Shirtsleeve Steelheading

Warm Weather Angling for these Sleek Trophies!
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Now that you've read a little about winter steelheading, let's find out how much you know with a one-question quiz: To catch a steelhead, you should stand for weeks, knee-deep in a raging river, raw winds slapping your face and ice water dripping down your neck, hoping against hope that your frozen fingers will detect the subtle strike if it happens to be your month to find a cooperative fish. True or false?

Yes, it's a trick question, because the answer is both true and false.

It's true if you happen to be talking about winter-run steelhead, that coveted prize of the world's most masochistic anglers. But steelheading and freezing to death need not be synonymous. Summer-run steelhead are found in many Washington rivers, providing a kinder, gentler fishery for those who like the idea of catching a big, bad, ocean-run rainbow trout, but aren't crazing about snow and sub-freezing temperatures.

The only real difference between summer-run steelhead and their winter-run counterparts is timing. Although wild runs of both strains spawn sometime between mid-winter and late-spring, summer-run steelies are in a bigger hurry to come home from the Pacific. While winter steelhead may return in February, ready to spawn within days or weeks of the time they hit freshwater, summer fish come back months earlier, perhaps May or June, then stay in the river through the fall and early winter before spawning.

Water temperatures are, of course, much warmer in June and July than in December and January, and that often makes a big difference in the way summer-run steelhead take a lure and how they fight when they feel the sting of a hook. Summer steelies are, well, a lot more active and energetic, willing to chase down a bait or lure and slam it with all the subtlety of a runaway bus, then tearing up the river's surface with twisting leaps and blazing runs that might leave a beginning steelheader wondering what he's gotten himself into.

The same baits, lures, and techniques that work for winter steelhead are effective in summer, and it's even safe to say that you have a broader range of options this time of year. Anyone who has fished for winter steelhead or cast spoons and spinners to river trout should have little trouble getting into the swing of summer steelhead fishing. Basically, winter steelheaders may have to tone down their tackle to adjust for lower, clearer river conditions of summer. Trout anglers, on the other hand, should gear up a little so their tackle will have the strength to handle fish in the five to 15-pound class. Generally acceptable summer steelhead tackle includes seven-and-a-half- to eight-and-a-half-foot spin or casting rods, medium capacity spin or levelwind reels, and monofilament lines of six- to 10-pound test.

The drift-fishing strategy employed by winter steelheaders also works well for summer steelies. Drift-fishing is simply a matter of casting upstream, allowing the bait or lure to settle to the bottom, then letting the current carry it along until, eventually, it passes within range of a cooperative steelhead.

As for terminal tackle, keep in mind that drift-fishing with bait or small, brightly colored steelhead bobbers is the most popular method of taking these fish, winter or summer. A good selection for summer steelheading would include hooks in the size one to four range; an assortment of sinkers that might include various sizes of split shot or three-sixteenth-inch lead wire; small McMahon swivels; spools of four-, six-, or eight-pound monofilament leader; two or three dozen steelhead bobbers (the Corky, Okie Drifter, and Birdy Drifter are three favorites); and perhaps a couple of spools of nylon yarn in hot, fluorescent colors.

Many veteran steelheaders wouldn't be caught without a supply of bait. Top summer-run baits include whole ghost shrimp, small clusters of salmon or steelhead roe, nightcrawlers, crawfish tails, and grasshoppers. Some anglers use bait and lures together, combining a small tuft of yarn with a roe cluster or sliding a steelhead bobber down the line so that it rides atop a shrimp-baited hook.

Another effective technique is working a weighted spinner or wobbling spoon through the current, just off bottom. Summer steelies tend to wallop these lures, so be sure to have a tight grip on that rod and reel. An assortment of spoons and spinners in chrome, copper, brass, and a few hot colors should get you through a day of summer steelheading. If you're fishing right—just above the rocky bottom—you'll lose a few lures, so take extras.

Diving plugs also tend to draw a jolting response from active summer steelies. Worked from upstream, so that the current pulls them down toward bottom in the fishy-looking pools and drifts, plugs such as the Luhr Jensen Hot Shot and Storm Wiggle Wart work well for both boat and bank anglers. These diving plugs account for a large share of the summer steelhead catch on the Columbia, lower Snake, and other large Washington rivers. Since much of this fishing is in the still waters of big-river reservoirs, the technique is really nothing more than trolling with the various plugs. One interesting twist on the Columbia/Snake is that much of the fishing occurs in the dead of night.

And, if you want a real challenge, try fly-fishing for summer steelhead. The warmer, clearer waters of summer make for good fly-fishing conditions, and that first steelie on a fly is an event not soon forgotten.

Upstream-bound summer steelhead stop to rest in spots along the river that offer adequate cover, a break from the current, and plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water. Shallow flats of slow water seldom produce fish. Many Washington steelhead streams continue to drop and clear throughout the summer, and as this happens, good" holding water" may become more and more limited. A pool with plenty to offer in June may offer little in the way of protection or oxygen by August, after river levels have dropped considerably.

Keep in mind also that summer steelhead tend to avoid bright, direct sunlight, so fish open water early and late in the day and shaded areas when the sun is high.

Thanks to hatchery plants from state fish and wildlife agencies, there are runs of summer steelhead in many Washington streams now that didn't exist two or three decades ago, increasing the opportunities for you to go out and match wits with this spectacular game fish.

Like its wintertime counterpart, however, summer steelheading doesn't come with any guarantees of success. If anything, the clear waters of summer make the warm-weather version of steelheading an even greater challenge than winter steelheading. The big, sea-run rainbow of the Northwest is a wary, street-wise sort of fish that isn't easily fooled or out-smarted, and its strength and stamina are enough to test the skills of any angler. Every time you land one you've accomplished something that the vast majority of anglers never accomplish.

Where to Go for Steelhead

Cowlitz River, Skykomish River, Bogachiel River, East Fork Lewis River, Snoqualmie River, Hoh River, Skagit River, Quinault River, Lower Columbia River, Kalama River, Snake River, Drano Lake.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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