Anglers tend to look for secrets, anything perceived as generally unknown, to give them an edge over other anglers. This is wrong right from the start because they should be looking for things that give them an edge over the fish rather than competing with other anglers on the water. This applies even to tournament fishing. Be more concerned with the fish than with other anglers.
The most important things to be done to catch steelhead are simple. Likely, though, if you go to any section of any of the Pennsylvania steelhead creeks where there are at least a half-dozen anglers, some will be ignoring the most basic of steelhead fishing guidelines.
Most days, based on reports gathered from all times of the day, steelhead fishing is only fair. Get a report from anglers who were on the creek by sunrise and that changes. Fishing reports from anglers who got to the creeks by sunrise are much more often good. This is one of the most basic, most important factors in steelhead fishing. Steelhead tend to be most active very early in the morning.
A steelhead on the line
I will admit that I am not a morning person. My best chances for steelhead success come late in the day, under the last traces of sunlight. This is only a rule of thumb, not true always, but often enough to be considered one of the most important guidelines for steelhead fishing. Fishing is best early in the morning, good late in the day, and anything between is influenced by stream flow, water color, fishing pressure, and weather conditions. I am tempted to add the phase of the moon, but I know from experience that if you poll a dozen experienced, skilled steelhead anglers on this, you will hear just about every phase of the moon in reply.
The end of the best fishing during the morning typically occurs when some angler gets careless with wading.
Sure, some steelhead will be caught while anglers are wading in the water. But odds are good that either the steelhead obviously were snagged, or the hook is in the mouth of the steelhead but the steelhead did not intentionally ingest that hook. Many steelhead are hooked when the line gets into their mouths and ether they move or the angler feels some tension on the line and attempts to set the hook. Both situations result in a steelhead which is hooked in the mouth, but technically they were snagged.
Or another slightly different scenario, a very light bait or fly is unintentionally inhaled by a steelhead. Watch a steelhead in the water. It is facing into the current, mouth rhythmically opening and closing. This is the breathing process. The steelhead inhales water which passes through the gills and out the gill slits. A baited hook or fly that is right in front of a steelhead as it inhales can easily be inhaled with the water. I sometimes wonder if this is the reason very small flies are sometimes most effective for steelhead.
None of these situations are intentional snagging. All but the situation where a steelhead is hooked away from the mouth are thought to be legal catches.
My point is not wether catches of this sort are legal. My point is that catches well after sunrise and after anglers have waded into the water may be deceiving. The steelhead likely were not actually hitting.
If you have done a lot of steelhead fishing, and likely you have since we are so close to what is widely considered to be among the best steelhead fishing there is, you have probably collected a large assortment of tackle, especially flies and lures. Collecting lures or flies is almost universal. You will find, however, that the majority of the steelhead you hook are hooked on just a few of those flies or lures. We should add baits since spin fishers use bait much more often than artificial lures. Most of the terminal tackle you carry is a waste of time.
Since collecting lures is part of the fun of being a fisherman, this is not a problem. Not unless you get so involved with the lures that you keep changing lures all day. Actually there is some degree of benefit to this since steelhead can be finicky. It is not when changing lures actually makes a serious dent in fishing time, or when it results in using ineffective lures too much of the time.
Pick a small assortment of baits, lures or flies and spend most of your fishing time using them. Experiment occasionally of course, but not too often. Likely as not the fly fisher will spend most of the time using egg patterns, bait fishers will usually use some manner of eggs.
The final number in this combination is eight, as in eight pound-test line. That should be the heaviest line you will use for steelhead, even though you may get away with heavier line in muddy water. Odd though it seems, among experienced steelhead anglers, fly fishers tend to use heavier line than spin fishers. The primary reason behind this is because light line requires fighting a steelhead so long that it is not likely to survive after being released.