The Summer Steelhead of Fall by Scott Haugen
At the end of the first tailout we hit, Dad and I spotted multiple steelhead holding on the upper end. Pulling the boat off to the side, dropping anchor in the shadow of an overhanging tree, we started casting.
September and October summer steelhead anglers often find holes, and entire stretches of river, all to themselves. Not only is this a great time of year to be on the river, it’s a great time to catch fish.
First, we rolled small egg clusters topped with tiny Corky’s by them, but the fish paid no attention in the three-feet of water where they held. Next, we parked sand shrimp off their noses and didn’t even get a courtesy glance.
Dad switched to a blue wobbler and as soon as it hit the water a fish was making a wake for it.
I wasted no time tying on a green wobbler, and was met with the same result.
Within a dozen casts we boated our limit of summer steelhead. The impressive thing was not the number of fish caught, rather how far each fish traveled to attack the lures in the very shallow, clear conditions.
Mind you, these were the same fish that, moments earlier, were having the best baits known to steelhead, pass inches from their snouts. They were the same fish that saw three boats move ahead of us, and passed-up plugs, backtrolled bait and jigs, before attacking our lures.
This is just one example of how effective lures can be, and why it’s important to diversify when it comes to low water summer steelhead fishing in the fall.
Lures can elicit summer steelhead strikes when all other presentations fail to produce. If you see fish holding but not biting, try tossing hardware before giving up.
Understanding what’s happening to summer steelhead with fall’s onset is critical to catching them.
Early fall—usually the month of September—marks the time when steelhead start growing active in many Northwest rivers and upper tributaries. Many fish have been holding in certain stretches of water for months, awaiting the upcoming spawning cycle.
Warm water, recreational users and anglers have all kept fish suppressed, and now, with a drop in water and air temperatures, steelhead want to spread their fins.
Some fish may have recently shown up, having moved further upstream once water temperatures cooled. It’s this cooling temperature that’s the key to catching steelhead this time of year, as it’s what leads to an increase in activity.
At the time of this writing, many river levels were at, or very near, record lows. This means by September, conditions will have forced fish into specific holding locations where the water is often very low and crystal clear. Due to the challenging conditions, anglers will want to diversify how they go about attempting to catch summer steelhead this time of year.
For Dad and I, that day we caught our limit of summer steelhead on lures, success came down to simply triggering an aggressive response. We’d tried other presentations, as had fellow anglers before us, but they simply failed. Because we could see how the fish were responding, and where they were holding, we made the move to tossing hardware and it paid-off.
Lures are also ideal when it comes to searching for fish, something that's tough for bait anglers to accomplish at a comparable rate. Lures can be thrown great distances, and unlike drift fishing, you don't cover the same water, twice.
Because lures pull fish from a wide area, the distance between consecutive casts can be greater.
When dissecting a river by drifting eggs, the distance separating casts is measured in inches. When working water with hardware, the gap between casts is measured in feet. This statistic alone shows how considerably more water can be covered by fishing lures, especially in clear, low water. Couple this with the fact that a high percentage of steelhead hit lures on their first pass, and you can get a feel for how much water can be truly be covered in a day.
As summer steelhead transition into their fall spawning colors, and river conditions begin to cool, the stage is set for what many anglers consider to be their favorite time of year to pursue these fish.
A general rule-of-thumb applied by many lure anglers is to offer the largest possible presentation without spooking fish. Doing so not only allows you to cover more water, it pulls fish from greater distances by cueing in on their visual and auditory senses. Throwing heavier hardware also allows longer casts to me made, thus blanketing more water. But there are others who feel using smaller, less disturbing lures is the way to go, especially in low, clear conditions. In clear, shallow sections as commonly seen this time of year, smaller spinners are likely more effective. Let the river be your guide.
If you can see fish but they’re not reacting to your offering, try changing colors and/or sizes of your presentation.
If that silver #4, copper bladed spinner doesn't produce, try a different color, perhaps a size or two smaller. At the same time, if fishing clear, low water, or water receiving direct sunlight that forces fish into more shallow riffles, downsize to a less intrusive lure.
Perhaps the best advice for any lure angler is to keep casting and moving. Only by constantly being on the prowl, hitting any and every possible bit of water capable of holding fish, will the objective of lure fishing be fully realized.
Dragging—technically, backtrolling—flies is nothing new to steelheading. Over the past 15 years I’ve seen a growing number of anglers going to this approach during September, when rivers are low and clear.
If you own a boat, the rest is simple, but you can also wade and effectively swing flies. The major benefit of dragging flies is that it allows you to fish water that’s tough to plug or drift. Those shallow riffles holding fish on sunny days may be hard working a plug in, and positioning to drift it may spook fish. This is where gently backing a fly into such settings may be your best bet.
Backtrolling flies is a favorite approach among many falltime summer steelheaders. This Muddler/Bead-Head combo’ is very effective this time of year.
