Just a few thoughts about chasing the ghosts….summer salmon and steelhead

Posted: June 11, 2013 by Hellcat in Fish Reports, Gear Fishing, Salmon, Trout & Steelhead
Tags: , , ,

Reflecting on a few thoughts tonight about these completely and totally addictive chrome ghosts we chase so fiercely these late spring and early summer months. I have a few thoughts about chasing these ghosts we call summer salmon & steelhead.

Why ghosts? If you’ve never fished for chrome in gin-clear water when all the odds are against you and when the fish you’re targeting has virtually zero sense of safety due to weather conditions of sunshine and low water….these fish become Chrome Ghosts.

Depending on your own experiences summer steelhead may or may not be more difficult to catch than it’s annually opposite cousin…the winter steelhead. For me the summer fish is much more difficult.

Usually. Let’s exclude ‘hatchery holes’ for this statement and make it always more difficult.

I suppose the difference in behavior and habit makes these two creatures about as different as possible while remaining basically the same. It’s these subtle nuances which define that steelhead you’re chasing. It’s the slight differences of holding water preference.

Those preferences might be based on level of light exposed.

Is it morning? Noon? Near night?

While certain specific conditions (such as low, clear water) can still allow the same location and method to produce a fish during both seasons on opposite sides of the calendar….as a whole and in order to constantly improve your game and success rates you must identify the habits and behaviors of your coveted chrome.

How about some of you successful summer steelhead fishermen out there share some of your tips and tricks for summers here on this thread in the comment section below? TeamSalmon why don’t we get it started?

I’ll pick the best suggestion, overall, after a few days. Maybe come up with something for the winner. We’ll see.


  1. Tim Farabi says:

    So here goes, on our local water we use mostly two techniques side drifting and boon dogging.
    Side drifting is very effective way to put your baits to the fish for the best and longest presentation you can it is a natural drift they seem to like. To side drift properly all reels must have the same weight line and same amount of weight to hold your baits down but still just tick bottom every now and then if the weight is different on one rod it will cause a mess because it will drift faster or slower depending on the weight and cause a tangle with others on the boat.you can up to five to six people depending on your boat size.
    Heres the object of the game the person in the rear casts first and then the next one in frount of them , and ect ,all lines should be flowing slightly up river when said and done ,the oars or kicker motor will be used to control your drift and keep all line flowing out the side of the boat , keep your rod tips up and wait for the bite!
    Boon dogging is kinda of the same and not as difficult as sidedrifting first pick a run or seam you want to fish again five to six people can do this in our case we motor to the head of the run turn the boat sideways in the run or seam and cast out your lines makeing sure to cast straight out in front of your so as not to cross the next person, use your kicker or oars to stay in the seam you will drift down river leting the current pull your boat down and the motor or oars to stay in the water you want to fish same thing once again keep your tip up wait for the bite!
    The baits we use are natural and sulfite cured eggs we also use light colored yarnies and Globugs all of which will get you a fish on ! We use both natural and sulfites because our system we fish have both steelies and salmon at the same time and in turn makes for alot of action at times.

  2. Steve Hanson says:

    For ppl who haven’t read the articles related to this subject by Kevin Gray & also myself, that’s a great starting place. I’ll expound just a lil on those. Kev’s was primarily about where these low water fish can be found per given conditions (excellent piece!). Mine was primarily about line & float handling in various water types. …
    … We both like the Thill brand fixed floats which clip on & off quickly, I.E. their “Steelheader” version. The ones I still have are black on the lower 2/3 & flame red the top 1/3. Good but not the best stealth presentation for gin clear water (such as Clear Floats sliders enable). I have enuf of them so that I paint 3 different colors over the stock paint – medium gray for significantly cloudy days, light gray for somewhat overcast days, & light pastel blue for sunny times of the day. During lower light conditions with the gray ones (especially early morning late evening) I’ll tie on a real small amount of chartreuse yarn on the short tip on top & for sunny water glare I’ll tie on a piece of red yarn (also good for mid-day whitewater presentations). Of the 3 sizes I usually use the smallest version for low clear water + light jig or rubber-worm/bait rigs. Usually the regular size for winter steelheading or larger Cascade summer steelhead. >
    > These Steelheader floats not only slide up & down the line quickly for varying depths. The notch & rubber sleeve make for instant removal for drift-fishing. Not just bait & worms – I have done quit well drifting just the jig by itself in riffle rollers & whitewater holds which aren’t too snaggy. Also I’ve done well by positioning far above summer steelhead holds and backbouncing jigs slowly thru them – which gives them a killa ‘bass-fishin’like’ twitch jigging action! Next to bolders in faster water this can elicit some viscious lateral strikes from steelhead. AND salmon too. …. I also like to do all these presentations with a live pinched off sandshrimp tail skewed onto a jighead hook. In faster water I’ll skew on a small Jensen Egg to hold it on better. DON’T tell anybody – it’s too dang killer for anyone else to know but AAAers. 😉

