Summer Steelhead: Fishing The West Coast And Great Lakes

Summer Steelhead

What is a Summer Steelhead?

A summer steelhead is a steelhead that enters the river in the summer, sometimes as early as June or July, and will hold or continue to migrate up to the headwaters sometimes for a few months before they actually spawn. They tend to be smaller due to them entering freshwater as less sexually mature than winter steelhead.

For anglers, this difference in run timing provides opportunities for summer steelhead fishing, but, understanding these summer steelhead can also help you catch them.

The reality is, a steelhead is a steelhead, period. It’s not meant to be confusing. Steelhead, summer, or winter are all the same species of fish with one slight genetic difference which I will get into below.

Summer run steelhead simply decide to move into fast-moving freshwater streams long before the spawn takes place, which for summer run steelhead is usually from December to February. That’s why they’re considered “summer” rather than “winter” steelhead.

There is a specific strain of steelhead known as the Skamania Steelhead which was developed by the State of Washington from wild stocks on the Washougal River. See Skamania Steelhead

How Are Summer Steelhead Different than Winter Steelhead?

The study has shown that the summer steelhead may have the same slight genetic difference of some pacific salmon that will also run up the rivers earlier or premature.

Spey Rod for steelhead
Summer run steelhead are usually longer and thinner with big tails.

Genetically they are nearly identical, but a recent study at UC Davis found subtle differences in a gene between the two varieties.  

Some anglers call these early salmon Springers or Jacks and they are simply smaller immature salmon.

Although the summer and winter steelhead are the same species, this gene variation triggers summer run steelhead to run early for some reason. Genetically, thats it! That’s the only difference.

So what really separates summer steelhead from winter steelhead is the time of year they are predetermined to enter and migrate.

In appearance, summer steelhead are generally smaller than the winter variety. Some will also say that summer steelhead are warier of approaching anglers as well, but this may be due to clearer and lower river levels which might put them on high-alert.

One point that many anglers miss is that summer run steelhead will move inland farther than winter steelhead. This is good to know as an angler since it might help you find them easier.

The summer steelhead range is much greater since they leave the ocean in summer and grow to sexual maturity while in freshwater, compared to winter steelhead that remain and mature fuller while out in the ocean.

The range may also be attributed to their smaller size, and due to them sexually maturing longer while in the stream.

Some also believe these summer run steelhead will enter the rivers and gorge on Chinook salmon eggs. Of course, there are all kinds of theories as to why they run in the summers, but nobody really knows for sure.

When Do Summer Steelhead Enter the Rivers?

A few extra months in the ocean can make a big difference on the size of a steelhead.

With summer steelhead, the longer they run to where they were hatched, the earlier the steelhead will need to start their run. That’s why they’re smaller, they have 2 to 6 months less feeding time in the Ocean before they start their run, but that is to their benefit as it is easier for a smaller fish to navigate some of the smaller streams where they spawn.

Summer Steelhead will enter as early as July on the Pacific Coast and some great lakes rivers, and some will continue entering the river into November before the winter run begins. These super early steelhead could be a few pounds smaller than winter steelhead that will enter the rivers in late fall or early spring.

What Triggers the Runs, or Why do They Run in the Summer?

Idaho steelhead fishing means big steelhead like this
Idaho steelhead fishing means big steelhead like this

Some say that distance seems to be the overriding reason they run in the summer and is possibly why their genes changed slightly.

An average steelhead can swim up to seven miles a day in ideal conditions. Some spawning areas are 700 or more miles inland, so do the math, that’s a 100 days to get to the spawning grounds.

And it can be an arduous journey, so when they arrive, these smaller fish can mature for a few months in freshwater before the spawn begins.

For anglers, maturing in the river means they need to eat, and eat a lot. So this means a well presented bait, lure, or fly should work.

Another trigger is rain or increased water levels and stream flows. Increased water levels aid in migration.

The problem anglers might face with summer run steelhead is that under higher water conditions, they will move up the river very quickly and they might spread out. It’s a good idea to try further up the stream the longer it’s been since the last rain.

When Do Summer Steelhead Actually Spawn?