Dragging flies in classic steelhead water such as tailouts, breaks, flats, even deeper, clear sections of river, is also effective. Plugging water in the three to ten foot depth range is ideal for working flies. But where backing flies downstream pays dividends is in fishing water you might otherwise deem unfishable due to it’s shallow depth and clarity, and pass right by.
Unlike the pinpoint accuracy necessary when maneuvering plugs into position, backtrolling flies is a bit more forgiving. Working the boat at a speed about one-third that of water flow is ideal, though this may vary within certain sections of a river. Due to the amount of drag placed on and dispersed throughout the fly line, keeping the flies working in alignment as they move downstream is not as taxing when compared to pulling plugs.
However, as in plugging, dragging flies requires you to look ahead, assessing the water and predicting where fish will be holding, then placing the patterns in the target spot.
It's easy to get lazy with this technique, as there are fewer hangups and less effort required to skipper the craft, but don't let it happen. Concentrating on the task at hand and always thinking ahead is critical to making this approach successful.
Depending on water clarity, stripping out 20- to 30-feet of dry fly line is optimal. In shallow stretches, you may wish to extend the distance to 35- or 40-feet, for fear the fish may see the boat and spook. Because more shallow, clear sections of water are worked when dragging flies, the skipper must finesse the boat downstream. Quiet entry and exiting of the oars is important, as the objective is to sneak up on fish without being detected.
A 5- to 7-weight fly rod and a matching WF floating line is all you need to get started dragging flies. Utilizing a floating line is critical for achieving proper depth which ultimately places the fly in the strike zone. Nine foot 4X, 3X or 2X tippets are good choices, and which one you use will be determined by the river and the tenacity of the fish.
Pulling a double-fly setup is very effective, where the top pattern serves as an attractor. Four to five feet should separate the two flies, with the attractor being tied to a six to eight inch dropper. Matching the patterns to respective aquatic life in the river being fished is a good idea. In most Northwest rivers this time of year, using a silver tinsel bodied sculpin or muddler pattern on a size 10 hook is very effective. Dropping a couple sizes, the trailing fly can be any pattern you have confidence in. Bead-head patterns are good choices.
Another pattern that can be successfully presented on this fly setup is a 1/16 or 1/32 ounce jig. These lightweight jigs act as weighted flies and when fished singly, can really capture the attention of steelhead. The bright patterns in which these jigs are tied often seem to produce bites when nothing else will.
Often overlooked as a fly fishing alternative, dragging flies is something every steelhead angler should have in their repertoire this time of year. Once you acquire the gear, the rest is simple to learn, which is what makes this effective style of fishing so enjoyable.
While drift-fishing is a favorite way to present eggs to steelhead in the spring and early summer months, the approach can be inconsistent come fall. However, it produces enough fish that it needs to be an integral part of the arsenal.
When drift-fishing, downsize the hook, egg cluster and driftbobber.
In the low, clear waters of fall, downsizing your terminal gear is one step that will boost summer steelhead catch rates.
In the high, murky waters of spring, you may have threaded a size 8 Corky atop a quarter-size glob of eggs that were attached to a 2/0 hook. In the low, clear conditions of fall, try putting a dime-size cluster of eggs into the loop of a size 2 hook and topping it with a size 14 Corky. This smaller presentation is less intrusive and moves downstream faster, which can trigger a bite.
In addition to being drift-fished, this smaller egg presentation can effectively be side-drifted. Side-drifting is usually associated with winter steelhead fishing, but this time of year it can be very effective for summer steelhead. The key in the low, clear water is maintaining a safe distance from the fish, keeping in mind you want them to see the presentation before they see you.
One September day I had a prime stretch of river all to myself. Eager to catch a steelhead on jigs, that’s what I tried first. After no strikes, I swapped out the jig for an egg cluster, and bam! Fish on. I hooked two more fish on the same bobber and egg setup. Floating eggs downstream beneath a float is a very stealthy way get a presentation in front of leery steelhead.
On another September outing, a buddy and I fished 1/16- and 1/32-ounce jigs beneath a float. Again, no bites, not until we added a couple inches of a pink rubber worm to the jig. The added color and movement were just what the finicky steelhead wanted on that day.
When the first rains of fall come, make it a point to hit the river within the next few days. Combine a fresh shot of rain with dropping nighttime temperatures, and you’re set to experience just how thrilling summer steelhead fishing truly can be in the upper rivers of fall.
With upper tributaries running low and clear, sight-fishing summer steelhead can lead to more fish in the cooler.
This September, when so many fellow anglers are cramming the bays in search of salmon, head to the Northwest’s tributaries in search of summer steelhead. With a good pair of polarized glasses, a few rods equipped with different setups and some patience, you’ll be surprised at how secluded and productive the journey to late season summer steelhead can be.
-written by Scott Haugen www.scotthaugen.com.