Fall Steelhead Fishing: Proven Guide Tips And Tactics

Anglers fall steelhead fishingwith one of my guides

When steelhead fishing in the fall, I have been lucky as a river guide to have been on the water sometimes 50 days straight, and I get to see how the fall steelhead fishing changes from early fall to late fall. Fishing steelhead in the fall can go from great to bad quickly so as a steelhead river guide, I need to adjust and change things up to keep my clients catching fish throughout the season, these are the things that I do.

Fall steelhead fishing starts in late September and it continues to late December. Anglers that adapt well to the changing conditions, the temperature drops, and that know about steelhead location shifts will continue to catch steelhead. Those that don’t know how to adapt will struggle.

Other guides and the better steelhead anglers have also figured out that adapting is the key to success. The good thing is that it’s not that hard to do once you understand a few things which I will explain below.

Fall Steelhead Fishing: What You Should Know

Fall steelhead fishing starts with warm days and cool nights, and in many areas and many rivers, this could be as early as Mid-September. It’s the cold fall rains that raise the river water levels and that starts the migrations of some early steelhead.

As the fall progresses the days and the rivers will become colder right up until the river freezes over and halts the steelhead runs.

The problem for most anglers is that they don’t realize that these changing conditions can have a drastic effect on steelhead holding and feeding locations, and how and when the steelhead will feed.

I have guided steelhead 60 to 90 days every fall for over 10 years and I have seen how steelhead fishing changes throughout the fall season. I’ve had to learn to adapt to keep my clients on fish. I can tell you where the steelhead will be in the pool based on daily and hourly river and weather conditions. This is what I know.

Early Fall Fishing For Steelhead

Early fall fishing for steelhead
Early fall fishing for steelhead is when the steelhead are silver and strong.

Early fall steelhead fishing often starts out with small sporadic steelhead runs. These runs are triggered by cooler nights in September and October and more so triggered by the cool rains that raise water levels.

Some steelhead will even enter the river because they are following migrating salmon up the rivers.

The salmon also migrate based on colder water and the rains. For more information on salmon fishing check out my page How To Fish For Great Lakes Salmon in Rivers: Guide Tactics.

These early run fall steelhead are full of energy after spending the summer in the great lakes getting big and strong.

Because the river temperatures are above 50f and are ideal for the steelhead, the early fall steelhead will often hit almost any bait or any lure and they can be almost anywhere in the river.

I often find early fall steelhead in fast water, in pockets, pools, and even sitting in shallow water behind spawning salmon.

One place I do find them most often, and this is important to know, is closer to the head of the pools. You will see how this changes later in the fall.

It’s important for anglers to understand that where the steelhead hold over a 24 hour period can also change. During low light conditions like overnight, at dawn, and at dusk, many steelhead will be at the head of the pools resting before they shoot up to the next pool. I also find them in rapids and pockets working their way up the river to the next pool.

They tend to move from the back of the pools quickly and then rest near the top area of the pool and this is where you will catch them a lot of the time.

By late morning and throughout the afternoon, especially under bright sun or when many anglers are on the river, many steelhead will hold in the deeper middle sections of the pool where they feel safer as they wait for darkness so they can continue their up-river journey.

Mornings and late afternoon are often the best times to fish for steelhead at this time. In the mornings and evenings, I fish the top half of the pools as well as pockets and fast water hard for steelhead, and I spend less time at the back of the pools.

Mid Fall Steelhead Fishing

Mid fall fishing for steelhead can produce many double headers like this
Mid fall fishing for steelhead is when the biggest runs happen and that can produce many double headers like this.

Mid-fall fishing for steelhead starts around early to mid-November when the water temperature starts to consistently be below 50F. This is also the peak time for steelhead and is often when the biggest runs of steelhead happen and when the most fish are available to anglers.

This is when most steelhead are caught simply because there are so many in the river and they are still aggressive and will hit most baits.

But this is also when the nights are much colder and can often drop below freezing temperatures and this is when you need to start making some adjustments.

One of the first things I do is watch the nighttime temperatures drops. The reason for this is that steelhead are cold-blooded and when the river temperatures drop drastically overnight, they can become sluggish and inactive.

This is the reason when I guide for steelhead in September and October that I meet my clients at 7:30 am, but on days when the air temps drop well below freezing, I might start closer to 8:30 am, which is when the water temps will stabilize and even start warming which will trigger fish activity.

Anglers that show up at the river at sunrise will often struggle to hook any fish but as the morning progresses a simply 1-degree water temperature increase can make the steelhead very active again.

I have also found that during these slow times, I tend to stop catching as many steelhead and start catching more steelhead in the middle of the pool. I also found that smaller baits and more natural baits like flies can get them to bite.

Since the water temps and their activity levels fluctuate a lot this time of year. This is when I start rotating through my baits to figure out what they will eat. What they might eat early in the morning might change by 11 am or at 2 pm. A huge mistake that many anglers make is that they only fish with one type of bait all day, and sometimes all year.

Rotating baits, bait sizes, and bait colors, is one reason why my clients and I will hook 20 steelhead a day, but when we pass other anglers along the river or in the parking lot, most of them catch none or are only catch a few.

