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Summer Steelhead Fly Fishing

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The Fly Fishing

Albuquerque, New Mexico fly fisherman Don Sanchez is into a summer-run steelhead during his 2003 trip to the Grande Rhonde in Washington.Most every fly fisherman has dreamed at one time or another about taking that storied fish on a fly, but only a few have ever lived that dream. Even those that live in areas where summer steelhead are commonly found in the rivers often are intimidated by the thought of attempting it. The reason can be the result of many factors. It could be a lack of information about summer run steelhead rivers, a misunderstanding about the tackle and techniques, or confusion due to an overwhelming array of steelhead flies in the literature. Often it is the result of information overload from a wide variety of literature aimed at the seasoned instead of the novice fly fisherman. In Fly Fishing for Summer Steelhead, Shewey and Maxwell (1996) acknowledge this by pointing out, “…the fly fisher who thinks about making the leap to steelhead angling is met head-on by a lot of tedious, sometimes-conflicting and frequently complicated information.” So how does one sort out what to read and what to ignore (at least to begin with) and get started on that first fly fishing outing for summer run steelhead.

The first thing to do is to realize that the information may seem tedious, conflicting or complicated, but you should never so intimidated that you will never even attempt to learn the basics of fly fishing for summer runs and then go out and give it a try. It's not as difficult as it appears to be. As Shewey and Maxwell (1996) go on to say in Fly Fishing for Summer Steelhead, “…fly fishing for summer steelhead is a decidedly simple form of fly fishing: We need not match hatches, study entomology, perfect drag-free drifts, land fish on fine tippets or burden ourselves with other complexities inherent in fly fishing for trout.” Their book is a good one for beginners to learn the basics of tackle and techniques, how to read water, and the flies. Another, is Dec Hogan's A Passion for Steelhead, although it is quite a bit longer and more detailed, so I think I would read Shewey and Maxwell first. There are also many beautiful color plates with summer steelhead flies and their patterns in both books, some of which I will mention later in this article. And for those ready to take on the challenge of summer steelhead surface fly fishing, I recommend that you read Dennis Dickson's article Surface Flies for Steelhead. More about that article later. For now, however, let’s discuss a little about the fish.

The Fish

Summer Steelhead are sexually immature fish that may go to the Ocean to rear for as little as 3 months or as long as 3 years. They enter fresh water from April through October but do not spawn until the following winter or spring. They come from the sea with enough fat reserve to survive in their home river for the entire summer without eating, sometimes for as long as eight months and staying in the river through the fall and early winter before spawning. 

These steelhead tend to be more active and feisty then their winter cousins, sometimes Phil Jahn with a beautiful 38 in. Steelhead caught on the South fork of the Salmon River, Idaho in 2001slamming a fly and taking off on spectacular runs. Typical summer steelhead weigh in the 5 to 15 pound range, but some, popularly called 'half pounders' in Oregon and California run from about 1-3 pounds. Summer Steelhead holding water is usually different than winter holding water, partly due to the difference in the water levels and conditions in the summer. Summer runs look for good cover, a break from the strong current, and plenty of highly oxygenated water. They present a bigger challenge than winter-run fish in the respect that the rivers are lower and clearer, making the fish spookier. As water conditions change, so do the holding spots for these fish, but before I continue on with a book about that subject, let me stop. Again, let me recommend that you read Fly Fishing for Summer Steelhead , A Passion for Steelhead,and Dennis Dickson's article Surface Flies for Steelhead for more about those subjects.

With that said, you should be optimistic and confident that you can be a successful summer steelhead fly fisherman, but a word or two of caution is worth mentioning here. Summer steelhead runs have been vulnerable over the years to a variety of external pressures including poaching, water diversions, and habitat degradation. Runs on many rivers have been reduced to critical numbers and so steps are being taken by federal and state agencies to protect the runs including protection under the Endangered Species Act (California Department of Fish and Game, 2008).  Some states have regulations on many if not all rivers that forbid the taking of wild steelhead and it is always wise to check the regulations for the particular river in the state that you are fishing in. You should also always try to protect the steelhead you release from undue harm. Practices like: Using barbless single hooks and tackle that is strong enough to bring fish in without overplaying them; Keeping captured fish in the water to let them breathe; Holding captured fish carefully facing in the current until they recover before releasing them; Never dragging captured fish to shore are good practices to help increase their survivability.

The Rivers

Washington rivers like the Cowlitz River and Blue Creek, Skykomish River, Bogachiel River, East Fork Lewis River, Snoqualmie River, Hoh River, Sol Duc River, Skagit River, Quinault River, Kalama River, the Snake River have long been well-known as good summer steelhead rivers, but there are many other fine rivers and streams that are lesser known but hold summer steelhead stocks. Rivers like the Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Skykomish, Green (King County), and the Lyre on Puget Sound and the Strait; the Calawah, Humptulips, Chehalis and its tributary, the Wynoochee flowing to the coast; and the Elochoman, Green (Cowlitz Co.), Walla Walla, Washougal, White Salmon, Klickitat, Tucannon, Wenatchee, Okanogan and others flowing into the Columbia or tributaries all have runs of summer steelhead (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2007).

