Fishing the Summer Steelhead of Fall by Michael Gorman
Fall is the best outdoor season of the year.
Ask any outdoorsman or athlete.
Whether it’s fishing, hunting, or football, the crisp mornings and quiet blue skies of autumn are invigorating. And, I might argue, it is the most beautiful season of the year here in the Pacific Northwest. Or, it just might be that my judgment is influenced when I often see a fall steelhead on the end of the line.
The vast majority of summer-run steelhead of Washington, Oregon, and northern California enter freshwater on their spawning migration late May through September, with a few tardy rebels waiting for October rains to freshen their home streams.
Spawning will not occur until after the New Year, so many summer steelhead will have been in the river for seven months or more before mating.
Summer steelhead are available to be caught through the month of December in many rivers. My clients and I have caught many when there’s snow on the ground late in the calendar year. It is not unusual to have the river to myself near fall’s end.
The Season’s Good Reasons
Fall often finds significantly fewer anglers on steelhead rivers, less competition for these prized fish.
School has resumed, and family vacations are now memories.
Fishermen hunters have left my rivers to wander fields, forests, and mountains for their game and birds of choice.
Anglers who are seeking fresh-run prime-eating steelhead have no desire to catch and release fish past their eating prime. Fall chinook and silver salmon on the coast call to many anglers as they vacate steelhead waters.
Cool, sometimes frosty, mornings discourage the fair weather sorts from fishing in the fall. Other anglers who associate summer steelhead only with the actual summer months have moved on to other pursuits.
However, for those of us that want a large challenging fish on the end of the line, with little concern about eating it, the heart of the fall season is unparalleled with its steelhead-catching possibilities.
Knowing Your Quarry
Steelhead do not need to eat during their spawning run.
Just as a bear preparing to hibernate, they have tremendous fat reserves, created by the bountiful ocean buffet where they have spent one to three years dining continuously.
Since such large animals (relatively speaking) cannot rely on finding adequate amounts of food throughout their freshwater journeys, they have evolved to pack a BIG lunch in the form of fat. The fat is utilized by the fish as the calories for its required energy are needed. It’s truly amazing these fish can remain active and healthy without eating for many months.
Of course, trying to entice a fish to eat that does not have to eat, and has a minimal appetite, is a challenge. So, my job as an avid steelhead fly angler and professional fishing guide is to figure out how to tempt a reluctant fish into biting my fly.
Because most steelhead are not easily fooled, the satisfaction level is three notches higher on the satisfaction meter when a fish is hooked, especially on a fly rod. To encourage even reluctant fish to eat, the fall season finds a very special, delicious incentive for steelhead to dine at this time of year.
Depending on the unique timing in any given Pacific Northwest river, fall chinook salmon typically spawn late summer and fall, with September and October being prime time for most.
For summer steelhead rivers where fall chinook also return, the salmon will create abundant eating possibilities for the steelhead. Everyone knows the obvious source: salmon eggs.
However, there is a second way in which the salmon can put food in front of holding steelhead.
As the salmon prepare for spawning, the females will excavate a depression, a nest, in the rock and gravel in shallow, quick water areas. A hen does this by turning on her side and violently swishing her tail. This moves the stones downstream, creating a shallow “bowl” into which the eggs will be laid.
Once the eggs are laid and fertilized in the depression, she moves slightly upstream to create another nest. As the next nest is excavated, the previous one is covered again by rock and gravel being moved by the female’s tail. Very efficient. She may make five or six nests, laying a thousand or more in each.
The collection of nests is a redd. Besides some of the eggs which will be flushed from the nests as the redd is built, many aquatic insects living among the rocks will be sent adrift, floating downstream toward steelhead that might decide to eat an easy and abundant snack.
Fall Fly Fishing Technique
Though some anglers will choose to fish sunken wet flies for the summer steelhead of fall, I prefer the nymphing fly fishing method. With this technique I am drifting my chosen flies slowly and naturally along the river bottom.
Most of the time this is the single most dependable method to put a steelhead on the end of my line.
In Oregon it is legal to fish up to three flies on the leader. Many anglers will forgo the crazy tangling possibilities presented by three flies, to fish a pair. During the fall, then, I will choose to fish an egg imitation with an imitation of a prevalent aquatic insect, like a stonefly nymph. So the steelhead has a choice: a fish egg or an insect.
Those fish that can be tempted may prefer one over the other; some will accept either one, choosing that fake morsel easiest to intercept.
Though I do not fish to spawning salmon, when I fish prime steelhead holding zones it is not unusual to occasionally find a salmon on the line. Like the steelhead, migrating salmon have stores of fat, so they do not have to eat before completing their spawning mission.
However, with temptation in front of them, a few will eat a nymph. On a fly rod the battle will be a long one. In my drift boat I can chase the fish and bring it to net much sooner than a wading angler who may not be able to move after the salmon. Some anglers will opt to hold the line tight to break off, and resume steelhead fishing.
Locating the Steelhead
At “Egg Time” in the fall, the best steelhead water to fish is usually those runs and pools below salmon spawning areas.
The eggs and insects set free during the salmon nest building time can drift a long distance. Even those steelhead holding areas far removed from salmon spawning can produce egg-eating steelhead. As they make their way up the river, steelhead will pass through many stretches where salmon are spawning, and have the opportunity to see drifting eggs and eat them.
