You may be drawn to the salmon jumping in the deeper pools, but the first place to look for biting fish is likely in the riffles and chop.
Chinook caught while twitching a spinner for coho.
There’s those lucky “in-betweeners,” as I wrote about in a recent issue of STS. The times when salmon and steelhead occupy the same river system, at the same time.
The typical “target” species could really be a variety where I live. In South-west Washington I’ve lots of options, from the tidewater of the Columbia River, to the tributaries that flow into it. With that watershed to play with, it’s hard to go anywhere else.
At the same time, though fall can be very productive, it can also be tough to dial in the timing on the fish. Not that you can’t find them, on the contrary, fall salmon are typically the easiest to find as they will usually make themselves known.
Jumping out of the water doesn’t mean biting though. That’s where things get tough.
From August through November I can count on fishing a few rivers that have summer steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon.
Timing may vary with these tributaries, for instance:
River A in August: Summer steelhead run is slowing down but a few are still available, lots of early “tule” Chinook and early “A-run” coho. With these options available, it can be an exciting time to catch fish, but it can also be surprisingly frustrating. The fish are usually there, at least one of the three in the majority of the “better” holes. With that said, banking on any one species is a gamble.
The easiest would be the tule’s, but they are the least desirable tasting. They are excellent fighters however and can turn a slow day into a fun day of catch and release. The A-run coho would perhaps be the ideal, but in August and warm water they have zero intention of biting. If you can get into a summer steelhead, they’re a blast and typically in very good condition in August. But why not try for at all three? Sure, you can get specific, and don’t be afraid to do it, but let’s get after these specific fish and what’s going to make or break your day. The answers are pretty obvious but maybe there are a few details that’ll resonate.
Holding Water (Fall: Low Water)
Riffles & Chop: You may be drawn to the salmon jumping in the deeper pools, but the first place to look for biting fish is like-ly in the riffles and chop. This is because of the warmer water temperatures and light penetration which can drive a wary fish for-ward to find cover in riffly, choppy water. This is where spinners shine!
If you don’t have bait, or would prefer to fish hardware in general, focusing on these sections (especially after boats have ran through them) can be a productive way to pick up fish that are holding, but ready to move under cover of night. Casting plugs diagonally and reeling fast may be one the most deadly ways to target these, just make sure you’ve got a plug that doesn’t run too deep or too shallow.
Drift fishing these sections with light weight and quality bait can also be highly productive. You don’t need to tap bottom constantly, as a salmon or steelhead will sometimes quick move to intercept or chase down a bait—provided it’s a good bait.
Pools & Deep Runs: These are more traditional “salmon” holes. They can be some of the best places to pull numbers, but also some of the most difficult to dial in if the fish are finicky. This is where a few techniques shine, and all of them involve bait.
Drifting Bait: The beauty of drift fishing, is that if the hole is right, you can switch up the weight as heavy as needed to effectively fish the bottom of the hole. When salmon are stacked up in a hole this can be very effective from the bank or boat, but you need to position yourself correctly to achieve the best drift.
Hovering Bait: If you’re in a boat and it’s a very slow, deep hole, think about those kings hanging deep. And if the kings aren’t in the hole? You might be surprised where warm water steelhead end up in early fall… The trick to successful hovering is boat control, which equals line control. Choose a 1 - 3 oz. weight to drop to the bottom on a 6-inch dropper. Once you touch bottom, reel up two cranks and hold your rod still, with line going straight down. With a 3-foot leader you can use an egg-loop to hold eggs and sandshrimp in. That combo hovered in front of a Chinook’s face is hard for them to ignore, but the bite is so light you might think you’ve got a smolt nibbling at your eggs.
Swing and a miss? Even the best MLB players do it, but hooksets are free (if you’ve got enough bait!) and missing a shot at a big fish isn’t always the best. The minute you get a tap from a live one it’s time to upswing and set the hook. If they’re there, you’ll know!
Divers & Plugs: Backing into a deep run with a sled or driftboat is one of the most effective ways to approach coho, Chinook and steelhead. Starting at the highest possible area (don’t sleep on the first part of the pool!) anchor or back plugs/divers back into the hole. If you’re fishing for salmon and steelhead, there are a lot of plugs that may target both, but you can’t really beat a diver and bait setup to target everything. Spin-n-Glos with eggs and sandshrimp again is the best ticket, and you may consider going smaller on your bait combo to target everything. Especially effective for steelhead is Spin-n-Glos with coon shrimp. Bring a mix of bait and give them a soak.
Float Fishing: Floats really seem to feel right to target everything in lower fall water—20-pound fluorocarbon, 1/0 hook and a quarter-size piece of eggs with sand-shrimp equals bites.
