Steelhead Fishing Tips: How To Catch Oncorhynchus mykiss

Do you want to know how to catch the powerful steelhead trout, how to clean and cook it?

You’ve come to the right place for steelhead fishing help! The term ‘steelhead’ refers to an anadromous form of rainbow trout and it actually shares a scientific name with that trout species (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

steelhead fishing tips
Adam with a beautiful steelhead trout. Source


When it comes to steelhead vs. rainbow trout, even veteran anglers can get confused. The steelhead is often confused with the rainbow trout because both pretty much look exactly the same.

The only thing that differentiates the trout species is the nature of their lifestyles along with very subtle variations in shape and color. The main difference is the fact that the steelhead is a rainbow trout that migrates to the sea as a juvenile and returns to freshwater sources as an adult to spawn.

However, irrespective of where it spawns and can be found, the steelhead is one of the most coveted trout out there. It is a fierce fighter and can grow incredibly large in size, facts that make it a prize among adventurous anglers.

Sadly, this is why the trout are overfished to the point that it is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Steelhead Trout Facts

Common NameSteelhead Trout, Steelhead Salmon, Steel head, Coastal Trout, Coastal Sea Trout, Coastal Rainbow Trout, Salmon Trout
Scientific Name (Genus and Species)Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus or Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri
Identifying CharacteristicsThe flesh ranges from bright red to pink or white depending on the size of the lake or streams the steelheads are in. More slender and streamlined compared to the rainbow trout.
HabitatCan be found in both coastal environments and in large inland lake systems
Depth Range10 to 200 meters
LimitsCheck your local regulations

How to Catch Coastal Rainbow Trout

The angling techniques for catching steelhead trout are similar to those that are used for Chinook salmon. You will need noodle rods that are about 12 to 14 feet long and which have guides that curve around the rod blank. When it comes to bait and lures, anglers find that plugs, spoons, flies and imitation squid are the best choices.

Steelhead basics - IF

The most popular way to catch steelhead trout is called backtrolling. In this method, you need to use a small boat and hold it steady to manipulate the movement of the boat as you drag a lure or bait behind it slowly. Use wind direction to ensure the bait remains in the proper place especially if you are aiming for a school of steelheads that are packed in a single spot.

Ideal Sea Trout Fishing Setup and Rigs

While most rods that are made to catch steelheads are lighter and more sensitive than salmon rods, make sure that you get one that is at least 8 and a half feet long and about 8 to 12 pounds heavy. Most veteran anglers prefer a bait casting set up compared to a spinning one.

You will also need a reel that provides a smooth drag to ensure the trout does not escape and a baitcaster if you want to go drift fishing instead. As for the steelhead hooks, most anglers prefer to use the strong and short shank eye-up variety that is about a size 6.

Steelhead Fishing Tactics

  1. If you want to fish for steelhead trout, go to lakes and tributaries that are near river mouths when the fish is spawning. The trout will be swimming upstream to reach breeding grounds so you will have your pick of the biggest one you can catch.
  2. Steelhead trout tend to rest behind submerged boulders in rough waters so if you are bank fishing, place your lure directly behind such obstacles or right where the water is bouncing off.
steelhead trout drawing
A beautiful illustration of a steelhead. Source

Steelhead Trout Tips

  • Steelhead trout love fish eggs so use those egg sacs to lure them out. You can harvest these in areas where the trout spawn. Just give the eggs a good rinse before using them as bait.
  • Use a long fishing rod to increase your chances of catching this powerful trout. That way most of your line will be above the water which will give you a slower swing which can allow you to hook more steelheads.

Steelhead Seasons

Schools of this trout migrate to freshwater sources such as lakes and rivers during either the summer or the winter. In other words, if you want to increase your chances of catching this fish, you should look for it in early spring and the middle of summer. Plus, the earlier you head out, the higher your chances of catching steelheads off guard and get a bite.

cleaned steelhead trout
Steelhead makes for delicious meals. Source

However, since steelheads can be found all over the state, it can be difficult to determine when the best time to fish for it is. Ideally, the best time would be between July and August. The trout starts to swim towards the state in July, and the catch rate gets better all the way till December.

During this time the fish gets slow due to the cold temperature and bite less. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t act at all. You just need to take a boat out in deeper water to find them during winter.

How to Clean Steelhead Trout

PLUG FISHING: Steelhead Catch and COOK! (Rogue River, OR)
  1. Grab the steelhead by the tail and scrape it from tail to head firmly on both sides to get the scales off. You can use a spoon to do this.
  2. Cut off the head by making an angled cut right behind the gill. This will take some force especially when you are cutting the backbone.
  3. Turn the trout over to expose its underside and look for the exit hole. This should be right above the tail.
  4. Insert the tip of the knife in the hole and slice all the way to where the head used to be.
  5. Spread the belly open through the cut and pull out the guts.
  6. Use the knife to slice the membrane open that runs across the backbone.
  7. Rinse the sliced and gutted trout inside and out and prepare to cook

How to Cook Steelhead Trout

Baked Steelhead Trout - Simple and Delicious

Here is how to bake steelhead trout:

  • Preheat your oven to 400°
  • Spray a baking dish with cooking spray.
  • Place the steelhead fillets in the dish.
  • Make a sauce by combining a 1/4th cup of white wine, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1 tablespoon each of Dijon mustard and dill weed, and 2 cloves of garlic.
  • Bake till the fish is opaque and the flesh flakes easily.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What does steelhead trout taste like?

A: The flesh tastes mild and has a flavor profile that is a cross between salmon and trout.

Q: Is steelhead a trout or a salmon?

A: Steelheads are rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean to get larger and return to freshwater when they are adults. Don’t get confused when people call them steelhead salmon, they’re actually trout.

Q: Is steelhead trout a good fish to eat?

A: Steelhead trout flesh is rich in omega 3s which is excellent for health.

Insider Advice

The steelhead fishing can be tough to catch even for seasoned anglers, but that is exactly why it’s considered to be a prized sport fish. If you agree, feel free to share your experiences catching this trout in the comments below.

The Anglers Behind This Article:

Jon Stenstrom

Johanes Godoy

Sushmita Lo

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Articles » Fish Guides » Saltwater Fish » Steelhead Fishing Tips: How To Catch Oncorhynchus mykiss