When do Steelhead Spawn: Times, Locations and Conditions

When do Steelhead Spawn feature image

Different subspecies of steelhead trout spawn in the same relative time frames, however, there are slight timing differences based on location. The water temperature and the water temperature directly affect the timing of the steelhead spawning migration.

Steelhead are sea-run rainbow trout and live in all different parts of the world. They’re an anadromous fish with amazing instincts.

What Time of Year do Steelhead Spawn?

Steelhead spawns are broken into two different time frames. There are Summer run steelhead who begin their spawning journey shortly after April and continue through late September and there are winter-run steelhead who begin their journeys in December and continue through May.

Pacific Steelhead

Spawning steelhead 1
Steelhead can spawn multiple times in their lifetimes

Winter Steelhead

Winter steelhead typically begin their spawning journey into freshwater streams and tributaries between the months of December and May. Winter run steelhead are typically mature adults who are towards the back end of their life cycle and will lay their eggs shortly after entering the fresh water. Winter-run Steelhead also have the ability to spawn multiple times in their lifetimes and many of them will make the journey from the sea to the river, stream or tributary multiple times.

Summer Steelhead

Summer run steelhead are typically juvenile steelhead, not fully mature fish. These steelhead start the much longer journey to their spawning grounds in early summer. Starting in the sea, summer-run steelhead will venture up the river system they were born in back to the place they hatched to lay their eggs. Summer run steelhead have been found as far inland as Idaho and sometimes will not spawn for over a year after they started their journey.

Great Lakes Steelhead

Great Lakes steelhead have a spawning period that is essentially a combination of both summer and winter-run steelhead where they spawn mainly between October and May. They make their way from the Great Lakes into different coastal streams and tributaries that line the shores and spawn shortly after.

What Conditions Trigger Steelhead Spawning?

Spawning Steelhead
Rising water temperatures trigger the steelhead spawning runs

Water temperatures

The main factor that will cause steelhead to run and begin their spawning journey is the water temperature. The magic number steelhead are looking for is 40 degrees. When the water temp rises to anywhere between 40-55 degrees, both sea and great lakes steelhead will begin their journey.

Flow rates

Water flow rates are also a factor in when steelhead begin their spawn. Higher water flows mixed with rising water temperature are what often trigger the run. Steelhead will do everything they can to not run during low water times as this makes the journey upstream even more difficult.

Oxygen Content

A third factor affecting the start of the reproduction cycle of steelhead is the oxygen level of the water. Unlike salmon, steelhead, specifically the young steelhead, who may travel thousands of miles to spawn need highly oxygenated waters in order to survive such a grueling journey.

Do Steelhead Travel Far to Spawn?

Typically, winter-run steelhead and great lakes steelhead do not travel overly far to spawn. Winter-run steelhead who start their journey in the ocean will spawn fairly quickly after entering the freshwater where they were born. The same goes for Great Lakes Steelhead as well.

Summer-run steelhead have a much longer journey and can travel thousands of miles and spend more than a year in their freshwater streams and/or tributaries before laying their eggs. This is why summer-run steelhead are typically younger, not fully mature fish. The journey and amount of time spent in the freshwater would not be possible for the older, winter-run fish.

What kind of Spots Do Steelhead Choose to Spawn?

In addition to the correct temperature, flow rates and oxygen levels, steelhead will look for gravelly, high-water flow habitats to lay their eggs. The areas need to be free of excess silt, ideally covered in small rocks or pebbles.

See also:

How Do Steelhead Trout Spawn?

Steelhead lay their eggs in gravel redds

Unlike hatchery fish, steelhead trout spawn via partnerships. Female steelhead will dig down into deeper gravel spots (known as redds) and lay their eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the male steelhead will fight for the ability to fertilize the eggs. Once fertilized, the spawning process is complete and steelhead will go on to continue their life cycles.

Can you Fish for Spawning Steelhead?

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Anglers can legally fish for spawning steelhead in most states

See also:

In most areas, it is legal to fish for spawning steelhead. States like Washington, Idaho, and Oregon will close certain spawning areas during peak season, but most others are completely open. Spawning steelhead present anglers with some of the best opportunities to catch the fish of a lifetime due to the ability of the fishermen to follow the patterns and know the locations of the spawn.

You’ll also have success landing resident rainbow trout during the steelhead spawn. When steelhead eggs hatch or are on the verge of hatching, resident rainbow trout will eat as many as they can.

Is it legal?

It is legal in almost all states except Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Most of the other states where steelhead spawn have an open season for anglers to pursue them.

Is it Ethical?

The question of fishing for steelhead during the spawn has come up for debate more and more in the last few years. There are basically two schools of thought, but ultimately, if you are in a state where it is legal to fish for spawning steelhead the choice is up to the angler.

The case against fishing for spawning steelhead is that the fish are in a state of concentration and exhaustion with no true means of escape. They are headed up the river to spawn and as a result are much easier to target. Anglers against fishing for steelhead during this journey argue that it removes the “sport” of chasing them and takes away all of the fish’s advantages.

Anglers making the case for fishing steelhead during the spawn point to the legality of it as well as well as the increased opportunity that many anglers may not have at other times of the year.

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Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.
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