Finding Steelhead

Finding Steelhead

The Great lakes are Home to the World’s Largest steelhead Population on Planet Earth. Annually we stock in the region 5.2 Million steelheads every Year. If you’re a veteran steelhead angler or just getting started you should know catching these amazing Game Fish 10 months out of the year in Michigan is possible. Knowing and understanding we have such an amazing fishery is great but if you do not possess the skills or knowledge in helping you find these fish you can spend many days on the river scratching your head.

Many veteran steelhead anglers already know that water temperature and flow dictates were steel head will rest and lye. But the through the years I’ve noticed some characteristics about these fish’s behavior that can really increase your odds of putting more fish in the net. No one will disagree an angler must find where the fish are in order to catch them. Common sense says you can’t catch something that’s not there. We will discuss some obvious places and point out some that many anglers might not notice.


The first thing any angler targeting steelhead needs to know is that these fish are always on the move and very nervous creatures. They have a sense of urgency like any other fish I’ve seen. Remember these fish arrive sometimes 6 months or longer ahead of schedule and stay while they are waiting for the spawn. They are constantly on the move. An angler must divide a river system into 4 sections. The Lower, Middle, Upper and Head water sections. Due to these fish always moving the Middle and Upper river sections automatically give you better odds of finding some fish.

Steelhead tend to always move up stream when the river is on the rise or on the fall. There are usually only 2 things that will make these fish put on the brakes. Colder Water temperatures and low water conditions. Most anglers do not realize that these fish just as other species are somewhat predictable. If you familiarize yourself with the fish’s habits and some biological facts. These fish are just like white-tailed deer during the winter. Deer will always pick the easiest route when traveling. These fish will always pick the path of least resistance if unpressured and not spooked. Not to say they fish wont jump or go through barriers that you wouldn’t expect a fish to go through. They always will find a way but if there’s an easier way they will take it.

So, we must pay attention to how that section of river looks for migrating fish. Maybe slower or deeper water for the fish to pass through rather than a raging rapid. These fish are genetically programmed to conserve energy while in the river for the upcoming spawn. Hence why they always are looking for current breaks and places to rest for the journey up river. A distance of 30 miles in one day with no obstructions for a healthy adult steelhead is not a problem. As you can see these fish can cover some serious water in a short amount of time if they want to.

So, if your 2 or 3 days behind a high-water event you better head up river to find fish instead of down low. Those pods of fish will be up river by then based on water temps and flow.

Please keep in mind there is many factors that affect this strategy. At the end of the day they are steelhead we will never completely figure them out. One thing is for sure if more arriving fish that come up the river from behind those holding, that first wave of fish will push up river. Its mother nature’s way of spreading the fish out. Hence why November is such a hot month to catch steelhead in Michigan. Lots of fish have arrived to the party by then and have spread out through the system. Not to mention many guys are away at deer camp.

Low Light or Night Time is when these fish move the most many anglers think. In my opinion that’s not always the case with these fish. If the right flow and barometric pressure exist with an over cast day they will certainly push in daylight. When these conditions exist pray for a bright sun shiny day. This will slow the migration down and these fish will park in the deeper holes or broken water to hide and then under the cover of darkness continue their journey.


Structure is a beautiful thing when it comes to fishing. No question fish will orient to structure for security from other predators and to set up ambush points for bait fish or food. Logs are the most visual above the water that an angler can see most of the time. This structure can be great to find fish and offer current breaks and create seams for steelhead to hold and rest. Downside to this type of structure is sometimes if the log isn’t big enough to anchor itself, one good blow out of the river and mother nature will send that log on its merry way. In past articles I have written about how the river is an ever-changing place. It can vary from year to year one hole that produced fish and was great can change. Some rivers I’ve fished for years have logs that have been there for as long as I can remember.

Structure can also create pocket water which can be fish magnets as well for migrating steelhead. My favorite structure if you can find it is boulders. The beauty of boulders is they usually are always there. Once that structure has been located you can go back year after year and find fish there. Same goes for cement, pilings or retaining walls. Another overlooked item that attracts fish.

