Could the early summer steelhead be our favorite fish of the whole calendar? We’ll start with the best weather and go from there. June, new from the tides, steelhead are the most aggressive biters all year.


A brand-new June summer run will—that was WILL—strike literally anything in your tackle bag that is not too far out.


I am a huge Lord of the Rings geek. When Frodo meets Gandalf, The Wizard, for the first time Frodo lights him up for being late. Gandalf replied, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” For as long as I’ve fished rivers for steelhead, early summer runs of June in particular, I’ve always knowing or unknowingly channeled Gandalf in attempting to gauge with any accuracy when the main runs will show. Some years, they come early, some show their best numbers in late July and some, well, show up precisely when they mean to.

My real season begins when that first summer steelhead pokes in. When we could fish the Bogachiel River near Forks until the end of April, there were always some early-earlies showing, they took our flies and lures away with ultraviolence. When the early hatchery fish would show this early, we knew June 1st (Opening Day) would be on fire. A month to stack without being fished… hold my beer.



For more information:

541-444-5166 - leave message




All along the Washington coast, starting with the Bogachiel/Calalwah near Forks, south to the Humptulips, around the corner of Grays Harbor to the Wynoochee; Puget Sound’s Skykomish and Green, down I-5 to the steelhead summer factory to the Cowlitz; the west fork of the Toutle; the Kalama and North Fork of the Lewis. All these rivers receive small (Bogachiel, Humptulips and Wynoochee get 35 to 65 thousand smolts) to very large (Cowlitz over a half million) summer steelhead smolt plants. All these streams begin to see their best summer steelhead adult returns in June.

Could the early summer steelhead be our favorite fish of the whole calendar? We’ll start with the best weather and go from there. June, new from the tides, steelhead are the most aggressive biters all year. Still very marine, enough fat reserves to spend nearly a full year in the river before spawning, they will attack a poorly presented tennis shoe! And lastly, the battles… whereas a Chinook is all strike, a few minimal but powerful line pulls, a minute or two of heavy head shakes, aaaaaaaaannnd net! Great, let’s eat. But the summer steelhead, my fellow over-caffeinated bobber down plug strike lure crushing whack jobs…


Summer runs cover “ground” far quicker than their winter cousins. These are fish of tailouts, buckets, flats with structure.


A breath robbing blur strike (on a swung fly, spinner/spoon or backtrolled plug, it will change your life), followed by five to ten minutes of wide-eyed, mouth open unintelligible guttural yells to no one in particular while this pure evil silver animal is everywhere all at once, sometimes ripping into the run downstream while three feet into the sky a half dozen times, all while performing physics-defying random direction changes. Winter runs can’t do this, too much body mass and roe/milt. Late summer runs, while still full of vigor, are not the same lightning machines as they were months ago.

Choosing size, color, degree of flash, which finish, river height, degree of visibility, any factors we normally pride ourselves on by choosing the correct combination of variables to get bit, toss that mess right out the truck window. A brand-new June summer run will—that was WILL—strike literally anything in your tackle bag that is not too far out.





This random choosing of colors and techniques won’t fly later in the summer/early fall when water temperatures are in the low 60s and steelhead have been in the system for several months. Choices then will matter far greater if a biter is to be negotiated. In early June, when rivers (non-glacial) are still somewhat cold (48 to 56 degrees) is simply does not matter. Confidence and accuracy goes much further in finding players. The hardest part about finding early summer run steelhead is just that—finding them.

