Bank on Summer Steelhead
Jason Brooks, June 04, 2021
Bright sunny summer days are what makes the Pacific Northwest tolerable during the cold and rainy winter months. Summer steelhead are heading upriver in our favorite streams and waterways which often lead high into the Olympic and Cascade mountains. It is hard to beat days like this and they are too few. It was one of these bright and warm days where we found ourselves floating along a drift enjoying a summer’s afternoon. The clear water made it almost impossible to determine how deep it was as I watched the gravel bottom go by from my drift boat. Suddenly seeing a steelhead darting across the river scared from the shadow of the boat. A few pulls on the oars slowed me long enough to find the fish hiding in the shadows along the far cut-bank. I pulled the boat to the shore and hiked back up to where I last saw the fish. Keeping some distance from the bank and peering into the river-using a good pair of polarized sunglasses-once again locating the fish. Casting up-stream so not to spook the already timid steelhead telling myself I was going to catch that fish. It took a couple of casts but eventually I was able to present the small jig in the path leading right to the fish and he took it.
I started off this article by describing a day I had while fishing a river in my drift boat, but it was that very boat that scared the fish in the first place. Rafts and drift boats are great vessels to access summer’s low and clear rivers. But to increase your chances at catching fish it is best to get out of the boat and stalk the fish, or not even take the boat at all and hike along the rivers edge. If boating, use it to access the river but not always fish from. After rowing through rapids pull the boat to the shore and explore the run below before you float through it. This will increase your catch rate as fish will not be pushed out of their holding spots behind boulders or in seams where the water is oxygenated. If you are on a cut-bank then slowly make your way down the river while looking for holding fish. On a low bank, step back a few feet and try to keep your shadow out of the water. The idea here is to walk slow and find the fish before you cast or at least find holding water. One thing about this technique is that you will learn a lot about the water conditions such as any boulders, seems, of riffles where the fish will by holding.
Sight fishing for summer steelhead is exhilarating but there are a few things to remember that will help you catch more fish. A good pair of sunglasses is necessary, and they must be polarized. I prefer ones with brown, amber, or yellow lenses finding that using smoke, grey or dark lenses tend to wash out the speckled backs of steelhead using riffles as cover. Along with the sunglasses to see into the water, you must also remember that if you can see the fish then they can see you. Wearing dark or natural colors help conceal you on the bank of the river. But bright yellows and light blues also help you blend into the bright sky. Stay away from bright colors that contrast with the foliage along the riverbank and solid colors that will give you away. Your wading shoes should be dark or natural colors as well and this means the entire shoe. Shoelaces should be black not bright white or other colors and if you have felt soled wading shoes then re-sole them with black felt, or better yet rubber with spike, as felt can transfer unwanted aquatic vegetation.
Even if you don’t spot a fish by walking the bank you will quickly develop a feel for where to casts. Instead of blinding throwing your hook into the river concentrate on areas that the fish will be resting or where the oxygen is being agitated. Fish downstream from your boat until you get to the end of the run then work your way back upriver all the way past your boat to the head of the run. By the time you get back to the top any fish that you rowed over will have settled down and ready for the bite.
If you have ever thought about fly fishing for steelhead then the summer runs are a great fish to start on. This is because bug activity it increased in the summer and you can catch fish on dry flies as well as wet flies. The bright streamers used in winter fishing are hardly used in the summer as the water is low and clear. A bonus local rainbow or sea run cutthroat, and even a few dolly varden are caught while fly fishing for summer steelhead. For gear anglers be sure to downsize the baits, lures and even the line. Most summer steelhead are much smaller than their winter cousins, with a 6 to 8-pound fish being a good average size steelhead. This means you can get away with lighter leaders which is necessary in the clear water.
Floating jigs is one of the most effective ways to fish for summer steelhead. One reason is because you can float the jig right over the top of those gear-grabbing boulders where the fish will be resting. A clear float of a balsa wood float are good options but do not forget about the old school round cork float as it looks natural and will not scare fish unlike bright colored floats often used in off colored water. Small jigs from 1/8 to ¼ ounce in black, red, and peach colors are most popular. When fishing jigs scent can really help, and Pro-Cure's water-soluble shrimp scent will not ruin the jigs action and draws the bite of a waiting summer steelhead. One wonderful thing about float fishing jigs is that you can take just one rod, a handful of terminal gear and a bottle of scent and fish all day long. This lightens the load for those that are hiking along the river on a hot summer's day.
There are several rivers on the Olympic Peninsula that have runs of summer steelhead. Most of them have a trail system if they lead into the national park. Be sure to have the correct fishing licenses and punch card, as you need the one specifically for the Olympic National Park that is offered through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Other rivers flow into the Columbia, such as the Cowlitz, Lewis, Kalama, and more. Some of them offer public access to the river’s edge but remember to respect private property. There are several good smartphone apps available that will show you property lines and even help you find that honey hole where others don’t realize there is access to the river. Be sure to tell someone where you plan on fishing that day and just because it is hot out and the water is running low doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind and wade out in unfamiliar waters without surveying them first. A wading staff is a good idea when crossing rivers or to feel the bottom where you might think it is shallow but not sure. Remember that the downriver side of rocks and stumps tend to be deep holes from the turbid waters and watch your step.
Boats and rafts are used for accessing the far-off gravel bars, rapids, boulder fields and runs where other bank-only anglers can’t reach from the parking lot. I rarely fish out of a boat for summer steelhead, instead using it as transportation down the river. By having the right tools such as sunglasses and billed hat, a boat to get me to the fish and subdued clothing you increase your chances at hooking up with a summer steelhead.