Sizzling Summer Steelhead Success | Story & Photos by Scott Haugen

Sizzling Summer Steelhead Success | Story & Photos by Scott Haugen

hot weather deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners

When it comes to working bedrock ledges in the middle of the day, wading deep to attain the proper angle of presentation is important.

Late July & August marks the toughest time of the year to nab finicky summer steelhead, but there are some moves to help shift the advantage in your favor. 

It was mid-day and the mercury on the camp thermometer registered a scorching 113º. 

Too hot to hang around the tents, we decided to at least wade into the nearby river. 

Even if we didn’t catch a fish, the cooler water would offer relief.

Working a jig along the shaded side of a vertical, bedrock ledge, I was soon releasing a small summer steelhead.  Small, though it was, it was a fish, and sure beat the heck out of sitting around camp.  A few casts later my buddy, Jody Smith, plucked another steelhead from off the ledge, this one falling for a plug.

jody smith  deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners

Working a plug along the shaded side of a bedrock ledge allowed Jody Smith to latch into this mid-day summer steelhead.  

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that another buddy, Jeremy Toman, hooked a mid-day steelhead. 

Toman’s fish also fell for a plug, this one retrieved under the shadows of some overhanging trees.  Shortly after, my dad, the fourth member of our fishing party, would also land a nice steelhead, this one coming from the shadows cast on the water by a set of mountains towering over the river we fished.  In all, we hooked into eight fish during what many folks would deem the “unfishable” hours.

Our success got me thinking about how many steelhead I’ve caught over the years during the hottest months of the year.  Though water levels are low, air and water temperatures high, and many fish have been pressured for months, summer steelhead can be caught with consistency during the month of August. 

Part of this success has to do with the aggressive nature of steelhead.  But largely, summertime steelheading success comes down to knowing where the fish are and figuring out how to entice them into biting. 

Following is a look at key factors that can help you land more summer steelhead during the hottest month of the year:

hot weather deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners underwater

Early & Late

Timing is important when targeting edgy summer steelhead.  Ideally, the earlier you can be on the water, the better.  During the night, air and water temperatures reach their coolest point, meaning fish are most active at first light, and late in the day.

Not only will steelhead move more at night and at the crack of dawn, they are also more aggressive.  Try getting on the water ahead of fellow anglers so you can have firsts on the fish without their being spooked. 

One commonality with August summer steelhead fishing is once the fish are spooked, they can be tough to get to bite.  This is different behavior than what may have been encountered a month prior, or what can be expected when water temperatures begin to cool in September.

hot weather deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners

A good approach is to be first on the river and cover as much water as possible. 

This run-and-gun approach will allow you to cover water and get the first shot at fish.  Start by offering them subtle presentations, like a jig suspended beneath a float.  If that doesn’t work, try drift fishing small baits or driftbobbers. If that fails to produce, go with a more aggressive approach such as casting lures.

The final hour of the day can also be effective, especially once anglers are off the water and fish have a chance to calm down.  If fish start growing active, casting lures, working jigs and drifting bait can all be good. 

Try different approaches and find what works best in the target water.  Jigs are a favorite approach of many evening anglers for the simple fact they allow so much water to be covered.

Should the opportunity present itself, spending the night on the river is a great move.  Not only will this see you hitting the best water right before dark, it ensures you’ll be ahead of the crowds come daybreak.  Of course, be aware of private property and be certain not to trespass without written permission from a landowner.

Trees & Brush

Once the sun hits the water, things change. 

Due to direct sunlight penetrating the surface–and likely a growing number of people on the water–steelhead shift position.  There are many places they may go, but one of the best places to search for steelhead is in the shade.

Depending on the river being fished, trees and tall brush can keep portions of the water shaded until late morning.  The more steelhead are pressured, and the shallower the surroundings amid which they are holding, the more likely steelhead are to seek protection in shaded areas.

hot weather deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners

No matter what the time of day, search for steelhead holding in shaded areas during the hot weather months of August.

Depending on the angle of the sun, the orientation of the river, and height of the surrounding trees and brush, shade may be close to shore.  It never ceases to amaze me how close to shore steelhead will hold if shade offers them relief.  In fact, many places are so shallow they often go overlooked by anglers, so no matter how much fishing pressure there is, there’s a chance of catching fish in the shade.

Smaller summer steelhead streams often offer generous shade compared to larger ones.  This is because the streams are narrower and the trees and brush respectively taller.  In these situations, it’s possible to catch fish all day long.

Mountains & Hills

In bigger drainages, trees and brush may be too far removed from the prime water to cast shadows on the surface for very long.  However, some of the surrounding topography may prove beneficial in offering shade.  Hillsides and mountains often provide shade during the middle of the day, the key is being in the right place at the right time.

Whether fishing on foot or from a boat, it’s worth making the effort to time your arrival to a specific fishing spot so that it’s in the shade.  Shade offers relief and this equates to a more relaxed fish which has a greater likelihood of being caught.

Because shadows cast on the river by mountains during the middle of the day may not stick around for long, try an aggressive approach when targeting fish in these spots. 

Casting spinners, spoons and back trolling plugs are all very good approaches in this situation, as is drift fishing.


Should clouds roll in, don’t hesitate to spend all day on the river. 

