Both salmon and steelhead can be fished for in the same hole but with different methods, because the fish hold in different places. Key to success with either species is reading the water and knowing where the fish are. (Shutterstock image)
May through June is prime time to target both spring Chinook and summer steelhead in many rivers.
Backing the drift boat into the lower end of the rapids, we felt anticipation mount as our lines dove into where several springers had been surfacing. We were the first boat through this stretch of river, so we felt confident we would stick a steelhead. When the rod bent over, my 6-year-old son, Kazden, had his hands full.
Rather than plunge into the deep hole below, however, the line rose to the surface and a hard-fighting chrome summer steelhead whirled across the surface. Bringing the fish to the net, we were elated, as Kazden had just landed his first steelhead.
From May to July the fishing in upper tributaries of the rivers in the Pacific Northwest can be solid for both spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead. While both species can be targeted independently in various holding zones and travel routes, they can also simultaneously be pursued in waters which both inhabit.
We were targeting springers in this section of deep, fast-moving water, but I wasn't surprised when a summer steelhead showed up on the end of Kazden's line. Steelhead often stack up in the slower moving, inside seam of a current line. This steelhead, being hooked in fast water, was still moving upstream in the morning, and we were in the right place at the right time. We ran that same water again and soon landed a springer on the same plug.
What did surprise me about Kazden's steelhead was that it hit a K15 Kwikfish, a plug many anglers would deem too large for these fish. Summer steelhead are predators when in the ocean, regularly gobbling up baitfish, like herring. To have one hit a presentation this big, more than 300 miles from the ocean, was eye opening.
The plug was wrapped with canned tuna, a tactic brought to my attention years ago by fishing guides John Gross and Bret Stuart, who live near me. The setup works great for springers and summer steelhead but is more effective if smaller plugs, like a 3.0 or 3.5 Mag Lip, is put to work.
When wrapping tuna onto a plug in preparation for back-trolling, firmly compress the chunks of meat on the plug. Secure the meat over the lure with several wraps of thread. When dropped in the water, pieces of tuna will fall off, but that's okay.
Wrapping small strips of herring, anchovies, sardines and crawfish is also great when targeting salmon and steelhead. Scent also can be added to plugs. Salmon are highly scent driven, and it doesn't hurt to have the added odor for steelhead to key on as well.
When back-trolling plugs for salmon and steelhead, hitting the right water is important. Typically, springers will be holding in faster, deeper flowing riffles than you will find steelhead in. That's not to say a steelhead won't occupy the same water, as they will when traveling upstream or when sunlight and angler pressure forces them there.
If you're back-trolling plugs through an upper riffle for salmon and no bites come, keep the plugs in the water and move to the soft seams and the tail-out of the same riffle, where summer steelhead routinely hold. The water moves slower there, and is usually shallower, so back the boat down with stealth. You may need to let more line out so the boat doesn't spook the steelhead.
DIVER & BAIT
A diver-and-bait combination can be back-trolled through the same deep, fast water where you would run plugs through for both salmon and steelhead. When working a diver-and-bait through water where both species could be present, downsize the presentation, making it smaller than if you were pinpointing just springers.
Over my 45 years of fishing for salmon and steelhead, I've found that, while steelhead will hit big plugs and lures, when it comes to bait, they like it smaller. For this, a sand shrimp and cured egg combination, what many anglers refer to as a "shrimp cocktail," is tough to beat.
Save the larger sand shrimp for back-bouncing deep holes for springers; use the mid-size and smaller shrimp to rig with a small cluster of eggs when hitting water where both salmon and steelhead hang. Adding a spinning drift-bobber, like a size 8 Spin-N-Glo, will increase the motion in the presentation, making it more alluring to both species.
Rigging the bait on a size 2/0 Octopus hook is good, but don't go larger than a size 3/0 hook. We've caught many steelhead on 3/0 hooks over the years, but when you're back-trolling delicate shrimp in fast moving rivers, the larger hook can damage the shell and cause it to easily fall off the hook. Salmon usually inhale these baits, so a 2/0 is not too small for them.
Back-trolling plugs and diver-and-bait combos is excellent for targeting both salmon and steelhead in the same stretch of river. Drift-fishing will also find you hooking into both fish in the same water, usually in mid-sections of a riffle, in the lower-most holding spot for springers, and in the upper-most holding zone for summer steelhead.