So, when there may be no salmon eggs for long distances between spawning zones, steelhead definitely recognize an egg, no matter where they will encounter it. Even though chinook spawning is long finished, many summer steelhead in December will eat an egg fly.
Though steelhead are now classified as a salmon, it is also taxonomically true that they are sea-going rainbow trout.
As a camouflaging adaption these trout that go to the ocean lose their usual rainbow stripes and spotting, adorned instead with a dark back, silver sides, and snow white belly. When adult steelhead re-enter their home streams they will eventually revert to their natural rainbow trout colors.
In the fall they will have been in the river for months, so the steelhead will appear as large rainbow trout. The males, in particular, will be spectacularly colored, with a vivid red stripe along the sides, and ruby red opercula covering the gills.
Flies of Choice
There are many salmon egg fly patterns available.
Some are definitely superior to others. Over the last thirty years I have developed my own patterns. I don’t fish them just because they are my own but because they are my best opportunity—I think—to maximize the number of hooked steelhead for me and for my guided clients. And, obviously, I have multiple vested interests in wanting/needing my paying guests to catch steelhead.
If they catch steelhead in my boat they may want to fish with me again. And tell their friends. So, I will be using the best egg flies available. These include my Gorman Bead Egg, Sparkle Egg, Dumbbell Sparkle Egg, and Bling Egg. All are tied in shades of pink and orange, and hook sizes 6 – 10.
Because some larger species have a three year life cycle and are available to fish all year long, and are abundant, a stonefly nymph is an excellent choice for my second fly, to be paired up with an egg pattern.
I have them in a variety of sizes and color schemes. Most have bead heads and rubber legs. A variety of sizes means a variety of weights, so I can use a smaller, lighter stone fly in slower or shallow water, and larger heavy flies in fast deep water.
Sometimes I may fish my egg paired with a small nymph, like a Bead Head Prince nymph, Hare’s Ear, or Copper John, instead of a stonefly nymph. Small insects greatly outnumber large stoneflies in a river.
On a sheer numbers of opportunities basis, a steelhead will see many more little nymphs than larger, and will show a preference for something small...and quite harmless?
The Leader Set Up
My ideal water depth range for steelhead is 3 to 7 feet, waist deep to a short hand reach above the head. I know fish can be found in shallower and deeper water than this range, but I recommend beginner focus on this range for the best chance of success.
Trout in water less than waist deep are easily alarmed, and if maximum stealth is not employed the fish will bolt from the area with the slightest disturbance. For me to effectively fish 7 feet of moving water I will need a leader of approximately 11 feet fishing two flies.
In constructing my own nymph leader, I start with a 4 ½ foot section of 0.017 monofilament or copolymer line. As for color, I use a soft green or tan. Using a Double Surgeon knot I secure 18 inches of 0.015 diameter to the butt section. Then, 18 inches of 0.011 (0X) fluorocarbon line. The final 3 ½ feet is either 1X (0.010 diameter, 14 pound) or 2X (0.009, 12 pound).
I create a dropper line to secure the dropper fly by cutting the leader and rejoining the two pieces with a Double Surgeon. Two tag ends remain when the knot is pulled tight. I leave the tag that points away from my rod tip, and tie the dropper fly—usually the egg—to it. The upper tag end is trimmed short.
If I fish an egg with a small nymph there is a very good possibility there will not be adequate weight to enable the flies to sink quickly. In this case I will use removable split shot where it is legal. These are secured about a foot above the dropper.
The final piece of the leader set up is a strike indicator. Just as an angler with a spinning rod would use a a plastic or foam float to detect a strike, fly fishermen use strike indicators made of synthetic yarn, foam, or cork. Also popular in recent years are soft plastic bubbles with a grommet.
Casting and the Proper Drift
The cast is typically angled diagonally upstream. The shorter casts need not be mended since a high lift of the rod tip will lift all the fly line off the water. This is commonly referred to as “high sticking.”
When casts of 20 feet or more are made, a mend of the fly line and upper portion of the leader is needed to get a natural dead-drift of the nymphs. The mending motion is similar to turning a jump rope as the floating fly line is repositioned upstream of the flies in the current. Mending is necessary to prevent the faster moving floating line from racing ahead of the slow moving sinking nymph and egg.
After the mend, the rod tip tracks the strike indicator as it drifts downstream. If at any time the indicator does anything out of the ordinary—no matter how subtle—set the hook.
It is a mistake to hesitate, thinking that a strike will be obvious. Many times it is not.
I always remind my clients that there are no penalty points for setting the hook, so set it often.
Rod and Reel Alternative
Obviously, this same flies, leader and indicator / bobber system can be used with a spinning rod. The fly fisherman’s indicator can be replaced by a more traditional float, if wanted.
Fall Has It All
If I could suggest to you the time of year for its combination of beauty, temperate weather, and the very best time of the entire summer steelhead season to catch a fish on a fly, the end of September through early December.
Salmon are spawning, the summer crowds are gone, and the steelhead get into a biting mood.
Keep you your fly in the water, watch your indicator, and set the hook. Often.
- Written by Michael Gorman
Michael Gorman, professional fly fishing guide, is the author of the books Steelhead Fly Angling, Guerilla Fly Rod Tactcis and Effective Stillwater Fly Fishing.
He has taught credit classes in fly fishing, fly tying, and steelhead fishing at Oregon State University.