Not only may clouds drop the water temperature by a degree or two–which can make a big difference in the bite–but they provide shade on the entire river.  The result will be steelhead holding in different places than when the sun is on the water all day long. 

It also means the fish are more active.

One year, during the intensely hot days of mid-August, I fished my favorite steelhead hole three days straight.  I averaged just over a steelhead a day from that hole, and every one of them came in the first hour of fishing.  On the fourth day, heavy clouds and a dramatic drop in temperature found me at the same hole.  Before leaving I hooked and released seven fish, keeping a hefty 14 pound hen.

Should the odd rain fall, make it a point to be on the river.  Not only can a quick burst of rain cool things down, but the shot of fresh water can also invigorate fish. 

The smaller and more shallow the stream, the more affected they are by clouds and rain and the more responsive steelhead can become.

When a sudden weather front moves in, it may take some work to find what the fish like.  While you may have been picking off a few fish with bobber and jig, it now might be worth rolling sand shrimp along the bottom. 

Where you were drifting small bead presentations through a slot, now it might be time to backtroll plugs or blanket the water with spinners.  Work hard, work wisely, and figure out what the fish like, all the while keeping in mind that the shift in barometric pressure could have these fish responding to something totally different than usual.

Underwater Features

While habitat found above the water’s surface can offer shade, the subsurface structure can also offer relief. 

Some of my fondest summer fishing memories are from Oregon’s breathtaking North Umpqua River.  Not only was this where I caught my first limit of summer steelhead back in 1968, but for years some of my best fishing memories occurred during the hot days of August.

During those sizzling days, the fishing approach Dad taught me is something I still apply, no matter what bedrock-type stream I’m fishing. 

“Start high in the morning and drop to the ledges once the sun hits the water.”  It works.

Early in the morning spend time drift fishing the riffles. 

In deeper rivers, hitting the slicks, or tailouts, above the riffles, can also be effective.  These are the places you’ll often find fish in the morning that have traveled there during the night.  Once the sun hits the water, work the shaded side of the bedrock ledges.

Many rivers in the Pacific Northwest offer a bedrock habitat, and over the years we’ve pulled many fish from them during the hottest part of the day. 

As is the case with land above the water’s surface, some structure offers shade below the surface; bedrock is one such structure.

When fishing the face of bedrock ledges be sure you’re in control of the presentation.  Boils and back-currents commonly associated with ledges often kick presentations out of the strike zone.  If drift fishing, be sure and use enough lead to keep the terminal gear where you want it, tight to the ledge.

Large boulders can also cast enough shade to attract steelhead.  In this situation, drifting a bobber and jig along the shaded side of the rock can be the ticket.  If that doesn’t work, try subtly backing down a plug or diver-and-bait presentation.

hot weather deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners

Even large rocks can cast shadows, whereby creating a habitat favorable for mid-day summer steelhead this time of year.

Though they don’t offer direct shade, riffles do offer relief to steelhead.  It may be that the section of river or stream has no deep holes, shady spots or rock ledges for steelhead to spend the day.  In this case, steelhead settle for the next best source of cover, and that’s a riffle.

The breaking surface of a riffle is what offers steelhead comfort.  Here, they can hide in surprisingly shallow places and remain nearly invisible, even to the trained eye of a sight-fishing angler.

Try working shallow riffles with subtle presentations, so as not to alarm fish.  Start with small Corkies, even colored beads, then progress to a larger size, or simply add bait.  Systematically and thoroughly work riffles in an effort to cover all the potential places steelhead may hold.

fishing line summer steelhead shade river water

Running jigs, even bait, beneath a float can be an effective way to fish riffles. If applying this approach, be sure to control some of the presentations.  In other words, don’t let the current naturally carry the bobber downstream on every cast, rather mend the line and guide it where you want it.  Where steelhead hold in riffles can be different than where the stream’s natural flows lead.

Another place to catch hot weather, mid-day steelhead, and one that often goes overlooked, is in deep holes.  Deep holes are commonly associated with salmon fishing, but they also hold summer steelhead. 

The difference is steelhead hold in the upper portion and lower section of the deeper hole, while salmon typically stage toward the center of the hole.

hot weather deschutes summer steelhead fishing rafting fly plugs spinners

Working the upper and lower end of deep holes can be worth the effort during the hot days of summer.  Here a presentation is backbounced into the lower end of this deep hole.

Deeper water offers cooler temperatures and shade, both of which are appealing to steelhead this time of year.  Any and every approach can work here, from jigs to drift fishing, backtrolling plugs, diver-and-bait, backbouncing, and casting both spinners and spoons.  All can and will yield fish, it’s just a matter of persistence in finding what the fish like.

Don’t let the hot days of summer limit your time on the water.

Rather than fishing during the first and last hour of the day, try seeking favorable habitats that hold fish.

Be patient, persistent and think things through. 

Analyze where steelhead may hold and hypothesize why.  From there, figure out the best ways to catch them, then hold on!  What you may discover is a new view on summer steelhead fishing, and better yet, become part of the relatively small group of anglers who believe these finicky fish can be caught even during the most challenging days of the season.

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1 comment

I liked this article. These things you described is what I used to do, but now it isn,t so easy now that I,m a whole lot older Brought back lots of memories – thanks.

Duane George Jameson

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