Oregon rivers have more fame perhaps as summer steelhead fly fishing goes. The Rogue and the Umpqua hold a special place in fly fishing history and are now world famous rivers. Summer steelhead fly fishing had its beginnings over 100 years ago from the early fly fishing pioneers who travelled up the Rogue from Gold Beach. Today over 300,000 Summer Steelhead enter the Rogue River (Rogue River Country, 2003). There is good fishing to be had on it from Gold Beach to above Shady Cove Oregon. The North Umpqua has good summer steelhead fly fishing east of Roseburg Oregon (Rogue River Country, 2003). Other not so famous rivers in Oregon, but still very good for summer runs are the Deschutes, the Hood, the McKenzie, the Sandy,  the Siletz, the North and South Santiam, the Willamette, and Little Sheep Creek (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2008).

The Klamath River and its tributaries in northern California are most famous for good runs of half pounder summer steelhead, though some poplulations have been on the decline since 1970. “Known populations of summer steelhead within the Klamath basin include Bluff Creek, Red Cap Creek, Dillon Creek, Clear Creek, Indian Creek, Elk Creek, Wooley Creek, and the Salmon River” (Population Genetics of Klamath River Steelhead, 1996). Summer steelhead also on the decline since the 70’s but still present are known in the Middle Fork Eel River, the main stem Eel, Van Duzen, Mad River, North Fork Trinity River, (a tributary to the Trinity), South Fork Trinity, Canyon Creek (in the Trinity River system), Salmon River, Wooley Creek (a tributary to the Salmon River), Redwood Creek and the Smith River (California Department of Fish and Game, 1995).

Idaho summer steelhead runs are classified into two different categories, either A- runs and B-runs, based on their life history and size. A-runs usually return to the rivers (almost exclusively the Snake and the Salmon) from July to August. They are usually in the 23-26 inch, 4-6 lb. range. B-runs usually return from late August to September to the Clearwater and some tributaries of the Salmon and are generally in the 31-34 inch, 10-13 lb. range (Idaho Fish and Game, 2008).

I will reserve the right here to withhold any further discussion of steelhead rivers. Much can be said (too much) about the Great Lakes and Canadian fisheries, but that is a discussion for a later article.

The Flies

Shewey's Spawning PurpleThis brings us to the final part of this discussion – the flies for summer steelhead. This site has always been focused on bringing the hundreds of different flies for steelhead and salmon into one location for fly fisherman to reference. The intent was not to confuse but to display the richness and vast array of colors, materials, and tying styles, past and present. I suppose, though, that trying to decide amongst hundreds of flies for a fishing outing may lead to frustration and confusion about which flies are right for the occasion.  As such, Salmonfly.Net may be doing a disservice to its readers. Shewey and Maxwell (1996) note that that although fly choice matters, it is not as important as simply having confidence in the flies that you choose. They also note that probably 95% of the time, they fish their favorite flies for summer steelhead, Maxwell’s Purple Martuka and  Shewey’s Spawning Purple. The remaining 5% of the time, they fish a fly that may be a favorite for a specific location, like a Brad’s Brat or a Skunk. That is not to say that other flies do not work. Over the years many fine steelhead flies have proven track records for taking fish, but any fly with the right colors, size, or presentation fished with confidence can take fish. Of those factors, confidence and presentation are probably the most important.

Over 30 years ago, Mel Marshall wrote in his definitive volume Steelhead, a list of what he thought were the best two dozen flies to be relied on for winter steelhead and that all of them, tied in smaller sizes (#6, #8, #10 hooks), are equally good for summer steelhead  (Marshall, 1973). Those flies, several of which are displayed on this site were Black Bug, Bucktail Royal Coachman, Butcher, Cased Caddis, Fall Fancy, Fall Favorite, Green Bug, Highland Belle, Indian Fly, Joe O’Donnell, McGinty, Mickey Finn, Montreal Silver, Night Owl, Optic, Professor, Railbird, Red Rag, Shad Fly, Shrimp, Surgeon or Surgeon-General, Thor, Umpqua Belle, and Wonder Fly. Now, you might say that the flies on Mel Marshal’s list are a little outdated, and admittedly they are not quite as well-known today as others. If we think, however, that somehow each generation of steelhead are like us modern folk who cannot survive without having the latest and greatest, then we might miss the point. Why should we feel that there is any reason the steelhead will stick their noses up at an offering just because it had its origin over 30 years ago? If they were successful then, why not now? As I mentioned before, it’s more about how we feel while fishing the flies that we fish, more than the fish. A well presented older fly in the right size and color combination, fished with confidence can out produce any modern fly not fished under any of those conditions.