Bait Offerings: There are many specifics to cover on eggs and bait, but there are experts out there who can get into the details. Here are some ideas in regards to bait: Gotta get your egg cure right (I’d say cure simple, thorough and milky, and then add some oils/powders on the go) but the beauty is...if you don’t—just fish the sandshrimp!
Everything eats sand shrimp! Steelhead and salmon cannot get enough of them. If you can’t find live ones, try to find fresh frozen ones. Beware—you could catch a sturgeon...
Seams, Tailouts, Side-Channels: These areas are best approached with gear that can still present well in these areas—especially floats, drift gear, plugs, spinners… In these areas are often where you’ll find steelhead and/or coho, with the occasional Chinook utilizing them, especially when they’re moving.
Jumpers: Coho are odd, and A-run coho especially are really odd. You can find them in riffles, pools, tailouts, seams, slack water, log jams, back eddies and side-channels. Never assume that just because you saw a coho jump that you’re gonna catch that fish in the same spot. Sure, throw a cast and sometimes you’ve got an aggressive one ready to party, but if I see jumpers my first move ito get up above them to the first stopping/holding point in faster water. The biters are usually not the jumpers and vice-versa (with obvious exceptions) but you can determine the general area and start to pick it apart with confidence.
When I see a steelhead jump, I start flailing casts like a madman. They can really just turn plain nasty and attack any bait in sight after a jump. With that in mind, if they don’t grab after jumping, move up or down to the next type of holding water to see if there is a fish holding. Also—even if they jump in one spot, they’re rarely stay-ing there. Jumping fish may be circling in a pool or run, or simply on the move.
Steelhead Holding Water
Steelhead are usually more traditional but once salmon are in the river steelhead start to hold in stranger areas, usually behind or off to the side from the salmon, or in completely different sections of rivers.
This is perhaps why upper river steel-head fishing seems to take off when the Chinook and coho are pushing in.
The late Colby Stuart with a Washington Coonshrimp caught steelhead in the traffic lane.
I’ve had instances of fishing heavily for A-run coho, seeing quite a few chrome fish jump, not able to get a sniff. Fish some-thing else or drop in behind them... chrome fresh steelhead comes out of the water with my hook in its face!
Those late summer steelhead are terrific biters, fighters and... appetite ignitors? If they’ve got the river to themselves they can occupy pools, riffles, runs, seams... and to some extent tailouts (not usually in warm water). Those salmon trigger a differ-ent pattern of movement through the river.
Often summer steelhead that were in the river prior to the salmon will push upstream as the Chinook pile ahead. Steelhead will jump falls that the Chinook don’t, and in those areas they will occupy the prime water/holes.
Red they’re dead. Fall, low clear water? Use any color as long as it’s red. Egg and coon shrimp are both tasty morsels.
In Chinook/coho town however, steelhead are not the top dog. They will definitely squeeze in every once in a while, with salmon, and you’ll see a few among schools in pools at times, but for the most part they are wary of salmon—and especially salmon that are near spawn mode, for obvious reasons. As Chinook teeth develop, the upper river starts to look like a good idea to any summer steelhead nearby.
Summers will hold down in tidewater below Chinook in some instances. As their biological clock urges them into the tributary, they’ll run the sides of the rivers, many times just out of sight, while the Chinook move up the center channel of the river. Coho will do a bit of both…
The absolute, above and beyond, best shot at a biting A-run coho salmon during the fall happens in tidewater. Those fish just are not programmed to feed aggressively upriver. They can be absolutely voracious in tidewater towards trolled plugs/spinners/bait…
Chinook can act in the same way, although tidewater Chinook can also have a mind of their own in regards to when they want to bite. In fact, it seems most Chinook do.
Steelhead are very aggressive in tidewater towards a few things, namely spinners and shrimp. Be it a spinner casted from shore that gets seen by a moving fish, or a coon-striped shrimp or sandshrimp. Summer steelhead at this phase have every reason to eat the right feed, and if provoked can travel long distances to hammer spinners and turn with ferocity.
My Fall Plan
In fall, my best program has been to sum-mer steelhead fish until I start catching more salmon than steelhead. The reason for this is, a lot of the early salmon that are entering the river will take the same travel lanes as the steelhead—so if you’re using baits that are favorable to both, you’ll know when the salmon start showing up.
Favorite Fall Steelhead/Salmon Baits/Lures
- Sandshrimp & Eggs (Nickel-Quarter Size Roe)
- Spin-n-Glo with Bait
- Weighted or In-Line Spinners (Silver/Chrome Blades - Black, Blue, Purple, Pink Bodies)
- Plugs (Wigglers, Wiggle Warts, Mag-Lips) in Blue, Chrome, Black, Pink, Chartreuse, Red
- Coon Shrimp on Bait Loop