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?
They are weird fish - period. On skinny waters I've even seen them tuck into spaces between boulders. Funny to see after scanning a "fishless" pool only to look down and see a tail sticking out below the rock you're standing on.
Years ago, when fishing for them wasn't a waste of time, I used to fish a small trib that held decent numbers where some were allowed to bypass the hatchery trap. Since this was really more of a creek than a river, it was more like fish "hunting" than fishing. Hiking slowly upstream, sneaking up on the obvious holding spots. Some no bigger than a card table and barely more than knee-deep. Not your usual steelheading by any means but still a lot of fun. Seeing that bluish-gray torpedo shape undulating beneath a plume of fast water was always exciting. The hard part was getting into casting position without spooking it. Usually, I had to resort to high-stick nymphing with a heavily weighted fly, or even shot to punch through the current plume quickly. Otherwise the fly would simply shoot over the fish unseen in spite of the shallow water. It also required accurate casting since the strike zone was really more of a strike "bucket".
When everything came together it was heart-stopping. Often the fish would lurch forward a foot or two as the fly dropped out of the plume into the slower turbulence below. Sometimes I would even see a flash of white mouth an instant before the line paused. Followed another instant later by a flash of chrome and the water shattering like broken glass. Stealth mode ceased and total chaos commenced. Fighting a fresh summer-run in a fast-flowing, boudler-strewn creek is something to be experienced. Those were some fun trips.
Thanks for the responses, guys. Maybe it's good nobody has it down to a science. Wild west-side summer runs are just such a spectre in my summer fishing, I've gotta learn more about them. We'll see. Hopefully, I have quite a few years to scratch a few more out. Landed a couple last summer, but they feel like a shot in the dark. I've spooked them in boulders while fishing for trout and it scared the hell out of me.
I went looking the past couple days, but I came up short. Caught a few trout and a couple of big pikeminnow, but no steelhead. On the not so bright-side, I cut my trip short because I think my transmission is really going in the truck. Decided it was more important to let the issue come to a head attempting to return home in the morning than at night with work in the morning. I hate car trouble, but car trouble + missing a day of fishing is a hard pill to swallow.
I landed a post-spawn wild winter run in May and since I had landed a wild steelhead in each month previous this year, I was trying to land a wild steelhead each month this calendar year. Better luck next year, I suppose.
Most of this has been suggested above, but what should stand out as you search for them:
Summer-run steelhead are amazing at finding hidden boulders, slots, and ledges in low water, and they're almost impossible to entice once you're lucky enough to find them. They'll stick to one good lie, usually hiding below turbulent water, for days or even weeks and then take full advantage of the slightest amount of rain to move on to their next holding spot. They tend to restrict their movements to pitch-dark nights, more so than winter-run fish. You may find them schooled up at the bottom of larger, bath-like pools when the water temps are up, but by then, their instinct to chase a fly or anything else that moves, has shut down completely. They are a really interesting, albeit elusive and frustrating fish for a fly fisherman.
As I've said many times in the past, Salmo G has the knowledge to help you with difficult scientific questions such as this one. He knows the ins and outs of WA steelhead populations better than most anyone. That being said, I'm heading out to Staples today for some paste glue and a box of Crayolas for backup! LOL
... seriously, I like this question and this thread. It gets my imagination fired up and I start a file search in my brain, sorting through half-remembered facts and observations and just sort of pondering ideas without too much structure.
My classic personal response to this question comes from such nonlinear thinking; my suggestion is to take a little Watermaster or something, a minimal set of gear, and begin a headwaters-to mouth journey on whatever high-percentage river you choose, meticulously hitting lies all the way down. There may be portages, tree-climbing, even trespassing in pursuit of the knowledge, but it sounds like something every 12 year old boy would love to do... so It's right up my alley.
Couple realistic suggestions: ask hatchery workers about their busy times and whether the fish are bunching or not (Skamanias are a strain known for coming in waves), when and where the river is thick with guided boats, and of course asking old guys at the boat launches. Focus on the river you're most likely to be consistently fishing, and get to know it inside and out, whether or not you learn the "names" of holes and runs, and fish it for a couple of complete cycles. Above all, disregard all advice you receive on the internet, cause nobody there knows shit- esp. me...
I have caught a lot of native summer runs from several west side systems, i think 90% of all the steelhead Ive ever landed were summer run. My advice to you is to think about easy holding water above a serious barrier On the sky, theres a lot of water like this, and since the water is warmer in the summer, the dissolved oxygen in the water is lower. That means the fish will need to rest up more after ascending any small falls or rapids. On the stilly, the river is a lot less arduous, so instead of choosing holding water after barriers or difficult passages, the fish instead choose holding water where shade, woody debris, or large boulders protect them from the numerous eagles and ospreys that are constantly working the river from above. These fish do shoot up above deer creek to find good holding water, but in my experience they dont go far. Also, they LOVE the combination of structure, combined with cold water feed in from smaller creeks that drain fom higher elevation, and Id imagine that the reason these fish ascend the river above deer creek is to find these cold water influxes.
when I worked for WDFW, we did hook and line sampling on the summer run steelhead on the SF Nooksack. THAT river is absolutely full of impassable barriers, and the fish definitely ascended to the upper reaches in conjunction with water influxes that allowed passage over the crazy logjams, boulder fields etc etc that blocked a lot of other passage. Below this structure, they wold hold in water like described above, where they felt protected from above, and had high DO levels to counter the warmer water. Above these barriers, the fish were less picky about holding water, and would hold anywhere that foam lines, boulders or woody debris allowed for safety. HOWEVER- and this applies on the stilly too... they would NOT hold in the deeper pools if there were spring/summer chinook in the area, because the chinook run them out of the deep runs and buckets. This mean that the steelhead were often resigned to shallower rougher water, often pushed right up against the bank. In the upper S. fork Nooksack, the steelhead co mingled with the large bull trout without issue, although the bull trout can ascend otherwise impassable barriers a lot more easily than the steelhead or even the chinook.