I have watched this non-sequitur chaos too many times. The editor of this magazine Nick Amato used to frequently negotiate June chrome, day after day with a #4 silver plated Vibrax spinner in vodka clear water, mid- afternoon under a magnum candle-power sun cloudless day. Fluorescent red #30 Hot Shots and 3.0 Mag Lip plugs being forcibly removed from the food chain under these same conditions. Two-fifths silver plated BC Steel spoons, flashing to blind in the bright sun and clear flow, destroyed on the down-flutter after immediately hitting the surface. Bright hot pink marabou 1/8th oz. jigs; tiny 1/16th oz. all black, 12mm soft beads; swung four-inch hot pink bunny flies down to two inch black mini leaches, they take each one with the same recklessness and anger. Not that actually matching water clarity/lure size/speed of presentation/lure colors and finishes won’t help it may, but it’s just not nearly as critical as later in the season. The early June fish are gangster biters. And dare I say they are a dead heat as far as table fare with a Chinook, with perhaps a wee bit leaning to the king’s fa-vor, but a fat-laden hatchery fresh summer run? Yeah.


So… Where in the River Do I Find Them?

Early season (June/early July) summer steelhead are travelers. With rivers still being cool enough and oxygenated they can feel comfortable anywhere there is structure and depth… and those rules are broken often by summer runs. Summer runs cover “ground” far quicker than their winter cousins. These are fish of tailouts, buckets, flats with structure. Edges of transition water below riffles. These are restless fish; they can be found during the day almost everywhere you think they might hold for a minute or two. Corners of head-ins at the top of runs and the very lips of tailouts are additional places to find travelling fish during early evenings dying light and again at dawn when colors begin to appear. A great rule when targeting early summer steelhead is fish everything, any place that has enough depth and some sort of cover may hold resting chrome.





Know that they lay wherever they may be, all sections of river no matter the flows fishes differently, so it really pays to be a bit more flexible in technique during early summer season. There will always be one technique that works better than others under a giver condition. Assuming for this article that June rivers are getting low, now August bony drippings but getting low-ish, with very clear (6 to unlimited feet) water, running in the high 40s to high 50s water temps. Bigger waters like the Lewis and Cowlitz are exceptions to this rule, as are the colder, limited visibility glacial rivers like the Hoh and the Klickitat.


Any Suggestions on Terminal Tackle… Baits, Lures?

All of us know how murderous baits are for still actively feeding fresh-run summer steelhead. We all have stories of summer run stomach contents. I’ve seen egg clusters, Power Bait chunks, prawn heads, whole nightcrawlers, caddis cases, hornets, grasshoppers, two (!!!) black Bic pen caps and one whole very surprised water ouzel. A small chunk of cured coon shrimp tipped on a jig will not be beat. If regulation says baits are OK, and there are not numbers of too aggressive bait gargling smolt around and only hatchery steelhead, have a go, mate. For this piece, though, we are going to concentrate on artificial lures. Remember how non-sensically aggressive they are? Bait, quite frankly, is rarely necessary to dupe early summer steelhead.


They can be found during the day almost everywhere you think they might hold for a minute or two. J.D. Love with a fly-caught hatchery summer run.


I enjoy every initial encounter with a June summer run, but some techniques just wet my whistle far and above some others. Knowing that these travelling fish can be anywhere in the runs, they set them-selves up to be looking at some plugs in the smooth edges of drop-offs and tapered flows of the main run, into the tailouts. I bought a small 12-foot Willie aluminum drift boat last year mostly just to pull plugs for summer steelhead. A plug strike from a black/silver and white bar of wet thunder is always a shock of pure adrenaline on the grab. They are trying to remove it, forever. If you are hopelessly addicted to plug strikes, as I am, try my brand:

Start with a parabolic rod that will allow the plug to move and dart, 7-1/2 to 9 feet. I have two Shimano Tekota 300-line counters, both filled with 30-pound bright yellow (Moonshine) V2 Slick Power Pro, uni-knotted to fifteen feet of 15-pound flu-orocarbon OR 15 feet of 12-pound Maxima Ultragreen. A one size smaller duo-lock clip is added to the clip on the plug bill, as it opens up the imparted action of the lure. For early season plugging, I use 3.0 Yakima Bait Mag lips and old-school #30 Eddie Pope/Luhr Jensen Hot Shots. Colors? Remember the tennis shoe thing, nearly every color/finish in the box will get bit as long as the plug runs true. But if forced to pick, my starters with Mag Lips and Hot Shots will be metallic pink on one side, the other Pirate, light metallic gold and metallic green. My rare set of black billed/silver prism/clear bodied Hot Shots are right up there. If you like trebles or singles on your plugs, your choice, just make sure the hook configuration is legal in your river.





