Awaiting daybreak, I impatiently stood knee-deep in a Cascade born river, rod at the ready. Numbed toes were of little concern, as the late summer temperatures were still flirting with the eighties. With the first glow of light gracing the fir-studded hills, I strained to see my initial cast hit water.
Bouncing along the bottom, the drift felt good. At the end of the swing -- where I'd so eagerly anticipated the strike would come -- my line snapped tight. Setting the hook brought the chrome-bright summer steelhead out of the water and sent her tail-walking across whitecapped riffles. Ten minutes later, the 14-pound beauty was in my grasp.
Before calling it a morning, I hooked into five more steelies as they moved through the exact same slot.
Summer run steelhead are among the most electrifying anadromous fish. Once hooked, their power is overwhelming, stripping off line so rapidly it makes your thumb smoke. Their unbridled, acrobatic tendencies qualify them as a premier game fish, and I never tire of catching them. Living in prime steelhead country, I have spent over 30 years pursuing these sparkling fighters and have adapted my ways to catch more fish.
Though summer steelhead fishing is prime from mid-April through October in many western streams, the majority of angler pressure falls in the summer months of June, July and August. Pressure drops significantly in September and October, yet fishing remains good. During these times, river levels drop and water clarity becomes transparent -something steelheaders can use to their advantage.
Spotting steelhead and fishing to them is one of the most exciting approaches to catching these fish. Look for gray, blue or green-backed fish to be holding in depressions, behind rocks, at the head of riffles and near ledges. Occasionally you'll catch glimpses of their chrome-bright sides as they twist in the current, but don't rely on this.
Too often anglers look for the obvious, when they should be searching for the ambiguous. Frequently, all that's seen is a tail, the outline of a head or that well-camouflaged back. High quality, polarized fishing glasses are the key to spotting fish. Match the style of glasses to the water you fish and with time, effort and practice, you'll be amazed at the number of fish you'll see.
Once located, plan your attack, keeping in mind fish can see out of the water just as well as you can see in, if not better. Hunt these fish down, move with a low profile and don't cast a shadow on them. You may be fortunate to have brush along the river's edge which will allow you to easily slip into casting position. Accounting for refraction, cast well upstream of the holding fish, anticipating where your bait will swing. Always mark where you find a steelhead holding; chances are more will gravitate to the same location. I've been pulling steelhead out of the same rivers, behind the same rocks for over a quarter-century, and I'll be hitting those spots again this summer.
Drifting the Right Water
Due to successful hatchery programs, and recycling efforts along many western rivers, steelhead fishing is experiencing a surge in popularity. As in anything new, it takes time to learn proper techniques. Drift fishing steelhead is physically easy, but it's not simple.
I've talked with anglers who've spent months fishing the same holes I hit, yet came away with nothing. They had all the right gear and figured since their line was in the water they would catch fish. Not so.
If done properly, drift fishing is tedious work. When fishing riffles, dissect the river, making sure to cover the entire body of water in which fish may lie. Don't waste time hitting dead water, deep holes or gradual slopes where steelhead don't hold.
Be certain to use enough sinker. You mustn't be reluctant to lose gear. If I'm not regularly getting hung-up, I'm not hitting bottom and I'm not where the fish are. It's crucial to bounce bottom through as much of your drift as possible. The more bottom covered, the better your chances of finding fish.
Regardless of the attractant used, the key is placing it in front of the steelhead's nose. Steelies don't suspend regularly enough to warrant fishing them at varying levels of stratification in any given stream, thus the importance of focusing on the bottom. Get down to where the fish are, and you'll catch more of them.
Consistently catching summer steelhead can be tricky. If you want to catch more fish, it's important to be flexible in your arsenal and approaches. If fishing solely from the bank, be mobile. Don't let cumbersome tackle boxes, hefty nets and elaborate wading gear limit movement.
Along some of my favorite rivers, I'll walk a couple miles a day, all in fishable water. My gear is carried in pockets and around my waist. Nets are not necessary, for when these fish tire they rise to the surface, can be led to the bank and tailed ashore.
Proper footwear -- something that will give you a firm hold on the river bottom and banks -- is critical as it ensures safety and lessens frustration. Depending on the river I fish, I'll wear anything from felt-soled shoes to tennies to old golf shoes, the spikes of which are great on bedrock.
I also carry an assortment of gear. Along with cured roe, a few of my favorite lures, jigs and Corkies are always with me. If one does not produce, I'll switch until I find a color or attractant that does. Lil' Corkies, made by Worden's Lures, have accounted for the vast majority of steelhead I've taken over the years. I never hit the river without a variety of a few dozen of these in my pocket.
A final rule I've always lived by is using heavier line than most anglers. I do this for two reasons: to hold fish in fast water and prevent breaking my gear off on lines littering river bottoms. In this age of ultralight gear, keep in mind that big steelhead can tip the scales to 15 pounds. I stick with 10- to 12-pound mono' for my main line while my leaders run 10 pounds, going down to eight in low, extremely clear water. I'd rather hook fewer fish and be assured of landing them than breaking them off time and again. Going a bit heavier on line also allows me to pull severed tackle from river bottoms, something which can greatly hamper an ideal drift.
By applying these techniques, not only will you more fully enjoy pursuing summer steelhead, you'll catch more fish. Learning how to pursue these dynamic fish is they key to success, but you gotta get after them every chance you have.
Scott Haugen was born and raised in the outdoor world. Before he was old enough to walk he was carried into Oregon's blacktail woods on the shoulders of his father. At age four, he caught his first limit of steelhead. Haugen's journeys have taken him to Africa, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Asia. He's traveled to over 20 countries and has chased wild game throughout North America.
Your complete source for more Cabela's News, and updated hunting and fishing articles.