Steelhead are the anadromous (migrating) version of rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are the “land locked” version, and remain in freshwater throughout their life. Steelhead migrate from the ocean into freshwater to spawn, and then can swim back out to the ocean again if they wish. Since steelhead are not semelparous (meaning they do not die after spawning) they are not an “official” Pacific Salmon.
Common techniques for steelhead include back-trolling plugs, drift fishing, float fishing, casting spoons or spinners, and fly fishing. Fly fishing is one of the most common techniques on the John Day as the river offers many shallow glides that are ideal for presenting a fly to these weary fish.
With so much talk about bass fishing on the John Day many people have all but forgotten this river host one of the healthiest runs of native steelhead in the state. While this is mainly a catch and release fishery many hatchery fish do stray into the system offering some harvest opportunities. The John Day boast a run of nearly 20,000 fish that begin their journey into the river in November and stay in good numbers through the end of March.
Some of the best fishing for these fish is as they first enter the river in November. Efforts should be concentrated on the lower stretches. An overnight trip is required to access much of this prime water. Two good options are to float from 30 mile creek (This is private property however can be accessed with fee payment,) float this section to the Cottonwood bridge. Option two is to float from cottonwood bridge to McDonalds crossing.
A migrating Steelhead will swim on average about five miles per day. This means from the time the fish enter the mouth in November it will take them another month to reach Service Creek. The first fish begin to appear in December, however the fishing really doesn’t pick up until the beginning of January and holds up through the beginning of April. From Service Creek there is plenty of good water that can be accessed by car, or several short floats are available.