Because they could be anywhere in the run you can get the plugs to run straight, try to get them working in the top of the run as soon as you can physically do so to minimize chances of missing fish holding in the top of the run.

If I’m swinging a fly, and don’t ya know this is a groovy time to do so, a short sink tip, five feet of type 8 will get an unweighted fly down to ideal 3 to 4’ in the long flats of the main run. Early season, colder water fish will not come up as easily for a fly as do their later summer relatives. Off the sink tip, tie on two feet of 20-pound Ultragreen and uni-knot three feet of 12-pound Ultragreen tippet to the fly. Colors, sizes? Again, play “fly box challenge,” that is pick a fly with thin profile and good movement and have at it. Hot pink, black, black/blue (The Bruise), purple or any color combination in marabou or bunny strip 3 to 5” with a 1/0 Gamakatsu stinger octopus hook. Hang on to the rod tightly during that swing…





Lures? Spinners and spoons take a bushel of hatchery summer steelhead every early season. Like Mr. Amato, take a ¼ ounce #4 silver plated blade/body spinner and use it. He knew where they would be, had laser faith in his lure, which is why he caught so many summer runs. While silver plate is fine, try using it under lowlight, early/late in the day. Brighter light (mid-day) perhaps cop-per or brass would not send steelhead over the attraction threshold. Fish the floating, Teflon spinner over boulders in shallow head ins. For spoons, a ¼ ounce to a 2/5th ounce body will fish well in wide flats and tailouts. Choose silver plate in low light, brass or copper mid-day. The uncut chaos when a fresh summer greases a spinner or spoon, that ladies and gentlemen is what keeps me from sleeping and makes me drive 400 miles round trip.

Hard to imagine the top technique for summer steelhead (in use, numbers of anglers) has taken a seat in back of the bus to bobber-dogging with soft beads. Also a good choice, but I will stand by a jig out fishing damn near anything under clear conditions. The editor and I were fishing 20 years ago on the Clackamas and watched a scenario develop that taught me more about summer steelhead jig fishing than anything. The runs we fished in late May back then were jammed with the brightest, freshest (hot-test!!!) hatchery summer steelhead. We were bobber/jig fishing, doing better than anyone could even lie about. We fished every color combination of 1/8th ounce, dual beaded marabou tailed jig available. All caught fish, but the black head/dual red bead/red marabou tailed jig got bit 5 to one, maybe more. Hint: try that one.





Later in summer, when water temps get above 57 degrees and stay in the lower 60s, oxygen and slightly cooler water is job one for holding summer steelhead. They will be hiding in the broken water where the riffle at the head in begins to deepen. This is when smaller, duller lures, jigs and flies do their pretty work. But that’s for another time…


When the early hatchery fish would show this early, we knew June 1st (Opening Day) would be on fire. A month to stack without being fished… hold my beer. 


Starting the beginning of June, I, along with many other rabid anglers, watch closely the numbers of summer steelhead being encountered on the lower Columbia, from Cathlamet up both sides of the big crick. Double digit days from the Spin-n-Glo/cured prawn plunking crowds on shore and in choice anchor locations mean the Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis and Clackamas rivers will be just a few days away from those waves of fish showing in the usual spots. Now is when we get serious, and with gas prices we must try and pick our times and places a bit more careful and surer than summer’s past.

Gandalf, by the way, also told Frodo this nugget on how to spend your days: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” I believe, Mr. Wizard, I will burn those precious hours on a summer river, looking for one sea fresh June steelhead.







Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.