As the morning progresses and fishing pressure increases — along with sunlight hitting the water — fish move to different places. In an effort to seek protection, salmon drop into deeper holes where they usually hold tight to the bottom. Steelhead, on the other hand, will move into shallow riffles where the surface breaks up their outlines so they can't be seen from above by predators. When this happens, break out the specialized presentation.
When targeting salmon in deep holes, try back-bouncing bait. Large egg clusters topped with a big sand shrimp and a size 8 Lil' Corky on a size 3/0 hook is ideal. Hit ledges, deep slots and boulder patches where the water is deep and dark. And don't overlook the slowest moving water in the river, where springers often congregate.
I've never caught a summer steelhead while back-bouncing for springers in deep holes because they don't normally occupy such water. I have, however, caught many on jigs in shallow water, where salmon rarely reside. For this reason, take along a bobber and a jig rod to work that steelhead-holding water. In the upper tributaries, I like using an inline float versus a fixed float. An inline float allows you to cover a wide range of water depths by simply adjusting your bobber stop.
The setup is simple. First, thread a bobber stop on to your main line, which should be a floating braid that's in the 15- to 20-pound range. A bobber stop is a nylon nail knot tied to a small straw, which can be purchased at any tackle shop. Slip the straw up the main line, slide the knot onto the line, toward the rod tip, and then discard the straw. Next, add a 3 millimeter bead to the line, which should be followed by an inline float. An inline float is a float in which the line passes through the float, allowing it to quite easily slide up and down the line.
Tie the mainline to a size 7 barrel swivel, attach your leader to the other end of the swivel, and you're set. A 24- to 30-inch leader is fine. If using a 1/8-ounce jig, use a 1/8-ounce float so both uniformly move downstream. Your depth is regulated with the bobber stop.
The beauty of this presentation is that you can fish in 3 feet of water for steelhead in the upper part of a riffle, move the bobber stop up the mainline and hit the water that's 10 feet deep or so in front of you, then fish deeper water below by sliding the stop even farther up the line. Oftentimes, this can be done while standing in the same spot.
READ THE WATER
Both salmon and steelhead can be fished for in the same hole, but simply with different methods, because the fish hold in different places. Key to success with either species is reading the water and knowing where the fish are.
Hit the main current first by either running plugs or diver-and-bait. This is heavier, faster moving water where salmon routinely hold, so that's what you'll be targeting. As the hole deepens, switch to back-bouncing for salmon, making sure to use enough lead to keep the terminal gear tight to the bottom. Three to 4 ounces is often what will be needed. You'll be able to quickly gauge how much weight you need by the current speed, depth and how fast your boat is moving downstream.
Once you're done running the middle of the river for springers, run back to the upper section of the riffle, anchor near shore and fish the inside seams for steelhead. This can be done by running a bobber and jig, drifting eggs or casting lures. If it's holding water you're fishing, you may spend a few hours covering it all. The same is true if the fishing pressure is high and access to other water is limited.
For efficiently covering water, many anglers are using small kicker motors rather than pumping on the oars of their driftboat all day. These days there are no secret spots on any good rivers that I know of, so once you find fish, you need to just stay put. I know many seasoned anglers who will spend all day working one stretch of water for both salmon and steelhead. They'll move, anchor, reposition, fish multiple ways, and keep repeating the process because they know fish are there or will be.
Oftentimes throughout the day, salmon and steelhead move around within a stretch of water. Salmon might occupy the middle section of a riffle, back down to deep water, then decide to move upstream later in the morning. This is especially true on overcast, rainy days.
A few years back, two buddies and I anchored the driftboat in the middle of a 7-foot-deep riffle. We were in the seam on the upper end. From that one spot we ran plugs and diver-and-bait combos out the front of the boat and went away with four springers and three summer steelhead. The weather was gloomy and raining, but from 11 to noon the bite was red hot for both species.
This spring, plan ahead when fishing rivers that hold both summer steelhead and spring Chinooks. Prepare a range of gear and be willing to use it. When that springer bite turns off in the morning, go to targeting steelhead. If the weather changes and salmon start moving, go back to focusing on them.
Under ideal conditions, and usually early in the morning, run presentations both salmon and steelhead like. The result can be a memorable day on the water, with a good amount of fresh fish making its way to your freezer.
For signed copies of Scott Haugen's popular book "Bank Fishing For Salmon & Steelhead," send $18 to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and at ScottHaugen.com.