If you don’t know what rotating baits means, or you want to know how I do it, or just want to know what my most effective baits are, check out my page Best Steelhead Baits.

Now you don’t always need to be using baits when steelhead fishing in the fall because lure fishing at this time can be fantastic. Just remember that early in the morning when the steelhead are cold might not be the best time to fish lures.

If you are interested in my most effective lures and how to fish them more effectively, check out my page The Best Lures For Steelhead Fishing

Late Fall Fishing For Steelhead

Late fall fishing for steelhead is when the big steelhead like this are in the river
Late fall fishing for steelhead is when the big steelhead like this are in the river and it’s when the steelhead start taking on darker spawning colors

For many anglers, late fall steelhead fishing is tough and it’s when they give up fishing for steelhead altogether. It’s either too cold for them to be standing on the river, or they just stop catching steelhead.

There is a reason why they don’t catch fish at this time but myself and my guides can have 20 to 50 fish days still.

Late fall steelhead fishing starts when the water temperature starts getting below 40F, which is usually around late November and through December. There are often lots of steelhead in the river at this time and more will come.

The problem most anglers have is they have been told and are convinced that steelhead stop feeding when the water hits 40F or 37F. This is BS. If that was the case why am I able to put my clients onto 30 steelhead in the middle of January or February when the water is at its coldest.

Not understanding how fluctuating temps affect the fish is often most angler’s biggest problem at this time of year.

Most anglers still believe that even at this time of year they need to be on the water early in the morning or just before dark. This is wrong and it’s why they won’t catch fish!

I don’t know how many hundreds of days I have had when we start our trip at 8:30 am and I know that 90% of the fish we catch will be between 11 am and 2 pm at this time of the year. I know this before I even start my day.

The anglers that get on the river early, go fish for a few hours and leave before 11 am catch few fish, and miss out on a lot of great fishing.

I go into more depth as to why this 11 am to 2 pm is so good and how water temps affect steelhead fishing on my page Winter Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics Of Expert Guides.

All you need to know now when fall fishing for steelhead in late November and December is that as the water warms up later in the morning the fish will acclimatize and start to become more active, and that is when you need to be on the water.

This is also the time of year when I will ignore the top of the pool and focus most of my efforts on the middle and back or tail-out of the pool.

This is also when the steelhead will bulk up in certain areas within the river so a pool that fished great in October might be void of steelhead now.

My bait choices and my presentation also need to be adjusted to accommodate the less active steelhead. A big fat bright spawn bag that they smashed in early November might not work now, but a small salmon or trout size bead might be more effective.

Dress Right For Fall Steelhead Fishing

Fishing in late fall is also tough on anglers that don’t know how to dress for the weather and the ice-cold water. As a guide that stands in the water almost all day and every day during this time, I’ve had to figure out how to stay warm, dry, and comfortable.

I’ve used the advice and tips from other guides and what worked for me and put it on my page Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips. These tips are great for late fall to early spring.

Once the late fall and winter season is over, spring steelhead fishing starts and that can require other methods and strategies to consistently catch steelhead. Check out my page on Spring Steelhead Fishing for more information and guide tips.

The Best Method For Fall Fishing For Steelhead

The honest truth is that most methods of fishing that worked early in the fall will also work now except that you may need to adjust those methods a bit. Slowing down and getting your bait, fly or lure closer to the steelhead is more important now.

Casting a lure with a quick retrieve and high in the water column can be a big mistake at this time of year, and a lure that worked well in October might not be as good when the water is cold and the fish are sluggish.

Fly fishing, float fishing, drift fishing, and lure fishing will all work when steelhead fishing in the fall, provided you do them correctly.

You can find out more about all the best methods that I use on my page Steelhead Fishing – Most Effective Methods For Steelhead.

Want More On Fall Steelhead Fishing

Fall steelhead fishing requires that you adapt your presentation, baits, and locations based on the ever-changing environmental conditions at this time of year.

If you have a tip, comment, or question about steelhead fishing in the fall, let me and readers know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines


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  1. Just wanted to say thank you for putting this information out there. I’ve enjoyed reading your tutorials and have gained more insight than I could have hoped for. I recently picked up my first centerpin and rod and reel (Raven Matrix fully ported) based on your suggestions as well as all the tackle for steelhead this year. My 14 year old and I will begin our Steelhead journey next week and with your tutelage I’m sure we’ll be having some fun. Thanks again!

  2. Hello Graham,
    Sorry for the dum question, but what do you call the head, tail of the pool. Is the head located up river?
    Also, I learned this year euro nimphyng and I have been somewhat more productive than other years considering I started learning fly fishing this year. Would this still be a good method for the late fall, winter? or is it best to switch to indicator instead?

    1. Hi David,

      The head is the top of the pool, and the tail is the bottom of the pool.

      First, I highly recommend getting good at both Euro and Indicator nymphing.

      The reason is because late fall and winter fish will move into and hold in deeper slower water that is more suitable for indicators. However, if they are moving up the river, they can be found in pockets, runs, and shallower pools where Euro fishing can work better.

      Also, on very windy days, or when you need to fish at a far distance, the indicator is better.

      Hope that helps