’s right I said in front of the object.
The name of the game is cover it all.
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 have a very small target area and be stacked in there. Cover the water thoroughly those 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 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 these can affect what fish see. The color of bait, fly or lure should be the number one thing to try differently. Most of those fish have seen many lures and baits already, especially later in the season. You are kidding yourself if you think they don’t get conditioned to it. If the bite slows always change color.
Never get impatient on the river.
The strike zones on a river are much smaller. Get your bait or fly through an area really good. Once you have found holding fish and where they're sitting, make sure the depth of the offering is right. You should never be more than a foot off the bottom or less. Get it in their face is the key with that consistency.
Active feeding fish in a river system will always be on the edge or right in the current because that’s where the bait is. 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.
This article was not written on what magic lure or rig to use, but more on how to approach and read the river so you may understand how to fish it more thoroughly and effectively.
Just because you caught fish there last year doesn’t mean it will hold fish this year.
The river is an ever changing place each season. So now that you know the current is our friend use this super highway to help you catch more fish. Nothing will make you better than time on the water. Remember you spend time on land; you live life on the river.
- Written by Roger Hinchcliff