Standing in frigid water in the pouring rain, bundled up in multi-layered clothing and rain gear, cursing at the leaks in your neoprene waders, and going home without a bite. This scenario has been lived out by anyone who calls themself a steelheader. That is the picture alot of people have of us. And although that picture is true all too often, there is another side of steelheading. Blue skies, warm temperatures, T-shirts and shorts, and rivers that are always fishable. That is what fishing for summer steelhead is all about.
Although my real passion for steelheading comes from chasing large native winter runs on the Olympic Pennisula, I always look forward to the June 1st opener on Washington streams for summer steelhead. I love the freedom that comes with the longer days, which allow me to go steelheading almost any day I like. There is plenty of daylight left after work to hit one of my favorite summer run streams for a few hours before dark, or go early in the morning on any weekend, and still be home in time for the kids baseball games. I always carry a rod or two, and a couple of bobbers and jigs in my truck, just in case I find myself with a few hours of idle time on my hands. I can be at a number of streams that host summer runs within an hours drive, and have had many memorable trips that were made on very short notice.
Summer runs begin showing in the spring, and can be found in good numbers on several streams on the June 1st general stream opener. A majority of the summer steelhead runs on western Washington rivers peak in June or July, but most of my really successful trips have come in late August, September or October. Summer runs trickle into their home rivers all summer long, steadily increasing in numbers as the summer progresses. By the early fall, good numbers of fish have accumulated, and will often be holding in upriver canyon holes that provide cooler, shaded runs and oxygen rich water that these fish need. Multiple hookups are common on these late summer or early fall trips, and several fish can often be found holding in the same drift or riffle.
My equipment varies a little from the gear I use for winter steelhead. I still prefer a long rod, 10' or longer, but use spinning rods and reels to more easily cast the tiny jigs and floats I use. In addition I will go to a lighter line, six or eight pound test is my usual choice. The rods are a very light action, which will absorb the shock, and cushion the line from breaking while battling summer steelhead. A smooth drag is essential on any spinning reels used for this type of fishing.
I fish almost exclusivly with floats and jigs for summer steelhead. In the gin clear waters of summer I've found that an upstream approach will be less likely to spook these fish. Many times I will cast directly upstream from my position, and reel in the slack line as my float and jig drifts back towards me. If there are fish present, and your jig is properly presented, you will often be rewarded with a fish on your first cast.
My choice of jigs for summer steelhead is limited to a small selection of colors and sizes that I have great confidence in. Early in the season I will use a 1/8 oz. jig made of a red bead body and a black yarn tail. I will usually tip this with a small piece of raw prawn meat. As the summer goes on I find that a 1/16 oz. marabou or rabbit fur jig will produce better. My first choice for color on these jigs is black/cerise. This has been my best producer by far, and will catch fish all summer long. Other good choices are pink/white, pink/purple, red/white, and black. There are many other color combinations that will catch steelhead at various times, but the color combinations listed above seem to produce the best for me on the rivers I fish. There are no hard and fast rules when fishing jigs, but remember, fish with something you have confidence in.
Another technique that has worked well for me, is tossing small tarnished brass or black spinners into pockets and riffles. Jed Davis has an excellent book on this subject that I would highly recommend, "Spinner Fishing for Steelhead, Salmon and Trout". It is available at most bookstores, or through Amazon.com. This book should be read by any serious steelheader, as it covers all aspects of steelhead behavior. Especially useful is the chapter on steelhead behavior, related to water temperature.
Summer steelhead fight with great stamina and will test the ability of any angler. They are quite acrobatic and will often jump out of the water, sometimes as high as six feet, straight up. I have experienced this several times, and each time these leaps absolutely amaze me. Most hatchery summer runs will be in the six to eight pound range, but I have caught them as large as ninteen pounds.