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Reading Summer Steelhead Water by Scott Haugen

There are many important pieces to the summer steelheading puzzle, but the most important piece of all could be reading the water.

Knowing what water to fish, how and when, are key ingredients to consistently catching summer steelhead this time of year.

Knowing what water to fish, how and when, are key ingredients to consistently catching summer steelhead this time of year.

Dropping anchor in less than a foot of water, Dad and I sat, waiting.  We weren’t waiting for daylight, rather for the two boats below us to move downstream.  Both were anchored, fishing a stretch of prime summer steelhead water, a piece we didn’t want to pass by without first wetting a line.

The more we watched the anglers in each boat, the more optimistic we grew that we could catch a steelhead.  There wasn’t enough room for three boats to fish, so we sat and watched.

driftboat fishing boat steelhead

Because a drift boat allows access to so much river, it’s important to learn how to read the different types of water encountered, then determine how to best fish them.

The upper boat was drift fishing, and though they had all the right gear, they were casting over the prime water.  They were hitting some ideal seams and riffles, but they were casting too far on the other side of the river, near the opposite shore. 

Earlier in the morning, this would have been a good drift, but by midmorning, the fish usually move to deeper, slower-moving water, closer to midstream.

The boat below them was also in a good spot, but they were strictly jig fishing.  Higher and lower in the hole jig fishing is excellent, but where they sat the water became shallow and very fast-moving, too fast for my likes when it comes to fishing bobber and jigs.

After more than 30 minutes the upper boat pulled anchor and headed downstream without so much as a strike.  Dad and I wasted no time slipping into the target water.  A few casts later I missed a strike, but Dad followed, as usual, by hooking and landing a steelhead.  Minutes later I hooked a feisty metalhead that jumped and spit the hook.  All three hits came from the same spot, an eight-foot deep slot flowing about 30 feet in front of us.  As we watched the boat before us, they didn’t once run a presentation through that deeper slot.

With summer steelhead season at its peak, take time to read the water and understand where fish hold and travel within any given section of the river.

With summer steelhead season at its peak, take time to read the water and understand where fish hold and travel within any given section of the river.

We continued fishing that hole for another 20 minutes or so until the second boat below pulled out.  When they headed downriver we slid into their position but rolled eggs and Corkies instead of floating jigs.  We hit two more steelhead that the anglers before us missed.  The boat before us was in the right spot, covering the right water, they just didn’t roll anything along the bottom where the fish were holding in the slick, fast-moving water.

Each piece of the summer steelhead fish-catching puzzle is important, though some pieces may be more important than others.  Reading water is one of those vital pieces.  No matter how fancy your gear, how much you know about a river and the fish that reside in it, it’s all of little value if you can’t read the water.

Reading water is one of those facets of the sport that’s difficult to capture in words. 

The best way to learn how to read water is by spending time on a river, learning by trial and error.  Observing fellow anglers–paying close attention to where and how they fish–is also a great help in learning to interpret the water and decipher where fish will be.

Let’s take a look at two common types of summer steelhead water: moving and low, clear water.  As river levels begin to drop and warm-up this time of year, knowing where the fish lay, and why, is essential in figuring out how to catch them.  Here’s what to look for when it comes to reading summer steelhead water and figuring out what types of water they hold in and travel through.

plug fishing steelhead

No matter how you fish for summer steelhead, reading the water is critical in understanding how to best apply various techniques.  Plugging water, for instance, may be far different from jig or drift-fishing water.

Moving Water

Catching steelhead in moving water is one of the greatest thrills our sport has to offer.  This is where hard-fighting action unfolds, and where anglers realize just how powerful these fish can be.

Rapids and riffles are the primary target waters for steelhead on the move.  This is because steelhead moving through these zones can be aggressive biters, and they aren’t as spooky as when moving through shallow, more clear stretches of water.

In the heavier, deeper waters that make up rapids, steelhead will often hold in back-eddies behind specific rocks.  This allows them to rest as they make their way through these taxing sections of water.

Mind you, not all steelhead travel at the same rate.  Tracking studies have found individual steelhead within a given school to greatly vary in how much water they cover.  Some fish will easily swim over 10 miles a day, while others may hold in one spot for several days, even weeks.  Others have been tracked actually dropping downstream considerable distances, so far that they actually leave one stream and enter another. 

The point is, not all fish behave the same.

No matter what gear you use, knowing where it’s best fished is important.<span class="Apple-converted-space">  </span>Scott Haugen is smiling over this summer steelhead he plucked from a bedrock shelf.

No matter what gear you use, knowing where it’s best fished is important.  Scott Haugen is smiling over this summer steelhead he plucked from a bedrock shelf.

However, one thing to keep in mind is that steelhead will hold in and travel through similar routes.  If you find a steelhead behind one rock in a set of rapids, note the water level and conditions, and always make a cast behind that rock when under similar circumstances.  Some of my favorite steelheading hotspots are behind specific, individual rocks located in rapid and riffle settings that constitute traveling water.

The same is true when targeting steelhead in fast water, itself.  Mark where you catch fish and repeatedly hit those spots each time you fish.  Find the narrow chutes and seams and work each with pinpoint accuracy.  One thing about fishing fast moving water, it’s a game of inches.  If your cast is not perfect, the fish might not see it, or the current may be so strong the fish won’t go to the effort of leaving their comfort zone to strike at a flashing glimpse of terminal gear.

