June's Summer Steelhead

by Jason Brooks, June 01, 2016
June marks the kick off of the summer steelhead season. Most rivers will still be running cold and a little high from snow runoff but by the end of the month they should be in shape. Other rivers, like the Cowlitz will be prime, as well as some of the coastal rivers that drain the short distance to the Pacific Ocean as the Olympic Mountains rid their snow early. One of the many draws of the summer run steelhead is the fact that the days are long and much warmer making for a pleasant time to be on the river. But because of these long and bright days and soon shallow waters with a bit warmer temperatures you need to adjust accordingly, both in tactics and in gear.

Starting with gear, summer run fishing can be a float fisherman’s dream as the rivers and holding waters are perfect for those that like to float fish jigs or bait. Starting at the terminal end, a long and limber rod is ideal as these fish are mostly from five to eight pounds with a few reaching ten pounds. The long rod, around 9 ½ to 10 ½ feet is ideal for float fishing so you can mend your line and extend your drift. My preferred rod is the North Fork Custom’s Steelhead Series 962, a 9 ½ foot spinning rod rated for 6 to 10 pounds, as this rod is very light and strong, perfect for summer run steelhead fishing.

Pair you rod with a 2500 to 3000 series Lexa spinning reel by Diawa which has a great drag system and spool it with a Hi-Viz braided line such as Suffix 832 which has seven strands of braid and one strand of Gore-Tex. This line always floats which helps in the mending and free drift of the jigs or bait. One key change from any other float fishing set up is the float itself. With low, clear water condition break out the old style round cork floats as they look natural and won’t spook the fish or at least downsize and use a smaller float. The leader should either be fluorocarbon or a clear line such as Izorline Platinum in six pound test.

Jigs and bait need to be appropriate to the water conditions. You can’t go wrong with the “nightmare” colored jig (black, white and red) but other colors such as a subtle peach are good for summertime fishing as well. The idea is to not be too bright or too big as again you will be likely fishing low and clear water.

Mack’s Lure Glo-Getter 1/8 ounce jigs are just the right size and they offer a multitude of colors, each with a black head and a chenille color which is where you should apply the scent. Speaking of scents my top scent choice is sand shrimp. Summer run steelhead really like sand shrimp and it only makes sense to use this scent! Pro-Cure makes it in a water soluble oil so you can apply it directly to the marabou of the jig and not affect the action but you can also use their super gels on the chenille collar and a drop will last for about twenty minutes. If you prefer to use baits, then downsize cured salmon egg clusters to about the size of your fingernail and pair it with a small piece of yellow, peach, or pink yarn but try and stay away from the fluorescent colors. A piece of raw prawn is an excellent summer steelhead bait as well as drifting a night crawler in a plain hook.

Now that I’ve discussed the basic gear for fishing don’t forget some additional “comfort” gear. A hat is a must. A baseball cap will suffice but after years in the sun my ears have taking a beating so I try and wear a brimmed hat when I know it will be a hot day. A lightweight, long sleeve sun shirt is also a must. Most of them have SPF sun protection in the material. For pants I tend to start off the day with zip-off pants with the legs on. As it gets hot out I will simply take off the lowers and cool down with my shorts.

A hiking shoe that is mesh, like the ones from Keens, or others advertised as “water shoes”, are great to stroll along the stream bank in and then if you brave to wade into the water they are still comfortable to hike back to the truck in. If you plan on doing a lot of wading breathable waders are a must. Along with the waders I take a backpack and carry my waders to the riverbank where I put them on. Not only is it easier to hike to my fishing hole while not wearing my waders but the first time a blackberry bush grabs onto your breathable waders and puts a pin hole in them you will wish you had them stowed in a backpack. Don’t forget to take along sunscreen, polarized sun glasses, lunch and a lot of water to drink. By thinking ahead and packing this gear you will have a much more comfortable day on the river. Lastly don’t forget a lightweight jacket as the mornings on the rivers are still brisk and the temperature can fluctuate thirty degrees or more in a single day.

Now that you’re all geared up and ready to hit the river it’s time to figure out where the fish are and use this to your advantage. The early morning pre-dawn is when the fish are on the move.

They don’t have to worry about predators like eagles coming down to grab them and they are comfortable in the low light and a bit cooler water. Try and find small flats with a calm surface and work the water over in the runs. Cast short and with each cast go a bit further until you have covered all of the water and then start over again as the fish are moving.

As the sun comes up the fish will start to hold or move in “cover water”. There are a few basic types of this water that I call “cover water”. First are riffles, where the surface water is broken. If you find a riffle near a cut bank and a seam then you have found steelhead “gold” as this is where the fish prefer most. Another type of “cover water” is a deep slot with boulders. The fish will use the boulders as a current break and the depth of the water to stay safe from predators and the sun. Keep working the boulders and adjust your float. It might take several casts to finally get that jig or bait to go by the right holding spot for the fish to grab it. Shadows are another “cover water” that hold fish. Mostly along the bank where low lying branches create a shadow area for the fish. This is where the floating braided line really helps out. You might have to simply drop your float out in front of you, if you can find a point to stand on or wade out into the water, and open the bail of your reel. Let the float and offering go under the branches and when the float goes down set the hook by swinging it upriver, not up into the air and catching the branches. This is where the long rod will help in the hook set and the fighting of the fish.

Summer run steelheading is very rewarding. Not just in fish but also in exploring. I do a lot of bank walking and hiking during the summer and sometimes getting out and going for a stroll will help you find that “secret” spot. A friend of mine would spend his summers along the banks of a popular in King County. This river is no secret and is very popular with those looking to cool off by rafting it as much is it is for anglers back then. But because he hiked the river he learned where the fish were and the people were not. This river might not be a place to go now, but the idea is to take advantage of our summers and go find your own holes, riffles, and runs. Gear up accordingly and enjoy the summer’s day.

Leave a comment