Summer Steelhead Behavior Question


Active Member
This year I've been making a more concerted effort to fish for coastal (not CR interior) summer steelhead. The problem is, I'm finding them to be a more difficult customer to figure out than Winter run fish or CR fish. I've landed a few hatchery summers in terminal area fisheries this year, but through July I'll probably be fishing less populated rivers with smaller, wild populations. The problem is, I just don't understand these fish's MO. Winter steelhead I get, and dam counts tell me just about everything I need to know about finding CR fish, but coastal summers are a migratory puzzle I can't figure out. I was wondering if anybody had any tips for finding these fish. I know which rivers support such populations, I generally know which tributaries and stretches those fish overwinter and spawn in, and I know which kind of water they'll hold in, but their summer time migration, I'm having difficulty with.

What I know about these fish are that:

1) They enter the river from April until fall.
2) At some point in the summer/fall, they ascend a barrier passable at certain flows that spatially separates the spawning location of the summer and winter populations.

As for when either of those two things happen, I have no idea.

Unlike winter steelhead which seem to spread out in their system, I feel totally unconfident that I'm fishing the right stretch at the right time. I end up wondering if 95% of the run is above or below me. I understand that for big, summertime snowpack rivers, all bets are off as to where they'll be until they make their move up into their tributary in late summer/early fall. But it's the smaller rivers with no runoff that I'm having trouble figuring out. The kind of rivers one finds in SW WA, or Vancouver Island. The biggest question I'm stuck on is, to fish above the barrier or not? Right now, it's the end of June. The water has been very low during June. Many of these rivers have falls that are only ascendible during very low water. Would you fish above or below the falls?

Also, what the hell are Skamania hatchery fish thinking when they ascend the hatchery outlet trickle in early June? All the time, you'll find hatchery steelhead in June banging their heads against the outlet grate and the hatchery on-hand reports support this. Surely they don't expect to oversummer and overwinter in a 5cfs stream!? Could it truly be because of the unnatural selection involved with hatcheries only spawning the first in line? Or could this be an indicator that summer steelhead attempt to migrate as far up their natal streams/tributaries as possible and drop back downstream only when their progress is retarded by an unpassable (at that flow) barrier or to find less exposed holding water?

David Dalan

69°19'15.35" N 18°44'22.74" E
Summer run hatchery fish are best found...

1. At the outlet of the acclimation pond where they were released.
2. Within 100 yards of #1
3. At a barrier (thermal or navigational) that prevents them from getting to #1or #2.

That's not to say they won't be found elsewhere when on the move, but fish acclimated and released from a pond tend to make a hot ass b-line for said pond. In some places fish are not acclimated, but rather pitched off a bridge, etc. I am told they take their time, and don't actually stack up at the release point. My anecdotal evidence supports this, but it is...anecdotal.

So, examples..

Skykomish. Rieter releases are probably easiest to find near the ponds. However I think they "sprinkle" fish in the upper tribs, so those fish are probably spread out in the system a little more, if indeed these sprinklings occur. Same is true of Cottonwood acclimation on the GR. The upper GR fish bound for Oregon hit a lot of #3 on the way to #1 and #2 and hence are targetable much of the fall and winter.

As for timing. Unless they have changed...any river that hosts summer runs should have them leaking in by now. Fish on the heels of a rain if you can. I always love falling water for finding moving fish. If the fish are not moving, you'll have to.

Of course this is just one dudes thoughts, and there are probably lots of instances where my assumptions would not apply. YMMV :D


Active Member
You think in great detail. I like it..... your head hurts and not mine.

Have you ever hiked into the head waters of your destinations, start at the top and work your way down sighting fish or if possible wetting a line? Do you have an actual visual on the barrier(s)...lowest one first.... guesstimate if any fish can make it pass each obstacle during a certain point/flow. I am guessing you keep a log book.
Myself,(without prior knowledge), would start high above the barriers. I would fish down til i started sighting or hooking fish. If you fish throughout the season( gaining intel) you can determine if your next trip is going to be above or below barriers. You will know those certain sections really well and be dialed in when the fish travel thru your fishing grounds. If the season is a bust...or a metal head extravaganza, you have that logged for future referencing.

I would start high and work my way down to a slight buzz and then..... If i wasn't already drinking, i might have had a more intelligent response.


Active Member
In sure that others will be able to chime in with more detailed information but here are couple things to consider as you attempt to target summer steelhead.

Unlike most Columbia River summer fish Puget Sound summer (and coastal) steelhead have relatively short migration distances; typically considerably less than 100 miles. In other words with spawning 6 to 9 months away the fish have at lot of time to reach their eventual spawning grounds.