  3. This is a good subject. I’m finding that I’m having to totally rethink my approach with these fish. Although some of the concepts are the same, my gear must be lighter, my approach stealthier, and I must read water differently. I’m looking forward to examining the differences between the ocean-maturing and river-maturing Steelhead, and honing the pursuit of both. We’ll see how it goes, something seems to be working so far but I feel like I’ve got a long way to go and a lot to learn about summer steelhead.

  4. Austin Hoesley says:

    Summer ghosts……

    Pay attention to time of day and lighting- if your fishing a hole early morning with ambient light and no direct sunlight work the tailout first! My little rig I use on tailouts early morning is constructed as follows: a piece of lead just a bit heavier than you’d want to use in the main run/ slot/ channel that feeds your tailout, 24-30 inches of leader (this is on a river where ideal flow is about 1000cfs, adjust accordingly to your location), and either a very small spin n’ glow or a couple size 14 corkies with a bead and tiny smile blade above them. Think of this rig as nearly identical to the termibnal presentation of a bait diver set up. I use a single size one hook red if the water has some turbidity (color) or black if it’s clear, and a piece of cured prawn TAIL. You’ll never get my cure out of me unless I’ve known you a very long time. There’s only one other dude that has my recipe, that would be Andy aka Bobber Dogg!
    Study the tail out. Look for larger rocks, flats, slicks, or where two currents join either just above or within the tail out. The fish early morning will be holding behind structures, either current or fixed, and they will be more near the lip of the tailout where it transitions to the next run or riffle. This location is where the water is welling up to then slide into the riffle down stream. The water in front of the tailout break is slower and has a subtle hydrology that is pushing back up stream, much like a horizontal whirlpool. The fish will be riding this current having moved onto the tailout near dusk the night before. They use this upsteam push to coast and hangout with little energy expendature through the night.
    Cast down stream and across as if fishing a spoon. When your presentation drops in and hits bottom lift it up off the bottom and mend a few times quickly, then drop your rod tip until the weight bumps bottom. Swing the presentation across the tailout. If you feel the weight tick pop your rod tip like your jigging, just enough to lift the weight off the bottom and continue your swing. As a rule start close and with each succesive cast extend the distance from you so as not to drag your line across a still groggy fish. The key is good mending to begin, then little pops to keep the rig from snagging and to impart a little action, and swinging/ steering the presentation behind rocks, onto flats/ slicks, and into the area of up stream push. The goal is to swing this small, slightly intrusive, slightly flashy, SMALL presentation with a food offering near or through the areas the fish have been chillin overnight. With little angler and environmental pressure (direct sunight in this case) the fish typically take with a few curious pops before commiting. It feels like a trout whacking a corkie and bait presentation/ trout smacks on a bait diver. WAIT until you feel either a few taps then nothing (as in diminished swing/ no weight taps) or until the rod tip bends and you feel “the surge” of a tail beat. It’s most similar to a subtle diver take.
    This method can be used from the bank or from a boat.
    The good news of the bad news is, if you do spook a fish or sore mouth one at that….you’re in the tailout! Walk or row with stealth back up to the pool at the top of the run! The time it takes you to quietly travel back upstream to the pool should be about the time the ghost takes to have dove for the cover water of the slot and made it’s way to the pool at the top. From bank or boat you can work the pool. I like to work the run with a “smaller than ya think is the right size” set up. If your instinct says use a size 10, use a size 12 corkie. These are summer fish. They leave as smolts about 6-10″ inches long and come back 6-10lbs. Home appears miniature when they make it back. Smaller the better. My go to size preference is #2 hooks and size 12-14 single corkie with yarn. If I want to add to the rig I’ll add a small yarn ball of complimentary colors. The leader length should be about the length of the fish you expect are in your system. If your system produces 4-7lb summer fish leader length should be 18-26 inches. How much weight is right is the other question. For summer fish, (as the fearless leader of AAA Chris Heller will tell you), the weight should be “bouncy”. You want your weight to tap bottom every 5-8 feet through a drift. Winter fish 3-5 feet between taps. Why? Summer fish, especially early in the run have ideal environmental conditions working in favor of their metabolism….water temp. These fish are at peak muscular performance in temps between 48-55 degrees F. Having your leader length set to their body length and a drift presentation that moves through their lay just slightly slower than current speed, tapping bottom every 5-8 feet gives you the ability to detect the pick up. Often the “strike” is you no longer feel the tap or your line feels rubbery like a belly was created…well it was! The fish grabbed it! The fish mouthed the bait and began to back up with it. Stealhead are odd ducks. If they see something they don’t want in their space they will mouth it, move to the edge of their hold and spit it out. It took 3-5 seconds for the weight to continue downstream before the leader traveled the length of the fish and tightened up. This is when you feel the fish. With summers it often feels like you hung up. The other type of take you may feel is a few “tap tap taps”. It feels like a larger trought pecking your bait. It should. It IS!! When in doubt SET THE HOOK!!! Oh, and keep the drag a bit loose. Summer fish are liquidlightning hotsauceyeeehaw psychofast explosive once hooked. They FREAK out! Expect the fish to go airborne on the hook set. Loose drag can always be sinched up during the fight.
    Back to my two cents worth of methodology. Once you’ve fished the tailout, the pool, and the slot in that sequence with drift gear, go back to the pool and wait. Wait 10-15 even 30minutes. Let them settle and forget about you. After waiting the eternity of 20 minutes begin at the pool and either swing small spoons or spinners (my go to’s are little cleo 1/4oz blue on silver 50/50, or copper on copper size two spinners…mind you size depends on flow). The alternative to this is if you’re in a boat. Once you’ve worked the water with drift gear, let it rest, then pull plugs through it. Colors on pulgs? Well that is a trial and error art form in and of itself. I’ve got my favorites, and so does ever oarsman!

