To be honest, I’ve never gone out of my way to target summer steelhead, but when the time has been right, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the right place. Part of the appeal of this fishery to me is the element of surprise – my first summer steelhead was caught on the Stamp River while fly fishing for Coho. Although I was relatively green at fly fishing, I instinctively knew that the leaping and cartwheeling fish on the end of my line wasn’t a Coho. It didn’t take long to realize that I had the catch of a lifetime on, a coveted chromer, and it was going to be a wild ride.
On Vancouver Island, summer run steelhead are present either May through August or July through September, with earlier runs the further north you go. Unlike winter run steelhead, whose single minded pursuit is spawning, the smaller summer run fish are more apt to rise up to take a fly, moving into freshwater when they are still immature to hold until spawning. Summer steelhead are most often found on the west coast rivers of Vancouver Island (most notably Gold River), however they are also present in a few select east coast island rivers. Hatchery enhanced waters include the Stamp, Quinsam, and Quatse rivers. Check the Freshwater Fishing Synopsis on the specific stream you are fishing for specific closures, restrictions and open dates, which are intended to protect steelhead returns. In Region 1, all wild steelhead are catch and release only. Steelhead conservation tag required.
Ghosts of summer, an alias of the summer steelhead, seems a fitting nickname for a species with declining numbers. It is difficult to find reliable data regarding size of summer steelhead returns, but according to the Ecological Reserves Collection, in the early 1990’s, Vancouver Island wild summer run steelhead returns ranged from less than 50 to a maximum of 500 (per river). Given the general downward trend in anadromous fish returns, we can only assume that the run size has not increased. For that reason, we must treat this fishery with the utmost respect to sustain future runs. Practice “keepemwet” fishing to do your part to release fish in the best condition possible and reduce your impact on the fish.
Known as the fish of a thousand casts for good reason, steelhead are not a fish you can expect to catch day after day. But that one day when the stars align, the conditions are right, fish are in the system (and cooperative) and your presentation is on, reminds you that there is little that can exceed standing in a remote, pristine river, without a soul in sight, fly casting into crystal clear waters for wild and willing sea run trout.
Most gear anglers don’t see fly fishing as the most effective way to fish, yet in the shallow, clear conditions of summer, the fly fisherman has a distinct advantage. In these waters, fish spook easily, bolting at the slightest splash.
Delicate, accurate presentation is usually more important than any specific fly pattern. Naturally, small, dark flies and lighter tippet usually present better in low and pressured waters, although some days steelheading means that nothing you tie on the end of your line will be right. Delicate also applies in terms of approach – stealth is an asset.
One of the hardest things for me is patience, seeing the fish in action, but resisting the urge to act and set the hook, instead letting it take the fly and turn away, hooking itself solidly in the side of the mouth in the process.
Obviously, in high, fast conditions for winter steelies, sinking lines are the most effective. On the other hand, during the thin waters of summer, floating lines reign supreme. The possibilities are infinite – drifting a dry fly such as Roderick Haig Brown’s steelhead bee; skating a Grantham sedge cross stream; swinging a soft hackle wet-fly; traditional grease lining broadside with a Blue Charm; or dead drift nymphing a Kaufman stonefly, worm or later in the summer, egg pattern. It’s hard to say what is more satisfying, the anticipation of watching the steelhead rise, sip the fly and explode into full on beast mode or the actual experience of a fish, hell-bent on escape, on the end of my line.
When reading the river, think of the river as a steelhead highway. Look for routes for the fish to swim upriver taking the path of least resistance and for holding lies to rest in between. When the water is clear enough, look for the fish or their shadows on the gravel below. Don’t neglect the shallows – fish the water before stepping into it. Dancing water, walking pace currents, tail outs, rocks to hold behind/in front of and river bottom depressions are all prime steelhead lies.
There is a certain trepidation toward disclosing too much classified intel. To find the ghosts of summer takes blisters and bushwhacking, time spent, sweat shed and miles tread. To culminate these efforts with one chance to share a line in an epic dual with a rocket propelled chrome enigma is all I need. That primal wildness, nearly impossible to contain, is something that possesses us both.