reading water

I give up.

I spent a large amount of time trying to put together the perfect blog post to answer one of my readers questions but at the end of the day I realized that it’s pretty f’n simple.

It doesn’t take a huge article to tell you how to steelhead.  Sure there is the water speed, depth and cover keys, but it’s really all about putting in your time and covering the water and being persistent as noted here.

So, I’m going to save you a bunch of time right up front and tell you that the key to reading water and finding fish is being totally systematic about how you cover the run to find those fish.

The cast, swing, step…… cast, swing, step process is the secret for steelhead fishing.  Unless you have hooked up before in a run it’s not always a given that you can find all of the buckets within the run using your glasses, or any other method.

There may be a ledge the fish love down there, but you might never know unless you cover every foot of the run.

It comes down to the habit of finding steelhead.  Your habit of systematically covering every steelhead run will be your key to success.

Here’s the questions that I received from a listener this week when I asked her about her struggles with steelhead fly fishing:

My biggest struggle around fly fishing for steelhead is where to find fish depending on the water conditions. I’ve been steelheading for a few years now, and no matter how many days I put in, I always seem to be fishing in the wrong place compared to the success of others on the river fishing similar set ups. I’d love any advice on knowing where to look in high flow vs low flow water situations. Runs vs pools vs pocket water, etc.

I will provide a few tips below but at the end of the day it’s just about putting in your time.

I have had plenty of slow and skunked trips on new water and had to put my time in.

Eventually you hook up and that starts the ball rolling.  You find one spot where you hook up and now you have that spot in your back pocket for next time.

Now, I’ll cover habitat types because I think this is a topic that should be understood to understand the fish we chase.

But first, why I love the rain and how that relates……..

I just realized this week that I love the rain.  Maybe not an epic thing to say for some people, but for me it’s like stripping off my clothes and running naked around the city.

I thought that saying “I love the rain” was a weird thing to say coming from a place where it rains about 90 inches per year and people commit suicide because of it.

I think I was almost convinced recently that I needed to live somewhere south where it didn’t rain much or at least was warmer when it rained.  That I had to hate the rain.  For some the rain is depressive.

For me, it means that the steelhead are coming.  Nature’s sign that there is a higher calling for the silver flash we all search for.

I actually love the cool temperate rain we get out here in the NW.  It never gets too cold or too warm, kind of a moderate in between.  You do have to handle the sometimes months on end of rain everyday occasionally but I think I’m good with that.

For steelhead, rain is also a good thing.  Without the heavy rain we get here we wouldn’t have the same type of fishing we have.  The connection between the heavy rain, the huge forests, fish habitat and those steelhead is something that only occurs at this level here.

I won’t go into depth on the habitat side (I’ll save that for later if interested –> click here if you are and let me know) here but will say that the NW was made for steelhead.

Given that we do sometimes get double digit rainfall totals in a weekend, this means the rivers can get really high.  And on the east side of the mountains in the rain shadow areas, we only get 10 inches or less per year.  So, the rivers can get very low as well.

Give that we get very low and very high flows and all types of variation in the middle, how do you find the steelhead when trying to hook one?


Do they hold in the same areas in high vs. low water?

Are there easy things you can do to reduce the effort you spend finding steelhead?

Is there a way to walk up to a steelhead run, take a look and have a good idea where to start fishing?

I’ll share a few tips today that will help you understand how the steelhead adapts to live in a changing environment and how to hook into more big steelhead.

How to find steelhead in low and high water

Before you can catch a steelhead you have to find them.  bottom line.  Regardless of your rod, your fly, your presentation, your skill, you have to find the fish first.

But where in the heck do you start?

How about high vs low water?

I covered general characteristics and tips of reading water here.  I cover water speed and water depth in this article.  Today, I’m going to cover the fish cover piece of the puzzle as it relates to high and low water.

Before we get into the details of the behaviors of steelhead and how they find cover, let’s look at the different habitats.

Habitat Types

Let’s take a step back and look at the different types of habitats the we have in a typical river and then apply this to steelhead.

Head of the Run – This is where the riffle flows into the pool.  In low water this can be a good place to find fish if there aren’t great habitats or structure in downstream parts of the run.

Pool – This is the deepest and slowest part of the run.  This part is usually too slow for steelhead to hold in (remember walking speed).

Run or glide – The part of the pool that shallows up and eventually turns into a tailout.  This part of the run can hold fish in high and low water dependent on the type of cover and structures is available in this area.

tail out – The part of the pool/glide just before it breaks into the riffle.

riffle – The turbulentt part of the run that usually does not hold steelhead because its too fast.

pocket water – Pocket water is kind of a hybrid unit but can be part of any of the above habitat units.  If the speed is right, steelhead can hold in these areaa.

Now that we understand a little about the morphology of a river let’s look at fish cover in more detail and how it applies to these habitat units, then we’ll look at some tips.

Fish Cover is the Key

We now know two places we don’t generally look for steelhead (riffles and deep part of pools) and know that fish will be in the main run down to the tail out where there is structure and resting places.

Now, within this area how do you find them?

If you can’t identify structure below the surface in a run by just looking, you will need to just cover the entire run slowly to find fish (remember a tip or tap is a fish-link to my article)

Generally speaking, you won’t find the fish in the heavy parts of the current.  Fish are always trying to find the easy path up and to rest.  So look for areas where they can rest.

On the inside of seems, along current breaks, and in the part of the run around structure.

In low water they are looking for cover.  You will need to look in the deeper parts of the run and around structure.  In low water you will likely find them in the thalweg (deepest) of the run where current’s aren’t too strong.

General Tips

  1. look for the road pullouts – When you are new to a river and you have no idea where to go, look for the road pullouts.  (I got this from Jay in a recent interview).  Take a look at the run and give it a go.
  2. Once you are in the run, make sure to fish the run systematically step x step
  3. If others are in the area remember where they may have hooked up.  Next time you are in the area you will know where one fish holds.
  4. Remember a tip and tap is a steelhead.  Don’t forget the subtle touches of a steelhead.  These are important cues and may mean the difference between a fish and a skunked day.
  5. No sand – Sand is usually deposited in the slowest parts of the run so if you see sand, don’t fish it.
  6. Don’t fish the really slow or really fast water of any run  – We are looking for walking speed
  7. Check out your rivers in low water.  Go to the river during the summer so you can see the structure better in the runs.  Make note for later.


Create a habit of being systematic with your steelhead fishing.

Understand the habitat types and where fish hide.

Appreciate that you are not weird if you love rain.

If I missed anything here I’d love to hear about it.  Do you have a nice tip on finding fish that might help shemia?  Add it in the comments.

And if you’re interested in the right spey rod for steelhead, Click here to see the Echo Spey Rod that has helped me drastically improve my spey cast and find more steelhead at a super reasonable cost (You also get a free spey line if you pickup the Echo Spey).  By the way, the link above is an affiliate link, which means I earn a commission if you do end up purchasing through that link.  It’s at no extra cost to you, and please if you have any questions related to this product, please let me know and I’d be happy to answer them for you.