How To Catch Summer Steelhead

Summer Steelhead are one of the most prized catches that swim in our Pacific Northwest rivers. This beautiful specie resembles an oversized Rainbow Trout, often having the same coloring as their lake-locked brethren, but at first glance it is obvious that these creatures are a sea going sort. If you are a fisher who just recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, or are simply interested in trying out a new fishery, then you are exactly the person I wrote this for. I hope you find this information useful. I hope it helps solve the puzzles of Steelhead fishing during summer months. I hope you will soon see the first Summer Run on the end of your line.

Summer Steelhead Basics

Historically speaking, Steelhead were found in Northwest rivers throughout the year. Currently in most rivers, we classify Steelhead as either a winter-run or a summer-run. In Western Washington and Oregon, Summer Steelhead return to their rivers from May through September, yet won’t spawn until December and January; Winter Steelhead will return October through March, yet won’t spawn until April through June. Summer Steelhead that return to the Inland Northwest, those that are returning to the tributaries of the Upper Columbia River and Snake River, will reach their destination from September through December. So realistically, throughout our region, Summer Steelhead can be caught from May through December in fairly fresh form.

Summer Steelhead are a true thrill to catch. They typically weigh five to fifteen pounds. They are widely available throughout the Pacific Northwest. The pleasant summer river environment they live in allows them to actively travel, actively feed, and actively chase down lures, flies and baits. Once hooked they are acrobatic, often jumping and leaping out of the water numerous times. They are one of my favorite fish to pursue, yet they are a challenge to catch at times.

To successfully fish for Summer Steelhead, one needs to know where to find them. One needs to assess the water conditions and decide what equipment best suits the situation. One needs to have appropriate tackle. The beauty of fishing for them in the summer is that they will take a wide range of offerings; it is only a matter of selecting the best technique and the best lures for that specific time frame. Most of this comes only with experience. I could write an entire book on the subject, but let’s start off with the basics that will get you out on the water.

Summer River Conditions

If you have spent any time walking along our Northwest riverbanks, you know that our rivers are moody. A river may be a raging torrent, but its neighbor may be not much more than a trickle. You might approach a river that has high flows one week, but low and clear the next. What influences river conditions during the summer?

There are two main elements that shape current river conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Rain and Snowmelt.

First let’s talk about rain. Rain is synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. Not only to we get more than our fair share of it, but Mother Nature is, let’s be kind, generous with the number of days per year that we have drizzle and gray skies. April and May, sometimes June as well, are typically very wet months. The heavy river flows in the spring allow out-migrating baby Salmon and Steelhead a fast track to the Pacific, they also make for a fairly easy commute upriver for early returning Summer Steelhead. July through September are generally dry, which means that as the summer progresses, the rivers have little to replenish their flows once the snowpack is gone (we will talk about that in a minute). Anglers rejoice at any news of a mid-July squall, as it can lift the river levels just enough to turn on a hot Steelhead bite for a few more days. Usually by mid-August most Northwest rivers are very low, very clear, very warm, and very difficult to fish. Cooler evenings and lower light conditions in September and October can be a godsend to Steelheaders on the Westside, there is usually a resurgence of fishing activity. That being said, the vast majority of Summer Steelhead are caught in June, July and August.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, our high country holds a healthy snowpack for most of the early summer. It is the snowfields deep in the Cascade Range, the Olympic Mountains, the Sawtooths, and the Rockies that feed our rivers midway through the summer. On an average year, snowmelt is a major contributing factor to higher river flows usually through June, sometimes deep into July. On the Skykomish River during the summer months, you can check out the USGS river gauge and see that flows actually increase at night from snowmelt that occurred the day prior, then drop during the day as a reaction to the cooler evening temperatures in the Cascade Range. This is a daily occurrence until the Cascade snowpack is gone. Pretty interesting stuff. Once that snowpack is gone, fishermen pray to the rain gods for a summer freshet.

Several of the most famed Summer Steelhead rivers are dammed. As electricity demands and irrigation needs are met by altering the flows released by dams, it can make for constantly changing conditions that a Steelhead angler must adapt to. I will leave it at that, as each river that has dam regulated flows has its own unique situations throughout the summer. That’s one for you to figure out.

