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The Angle: Are the Summer Steelhead Back?

By Lucas Holmgren

The Angle: Are the Summer Steelhead Back?

An Ocean-Going Rainbow Trout
Steelhead (Oncorhynchus Mykiss) is the name for a Rainbow Trout that is born in freshwater, migrates to the ocean to feed, then travels back into freshwater to spawn. Oregon and Washington historically have had abundant stocks of both “winter” and “summer” steelhead. These names are generalizations, as steelhead runs are very diverse in timing and life-cycle, but they designate two different life cycles of fish.
As I am writing in advance, by the time you read this you should be able to immediately look at fish counts to confirm if this year is as good as it would seem in early May. By late June we will know if it is truly an excellent Summer Steelhead year by looking at Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls fish counts.

Willamette River Steelhead
The Willamette River, one of the largest tributaries in the entire Columbia River Basin, has historically harbored massive numbers of steelhead returning at various times of the year. The water quality of the Lower Willamette is notoriously polluted, which makes the freshwater species less desirable for table fare, but the salmon and steelhead that return only migrate through that water briefly, and once they reach their spawning tributaries there is some pristine habitat in the Willamette River tributaries.
Unfortunately, Summer Steelhead runs have dwindled. What was once a thriving fishery in rivers like the Clackamas, McKenzie and North Santiam, the more recent numbers are but a shadow of their former glory. Of course, dedicated anglers still get out there with some success, but overall catch rates have plummeted.

A Promising Early Season
Although April and May are considered “early” for returning adult Summer Steelhead, the Willamette does get a number of earlier steelhead, much like their early Spring Chinook Salmon runs. This year quite a few Summer Steelhead were caught in April while anglers were fishing for Spring Chinook Salmon. While this is usually a good sign, it’s not a guarantee of a good year of fishing.
What is very encouraging is the number of Summer Steelhead that have passed Willamette Falls. By May 3rd, almost 3000 “Summers” had passed over the falls. In contrast, in 2022, that number was around 750. If this trend continues, 2024 Summer Steelhead fishing predictions are not only good – they’re possibly great!

Fishing for Summer Steelhead
These fish are not only incredible on the barbecue (when legal to harvest), but they also happen to be the fastest freshwater fish on earth. If you hook a fresh Summer Steelhead, your heart will be pounding as the fish does somersaults trying to shake your hook. You’ll need to check local regulations to see if bait is allowed, if barbless hooks are needed, and so on. For someone just looking to start Summer Steelhead fishing, two excellent techniques to learn are float fishing jigs, coon-stripe shrimp or casting a spinner. Spinners especially are simple to rig and relatively reliable for getting bites, even for beginners. Float fishing jigs and bait are very effective, but require much more attention to water depth and mending technique.
There are ample resources for the specifics of these techniques and information about where to
go, but if you’re going to try for steelhead anytime - this summer seems to be the year!

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