Photos by Scott Haugen
I dropped anchor, patiently waiting in my drift boat while two bank anglers below, casted spinners. I ate a sandwich, drank water and watched them for nearly an hour. Finally, they quit fishing and started hiking upstream.
I drifted down to where they’d been fishing and let out a plug. No sooner had the Mag Lip hit the target water and a bright, hard-fighting summer steelhead went spinning through the air, my plug dangling from the side of its mouth. In short order the fish was in the boat.
It was my third and final summer steelhead of the day. I rowed downstream, heading for home, thinking of the fresh steelhead the family was going to enjoy for dinner that night.
Though it took some patience to get that last steelhead of the day, I had three things going for me. First, I’d fished this hole for over 30 years and knew exactly where summer steelhead would hold in the mid-day sun, especially when pressured by bank anglers and other boats like they’d been. Second, the bank fishermen could have pounded the water all day and it wouldn’t have mattered because they couldn’t cast to where the steelhead was holding. And third, I backtrolled a plug into the sweet-spot, a presentation the fish had likely never seen, as few people pull plugs on this river anymore.
No matter where you fish for summer steelhead, diversifying your approach can be the ticket to consistent success. I caught my first summer steelhead at the age of four, in 1968, and I’ve been hooked on them ever since.
I grew up fishing for summer steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve also pursued them in parts of Alaska, down the coast to California. No matter where you target hard-fighting summer steelhead, being mobile and going after them multiple ways, can lead to a good payoff.
Backtrolling Plugs & Bait
If you are serious about catching summer steelhead, having a river boat or pontoon boat will greatly increase the odds for the simple reason it allows access to so much water. These crafts also allow you to offer presentations bank anglers can’t, at least in waters they can’t often reach. Plugging is one example.
Summer steelhead are aggressive, and backtrolling plugs is an effective way to catch them. Summer steelhead plugs include Hot Shots, Brad’s Wigglers, Kwikfish and FlatFish with my all-time favorite being Yakima Bait Company’s Mag Lips in the 3.0 and 2.5 models.
Silver plugs with blue and red highlights are very productive colors for catching summer steelhead, and they can simply be flatlined ahead of the boat 45-feet or so. How far plugs should work ahead of the boat depends on water depth and clarity. The lower and more clear the water, the further downstream, away from the boat, you want the plugs to work.
Hold the boat back by working the oars, or running a kicker motor, then let it slowly move downstream about half the rate of the current flow. With your plug out, you control the rate at which it, and the boat, moves downstream and you can position the plug exactly where you want it to be. Backtrolling plugs is a very efficient way to cover water with precision, and a very stealthy approach that allows you control the rate at which the presentation moves downstream, putting the plug where you want it to fish.
In some holding spots and travel routes you can anchor a boat and let the plugs work downstream, stopping them in prime water. Plugs can also be fished from shore with a side-planer, even cast and retrieved in deeper slots.
As with plugs, backtrolling a diver and bait can be very effective for summer steelhead. In my more than 50 years of summer steelhead fishing, the most productive bait I’ve backtrolled is a medium size, whole sand shrimp with eggs. Laced on a 1/0 Octopus style hook, there’s room for a small cluster of cured eggs, too. Top this bait with a little yarn and a small Lil’ Corky or Spin-N-Glo for added color and buoyancy, and you’re set.
Night crawlers can also be a great summer steelhead bait, as can salad shrimp, small prawns, and crawdad tails. Be sure your bait is firm, as summer steelhead water can be fast and rough which is hard on bait.
Running a diver and bait can be productive in deep holes where plugs, alone, might not be able to get to the bottom. When backtrolling bait, be sure to work the presentation all the way to the end of the run, where the water being fished gets shallow. When pressured, summer steelhead often back downstream, striking at the last moment.
Be it from a boat or shore, there’s no better way to cover summer steelhead water than with a bobber. Beneath the bobber can be cured eggs, or a jig. A 1/4-ounce jig is my favorite, usually in bright orange, yellow, and cerise colors. A 1/8-ounce jig is good in clear, shallow water.
I like a 1/4-ounce sliding, inline float that’s threaded on to a 20-pound braided mainline. The mainline will float, allowing for mends to be made, whereby letting you cover more water with virtually no hangups. I like PowerPro braided line in high vis’ yellow, as it’s easy to see and control.
To rig-up for float fishing, first slide a bobber stop–a nylon nail knot–on to the mainline, followed by a 3mm bead, then the float. The bobber stop is your depth regulator and the bead keeps the knot from passing through the float. Tie the braided mainline to a size 7 barrel swivel, and a short leader to the other end with a jig or eggs on that, and you’re set. This rigging can be fished in a foot of water, or however deep you want, as the bobber stop can be slid up the line, even be cast through your guides. Try keeping the jig or eggs 8- to 12-inches off the bottom which results in few hangups and allows fish to see it.
Wading For Steelhead
If you don’t have a boat, no worries, as bank fishing opportunities for summer steelhead do exist. The biggest challenge lies in competing for limited water with fellow anglers, and the fact much summer steelhead water is on private property, can make it challenging. Anglers waiting their turn for a spot to open up and fish is the norm; then again, a long stretch of water can hold many anglers.
When bank fishing for summer steelhead, there are two approaches: Stay in one spot and wait for fish to come to you, or cover water in search of fish. Your choice ultimately comes down to bank access and gear. The more river you can wade, the more water you can fish, and the greater the odds of finding steelhead.
When covering water from shore you might start by drift fishing eggs, a bead or Lil’ Corky along the bottom. Making a few casts into the best water is key, and if nothing hits, keep moving. With this approach you’re looking for the most aggressive steelhead. If they don’t bite, keep moving.
Say you cover 100 yards of prime water without a bite. Now you’re out of new water to fish, so what do you do? I like going back upstream to the head of the hole and trying something different. Instead of eggs rolled along the bottom, now try a jig suspended beneath a float. If that doesn’t produce, cover the same water again, this time with a spinner or spoon. Sometimes, giving fish something different to look at makes all the difference.
If bank space is limited you may need to sit in one spot and wait for fish to arrive, or a bite to turn on. Having a mix of presentations can be all it takes to turn on a bite.
The more time you spend pursuing summer steelhead, the more you’ll learn about what it takes to catch them. Read the water and pay attention to where bites come, for a summer steelhead is never anywhere by mistake. Once you learn where steelhead lay, and how to consistently catch them, you’ll be hooked on these hard-fighting, aerial acrobats.
Note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular book, Bank Fishing For Steelhead & Salmon, visit www.scotthaugen.com.