In the more gentle riffles, smaller rocks and a less severe gradient make it more fish–and fisherman–friendly. 

By that I mean fish will occupy more locations in riffles because the water isn’t as turbulent or moving as strong as in rapid settings.  These waters are also easier for anglers to fish.

In strong rapids, it’s important to get the terminal gear down quickly and control where you want it to go.  Due to intense turbulence, only a low percentage of rapids can be fished from the bank, with most of the best action coming behind rocks and along seams created by these rocks.  These can, however, be good places to backtroll plugs as well as diver and bait.

steelhead plug fishing riffle

This plug was backtrolled along a rock shelf, a presentation the summer steelhead couldn’t resist.

Riffles, on the other hand, can be fished in a variety of ways.  From drift fishing to working jigs beneath a float or casting lures, multiple approaches can be applied in riffles.  Running downsized Hot Shot can also be effective in picking apart riffles.

Riffles are more shallow than rapid habitats, which also makes them easier for anglers to fish.  But just where in a riffle steelhead hold depends on many factors.  Impacts such as angler pressure, water temperature, water flow, sun position and more, can impact where a steelhead holds in a riffle.

For instance, boat traffic may push steelhead lower into the riffle.  It may also force them to the edges of the current, close to shore.  Bank anglers, on the other hand, may force the fish to move into the deeper or more broken water in the middle of the river.  Simultaneous bank and boat pressure can cause fish to back down to the lower section of a riffle, or scoot up to the head end.  When angler pressure is high, explore all your options.

When the water temperature is cooler than normal–usually early in the morning following a couple of cool summer nights–steelhead can pull off to the slower water on the edges of the stream, hold behind larger rocks or drop-down low in the riffle.  All of these places have slower moving water, which makes it easier on the fish.  Once they do feel a need to move, they can do it quickly, as the faster moving riffles are right there.  Be sure to cover both holding zones and travel routes when fishing rapids and riffles, for the fish can be anywhere.

anchor river steelhead fishing

Summer steelhead often congregate behind and around boulders.  Knowing where they hold, and why, is key in figuring out how to catch them.

Low, Clear Water

Some of my best low, clear water fishing days for steelhead have been spent in deep holes that look more like salmon water.  These have been during low water periods where fellow anglers thought the water was so low, steelhead wouldn’t be around.  They’re also those times when river levels were so severely low, anglers concluded there wasn’t enough water to draw fish into the system, dismissing it as a poor run-year or reasoning that the fish moved upstream in the system.  The fact is, the fish enter rivers as their biological clocks instruct them, and often hold in the bottoms of deep holes rather than moving upstream, as they normally would.  The result, anglers don’t believe any fish are in the river since they’re not moving upstream.  Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it does happen, more often than you might think (this also applies to winter steelhead).

jody smith summer steelhead

Jody Smith prepares to release a wild summer steelhead caught on Oregon’s Umpqua River.  Having fished this river for decades, Smith knows where fish hold.

Over the years we’ve had solid success on winter steelhead when fishing them smack on the bottom of the deepest holes.  Here, it’s not uncommon for hundreds of fish to congregate in one hole.  What draws them there is the protection the deep water has to offer, both in-depth and darker color.  Summer steelhead can also be found in deep holes during times when water levels are low and temperatures high.

Steelhead will also stage in shallow riffles during low, clear conditions.  This is because the broken surface offers cover.  Many anglers believe summer steelhead in warm waters will stage in riffles due to the fact the water is more oxygenated.  This is not the case.  Studies have shown that oxygen content remains constant throughout the typical northwest stream, meaning there’s no shortage of good breathing water in any portions of the water column.

However, one place I’ve taken a good number of summer steelhead during hot summer months is near the mouths of creeks.  While these feeder streams don’t bring any more oxygen into a stream, what they do introduce is freshwater that can carry different scents than what’s in the river.  For summer steelhead in warm rivers, these little creeks are often cooler, offering the fish a sense of relief.

feeder creek fishing

Feeder streams are good places for summer steelhead to congregate.  This small pod of summer fish gathered at the mouth of a cool, incoming stream.

When fishing the mouths of creeks, don’t limit yourself to the mouth, proper.  Instead, follow the current downstream to where the incoming creek water is flowing.  In faster moving rivers, this freshet of water can travel close to shore, making for ideal bank fishing access.

One thing to keep in mind when fishing these inlets, if the incoming creeks are big, they can deposit a lot of sand at the mouth.  This deposition, called an alluvial fan, will force fish away from the mouth, as too much sand is kicked-up, which steelhead won’t tolerate as it gets into their gills.  Fish well below these alluvial fans, for the cooler water, will continue downstream.  These places often go overlooked by anglers in low water situations.

scott tiffany haugen

Tiffany Haugen and Jody Smith are all smiles over this dime-bright summer steelhead.  The fish was taken on a lure fished on the outside edge of a seam.

This summer, don't let low, warming water temperatures discourage you.  Prepare for the challenge, carefully analyze the water then figure out the most sensible way to catch those finicky summer steelhead.  The bite is often tough to come as summer progresses, but you might find that the right combination of persistence and studying the water may be just what’s needed to fool those prized fish.

Editor's Note: Learn more about Scott at www.scotthaugen.com.


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