February 07, 2023
By Scott Turo
There are two distinct races of steelhead found in the Pacific Northwest: winter-run and summer-run. The difference is that winter fish arrive sexually mature and ready to spawn in late winter and early spring, whereas summer fish arrive immature, then overwinter and spawn the following spring.
Winter steelhead can be found in coastal and some Cascade Range mountain rivers. Summer steelhead are found in some Cascade Range rivers and many large tributaries of the Columbia River extending well into central Idaho and north-central Washington. Anomalies to this general pattern exist in places like Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where some coastal rivers fed by glaciers support small runs of native summer-run steelhead. In general, winter-run fish use coastal rivers where seasonal rains fill the channel and habitat, while summer-run fish make long migrations into the snowmelt rivers of eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
The following are some steelhead rivers you should have on your radar.
- Klickitat River (June to Nov.): Originating high on Mount Adams in southwest Washington, this glacial-fed, medium-sized river has good runs of both wild and hatchery summer steelhead, plenty of access and a wild feel in the deep canyons.
- Deschutes River (July to Nov.): The consistent flow of the Deschutes, north through central Oregon to the Columbia River, makes it a steelheader’s dream. Flies, spinners, plugs and jigs all produce memories for walk-in anglers.
- Umpqua River (July to Oct. and Jan. to March): Famous for its 30-mile, fly-fishing-only stretch near Steamboat Creek on the North Fork in western Oregon, the Umpqua produces miles of consistent fishing for strong runs of summer and winter steelhead alike.
- Smith River (Jan. to March): Flowing through towering coastal redwoods and feeding into the Umpqua near the Oregon coast, the Smith has bright steelhead returning throughout the winter. Guides make two trips through the popular water below the Forks when the fishing is good.
- Sol Duc River (Jan. to March): A rainforest river famous for its rapids and big steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula, the Sol Duc is a gene-bank river for the preservation of wild steelhead. If you’re a serious steelheader, you need to fish the Sol Duc.
- Chetco River (Dec. to April): Located in southwest Oregon, the Chetco has strong runs of wild and hatchery steelhead. Biologists collect wild steelhead adults for broodstock to support a healthy hatchery run that peaks in January.