6 Bucket List Steelhead Fishing Destinations

These six steelhead fishing destinations should be on every chrome-angler's bucket list.

Whether you are an ardent fly fishing enthusiast, or prefer the feel of a traditional rod and reel combo in your hands, anglers the world over that have tangled with the vaunted steelhead all have the same desire: to hook up with these flying, fighting, chrome-colored fish that seem to never give up.

During the different seasons, and in some quite varied locations, steelhead trout will take streamers, spinners, and even stickbaits when the time is right. It's the sort of thing that will make a plethora of different anglers all happy at the same time.

Let's take a quick look at the species and then learn the locations where they can be found. As an angling foe of the highest order, the steelhead holds a high spot.

You may be thinking about the seasons: spring spawning runs, fall fish that come into shallower waters to feed, or winter steelhead. But any way you look at it, you'll be thinking about the last tussle you had with a steelhead for a long time, and the desire to do it again and again will stay with you.

The Steelhead

steelhead fishing destinations

Craig Raleigh

The steelhead and the rainbow trout are the same species. Rainbows are a freshwater species only, and natural steelhead are anadromous, living much of their lives in the ocean and returning to freshwater to spawn.

Exceptions include the Great Lakes which are replete with steelhead that never get to the ocean, but live out their lives in freshwater. These put-and-take fish are hatchery-raised versions of the same fish that are native to the Northwest United States and British Columbia, but for the most part have no completely successful reproduction.

Steelhead, unlike salmon, can spawn multiple times during their lifespan and especially anadromous fish can live up to 10 years and become as large as 50 pounds or more. Steelheads prefer gravel-bottomed, fast-flowing, and well-oxygenated rivers and streams and are one of the species most threatened by barriers to their runs caused by dams and culverts.

Steelhead Fishing

As a rule, steelhead are one of the fiercest fighters that an angler can target. Fly fishermen need some of the toughest gear out there to catch and release these fighters, while traditional fishermen use rods in of 10 feet in length equipped with reels that can handle the serious line-screaming runs that they give once they've realized that they are hooked.

Here are some of the best places to find them, hook them, and then hold on while they battle you to the end.

Salmon River, New York

When you consider freshwater sportfishing for salmonids on the East Coast of the U.S., you need to set your sights on the Salmon River. Kayaking and river rafting is popular here, but the fishing is remarkable. 

Mostly a "put and take" fishery, the river is stocked by the fabled fish hatchery located in Altmar, New York. Stocked primarily with Chinook and coho salmon, the river has now seen steelhead get introduced, and fishing on the Salmon River exploded with great catches of this leaping fighter.

Clearwater River, Idaho

With big fish averaging 12 to 14 pounds, the large return of steelheads into Idaho's Clearwater make for one of the best runs anywhere. With much of the river running along a main highway, access is fairly simple, but drift boat fishing is the key.

October through the month of March is usually the best time to experience some of the best winter steelhead fishing there is. The chances of catching high numbers of fish, as well as size, are equally as high.

Situk River, Alaska

An angler on the considerable Situk has the possibility to catch an old steelhead in the 40-inch range that could weigh upwards of 30 pounds! It's a real probability; it is said that about two in every ten fish can reach that size on the Situk River.

The river is mainly floored with a gravel base, and the steelhead spawning run here is superb. East Coast rivers are similar in that around two-thirds of all fish make their spawning runs in the spring. Anglers wade the river mostly with fly tackle, but since the fish can attain such size, don't be surprised if the angler next to you has a 10-foot steelhead rod and spinning gear.

Deschutes River, Oregon

For summer steelhead, the Deschutes River is known as a best-bet waterway to try. Prime time is between the months of August and October, meaning a fisherman could feasibly start here in the late part of the summer and stay until Halloween!

The average size of the fish that run the Deschutes in Oregon is a bit smaller, but the numbers that an angler can expect to hook up with are impressive. Since float fishing is not an option on the river, anglers should be ready to don their waders, and shouldn't be surprised if they see mule deer or even a bighorn sheep while their fly is making its way through the current.

Bulkley River, British Columbia

The backdrop for fishing the Bulkley River includes mountain ranges and glaciers. The Bulkley is arguably one of the most angler-friendly steelhead fishing areas in the world and has the results to prove it. 

The summer steelhead fishery here is said to be the best on Earth for a mouse pattern on fly gear and wading fishermen have proven it over and over. Hooking a fish over 20 pounds is not only a possibility, but a fact of life for many who have cast into the river's waters. Some of the prime fishing is from September through November, and for those willing to take a float trip, the end result could be casting a line into some of the least fished steelhead areas in North America.

Niagara River, NY

The fabled Niagara River is famed for its beauty, epic water flow, awe inspiring falls, and its vaunted fishing. The lower Niagara River in particular is where the action is for salmon fishing, brown trout, lake trout, and the amazing steelhead (not to mention smallmouth bass and walleye).

This part of the river is approximately 14 miles in length, and fishing opportunities exist from the Whirlpool north to the mouth of the river at Lake Ontario. The powerful outflow of the river into Lake Ontario is an amazing attraction to trout, salmon and other sportfish. The lower Niagara River is fishable for the full 12 months in the calendar year, with different opportunities during each season.

Charter boat captains start to target steelheads in November and in every subsequent month after right into May of the following spring. New York State and its DEC also offer shore fishing g access from several parks including Whirlpool State Park, Devil's Hole State Park, Earl W. Brydges Artpark State Park, Joseph Davis State Park, and several other smaller access sites along its border of the mighty Niagara.

Steelhead Fishing Trips

Outfitters from the East Coast to the West Coast run drift boats, shore fishing excursions, and steelhead fly fishing adventures for wild steelhead or the stocked version from the Kenai Peninsula to the Great Lakes.

Once steelhead runs begin fly fishers with a dry fly and streamers alike will be hollering "Fish on!" from waist high in their waders to the whitewater of their favorite steelhead river system with a happy smile on their faces.

Between the U.S. and Canada, anglers can find some of the best steelhead fishing there is. North America offers versatile and varied locations. There are so many top areas in the Pacific Northwest alone that offer steelhead runs that anglers have become so accustomed to success as to come to expect it. 

But Before you think that the west coast is the only place to wet a line for some of the most exciting steelhead fishing there is, consider the Great Lakes and in particular New York. Whether it be drift fishing for rainbow trout or even hatchery steelhead, there are freshwater runs that demand your attention nationwide.

For those who are just searching for a bucket list location, this is a good place to start, and a great talking point for friends to whom steelhead fishing is life!

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