Here in the Pacific Northwest, one thing we
have a lot of on our coasts is...RAIN! The amount
varies but 70 inches per year on the coast itself is
perhaps average. Part way up our small coastal
ranges get perhaps 140 inches. That all comes down river
and there are very few dams. As a result, the earth
is leeched of nutrients. Grasses, salal, and fir
trees do very well on this, but fish in nutrient-free
rivers do not. This may be the reason for anadromous
fish. These fish like salmon, trout, stripers, shad,
and others spawn and spend part of their youth in
fresh and semi-salt water but spend the majority
of their lives in the sea with its much higher nutrient
content. When they return, we have superb fishing for
sea run cutthroat, sea run browns (Northern California
mostly), sea run rainbows (steelhead), and five varieties
If our Fish & Game Departments have done one thing
right, it has been to expand the runs of these fish.
Fall runs of salmon and Winter runs of steelhead were
once the norm with a few rivers blessed with other
seasons. We now have significant Summer runs of
steelhead in most rivers. These Summer run fish
often wait until next Summer to spawn giving us
year around steelhead in some rivers. The Spring
salmon runs have been expanded, and we now have a
new Winter run of Chinook salmon on the Trask River
which is expanding naturally to other rivers. These
fish really do not compete with the other fish in
coastal rivers as most of these rivers have few
year-around fish. This is a much truer statement
in short coastal rivers than longer ones like the
Rogue and Umpqua which originate in the further
East Cascade range and have cut their way through
the coastal range. These longer rivers run through
areas East of the leeched out coastal range and have
greater nutrients which allow for year around species
in abundance. Tributaries of the Columbia River which
begin East of the Cascade range are in a desert/semi
desert region which are extremely high in nutrients
and have fabled names such as The Deschutes, John Day,
and others. These rivers have incredible runs of
anadromous fish and healthy local populations as well.
As a result, we in the West have extremely complex
fish regulations with a great mixture of seasons
and bags even on the same river. It has become
quite important to know the difference between
species and to carry a measuring devise and
Spring Salmon usually start in about March with May
and June being the usually hottest months. This is
the Chinook (King, Tyee) fishery for the most part.
Ocean season starts in June and continues on into
the Fall season with the rivers getting hot in
September and October for Coho (Silvers) and Chinook
and Chum for the most part. Some more Northern areas
get large runs of Pinks and Sockeyes.
Sea Run Cutthroat start in Mid Summer and get hot in
September. They have also earned the name "Harvest
Trout" for this seasonal reason.
Then there are the steelhead:
Traditionally, Thanksgiving is the beginning of the
Winter steelhead run. This is a near religious
experience in the Northwest. The most common
regulations allow two steelhead per day and 4 per
week to be kept. Only hatchery (adipose fin clipped)
may be kept. When runs are of extreme size, some
river's regulations may be changed mid-year to
allow 3 or even 4 fish per day. Size varies greatly.
Some rivers have a run of "half pounders." These will
run 14-18" on the average. The Rogue River is famous
for these. Some Summer runs may average 6 pounds and
some years (like this year), they may be much larger
with the North Santiam averaging 12 pounds this year.
20 pounders are a bit unusual to be caught as most
will break off, but they are out there. The Snake
River run is of large average size with weights in
the high 20's not unusual. The record is in the 50
pound range. Not many of these would be landed even
if numerous fish were hooked.
Oregon Fish and Game do not want hatchery fish to
reproduce. As a result, the hatchery fish that go
into the fish traps were clubbed and thrown away.
When this became public knowledge, the upheaval
caused the state to change their ways. Now the
fish are "recycled" by transporting downstream
numerous times allowing fishermen additional chances
to take them home. One hatchery on the coast plants
them in a small local lake producing wild fishing for
I cannot stress enough the importance of reading
the rather thick regulations closely. There may be
different regulations covering 4 different areas
of one river. There may be numerous salmonoids
running in a river at one time. There may be
different regulations for each. The regulations
provide visual examples of each type. Regulations
may be changed mid-year usually allowing larger bag
limits. Checking with local sport shops is always
a good idea.
