Ahhh…. Summer time.
The days are hot, the nights are warm and the rivers get low. Light beer, barbecues and kids floating down the rivers on anything inflatable becomes the norm. Big rivers get small, and small rivers all but dry up.
A river that in January was raging down the side of a mountain carrying chunks of trees and dirt along with it, now barely creeps between the banks. Small pockets of slightly moving water separate long stretches of featureless nothing. Some rivers that are a fraction of what they are in the winter, have summer steelhead runs that blow their winter counterparts out of the water.
Although these summer steelhead pose a little more of a challenge than their winter brethren due to their skittish nature, they’re often found in ultra-clear water, putting them on high alert and making them tough to approach. Furthermore, they frequent such slow water that getting a good drift, even with a float, is borderline impossible.
Luckily summer steelhead seem to have one very easily exploited Achilles’ heel. When undisturbed and unmolested, a relaxed summer steelhead is so friggin’ aggressive they’ll tear out of their holding spots like a shiny demon to crush anything that catches their attention.
And what catches their attention better than anything? A pushy, flashy, annoying, vibrating, clinging and clanging spinner.
Summer steelhead look at spinners like a kid looks at cake. Eat it!
The fight or flight instinct takes over and because of their predisposition to hurt pretty much everything they see, summers come out throwing punches. So how do you get a spinner in front of as many summers as possible, hoping to knock the chip off their shoulder and start a fight? Same way you would if you were trying to cover a pile of fish in the winter. Side-drift.
It’s common knowledge that light leads and small baits ticking along the bottom next to the boat is a deadly, natural presentation for steelhead. Actually, it works great for salmon too. Unfortunately it’s a pretty snaggy situation in low summer flows on many rivers.
Tossing spinners along side of the boat and letting them glide, tick, swing and roll along near the bottom while keeping the boat moving is even deadlier than sidedrifting in the heat of the summer and a heck of a lot less snaggy when done right. Unlike sidedrifting, it takes a lot more participation from the fishermen to get the spinner gliding right, making it a lot more fun for guys holding the rods than just your typical day dragging slinkies.
There’s only one thing I’m at all worried about when deciding which spinner to choose when you’re swinging them from a moving boat, and it’s certainly not the color. Like anything else, you want to keep your offering in the bottom few feet of the water column where most steelhead and salmon live in the summer. To do that you need a spinner heavy enough for the average depth of the river you’re fishing, but something not so heavy that you have to reel too quickly to keep from hanging up.
Generally speaking, spinners from size 2 all the way to size 5 will fit the bill, with #3 and #4 spinners being the most universal. While lure weight is important, the style of the spinner is just as important and something that often goes overlooked.
Not all blades spin the same.
Blue Fox Spinners
If there was one spinner that I simply won’t leave home without, it’s a Blue Fox.
If they had a downside it’s that they’re just don’t stay deep. They’re light and with even a little reeling, the blade lifts them right to the top. That’s fine in a lot of applications, but won’t work if the fish are down super deep and won’t come up.Something about that bell body ringing along under water brings steelhead to the dinner table as fast as anything.
In average speed rivers where I’m casting in shallow water between one and four feet, a Blue Fox is excellent. The French blade generates enough lift to usually keep it skating above the rocks and in the kill zone for a long time. They’re also deadly when tossing them directly upstream and letting them drag behind the boat. I know it sounds weird, but it works.
For deeper, faster water, I’ve dabbled with the R&B spinners made right here in Oregon. These spinners really shine in deeper water because their bodies and blades are much heavier in the same sizes as a Blue Fox. You can also get the blades in varying thickness, each of which has different sink rates and produces a slightly different thump.
The other thing that R&B spinners have over the competition is they come on a wider variety of colors than any spinners on the market. Their metallic bodies are some of the brightest, light throwing spinners out there and steelhead seem to be able to see them from miles away. As far as any particular colors, I haven’t found it to make a world of difference...just the fact that they can see them, feel them and they can hear them is all it takes.
The other spinner worth mentioning that has the same reflective qualities with heavy bodies and blades are Pen-Tac spinners. The same finishes that have made their BC Steel spoons so popular are also used on their spinners so when a Pan-Tac spins, it’s throwing light like crazy.
Another super deadly summer steelhead sidedrifting spinner that flies well below the radar are 'inline' spinners. Often thought of as mostly trout fishing lures, not many manufacturers make a steelhead series of inline simply people fishermen don’t use them as much for steelhead. Although, those who do know how differently they act in the water and how deadly they can be find themselves hooking up with as many summers as anyone.
An inline spinner has a hole through the center of a specially bent blade, which the wire shaft threads though as opposed to connecting the blade to the shaft using a clevis. This creates a lot less drag on the blade when reeling it through the water, generating less lift on the retrieve. Inline spinners also allow the blade to spin when falling vertically towards the river bottom. It’s a trait that you’ll find to be very beneficial after you hook a handful of fish before you ever spin the reel handle.
The one thing that separates inlines from French style spinners more than anything else is that an inline doesn’t generate nearly the lift against the current as French style. This majorly affects where it rides in the water column in fast or deep water by allowing a spinner that isn’t very big to still stay down in the water column.
Panther Martin and Roostertail both make some excellent inline summer spinners in the needed sizes with strong enough hooks to handle acrobatic summers.
One of the biggest keys to fishing is keeping your stuff in the zone as long as you can. If your stuff isn’t where the fish are, you wont catch them, period. Yes the spinners do send out a big signal and can call fish in from a great distance, but you still need to be in the neighborhood and that means within a foot or two of the bottom. How you move the rod tip and retrieve line in correlation with the water speed, depth and speed the boat’s moving as well as the size of the spinner you’re throwing all are huge factors when trying to stay in the zone sidedrifting spinners. This takes a level of finesse and skill that are often unnecessary in other techniques making sidedrifting spinners a perfect game for a talented angler.
Yes you can absolutely just cast and retrieve and you will bump into a few fish, but getting the perfect swing of the spinner from the moving boat is what it takes to really pile up the numbers.
In my humble opinion, Bill Herzog’s book about spoon fishing is the standard by which everything else is measured when it comes to explaining the way your rod tip and the lures lift work together when throwing hardware. Bill is obviously talking about spoons in his book, but the differences between spoon and spinner fishing are minimal enough that the book is still a wealth of knowledge for a spinner chucker.
Trying to describe and break it down better than Bill would be like telling de Vinci how the Mona Lisa was supposed to have turned out, but I will leave you with this. If you’re reeling the entire time, you’re moving your spinner faster than it needs to go. The way you move your rod tip and use the belly of your line to keep the spinner blade turning are twice as deadly when it comes to keeping your spinner in the zone than simply reeling. Yes you’re going to lose a few spinners so having a box full before you hit the river is important. But hey, if you’re not rubbing you’re not racing.
Just like shooting free throws, it takes a lot of practice to get good at gliding spinners along side a moving boat, but once you get the feel for it and the technique dialed in, it’s one of the more simple and fun ways to fish.
And it results in some incredible battles with one enraged summer steelhead after another!
Written by Professional Fishing Guide and Writer