With prime summer steelheading months upon us, covering water might be your best option for maximizing hookups.
“I don’t see anything, let’s move down,” urged my buddy, Bret Stuart. When it comes to sight-fishing summer steelhead, Bret has the best eyes I’ve ever seen, so I don’t question him.
Before I knew it, Bret was pushing on the oars, moving us downstream, fast. Why the rush? It was by choice, our goal being to cover as much water as we could on this day.
Bret is a full-time guide, and we grew up fishing the same rivers.
We both know the rivers in our area very well, thus where steelhead hold and travel. But the past few days of work had been tough for Bret, as he simply wasn’t pleased with the numbers of fish he’d been seeing and getting for his clients. So, with a day off, what did Bret choose to do? Fish.
Our objective was to find steelhead so Bret knew where to take his clients the following day. To do this, we had one choice: cover water.
Fast & Far
Typically when floating sections of the river we fished on this day, we launch at one ramp, thoroughly fish the water and take out at the next ramp.
On this day our approach was different. On this day we made the decision to pass two of the ramps, taking out at the third. In other words, we covered in one day what would usually be covered over the course of three days.
By day’s end, both of our hands were sore from working the oars, but we accomplished our objective. Where we eventually found the steelhead was on the last two flats above the final takeout, water neither Bret nor I had fished over the past several weeks.
When covering lots of water, hit spots that have held fish in the past. Here, a jig is being worked through a slick where the author has caught many steelhead over the past 30 years.
Why were the fish there? It’s interesting, and relates to many such rivers in Oregon and Washington where hatchery-run summer steelhead are recycled this time of year. The recycling of steelhead refers to hatchery personnel and usually Northwest Steelheader volunteers, who take steelhead that have made their way into hatcheries, then physically move them downstream allowing anglers to target the fish as they make their way back up to the hatchery.
Some fish may be recycled multiple times throughout the course of late spring and summer. This is a put and take fishery, meaning the steelhead are kept in the river for anglers to enjoy...and catch. It’s better than the alternative of having the hatchery raised fish return to the ponds they were reared in and stay there until the November spawning time, where no anglers can fish for them.
So, back to the question, “Why were the steelhead where we found them that day?” Come to find out, the last recycling effort resulted in the steelhead being released farther downstream than usual. This was done in an effort to spread out the fish, so anglers could have a longer timeframe to hopefully catch them. It was early July and the water was also low and clear and the fish simply didn’t move far before finding holding water they liked. This explains why the fish were where we found them.
Bret and I caught a couple fish that day—one on jigs, one on a sand shrimp fished on the bottom. That was good enough for us, as we found what Bret wanted. The next day Bret tagged out his clients, right where we’d found the fish the day prior.
Up & Down
The conditions Bret and I fished that summer were low and clear, and water temperatures were starting to rise. This meant the fish were a bit more lethargic and not covering water as fast as they were a week or two prior. While we chose to fish from a drift boat and move downstream, there are other options.
On rivers where they’re allowed, sled boats are a great way to cover water. Sleds allow ease of movement up and down the river, searching for fish. Why would you move up and downstream when searching for steelhead? Because conditions change as the day progresses, especially during the summer months.
Early in the morning you may not have had enough light on the water to spot fish. Also, the fish could have been traveling through heavy rapids early in the morning, making them impossible to see.
They may also move out of deeper holes, into shallow waters where the breaks on the surface offer relief in the form of camouflage.
Perhaps fellow boaters or bank anglers have pushed steelhead around, causing them to shift into different holding spots. You don’t have to physically see fish to confirm their presence, as this may be realized through the lack of bites while fishing a specific piece of water.
If you’re not getting bites, and don’t have the time or patience to wait, then by all means, go searching for fish.
Again, if you have a sled, or even a kicker motor on your drift boat, then moving up and downstream can be an efficient way to search for steelhead.
Even bank anglers can be aggressive and cover water in search of steelhead. Though the angle a bank fisherman stands at is lower than in a boat, it’s still possible to visually locate steelhead, you just have to be a bit more stealthy.
One of the biggest mistakes I see being made—and believe me, I’ve made more than my fair share of bonehead moves like this—is where the bank angler wades into the stream too quickly.
Take the time to fish the prime water closest to the shore you’re standing on, first, before wading. Often, steelhead hold tight to shore, and if the light isn’t just right, they can be impossible to see until you’re practically standing over them. When this happens, it’s usually too late.
So, rather than tromp into the river as deep as the waders will let you go, use caution and fish the water near you, first. If no strikes come, then cover water by systematically casting your way across the river in two to three foot increments. If you still hit nothing, keep moving.
True, bank access can be greatly limited compared to the amount of water that can be covered from a boat, but don’t let that discourage you. Sometimes simply covering as many parts of a single hole or riffle is all that’s needed to find the fish.