Fishing an unknown river always puts the fisherman
at a disadvantage. A site like FAOL sometimes has
information on individual rivers which can be of
great help. (Check the
Great Rivers section). Fish-Ins can be of great help.
Then there are guides, sport shops, local Fish & Game people,
local FAOL members and publications. The state
provides information on the yearly take from each
river so you can judge the strength of each run.
There are popular patterns listed in numerous
places including the
Atlantic Tying section in Ronn Lucas'
series of articles on this site.
General knowledge of fish habits is very important.
Salmon tend to run in the center of rivers. Fast
stream flow seems to be unimportant to them. On the
other hand, steelhead like to run against the bank
cut off the first drop off in the stream. Steelhead
also like water running about quick walk speed in 2-6
foot of depth. Early mornings and late evenings often
find both species in major holes. Many Western streams
are crystal clear which allows sight fishing. Summer
steelhead may stay a year in fresh water before spawning
and take on the characteristics of normal trout. Rocks,
logs, undercuts, areas of oxygen concentrations in very
hot weather are all good spots to fish. They will be
feeding on the same food as the local trout and even
taking dry flies. The difference is that these trout
will go 6-25 pounds and there will be a lot of them.
A large bank caught fish even with 8-12 pound line may
take 45 minutes to over an hour to bring in depending
upon water conditions.
What to Use
This varies from river to river and species to species.
Again, you can look in the usual places as discussed
before. Generally, salmon like larger flies, but the
71 ˝ pound record chinook taken last year on the Rogue
River in Oregon was taken on a drabbish #10 fly meant
for "half pounder" steelhead. My personal choice is to
use bright colored flies when close to the ocean, and
a bit darker when more inland. Steelhead that have been
in the rivers some time and have started to feed on
natural river foods, usually gain a preference for
darker patterns. Leeches with marabou movement gain
in popularity. The oranges, reds, yellows that are
so effective on the coast give way to purples and
other dark colors…even dry flies. Flies are more
effective in brighter and larger sizes when water
gets cloudier. Sometimes (especially with upstream
fish), there may be special colors in a given month
of year that are especially effective. Normally, I
use a #4 size for steelhead. However, some regulation
require a larger hook to prevent trout and juvenile
steelhead or salmon from being taken. I now use a #1
on the North Santiam for this reason. Be sure to read
your regulations and measure each hook as there is no
agreement between manufacturers on hook size. An example
of many different steelhead and salmon and sea run
cutthroat patterns may be seen in FAOL at:
atlantic/hairwing/ Typical tying instructions for
a hair wing pattern can be seen at:
Use what you have. However, there are some rough
guidelines. Big fish on light rods can be exciting.
However, I think most will agree that an 8 weight 9'
rod is a good choice for steelhead. This also works
for salmon but a 10 wt won't hurt for them. You will
need some good backing, too. You will see lots of your
backing. A large diameter reel is a help, and if you
are lucky enough to have one of the few multiplier reels
out there, better yet. You may be dabbing over sight
fish next to the bank, or you may have long casts to
get into the best water. This varies tremendously from
location to location. Rivers may be huge, swift, and
open or small and brushy. Virtually all rivers in the
Northwest have one run or another of steelhead. I like
15-20 pound backing. I use WTF floating lines as the
fish are not usually too deep and it makes for easier
casting. I weight the flies accordingly. A false roll
cast lifts the heavier flies so they are closer to the
surface for a normal cast. No split shot is allowed in
Oregon, but weighted flies are OK. Many like dark jigs
and some heathens also use spinning gear and bobbers.
I have extreme dislike for losing a 20 pound fish to
a knot, so I use as few as possible. I use straight 8
pound leader usually (Maxima Chameleon) but this year
have changed to straight 12 pound as the fish are
averaging larger. No sissy tippet with the extra knot
for me. The closer you are to the ocean, the less
important the size of the leader.
As always, the most important thing is to keep your fly WET!