A few years after Marshall’s book was published, Trey Combs published a book called Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies in which he recognized that the diversity of flies for steelhead is not necessarily a bad thing. In it he states, “No freshwater gamefish is so willing to involve itself in our personal fly designs as the steelhead. This has permitted anglers unlimited latitude in exploiting their weakness for all things fluorescent and bright, somber and dark, large and small, while simultaneously creating in the fly fishing tradition” (Combs, 1976). I think that this book is another that should be in every steelheader’s library, if not for the history, basics of fly fishing, and tackle, then simply for the flies. These are not modern flies, but the list is more comprehensive than Marshall’s and perhaps more valuable. He separates his extensive list of patterns (with color plates and materials) into those that are in constant use (circa 1976), like the Thor and Sykomish Sunrise, and those that are proven flies by area. This could prove to be extremely useful to beginning steelhead fly fisherman looking for flies to use for a certain river.

Silver HiltonIf you don’t feel confident with those extensive selections, however, you might want to think about fishing the two flies already mentioned by Forrest Maxwell and John Shewey. But if not those two, then consider the list of 12 proven steelhead flies that they present as “dependable, effective flies that, over the years, that have taken many steelhead for many anglers”, that “…have survived the test of time and have earned our confidence” (Shewey and Maxwell, 1996), most of which are also displayed on this site: Skunk, Green Butt Skunk, Brad’s Brat, Mack’s Canyon, Purple Peril, Silver Hilton, Thor, Del Cooper, Skykomish Sunrise, Orange Heron, Cummings’ Special, and Rick’s Revenge. If Mel Marshall’s list did not strike your fancy, then these certainly should. It is no coincidence that these flies are still very familiar to most steelhead fly fisherman today. Their favorite hook sizes are 1/0 through 4 with a size 2 as their most frequent choice.

If you are still confused about how to select flies for steelhead, do not despair. I still want to emphasize that whatever flies you fish, do it as if it is they are the best, most productive flies that you have in your box. Use your favorite flies, whatever they might be, and cast them with the confidence of knowing they are sure to take a fish. Dec Hogan emphatically makes this point too in his book A Passion for Steelhead. He states, “If you are a newcomer to the sport and are confused as to what fly to use, trust me and stick with a fly that appeals to you. It will work. Beginners too often spend more time fussing over what fly to use than learning how to read and fish the water properly. As you gain skill and experience you will find peace in knowing you’ve selected the right fly” (Hogan, 2006).  Dec Hogan also shows a selection of flies with patterns. His include a number of beautiful and effective originals, classics and their variations, and marabous, with notes about what conditions he uses them for. Some of the fly patterns are on this site, but you really need to read the book to get a true representation of the beauty of these flies, how they are tied, and the conditions to fish them.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a final thought to reinforce what I have said about fishing flies with confidence. There is another book from John Shewey, recently published, that I think is perhaps one of his finest, called Steelhead Flies. It covers materials, basic tying techniques and step-by-step instructions for tying hairwings, featherwings, classic Speys and Dees, shrimp/prawn patterns, and dry flies with probably the most beautiful examples and color plates that I have seen in any book about flies. It really captures Shewey’s philosophy of preserving the art and elegance of the fly tying while creating highly functional flies. Yet even he mentions that he has come to believe that Steelhead will take almost any offering if properly presented. He states in his introduction,

“…The intricacies of fly pattern means nothing to them, for a steelhead, given at any particular moment to chasing and inhaling a compilation of fur, feather, and tinsel swinging gently across the currents, hardly cares whether the fly has a green butt, or a fluorescent hackle, or wing of orange rather than white. When a steelhead decides it wants to chase a fly, just about any fly will do. This I have come firmly to believe, and embrace, over many seasons of pursuing steelhead with swinging flies-flies fished in the classic traditions of British Atlantic salmon angling ” (Shewey, 2006).

The point, I hope is not lost. John Shewey tries to tell out that we should not fret too much over pattern choice. He does not state that we should abandon our attempts to create artistic, elegant and appealing flies, nor in my opinion, should we abandon our efforts to attain perfection in the presentation of those flies with fly rod, reel, and line. Those are both elements of the art, craft, and sport that you should read about in the books mentioned in this article, learned through instructors, or practice on the stream.

I have decided at this point that I have already go on for too long. I will not get into a lengthy discussion here about surface fly fishing for steelhead, because this article, which has already gotten away from me, was just meant to be a lead in to Dennis Dickson’s article on this site. Dennis covers the subject very thoroughly in his article Surface Flies for Steelhead (Dickson, 2008). You will find a link to it in Dickson’s Crystal Caddis.

So tie up some flies, get out there an give it a try. We need more fly fisherman behind the vise and on our rivers. I never see enough. S.B.

Books Mentioned in This Article



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