a close up of a steelhead in shallow water

Tips on avoiding steelhead when fishing

Help protect wild fish during historic low runs
May 26, 2022

Wild steelhead mortalities are generally low under normal fishing regulations. But with several years of low runs, many anglers are wondering what extra steps they can take to avoid hooking a steelhead while they’re fishing.

Summer steelhead runs to areas above Bonneville Dam in the Columbia and Snake River basins have been at historic lows for several years, with 2021 the lowest run (just under 70,000 fish) since records began in 1938.

Very poor environmental conditions both in the ocean and on land, and (in the Columbia system) the ongoing impacts of dams and hydropower are the primary causes for these declines.

While fishing for steelhead is closed in many areas due to these concerns, anglers may encounter wild steelhead when fishing for other species. This doesn’t normally have a significant impact on the health of steelhead populations, but conscientious anglers will want to do all they can to avoid stressing wild steelhead by not hooking, landing and having to releasing them. Taking additional steps to avoid steelhead may also help maintain access to these fisheries in the future and avoid further restrictions.

fly anglers holding a nice redband trout from Deschutes River
Rick Hargave holds a nice Deschutes redband trout. Photo courtesy of Rick Hargrave.

Trout and salmon fishing on the Deschutes

Anglers can help minimize their encounters with steelhead on the Deschutes by focusing on the trout or salmon water and avoiding the steelhead water.

“There are areas of the river where steelhead like to hang out and trout don’t,” says Rick Hargrave, an avid Deschutes trout angler who works at Fisherman’s Marine. “Trout usually prefer shallower and slower water.”

Salmon and steelhead also tend to use different habitat on the Deschutes. Steelhead are traditionally found in long runs with lots of boulders or other structures, while salmon are found in deep water or pools.

Deschutes District Fish Biologist Jason Seals advises salmon anglers to fish within one mile downstream of Sherars Falls to try to catch salmon and avoid steelhead. “This is where 90 percent of the salmon catch generally occurs, but steelhead bycatch is low,” he said.

Choose the right gear

Fishing with the right gear—and NOT steelhead gear—will also go a long way towards limiting the risk of hooking a steelhead.

Hargrave, who sells fishing gear at Fisherman’s Marine, suggests:

  • Avoid steelhead flies when trout fishing.
  • Use trout-size spinners if you’re spin fishing. For example, is you prefer Blue Fox spinners, leave your #4 blades at home and target trout with #2s or #3s.
  • Avoid bobber and bead, and bobber and jig fishing—these are steelhead set ups.
  • Also avoid using any kind of plugs (like wiggle warts), side-planer devices or other steelhead techniques.

Using barbless hooks or tying your egg set an inch above the hook (so that the fish hooks itself in the corner of the mouth instead of swallowing the hook) will also help in case you need to release a steelhead.

Young anglers shows off a nice smallmouth bass on the John Day River
Fletcher landed this nice smallmouth bass on the John Day River. Photo by Jack Erhard.

Target bass on the John Day, salmon on the Umatilla

Bass anglers on the John Day River are unlikely to hook a steelhead. ODFW fish biologist Stephen Charette says steelhead in the John Day generally prefer riffle crests and shallower pools at the base of rifles, which is not typical bass habitat. However, bass anglers who fish in slow and deep pools run a greater risk of incidental catch of a steelhead. 

On the Umatilla River, salmon fishing is open on the lower three miles where steelhead fishing is closed. Fish are funneled through a series of basalt step pools to reach Three Mile Falls Dam, where the above the dam river widens out and is less constrained.

Anglers targeting salmon are likely to be fishing on the bottom with egg set ups and steelhead are sometimes inclined to take these, says Taylor McCroskey, ODFW Umatilla district fish biologist. He suggests that salmon anglers use barbless hooks and tie an egg set up an inch above the hook (so the fish doesn’t swallow the hook) to help safely release any steelhead.

Angler holding a steelhead in water before releasing it.
If you land a wild steelhead, keep it in the water while you release it. Photo by Gavin Weaver.

Know how to quickly and safely release a steelhead

But what if you still hook a fish that starts making a big run, feels heavier than a trout and jumps out of water like a steelhead?

If you’re using trout or bass gear, break the fish off your line rather than landing it. (Don’t do this with salmon gear as it will harm the steelhead.)

Or if you can’t do that, quickly bring in the fish, remove the hook and release it safely (pointed upstream into the flow). Never take the steelhead out of the water.

“This is why it’s important for anglers to know how to efficiently and quickly land a steelhead, then get the fish to hand as fast as possible and keep it in the water as you remove the hook,” says McCroskey. “Make sure to revive the fish with its head pointed upstream into the flow and let it swim away on its own.”

For more tips on safely releasing fish visit https://myodfw.com/articles/catch-and-release-tips-reduce-fish-mortality.