Most of the hatchery summer fish in the region enter the rivers from mid-April to mid-July with a peak migration occurring in June. The summer fish are typically later; usually mid-June into early August. As the fish enter the river how quickly they move up river depends in part on the flows and the amount and quality of "holding areas" through out the system. During the higher flows common during the spring/early summer run-off period the fish tend to move more or less consistently upstream providing some excellent fishing opportunities throughout the system. As the flows drop and water visibility increased the migration rates slow down with movements more common during lower light periods with the over all movement rate slowing down. If there is high quality holding water found in much of the main stems the fish may pause to hold in those areas for periods stretching from a few hours to several weeks. As a result in such systems adults maybe found through out the main stem areas much of the summer though the angler may have to focus their efforts on either holding or traveling waters depending on conditions. It seems as the fish get further upstream the holding periods become longer with less and shorter traveling occurring. Ultimately the fish will collect in holding areas that provide both the best comfort (cool water, etc.) and security (cover). Depending on the natural of the spawning areas, downstream barriers and the quality of the habitat downstream the amount of over-summering that occurs in those spawning areas can vary considerably; remember the fish don't real need to reach those areas until the next spring.

In answer to the question of why the hatchery fish may enter such small creeks early in the season to reach the hatcheries. Remember only those fish that successful return to a hatchery have the potential to contribute to the next generation. The longer they linger in the main stem to reach the terminal areas, the more they hold off the mouths of the hatchery creeks and the more aggressive they bite the less likely they are to contribute to the next generation. As a result the hatchery fish often exhibit behaviors that different significantly from the wild fish. Because many angler's summer experiences are with hatchery fish they tend to assume that all summer fish behave as those hatchery fish in heavily fished systems.

Generally speaking fish that are on the move will be more catchable (though they may be more difficult to find) than holding fish whose location is more predictable. One often hears about fresh runs of fish in the fall. In reality those fish typically have been in PS rivers all summer but the fall rains stimulate fresh movements of the summer fish. The wild fish tend to finalize their migration to their headwater spawning areas while the hatchery fish that have been holding in quality areas (could be found either upstream or downstream of the hatchery site) make a major move towards "home".

Hope the above helps



Active Member

thanks once again for taking the time. Those Skamania hatchery fish truly are strange to me. I know in the Skykomish, some will head up the hatchery outlet as soon as they get to Reiter, and some (a significant amount) will keep venturing all the way up into the tribs (as documented by the Sunset trap figures on the SF).

I guess the question I have is, is there any reliability to when those wild fish make the final push to their "home?" I know for example most Deer Creek fish will make a move up above the canyon on Deer Creek in early fall or late summer, but are there fish populations where they make the move much earlier? I know the original Skamania wild fish from SW WA tend to show up earlier than other stocks (like as early as March and April, or so I've read). Do those fish exhibit the same behavior as other, later migrating summer run populations such as the Deer Creek stock, or are they showing up early and ascending the velocity barriers (Salmon Falls on the Washougal, Moulton Falls on the EF Lewis, Shipherd Falls on the Wind, Kalama Falls on the Kalama) to their overwintering "homes" quickly before the extremely low water levels in summer? Or, are they likely hanging out in lower areas, waiting to do so in late summer early fall? I guess if so, why are they arriving so early? Maybe migration is just that much easier in those systems in March and April, instead of June and July?

Rob Allen

Active Member
Also what typically happens on rivers in western Washington is that the higher you go in any give river the better the habitat becomes. I think that many of our rivers are so destroyed in the lower habitat areas that the fish spend no time there and in our case here in SW WA that means most of the fish quickly move into areas of the rivers that are closed to fishing. Furthermore our runs are so depleted that they pretty much do not provide a fishery anyway, there are only on rare occasions enough fish around to fish for and when there are you find way too many people to provide a pleasant experience. I fell very sorry for anyone trying to learn to steelhead fish in western Washington these days. The deck is truly stacked against you.

According to a Bio friend of mine the runs of summer steelhead on the OLY pen are all so depressed that they each number less than 100.

at any rate, your best bet is to pick one river and spend every waking minute there you can, you'll get a fish once in a wile... either that or fish the Cowlitz
A population of fish that will spend the low water months of late summer in a lot of these smaller rivers will need certain types of water available as a refuge. Many of these warmer low land streams supporting summers have canyons with especially deep water, shade, and other points of refuge that the rest of steam does not. In fact, there is a strong correlation between this type of refuge and if a stream supports the coastal summer runs or not. So look at some topo maps.

You have correctly noted that vast stretches of rivers can be void of the summer runs you desire. But on the brighter side there are likely specific areas they school up that you will find.

Just remember, when you do find that pool, don't over fish it, don't broadcast it to the world, don't blog it, don't bead it. You could be looking at a sizeable portion of the entire summer population of that stream in one pool.
Just remember, when you do find that pool, don't over fish it, don't broadcast it to the world, don't blog it, don't bead it. You could be looking at a sizeable portion of the entire summer population of that stream in one pool.


Wild summer runs are crazy animals I can't get enough of them. I'm far from dialed don't get me wrong they humble me every summer but the thrill of the hunt is phenomenal and really embodies the essence of steelhead fly fishing IMHO. A true cat and mouse game. Populations are so small that staying on top of their movements throughout their journey and understanding how they react to changes in water levels and water temp is everything. And really really hard to do without being on the water all the damn time. Keep a log, cover a lot of ground, buy good shades and good boots and enjoy the journey dude. I can sense the sickness in you.

Bring a thermometer and if/when water temps get high give em a break they have a long way to go til they hit the spawning gravel.