The spawn varies with each state, and the distance from the ocean, and the weather can also be a factor as well. Steelhead spawn ideally when the temperature begins to rise in early spring.

A water temperature of 38 degrees is ideal, but it is said, the steelhead prefer the temperature to be on the rise, not dropping for a good spawn. However, I have seen steelhead spawn as the water is still dropping pre-winter.

Where Can You Catch Summer Steelhead?

Deschutes River
Deschutes River is a major steelhead tributary of the Columbia River.

The Columbia Basin drainage in the Northwest is an ideal river system for summer steelhead, with steelhead running as far as Idaho and Western Montana.

You can catch them in the main river channel, or in pools of fast-moving water, two to three feet deep in tributaries.

Summer run steelhead start showing up in May and June and will make there way up to the Willamette River, Sandy River, Deschutes River, and Umpqua rivers

Summer run steelhead will migrate as far up as the Snake River which has one of the largest runs of summer steelhead in the Columbia River System.

The steelhead found around the Great Lakes are not identical to the wild ones on the Pacific Coast. Steelhead were planted in 1876 in the Au Sable River, a tributary of Lake Huron, and quickly spread to the surrounding lakes.

Some consider them more like traditional rainbow trout since they spend their entire lives in freshwater, however, they migrate the same as traditional steelhead and they get big while feeding on baitfish out in the great lakes.

I will discuss the best steelhead rivers, what the guides say, and more about each area below.

Areas in the USA and Canada For Steelhead

Salmon River Lower Stanley Idaho Sawtooth Range
Salmon River Lower Stanley Idaho Sawtooth Range

California is as far south as the steelhead range goes.

The rivers from Northern California to British Columbia on the Pacific Coast will have steelhead populations.

As far east as Idaho you’ll find good steelhead populations.

Around the Great Lakes is a newer area, stocked first with Winter run steelhead back in 1876, but now with a vibrant naturally spawning population augmented by planting from state game and fish agencies in the Great Lakes Basin.

Summer run fish where stocked in many states and in Ontario Canada around the 80’s and 90’s with some stocking of Skamania still happening.

New York, and Michigan have summer run steelhead known as Skamania which enter the great lakes tributaries in the summer months as early as June, and most of the great lakes rivers will get runs of what might be considered late summer steelhead that start entering river systems in September and October.

The vast majority of Great Lakes summer run steelhead known as Skamania are found only in a few river systems, and due to the harsh winters they are said to spawn from February to April, with the bulk spawning in March.

What Are The Best Summer Steelhead Rivers?

an angler Idaho Steelhead fishing in the winter
Angler fishing for steelhead on the Clearwater River in Idaho

California and Idaho get good runs of steelhead. The Salmon River, Clear water River, and Snake Rivers in Idaho have a lot of adult returns of summer steelhead.

The Snake River is 1078 miles long and is the largest tributary of the Columbia river. It has good tributaries like the Grand Ronde River that also harbor summer and winter-run steelhead.

These river are usually good from late August to November for Summer run steelhad or what is known as B-Run Steelhead. See Steelhead Fishing Idaho: A Complete Guide for more on this area.

In California, the Eel, Elk, and Klamath Rivers are favorite areas for summer steelhead. See California Steelhead Fishing Guide for more on this area.

Mattole River In Northern California
Mattole River in Northern California

Washington and Oregon are also summer steelhead destinations worth looking into with lots of river options for anglers.

There are dozens of tributaries feeding the Columbia River Basin bordering Washington and Oregon.

See Steelhead Fishing In Washington and Oregon Steelhead Fishing Guide.

Just find a tributary of the Columbia and you’ll likely find a summer steelhead fishery.

The Siletz River, the Nestucca River, and Wilson Rivers all good options for summer steelhead.

The Columbia River

A man fishing the Columbia River near Beacon Rock State Park, Washington
A man fishing the Columbia River near Beacon Rock State Park, Washington

The Columbia River is a massive river system with summer and winter steelhead. But it’s big and can be intimidating. It can also be hard to pinpoint concentrations of steelhead, which is why most anglers focus on the tributaries to the Columbia River.

Deschutes River Summer Steelhead – Oregon

The Famous Deschutes River is a Major tributary of the Columbia River flowing through central Oregon. There is a good run of wild and hatchery summer steelhead on the Deschutes River.

The Deschutes River is known as being primarily a summer-run fishery with steelhead showing up in June, peaking in August and September and can fish well as late as December in the area or Warm Springs and Trout Creek.

John Day River – Oregon

The John Day River is a large 284 mile tributary of the Columbia River.

A late run of summer steelhead can be found on the John Day River from September to February. The run is primarily wild fish which you must release, but there are some hatchery steelhead mixed in.

Local guides say this river gets some of the best summer runs in the state and has lower fishing pressure than other more popular rivers. Peak fishing is in November, but depending on the year, there can be good fishing a couple of months before and after.

Sandy River – Oregon

Sandy river is a 56-mile-long tributary of the Columbia River located in northwest Oregon.

Local guides recommend summer steelhead fishing on Sandy River from May Through August. There is also winter run steelhead fishing from December to April.

Fishing access is plentiful with plenty of access on the upper river near Cedar Creek Hatchery to the mouth of the salmon river, and also throughout the river around the parks :Clark Park, Oxbow Park, Dabney Park and Dodge Park.

Hood River – Oregon

The Hood River is a 25-mile long tributary of the Columbia River, and it gets both summer-run steelhead and winter-run steelhead. This provides anglers with a good year round steelhead fishery. Local guide say the summer run steelhead fishing is best between September and November.

As the summer steelhead fishing winds down the winter steelhead gets good from December to April.

Access is decent in the mid-river area and upriver near West Fork below Punchbowl Falls.

Willamette River: Oregon

A tributary of the Columbia River, the Willamette River gets both summer and winter run steelhead making this a good year round steelhead fishery.

There are good numbers of steelhead in the river from November to March with December to February being peak steelhead fishing. By April through June, there are fewer summer steelhead left in the river.

The middle fork of the Willamette River also has good summer steelhead fishing which start around late May and will continue into November. Winter steelhead fishing in this area is from December to May.

The Mid Fork of the Willamette river offers some excellent summer steelhead fishing starting in May and running all the way through November. There are also winter steelhead fishing opportunities from December to May.

McKenzie River: Oregon

The McKenzie River is a 90-mile tributary to the Willamette River and has good summer run steelhead fishing. Summer run steehead can be caught between the Leaburg Dam to the mouth of the river. The best access and best fishing takes place from May to November and from Hendricks bridge to Leaburg.

Clackamas River: Oregon

The Clackamas river is an 83-mile tributary to the Willamette River and it gets decent runs of summer run steelhead and strong runs of winter steelhead dues to one of the best stocking programs in the state.

Summer steelhead could be caught in the river at any time of the year, but most will be from May, June, and through to November.

Local guides say the best fishing for summer steelhead in the Clackamas River is May and June as they are making their way into the river.

Santiam River: South Fork – Oregon

Another summer run steelhead fishery is on the South Fork of the Santiam River which is a 12 mile tributary of the Willamette River in Oregon. You will find steelhead in this river from April through early October with Peak summer steelhead fishing from May to July. Summer steelhead fishing can remain good into October.

Umpqua River: Both Forks – Oregon

There is good summer steelhead fishing on North Fork of the Umpqua River from May until November. You may find some strays on the South Fork however the South Fork is primarily a winter run steelhead fishery from December to April.

The Umpqua is a major west coast river running about 111 miles long

Grande Ronde River

The Grand Ronde River is 182 miles long and is a tributary of the Snake River running through Northwest Oregon.

There is very good runs of summer steelhead which show up in September. Peak fishing is October and November and is best in the lower sections near Washington State line. Some fish will stay in the river until early spring.

Most of the fish in the upper sections of the Grande Ronde River are wild steelhead but the lower river will have a mix of wild and hatchery steelhead.

Wallowa River – Oregon

The Wallowa River is a 55-mile long tributary of the Grande Ronde River.

Most hatchery summer steelhead that enter the Grande Ronde River will run up the Wallowa River. This is your best bet if you want to keep a steelhead.

British Columbia’s Best Summer Steelhead Rivers

A Big Green Colored West Coast Salmon and Steelhead river

British Columbia rivers also get summer run steelhead, and local guides recommend the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers.

These BC rivers will start seeing summer steelhead runs starting in July, and peaking from August to October.

There are plenty of tributaries to the Skeena River System that seeing summer steelhead as early as July, with peak time from mid-August to late October.

The best rivers for BC summer steelhead are: 

Bulkley River: A major tributary to the Skeena River with a large run of big summer and winter steelhead. A favorite for many anglers.

Kispiox River: A Tributary to the Skeena River that gets runs of summer steelhead

Copper River: Another Tributary of the Skeena River with a large run of summer steelhead that average 7 to 9 pounds.

Dean River: The Dean River is said to be one of the best summer steelhead rivers on the West Coast.

Babine River: This is a tributary to the Upper Skeena river that get good numbers of summer steelhead.

For more details information check out Steelhead Fishing British Columbia.

Great Lakes Summer Steelhead Rivers.

steelhead rivers of new york

You can find summer steelhead in Michigan, and New York state, with good populations and with a few very large fish.

Primary rivers in the great lakes include the Salmon River in New York, which gets stocked with a summer run strain of steelhead known as a Skamania Steelhead.

The St. Joseph River, The Manistee River, The Pierre Marquette river flowing into Lake Michigan offer anglers good summer steelhead opportunities starting in June through until February.

The Nottawasaga River in Ontario Canada gets steelhead entering the river in late August and September and they peak in October and November.

These may not be genetically the same as summer-run steelhead from the west coast but they tend to show up earlier in the Nottawasaga River than all other steelhead rivers in Ontario Canada.

These early running steelheads are mixed in with fall and winter run steelhead and the river fishes well From Mid-October to freeze up in Late December.

For guide trips on this river check out A Perfect Drift Guide Company or Smooth River Guide Co.

Keeping Summer Steelhead

Many rivers will have both hatchery and wild summer run steelhead, but some states like Oregon do not allow you to keep wild summer run steelhead, and only hatchery fish may be kept in some rivers, so be sure to double check the local fishing regulations to be sure you know the laws.

Summer Steelhead Fishing

DIY angler fishing a river

The summer steelhead season kicks off in July. In the Pacific Northwest, with its more than ample rainfall, river conditions can change in just a matter of minutes.

In the west during early summer, many rivers run higher with the runoff as the snow melts at higher elevations and this run-off can cool the river water.

The river can change from clear to translucent green, but that’s not a bad thing for summer steelhead anglers.

Low water is the nemesis of steelhead fishing most of the time.

In the great lakes area, the summer steelhead season will start with bigger rains in July and August that raise river levels, and this will get some summer steelies moving in as early as June on the bigger colder rivers.

When the water, is low, slow, and getting warm, steelhead aren’t that hungry. A fast moving low pressure fronts with a quick, heavy, rain can spark steelhead fishing almost instantly as the river rises, cools, and they begin to feed.

Because the steelies move in so early, the colder upper reaches of many rivers can be a haven for summer steelies, and you may see them there before in the middle of the summer, and before the fall, which helps them get through the dog days of summer. It’s not uncommon for angler trout fishing to hook into summer steelhead in the upper rivers.

Even the hottest summers will have runs of steelhead, it may just take a bit longer for them to enter the river due to the conditions.

One advantage to summer run steelhead is there is often less angling pressure. This includes the pacific northwest, Oregon, Columbia river, and around the great lakes.

Most traditional steelhead methods and setups will work. The same fly patterns will also work. Proper presentations will help you land more summer steelhead,

Best Methods For Summer Steelhead

  • Lure Fishing
  • Drift Fishing
  • Plunking
  • Bobber Doggin: A relatively new method for steelhead and salmon
  • Bottom Bouncing: Very effective in pocket water, rapids and shallower sections.
  • Float Fishing:
  • Jig Fishing

Float Fishing For Summer Steelhead

Studies indicate that steelhead feed at eye level 87% of the time. That means presenting your bait at the level they’re at is usually the difference between getting strikes and a slow day on the water.

Float fishing is a method of suspending your bait and keeping your bait at the right level for steelhead and in their strike zone.

Floats can be adjusted to rest at any level in a river, and a shorter, clear leader on the downside of the float will present your bait at the level you want.

Streama will vary greatly in depth and flow rate, so checking your float level is something to consider at regular intervals. Use the baits recommended below for the best success.

Float fishing can be done with spinning gear, baitcasting reels, or the most effective way is to use a Centerpin reel. See Centerpin Fishing and Float Fishing: Best Methods And Tactics.

Fly Fishing For Summer Steelhead

As with any surface feeding fish, and yes, summer steelhead are more likely to rise for a well presented dry fly than winter steelhead, matching the hatch with your fly is the most important step, the next is presentation.

Presenting a fly in a natural way increases the chance of a strike since the steelhead won’t notice anything out of place. Most anglers will use subsurface methods such as nymphing, or streamer fishing.

Anglers often speak of Spey rods, and Spey casts which are commonplace on many of the larger rivers in the west and around the great lakes region. “Spey” rods, are two-handed fly rods from 10’6” to 14’ in length, and the style of the cast was developed on the Spey River in England, so the name stuck.

Nymphing is another technique that fly fisherman use when dry flies floating on the surface aren’t getting enough action.

Steelhead will develop the tendancy to feed on aquatic insects the same way that trout do.

A nymph is a sinking fly naturally found below the surface, they’re just the immature version of the bug before it takes flight, and steelhead can often devour these.

It doesn’t take more than a week in the stream before summer steelhead start devouring insects. Steelhead will often hold below rapids when ready to move to the next pool but will hold anywhere in the pool while feeding.

For this reason, it’s good to cover all areas of the pool with your nymphs.

See Fly Fishing For Steelhead for more information which includes best methods and setups used by river guides.

Best Flies for Summer Steelhead

You’re likely to get a hundred different recommendations when you ask which fly is best for summer steelhead, but here are a few that make almost everyone’s list.

Summer Steelhead Flies

flies for Pa Steelhead

Most flies that work for winter steelhead will also work for summer steelhead.

Anglers from different areas will have different patterns and colors that might work better in thier rivers. West coast summer steelhead, as an example like to crush big chartreuse streamers.

These big bright flies can also work around the great lakes, but most anglers there use more subtle blacks, olives, or whites. However, the river conditions and the fish will dictate the best flies, the best sizes, and the best colors.

An assortment of egg fly patterns for steelhead
Egg fly patterns in various sizes and shapes are often the best fly for steelhead.

Eggs flies can also be one of the best options for steelhead, especially once they have made their way up the river.

If there are salmon in the river, don’t ignore egg fly patterns.

Eggs are also a great option if the summer steelhead are stacked up and are feeding below spawning Chinook salmon and any loose eggs.

  • Caddisfly: both dry and nymph can work.
  • Stonefly: Also known as the salmon fly, both dry fly and nymph are great options.
  • Muddler Minnow: Could be used while nymphing but usually used as a streamer or swinging fly.
  • Brindle Bug: A traditional Spey-type fly
  • Foam Floater: A beetle imatation.
  • Greasy Fox: A traditional Spey type pattern in blue and black which are known hot colors for steelhead.
  • Pom Skater: A skating style dry fly for steelhead
  • Intruder: Modern large spey flies designed by local west coast steelhead anglers
  • Hobo Spey: A large and easy to tie Spey fly designed and used on west coast anglers, and it works great around the great lakes region.
  • Egg Pattern: It’s hard for the fish to resist a well presented egg fly pattern even early in the season. This can be your hottest fly if there are spawning salmon near by.

For more great flies options, see Best Steelhead Flies.

Best Lures For Summer Steelhead

Lures for spin fishing for Steelhead
Some of the lures I use when spin fishing for Steelhead

Blue Fox Vibrax – A relatively recent arrival on the spinner circuit, the Blue Fox in sizes 0 to 4 is now the most popular spinner in America.

For steelhead, you’ll want to use size 3 or 4 for greater casting distance, and more active presentation in fast moving water.

Mepps Aglia – Who didn’t grow up with Mepps spinners? They’ve worked for generations bringing in huge steelhead across the USA and the Aglia remains one of the best spinners.

Rapala Tail Dance – When you think of Rapala, you’re usually after Northern Pike or Walleye, but the Tail Dance is an outstanding steelhead lure as well. It works in slower water and has better depth control than other artificial crankbaits. Under most conditions, a Rapala will help you land more fish.

Little Cleo Spoon – There is something magic about a spoon. It doesn’t look like much hanging on the line, but in the water, it can get strikes when nothing else works. The Little Cleo is a proven steelhead spoon.

Kwikfish and Flatfish: Basically the same, these wobbling plugs are hard for steelhead to resist. I prefer them in slower pools or when the fish are less active due to cold weather. It is also my best lure when fishing at night. Be sure to follow regulations in California, Oregon, and other states to be sure night fishing is allowed.

Aerojig Twitching Jig – Jig fishing is an art, the movement of the rod, reel, and the angler’s action on the jig are often considered the ultimate fishing skill. An Aerojig with a correctly matched rubber minnow is a fabulous lure.

Spinner Fishing for Summer Steelhead

Spinner in Rainbow trout mouth

The great thing about spinner fishing is that the fish hook themselves.

There are rare occurrences when a steelhead will spit out a spinner, but more often they’re hooked when they hit.

Spinners work best in sunny conditions when the light can reflect off the spinning blades. Some spinners, like the Blue Fox Vibrax and the Panther Martin, create sonic vibrations in the water, enhancing the light gathering aspects of the lures.

Spinners worked against the current create longer retrieves with more blade action, but a fast retrieve with the flow of the river often generates more strikes since this is the natural motion of a baitfish.

Jig Fishing for Summer Steelhead

Jig on Rod

Jigs are not something most anglers would think to use for a river fishery.

But jigs work very well for steelhead, chinook, and coho. In fact, some steelhead guides, myself include, love jig fishing for steelhead.

Cast as far across as possible and often, you will often get a bite near the middle of the stream as the jig passes by the fish.

Cast, count a few seconds to let the jig drop to depth, longer for deeper water, shorter for five or six foot depths, and then begin to crank, jig, crank, jig until you get a strike, or bring it back in and cast again.

Jig fishing works from shore and is just as good from a boat. You can drift or anchor in the boat once you’ve found good structure or pool to work for steelhead.

For more on this effective steelhead method and the best steelhead jigs, check out Jig Fishing For Steelhead.

Best Baits For Summer Steelhead

Best Bait For Winter Steelhead

Experienced anglers learn that steelhead fishing is often best during the chinook salmon spawn.

As salmon root up the gravel beds on a river, they dig up grubs and other feed that steelhead will hit.

After locating a chinook salmon spawning area, work the water a few dozen yards downstream and you’re likely to increase your luck. The baits you choose is as important as the location, but in general, spinners, jigs, worms, and freshwater shrimp all work well for steelhead.

Beads or cured chinook salmon roe can be the best baits you can offer at times.

See 11 Best Baits For Steelhead.

Bead Fishing For Summer Steelhead

When the spawn is in full bloom, whether chinook, coho salmon or steelhead, it’s time for beads. Often called salmon eggs, beads resemble natural fish eggs, and a few stray eggs always float away downstream from the spawning beds. Steelhead, salmon, and rainbow trout love these.

There are four standard sizes of beads. If the chinook salmon spawn is on, use larger 8mm beads since they are about the size of a salmon egg.

At other times, the smaller size beads work well. Selected a color, mottled blood is often best, and hook with a size 8 to 12 hook and get it in the water.

Fish beads anywhere you would fish normally and they will produce. I also find beads a better option in low water and clear water than bigger bulkier options.

Is the Summer Steelhead Endangered?

Summer Steelhead are becoming endangered in some areas and according to some fishery departments, and are considered a fishery at risk. You can protect them by releasing them unharmed, or simply leaving them alone and focusing on the winter steelhead which in most areas is a more stable fishery.

Summer Steelhead Q&A

If you have a question, comment, advice, or tips about summer steelhead, let us know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,

Graham

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