Terrain features above the water lead you to clues to find more fish. Any on off exit ramps of terrain are great clues. Most flat water has a flat bottom that has a spot tilting upwards. Also, look for drop offs and depressions on your electronics. Small depressions and drop offs are so over looked by many anglers within a river system and are sometimes missed. Look for the darker areas if you do not own some electronics.

Many well-known rivers that have famous names for runs or holes have structure and that’s why most are so good no doubt.

Reading Water

This section alone I could fill a book on this subject due to the mechanics of all rivers and there run clocks are so different. They can vary based on the state, size of river, water temperature and flow. So, let’s just cover some good nuggets of info that any angler can use.

Walking speed water that flattens is always a good spot to look for when locating steelhead. This spot is a telltale sign of a pool. Consider fishing the head and the tail out of any pool.  Always look for the softer edge of any seam and usually it’s the deeper side. Keep in mind most steelhead are caught in 4-8 ft of water always. Exception to this rule would be during the spring run when fish are spawning in 2ft of water often times.

Holding lies are typically when a main current seam is broken. You can usually find some active fish there most times. Best water temps for steelhead are 42-58 degrees. At these temps’ the fish are happy and most active and you can expect to get them to bite. At these temp’s faster water is the normal rule. Once water gets below 42 degrees or less start looking for slower deeper pools. These conditions are the typical winter time spots here in the Great Lakes. Caution do not discount faster water in the High 30’s temp. range. I’ve seen steelhead hold in much faster water when you think they would be in slow deeper pools. Remember they are steelhead, make sure to fish it all. Bottom line once you find fish and see what water they are preferring that day you should be able to replicate throughout the system.

If your faced with higher water conditions steelhead will always hold in slower water closer to the shoreline and they absolutely love the inside or outside bends. Corners and V’s where 2 currents meet and are steelhead magnets. Also look for ledge’s and drop offs these fish love them. During times of high angling pressure look in the tail outs other holding water near a well-known hole or lie. Pressured fish will push back or scatter around the run and temporally hold to get away from anglers. These are areas to try different colors and baits that fish have not seen. If the bite slows always change colors before leaving. Every river steelhead angler out there fishes a pink spawn bag something different puts fish in the net. Being different is a good thing in most cases yet many anglers stick to the norm. Colors such as blue or red can pay huge dividends.

As you can see an angler has to stop slow down and asses the water and actually read the water and pay attention to all details. Break the run into sections or use land marks and structure using a grid pattern. I personally like to be very thorough. This way you don’t miss fish. By thinking like a fish where would I be the most comfortable based on the current conditions. You will catch fish many anglers miss and don’t find.


By analyzing weather, water flow and temps before you go fishing this will help big time with your success. Once on the river by using a methodical careful approach and looking for the right structure and reading the right water based on the seasonal conditions will help you find fish. Once you find them it’s up to you to deliver to the right bait, lure or fly and get them to bite. Warning catching the mighty steelhead can be very addicting. The only way to get your fix and is to catch more.

Good Luck!

Roger Hinchcliff

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Duane white

    That fish is huge. Thanks for all the tips for catching these MONSTERS.

    1. Roger

      Thank You Duane I sure love catching these fish.

  2. Justin

    Great information! I fish in a lot of highly pressured tribs and our fish are very skiddish. Any advantage I can get helps!

  3. Kevin Billings

    Amazing things I have leaned from you articles and blogs and I continue to follow your adventures on the water.
    Thank you

    1. Roger

      Thank You for the support Kevin

  4. Rob Barnes

    Good stuff and always very thorough Roger. I’m always learning more about river fishing through your articles. There are no doubt many factors which influence steelhead movements!

    1. Roger

      Thank You Rob for your support. Tight Lines!

  5. Steve C

    Great Read Roger

  6. Scott Bowerman

    Very informative as well as educational, thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Roger

      Thank You Scotty I Hope to get you out on the river soon.

  7. Don Remington

    Thanks great job.

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