    An additional factor I’ve noticed through experience is run timing. The further the fish go into summer as in the months of August, September, and early October the more they begin to act like river trout. Small spoons and swung flies in more natural non-metalic paterns work. The fish become more stationary within the system, not moving up or downstream much = territorial. Smaller the better on the presentation. You’re trying to carefully sneak something non-intrusive into their comfort zone without spooking them but with enough action to peak curiosity and or aggression. Small rooster tails, twitched shad flies, and streamer patern wet flys work awesome.

    Hope this helps in your successes and tigh lines brothas!
    Austin aka ghost buster of South Sound Slay Mob

  5. Steve Hanson says:

    Since this is about tips, I’ll add a couple more ‘oldies but goodies’ for low gin clear water. Most of you know about the popular go-to jigs/lures/flies/etc that are proven producers. Some of you know about these – real small size 5/50 Hot Shots & the largest Dick Nite spoons (much smaller than common steelhead/salmon hardware). These are best used after trying the less intrusive go-to favs, after resting the water for a while. UNLESS the fish are in a combo mood of being territorial yet somewhat wary and are readily smackin ’em, then they make great go-to’s upon first water! >>>
    >>> 2 of the absolute top killa small Hot Shots to alternate are my fav ‘Green Machine’ as I call it (their trans green painted over chrome base) & the subtle Toad brown (or their Crawfish). Sometimes kegged up wary steelhead (& fall coho) with seeming lock jaw will take a well presented Dick Nite spoon, in half chrome half brass (but try other proven colors also). >>>
    >>> I like to cast these tiny spoons from behind bushes into the center hole, let it flicker downward, then slow retrieve. If there’s enuf current I’ll sometimes feed out some line then swing the spoon thru good tailout holds. If not getting deep enuf add a small inline sinker about 40″ up from the spoon – also good for upper drift fast water. … For the small plugs position above the fish far enuf not to spook them. Free float it down to the upper end holding water then slowly backreel it down thru where the fish live. Vary the descent & action speeds. With sharp siwash, dab of scent, + perfect dive straight tune = KILLER !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *