One of the biggest keys to catching steelhead is knowing your water temperature and how it affects the fish. Since steelies are cold-blooded beasts, their metabolism slows down in colder water and increases as the temps go up (until they got too hot).
In general, when water temps are low, you’ll find the fish in the softer water along the edges of the river and in slower, deeper runs, pools and flats. They seek out these spots to avoid fighting the current. Conversely, the warmer the temps, the faster, choppier water you’re going to find them in.
The really interesting thing is — and I have yet to ever hear anybody talk about this — that water temps affect fish differently depending on where you are fishing. Again, they’re going to be governed by their cold-bloodedness but steelhead also react to what they’re used to.
For example, here on my home stream, the American River near Sacramento, CA, we don’t have cold winters. The fish have gotten used to relatively warm water temps and when the river drops below about 55 degrees, they start to get a little less active and we have to fish a bit later in the day and work slightly slower water to get them to bite.
On most rivers along the coast and in the Pacific Northwest, BC, Alaska, 55 is considered very warm for winter steelhead. I’ve caught plenty of steelhead in those areas in water that was all the way down in the mid to high 30′s. Temps like that here in California’s Central Valley would put the fish into lockjaw mode but the northern fish will still bite. Why? Because that’s what the steelies are used to.
So, it seems odd but water temps are a bit relative. You have to take a look at what the steelhead in your particular area are accustomed to before you can put water temperature to its best use.