I was beginning to think there were no steelhead in the river when a jolting strike woke me from my daydream. Charging upstream, the nickel-bright summer fish cleared the water in a furious leap, throwing spray in all directions. He kept me working for quite a while more, but he came to the bank finally. As I released the native fish I was thinking that maybe there were more of them in here after all.
Nope. It was my only bite of the morning. I really wasn't all that surprised. An incredible snowpack across the west and heavy spring rains had combined to swell the Columbia River to unbelievable levels, and even as summer waned it was still running high and cold. The steelhead didn't need the cold water here at the mouth of the White Salmon River, so they were staying on the move.
SUMMER'S THERMAL BARRIER
Late summer water temperatures in the Columbia usually run a very tepid 70 degrees or more, much too warm for steelhead. This thermal block forces them to stop migrating and seek cold water to wait for autumn. The result is concentrated steelhead — and fantastic fishing. However, the Columbia never ran any warmer than the upper 60s all summer. The steelhead just kept migrating, and the usual coldwater refuges — the White Salmon River, Drano Lake, Herman Creek and the others — were all duds.
Fishermen used to targeting these refuges over the last 10 or 12 years were left to dream about what might have been. Summer steelhead flooded the Columbia last year, with over 390,000 adults crossing Bonneville Dam. Anglers that stuck with the main stem did well all year, and steelheaders that fished the usual coldwater haunts got jilted.
So the question for the summer of 2012 remains: Will high flows frustrate these fisheries again or was 2011 an anomaly?
EPIC HIGH WATER
In 2011, a huge melting mountain snowpack poured into the Columbia as heavy rains persisted into the middle of July. This one-two punch pushed flows in the river to unheard-of levels, as high as 300 percent of normal. However, last summer's rain was highly unusual, and the snowpack going into this spring is not anywhere near as heavy as 2011. In short, conditions are not lining up the same.
Also, from the 1990s through 2010, the thermal block formed every year, without fail. Sometimes it formed late, in August instead of the more usual July, but it did form, and the coldwater bite turned on. Given these two factors, the odds are heavily in favor of a return to red-hot steelheading in the coldwater fisheries in 2012.
COLUMBIA RIVER'S SUMMER STEELHEAD TRIFECTA
The summer steelhead run in the Columbia is divided into three segments. The Skamania run arrives in the lower Columbia in spring. A mostly hatchery run, they average about 8 to 10 pounds. In July and early August the "A"-run steelhead arrive. Averaging about 6 pounds, they are headed to mid-Columbia streams like the Deschutes. By mid-August anglers start tangling with the "B"-run fish, which average 10 to 13 pounds, and sometimes top the 18-pound mark. These line-burning, high-jumping steelhead are headed back to Idaho's Snake and Clearwater rivers.
Only adipose fin-clipped hatchery steelhead can be kept. All wild unclipped fish must be returned unharmed. Unless otherwise posted, the limit is two steelhead per day.
LOWER COLUMBIA STEEL
The Cowlitz River
One hotspot that will produce summer steelhead whether or not the high water shows up again is the mouth of the Cowlitz, and a big chunk of the steelhead caught here end up in guide Lee Barkie's boat. "We whip up on them every year," he says. And, no matter the conditions, "It always really picks up the last week in July, and by August the boats get thick." Barkie advises anglers to watch the Bonneville Dam fish counts, and when steelhead start crossing at a thousand a day, it's time to get out there. "It can go from a thousand to five thousand to ten thousand in just a couple days. You want to be out there when it starts."
Anchoring and fishing stationary baits on the bottom is the ticket, and Barkie prefers to fish with Spin-N-Glos tipped with Coon Stripe shrimp. He anchors directly over drop-offs, which are migration lanes for the steelhead, in 8 to 12 feet of water. He then sets his lines to cover the entire ledge, top to bottom. Once he figures out how deep the fish are running, he chocks the boat over so all the rods are in the kill zone.
This is a tidal fishery, and the best bite is during the outgoing tide as well as the first hour of the slack. However, in last year's high flows Barkie was able to get the steelhead to bite all day. "Still, it's best during the outgoing," he adds.
While Gearhart Gardens is the closest boat ramp, sand bars make it an iffy choice. Try the Willow Grove launch instead.
NW River Fishing: Lee Barkie, 360-304-0771; www.nwriverfishing.com.
The mouth of the Sandy River is another good place to look for concentrated steelhead, and it's a spot that is often fished by Jack and Brandon Glass of Team Hook Up guide service. The father and son guides call the Sandy River home, as well as the local stretch of the Columbia River. "Most of the fishermen there are anchoring and fishing plugs," reports Jack Glass, "and that's actually a very good way to do it." He says the most popular plugs are red U-20 Flat fish, and K-10 or 12 Kwikfish. Some anglers fish with copper and red spinners. "You want to fish through the dropping tide and one hour into the low slack," says Glass. "That's when they bite the best."
Glass has been experimenting with side-drifting for steelhead in the Columbia for years, and is finally getting it dialed in, with a twist. He is drifting with bobber and bait.
"It turns out this is a great way to catch steelhead," he says. "We set the slip bobber at 12 feet and fish with Coon Tail Shrimp. That's absolutely deadly bait for summer steelhead."