Summer Run Finesse

Deciding what equipment to use is a big part of Summer Steelhead success. During high water conditions, heavier line, heavier leaders (10 pound or 12 pound) and larger offerings will work just fine. When the water clears, the fish tend to be more selective and lighter leaders (6 pound or 8 pound) are typically used. As the summer progresses and rivers drop, I shift from baiting a whole live Sand Shrimp to just a piece of the tail, and downsize from a quarter coin sized cluster of cured roe to just over the size of a dime. I am constantly amazed at just how many Steelhead key in on tiny offerings, even when the water isn’t crystal clear.

When our rivers are flowing higher and greener during the early season, filled with fresh snowmelt, brighter jigs, larger & brighter drift bobbers (Corkies and Cheaters), maybe even a mylar-winged Spin & Glo. But as the waters recede and clear up, the most dull-colored jig or the smallest drift bobber can be too much at times.

Summer Steelhead Baits

In sections of the river where bait is legal to use, it can be the most effective offering. Certain baits are popular is certain areas. Many Oregonian Steelhead fishers love drift fishing a small Crawfish tail in the summer. On Western Washington & Oregon rivers, those that are within close proximity to the saltwater, it is hard to turn down a few dozen freshly dug live Sand Shrimp. In Washington’s Southwestern rivers, such as the Lewis and Cowlitz, cured Coonstripe Shrimp are widely used, as they are along the riverbanks of the Upper Columbia River tributaries of Eastern Washington & Oregon and Idaho. Wherever you plan to go fishing and regardless of the local bait favorites, one of the most widely used and most effective Summer Run baits is a cluster of cured salmon eggs/roe. If you can get your hands on some high quality eggs, you will catch fish. When quality salmon roe isn’t available, many Steelhead fishermen will head to the local grocery store and by previously frozen Shrimp (21-60 count is popular), cut them into bait-sized chunks and fish them either colored and cured or just plain.

There are also several baits that will catch Steelhead at times, but are not as widely known or used. Some anglers swear that in the most challenging water conditions of later summer, a live Nightcrawler is the bait of choice. On rare occasion I have passed guys on the trail that were walking out with a limit of Summer Steelhead caught using small chunks of Squid. Very late into the summer, as Steelhead tend to act more trout-like, a Periwinkle, a Stonefly or any other large local insect can and will catch fish. But in general all the baits mentioned in the paragraph prior to this one are the standard, go-to baits.

Drift Fishing for Summer Steelhead

Drift fishing is a great technique that has been around as long as folks have been wandering the banks of our rivers. Basically, to drift fish means that you use a snap swivel tied to your mainline, attach a small weight to the snap part, and to the swivel part you tie on a short leader to your offering. Most of the time, a piece of pencil lead or a slinky weight is the best. Cast directly out or ever-so-slightly up current and allow your offering to tumble along the bottom. Use barely enough weight so that when your offering is drifting down the current, it ticks the river cobble only a few times.

When I bring my drift rod along, I usually try and use some form of bait, mainly cured roe or live Sand Shrimp. On occasion, I will use nothing more than a drift bobber, a Trout Bead, or a drift bobber matched with a small tuft of yarn (smeared with scent if possible).

Those that drift fish come to the realization that regardless of just how perfect the drift is, the current always pushes the mainline and creates a belly – there is never a truly direct connection, so sometimes a Steelhead will pick up the offering and you will barely notice. Light bites. Concentration is key. Float fishing is way easier.

Float Fishing for Summer Steelhead

Arguably the most widely used technique in the Pacific Northwest. Float Fishing, often times referred to as Bobber Fishing, is deadly effective. Not only is float fishing the perfect technique for the beginner, but it is also the preferred method for many veteran Steelheaders. Float fishing basics: drifting the current with your offering suspended under a bobber. For the most part, when guys bring along their float rods, their offering is a Steelhead Jig. These jigs are usually quite small, fly-looking thingies, weighing around 1/16 ounce to ¼ ounce. The best jig colors and patterns to use vary based on location and river conditions. Ocean-fresh Summer Steelhead have many of the same characteristics of Salmon, they strike out of curiosity, they strike out of aggression. They prefer flashy Spinners & Spoons, they like brightly colored jigs. In early summer, when the Steelhead are fresh and the water is high and green I will use jigs that have a larger profile that are brightly colored, lots of light pinks, oranges, reds, purples. The longer Summer Steelhead spend in the river, the more they take on the characteristics of Trout. They will feed regularly. They will eat bugs. Buggy looking jigs catch fish later on. In the late summer, when the river is running clear and the Steelhead have been in the freshwater for a while, I will use blacks, purples, black/red, blues, browns, olives.