Oftentimes anglers stand on their favorite rock and wait for fish to enter the holding slots where they’ve caught them before.
This is fine if you have time, but if not, it may be better to spend your time casting and moving, covering water. This is also a great way to discover new holding spots.
Once you’ve covered one area, don’t be afraid to hop in the car and head to a totally different spot.
If you know of places on the river where steelhead could possibly be, it may well be worth the effort of exploring.
Hit Known Spots
Often my lifelong fishing partner, my dad, and I make what we call a “quick run” for steelhead. What this means is our honey-do lists are getting long and we have to be home before the wives discover the boat is gone and that we’re actually not out doing yard work.
On these quick runs, the objective is to hit water we’ve caught fish in in the past, and keep moving. One thing with steelhead, when you catch one, pay close attention to exactly where the bite came.
Know where your cast hit in order for the terminal gear to end up where it did, and every time down the river make it a point to fish that same exact spot.
Once steelhead find a specific spot they like, others will keep coming back to it.
Pay close attention to the water level, clarity, fishing pressure, sunlight angle on the water and anything you can think of that may influence a fish to hold in a particular spot.
As long as the bottom structure doesn’t change, fish will usually be there. There are some places in a few of my favorite rivers where I’ve been catching steelhead for over 30 years. In these places conditions have remained constant and the fish keep on filtering into them. Usually these honey-holes consist of a stable bottom made of bedrock, large boulders or uniform rocks that foster consistent water flow.
Then again, there are places that produced fish for decades and now don’t.
One of my favorite holes—a place I caught many steelhead from one summer back in high school—changed, and the fish no longer hold there. The bottom structure behind the boulder-strewn patch was altered during a winter flood and filled in with silt and later, sand. Summer steelhead don’t like sand, so no longer hold in this spot. Sometimes I can’t help myself, though, and still make a courtesy cast while passing that spot. I haven’t caught a fish there for over 20 years.
There was another hole that produced for years, then turned off after a log jam mucked up the holding water. For several years I never pulled a steelhead from the once hot-spot. But last summer things had changed. The previous winter’s high water cleaned the logs and debris out of there and the hole returned to where steelhead liked it. I like it again, too.
The more time you spend on a river, the more honed-in you’ll become at knowing where steelhead hold.
What you’ll likely discover are key spots fish like to hang out in, and you’ll be surprised at how those places keep spitting out fish.
When making quick runs, the goal is to hit only the prime water you know to have held fish in the past. Then again, if your honey-do list is shorter than mine, you might have some extra time to explore new water.
When running and gunning for steelhead, I usually go pretty light on the gear as I don’t want to be bogged down nor do I want to spend time testing different approaches.
If fishing from the bank I’ll either dedicate the day to working a bobber and jig, or stick with drift fishing. If drift fishing, it’s not a bad idea to have a few lures along, just in case you’re seeing fish that aren’t giving your drift fishing setup a second look.
If running and gunning from the boat, I’ll usually bring along multiple rod setups.
This will allow me to hit the target water with the best approach suited to the situation. For instance, there’s one stretch of water where I’ve never caught a steelhead on a lure, plug or eggs, only jigs; I’m certain to have my float rod ready when making that run.
If there’s been a lot of fishing pressure, you might need to try and irritate those steelhead into biting. For this, backtrolling plugs can be the ticket. I’m excited to try the new 3.5-inch Mag Lips, as I have a feeling their aggressive, darting action will entice these finicky fish into biting.
If the water is high and off color, try backtrolling a diver and bait, with shrimp and/or eggs making up the bait.
Make an effort to fit the technique to the conditions, and catch rates will rise. One summer many years ago, Dad and I launched our ol’ wooden McKenzie River drift boat–one we made, together—on the McKenzie River of all places, near our home.
Boats were ahead of us, and we watched each one of them spot steelhead on a slick, pull over and try drift fishing them. They didn’t touch a fish. One boat ran plugs across the slick and into the riffle, but didn’t pick up anything.
Dad and I followed and could see fish spread out across the three-foot deep slick.
We both switched to lures, something that had yet to be tried, and in six casts landed our four fish then headed for home.
This summer, pay close attention to river conditions and particularly note when any changes occur. These could be changes in water levels, water temperature, clarity and more. From there it’s a matter of being persistent and locating fish.
Once you find the sweet spot, keep working it, for there could be more fish laying in the same spot. If nothing else bites, note the spot and fish it the next time through.
By taking an aggressive approach, you’ll cover more water and focus fishing efforts on high percentage holding spots.
Once dialed-in, you’ll see for yourself just how productive running and gunning can be when it comes to summer steelhead.
Written by Outdoor Personality Scott Haugen
All photos taken by Scott Haugen