Veteran steelhead fisherman Sean Gallagher releases a native steelhead so it can spawn. (Photo: Gregory Smith Design)
Veteran steelhead fisherman Sean Gallagher releases a native steelhead so it can spawn. (Photo: Gregory Smith Design)

Searching for steelhead

These giant sea-run rainbow trout are the glamour fish of the American West Coast.

During the 1960s, when Sean Gallagher was 16, his mother took him fishing for steelhead on the Skagit River in northern Washington State, on the Canadian border. In the young Gallagher—now a retired teacher living in the shadow of Mount Rainier—the experience ignited a passionate pursuit of the giant sea-run rainbow trout. 

This spring, all these decades later, found him making his way stealthily along secretive elk trails through the emerald rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, to favorite runs of water cascading from glacial peaks. There he hopes to discover just one wild steelhead ready to take his fly. Although the runs of fish in familiar streams have diminished over the years, his enthusiasm has not.

You can fish these same waters. Unlike Atlantic salmon rivers in, say, Iceland or Scotland, which are privately owned, steelhead rivers on the West Coast of North America are public. All you need are a state or provincial fishing license, a pair of Gore-Tex waders and a waterproof jacket, and you’re ready to go.

The term steelhead “fly” is used loosely; what does the trick is a relatively small hook adorned with pink or orange feathers and fur, teased deeply through the current about as fast as a human can walk at a comfortable pace, where the outsized fish are imagined to be holding. Once in freshwater, steelhead cease requiring food, so their reaction is likely reflexive: inhale to live.

When Sean Gallagher first began fishing for steelhead, 50 years ago, he used bait, mostly salmon eggs cured in a brine of salt and Borax. That was the traditional way. It was also the way to catch the most fish—and over the years, Gallagher has caught thousands.

Now the most is no longer his motivation. The old steelheader casts for memories. These days, he is content to sit back against a huge cedar tree that has been growing for centuries, sink into the deep carpet of green moss and watch the river go by, some days green and sparkling in the spring sunshine, some days gray in the rainswept light.

What is a steelhead?

Clark Gable was thrilled when the first steelhead he ever hooked on Oregon’s Rogue River jumped 11 times. Bing Crosby and Herbert Hoover were captivated by this mystery fish, which was bent on pulling the bucking rod out of their hands. “All trout are beautiful,” wrote Zane Grey. “But this one of the sea species seemed more than beautiful.”

What on earth is a steelhead? Simply, it’s a rainbow trout that grows to gargantuan proportions in the ocean. After hatching in the clean, freshwater gravel of a rushing stream, it spends the next two to three years dodging birds and mammals and fishes that want to eat it, all the while putting on inches by devouring insects and protein-packed salmon eggs in season. Then one spring day, weighing ounces and as long as your finger, it flees downstream and out into the Pacific Ocean. It swims just under its surface, circling a massive current called the Alaskan gyre in search of multicolored squid, silvery shoals of herring and tasty mackerel. 

One day the evolutionary switch goes on and it begins heading for home, to one of hundreds of coastal rivers stretching from California to Alaska. It is now a magnificent, hard-bodied marine creature, sheathed in chrome, blushed with pink. 

Adult steelhead returning to spawn typically weigh four to 18 pounds. The record is 42 pounds. Oncorhynchus mykiss—Russian explorers named it more than two centuries ago in Kamchatka—is anadromous, from the Greek meaning “running from the sea.” —T.P.

If you want to catch a steelhead

Steelhead migrate up West Coast rivers nearly every month of the year, but are broadly defined by when they enter freshwater as summer-run (June through October) and winter-run (December through April). The fresher the fish, the harder they fight.

To try your luck at Gold River on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, fly into Campbell River Airport and stay at the luxurious new Lodge at Gold River. (The $475/night double, $575/night single European-plan rates include transportation from the airport.) A raft trip with a guide, gear and lunch costs $350 and heli-fishing to wilderness rivers runs $1,850 per day (based on three guests).
Info:, (250) 283-2900 or email

For a Quinault River adventure on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, stay at Lake Quinault Lodge, a classic built of ancient logs in 1926. Fly into Sea-Tac International Airport (three-hour drive) or Bowerman Airport in Hoquiam, Washington (must arrange for transportation to lodge, 45 minutes away). A room at the lodge with fireplace and lake view runs about $260 (American plan). A day of guided fishing by jet sled on the lower river flowing through Quinault Nation land runs $400. Lodging info: (800) 562-6672. Guided-fishing info:, (360) 581-2662. —T.P.

Thomas R. Pero is publisher of  Fish & Fly and the author of two books about fly fishing.