Summer Steelhead Jigs

There are plenty of varieties of Steelhead Jigs. Most are tied with chenille, rabbit fur, marabou and hackle. There are jigs with beaded bodies. Some jigs have a big profile and a lot of volume. Some jigs are tied very sparsely. Personally, I tie most of the jigs that I use, but there are a few brands that I really like to fish with. Aerojig makes a really fishy hackle series that is popular across the Pacific Northwest. Beau Mac has a series of bead-bodied jigs that catch a lot of fish. Spirit River has numerous styles of jigs that are very unique, very effective, and very cutting-edge. John’s Jigs offers a variety of rabbit fur jigs and they have been a staple in my jig box for years.

There are countless jig companies across our region are tying up some really cool creations as well.

Summer Steelhead Beads

Fishing with Trout Beads was once a uniquely Alaskan method. Anglers headed north would scour the bins of Anchorage fly shops for the most perfect, life-like salmon egg imitation; Rainbows of the north are known to station themselves downstream from masses of spawning Salmon, gorging themselves and getting fat and chunky on the loose eggs that never make it into the gravel. Although it is rare for a Summer Steelhead to consistently feed on loose salmon roe (especially in the summer when there really aren’t many actively spawning fish in the river), they do key in on salmon roe imitations, especially single egg imitations during the summer.

Fishing with Steelhead beads on the rivers of Washington, Oregon and Idaho is a fairly new thing. At first glance at a small bead, one might wonder why the heck a Steelhead would waste the time to strike at it. But the trout-like characteristics of Steelhead make these beads work very well. In some areas, like the upper Skykomish River, fishing beads under a float is fairly standard. Bead fishing on the Cowlitz River has just become a staple method this year, but most guys drift fish them.

Bead fishers tend to be a very skillful group. Out of the best bead fishermen that I know, from the Oregon Coast to Washington’s Puget Sound rivers to Alaska’s Situk utilize a wide variety of bead colors and sizes. To keep it simple, pick up a couple packs of beads that are bright and colorful (high water) and subtle and natural (low water). Pick up a variety of 8mm, 10mm, 12mm, and even though they may seem disproportionately humungous, some 14mm beads as well.

Summer Steelhead Spoons

Swinging spoons for Steelhead is a true art form, a very effective art form. They are a great option when the drift is fast and choppy; these heavy lures get down quick. These heavy hardware lures come in a variety of shapes, styles and finishes. Basically, to fish for Steelhead with a spoon, one simply casts the spoon directly across the current and lets the spoon swing in the current. When I swing spoons, I try to envision it fluttering just above the river cobble. As the current pushes my line, I will free-spool a little extra line to keep the spoon from lifting. As I feel the spoon make contact with the river cobble, I will raise the rod tip just a bit to raise the spoon off the bottom. It can be quite technical. When water conditions are high and green, 2/5 ounce or ½ ounce spoons are perfect for most drifts. Preferred finishes at silver-plate, gold-plate or a half & half. As water conditions clear, smaller spoons in a nickel, copper or a black finish would be my go to choice.

Summer Steelhead Spinners

Spinners are the lightweight hardware alternative to spoons. A few of my most memorable Steelhead have been taken with spinners. The spinner’s profile cause it to not sink as quick as a spoon, so drifts that either have a soft current or are shallow will be a perfect place to roll a spinner. I typically will cast slightly upstream and allow the spinner a few seconds to sink before I start my slow retrieve. I retrieve just fast enough to both keep the blade spinning and keep the spinner from contacting the river cobble. Early in the season, I primarily use Size 3 and Size 4 spinners, a lot of silver blade with a green, blue, purple or pink body. Later in the season, I downsize to a Size 2 or Size 3 spinner and my favorite finishes are copper, black, silver and brass.

Final Thoughts

Summer Run Steelhead are one of my favorite Northwest catches, they are a challenge to hunt, a thrill to battle, offer up a great base for smoked or grilled fish, and they give us yet another excuse to get out and enjoy the outdoors during our warm Northwest Summers. Viewing a hefty Summer Steelhead leaping out of the water at the end of the line is a sight that everyone should experience. Best of luck out there everyone and have a great summer!