He targets fast water where the current sweeps along the shorelines or around islands and bars, targeting depths of 20 feet or less.
The Chinook Landing boat launch in Troutdale is the closest full-service ramp.
Team Hook Up guide service: Jack (503) 666-5370, Brandon (503) 260-8285; www.hookupguideservice.com.
WASHINGTON METALHEAD HOTSPOTS
Drano Lake may be the most popular of all the coldwater refuges, and for good reason. They catch a lot of fish here. Steelheaders can spread out on the lake and troll, or target the main honey hole with bobbers and bait from the bank or a boat. Jim Stahl of J & J Guide Service spent years guiding for summer steelhead at Drano, and he says trolling the lake is easy. "It's a pretty forgiving deal," he says. "The bottom is fairly level, and there aren't many snags." While most anglers flat-line Brad's plugs, Stahl trolls spinners with downriggers to target the 15- to 17-foot depth.
Most anglers fish the main hole by setting the bobber so the bait is suspended just off the bottom. "That's a great way to catch them," says Stahl. "When they are biting well you'd be nuts not to try it." Still, he prefers to troll spinners with downriggers. "It's nice to get away from the crowd at the main hole."
It's not hard to figure out where to fish; all you have to do is just look for the boats. In addition to the bait hole there are two main trolls, one near the rock face, and another further east. Trollers should keep their lures back from the boat about 25 to 30 feet so the boat won't spook the fish in the ultra-clear water.
The lake has a good ramp for all size boats.
White Salmon River
The 100-year-old Condit Dam was pulled from the White Salmon River last autumn, and all the silt and gravel that had accumulated at the bottom of Northwestern Lake flushed down to the mouth this winter. Silt has filled the entire section above the Highway 14 Bridge, totally obliterating the 20 foot deep fishing hotspot that has been a hallmark of the fishery. There is also a brand new sandbar that has formed just off the Columbia side of the highway bridge, and the once-popular bank fishing spot "the bench," just under the bridge, is now beachfront property.
The Wind River is the first cold water tributary on the Washington side above the Bonneville Dam, and as such it attracts a lot of steelhead. Boat anglers get the lion's share of the fish, but fishermen need to be aware that there are wide sandbars that crowd the narrow channel. This can concentrate the fish but it concentrates the boats as well. Trolling with plugs is the preferred method here.
Buzz Ramsey, of Yakima Baits, is a Northwest fishing icon who makes his home on the banks of the Klickitat. He reports that this fishery actually gets better later in the season. "It's not as big a fishery as Drano and the White Salmon," says Ramsey," but it does get good once things start to cool down. It can be very good in September."
Trollers target the mouth of the river and bank anglers look to the lower Klickitat Canyon below the Chutes.
Oregon's Cold Steel Herman Creek
Herman Creek empties into a small cove in Cascade Locks, and the cold water draws lots of steelhead that school up and circle the cove. Fishermen target them from the bank and a flotilla of small craft and float tubes. Fly-angling is popular here, and on some days this method out-fishes others.
Floating bait below bobbers or slow-dragging bait along the bottom are the most popular conventional methods used here, and coon tail shrimp is the favorite bait. An ADA-accessible dock is available a short walk from the hatchery parking lot and puts the anglers right in front of the schools. Bobber and jigs is the best method from the dock.
There is a rough launch for small boats, and larger boats can put out at Cascade Locks and motor over.
Anglers here can target schools of steelhead in the shallow channel at the mouth from the boat or bank. This fishery typically does not get hot until the last half of August, when the steelhead are joined by fall salmon. Fly-angling, bobber and bait, or casting hardware all take fish.
The Deschutes throws a big plume of cold water into the Columbia River, and anglers target the steelhead mostly by trolling plugs. This is another fishery that really gets good in late August, and stays good well into the fall. Flat-line trolling with Brad's plugs accounts for most of the fish caught.
There is a boat launch at the Deschutes River State Recreation Area, located at the mouth of the river.
Night Time's The Right Time
If you are not fishing at night, you might be missing out on some of the best summer steelhead action of all. Only Washington allows night angling, so that's where the action is. Nighttime crowds are a lot smaller than the daylight group, so competition is reduced.
The ticket for bank anglers is fishing glow corkies tipped with bait as near to the bottom as possible. While many anglers move the bait along the bottom very slowly, others just let the bait sit.
Flat-line trolling with lighted plugs may be the most fun way to take nighttime steel. It's a great way to spend a summer night, and when a big, aggressive steelhead whacks a blinking plug the stroke can be electric. Tip your rod with a glo-stick so you can see the hits.
Depth and distance from the boat are not as important at night, but boat speed is. The plug should only move fast enough to wobble, so use a windsock or crank back on that trolling motor as much as possible.
Almost all night anglers will tell you that Brad's blinking plugs are the best on the market, but take care to store them properly. They have a limited light life, and are activated by touching water. Store them carefully so their hooks do not touch each other. This will activate the plugs and run down the batteries.
Anglers can fish the entire main stem Columbia with a license from either state. However, once you move up into state waters you must have that state's license to fish legally.