SHADY COVE — When it came to helping him decide whether he could steer away from spring chinook salmon and start targeting summer steelhead on the upper Rogue River, Medford guide Steven Theel let the steelhead do the talking.
Salmon anglers fishing roe or plugs from driftboats started stumbling into fresh, bright, summer steelhead last month with enough regularity that Theel figured the prized and powerful steelhead were there for the catching.
Find the fish: Summer steelhead like moving water 3 to 8 feet deep, either with rocks breaking up the flows and creating pockets or along long gravel runs. The best steelhead riffles tend to be where water drops from one pool into a long, deeper glide.
From the bank: Fishing is best by wading out thigh-high and casting into the near side of the moving water, typically along a seam. Casts are usually quartered upstream to get the bait, lure or fly to sink into a steelhead's strike range.
From a driftboat: Attack the long glides by side-drifting bait or nymphs or by running plug lures out the front. Fish the "pocket water" around submerged boulders and rocks by casting into them as the oarsman either holds the boat or maneuvers through.
Bait: Steelhead aggressively bite worms side-drifted with or without corkies, with the worm threaded over the hook and up the line to keep it from balling up. Pink, plastic worms made for bass fishing also are effective. Roe works, but most Rogue anglers save it for winter steelhead.
Plugs: One of the most effective driftboat fishing methods during July and August. Run them out the front of a driftboat about 45 feet, then work them through the riffle. The best plugs are K-11 Kwikfish (pink and silver) or Rebel crayfish of varying colors.
Streamer flies: Swinging streamer flies through steelhead riffles is an excellent technique from now until cold Lost Creek Lake water releases come in mid-October. Stand just inside the current, cast slightly downstream, mend the line and swing the streamer on a straight line until the drift ends.
There are many classic Rogue patterns, such as the green-butt skunk, red ant, buck-tail coachman, cheveny and purple leeches.
Nymph flies: Nymphs fished under strike indicators are excellent for wading and even better when cast from a driftboat into pocket water. Use a 9-foot leader down to a heavily weighted Ugly Bug as the dropper fly, and a prince nymph as the point fly tied to a leader about 2 feet below the dropper. When spring chinook salmon start spawning, switch that prince nymph to a single egg pattern.
Limits: Two fin-clipped hatchery steelhead longer than 16 inches a day. All wild fish must be released unharmed.
— Mark Freeman
"Back in June, when I was fishing hard for springers, there was a couple of steelhead picked up just about every day by guys," Theel says. "It seems like a good early run."
Knowing when to say when to summer steelhead fishing has been something of a guessing game for anglers since Gold Ray Dam and its fish-counting station were jettisoned from the Rogue in 2010.
Now, it's part statistics and part guessing game that can determine when it makes sense to skip the pre-sunrise salmon show and partake in those leisurely after-work forays onto the upper Rogue after the smallest but most ameniable member of the Rogue's salmon and steelhead runs.
By watching weekly counts of steelhead reaching the upper Rogue's end of the line — the Cole Rivers Hatchery collection pond — anglers such as Theel have figured out a system for guessing whether it is steelhead time.
"This year, as soon as the hatchery count hit 70, I knew there would be a good chance of hooking into them, and once it hit 100, you could completely switch over from springers if you wanted to," Theel says.
"Without the dams, I think it's now just watching the hatchery counts and the time of year," he says.
A review of old steelhead counts at Gold Ray Dam and collection reports from the hatchery shows that Theel's theory has statistical veracity.
An old adage said that when 500 steelhead were counted at the dam, it was time to go. A review of hatchery and counting-station records show that, over the last decade of the dam's existence, 500 summer steelhead went over Gold Ray Dam the same week that hatchery steelhead collection numbers were just under, or just over, 100.
That magic number was hit three weeks ago, aligning finely for those catching steelhead on plugs, worms or flies in and around Shady Cove, and fishing with all three methods will continue — and likely improve — through August before the flies-only season starts here Sept. 1.
Through Monday, this year's hatchery count of summer steelhead is 294, well below last year's Herculean count of 839 that has skewed the 10-year average of 382 by July 15, hatchery Manager Dave Pease says.
The lowest count by July 15 was 171 steelhead in 2009, while the remaining eight years in the past decade all ranged from 200 to 400 steelhead in the collection pond, Pease says.
"So, we're pretty much right there for an average early run," Pease says.
Early summer steelhead in the upper Rogue feature a mix of wild and hatchery fish, ranging from smallish, 20-inch adults that were last year's halfpounders to 8 pounders that are the class of the run.
Theel says a rumored 20-pound summer steelhead allegedly caught last month on the Rogue most likely weighed in the mid-teens. Pease says his crew found a large, male, hatchery summer steelhead in the collection pond that was so big they actually weighed it, and it came in at a solid 15 pounds, but 3- to 5-pound steelhead are the most common for the entire run.
Though much smaller than Rogue salmon and winter steelhead, summer steelhead are prized by anglers because they are such willing combatants.
They live in swift riffles and eagerly strike all sorts of baits, lures and flies. They are wonderfully acrobatic, run strong and tug hard, particular when fished with light gear.
They also come out to play best in the evening as shadows cloak the Rogue, allowing for casual, evening, beat-the-heat driftboat floats, which helps guides fill in some extra action after an early-morning spring chinook trip.
"I get most of my early ones fishing between (salmon) holes with small plugs," says guide Charlie "Steelhead" Brown.
Brown says he doesn't use any magical number of fish at the hatchery to tell him when it's time to target steelhead.
"It's more word of mouth and what happens in your boat on a daily basis," Brown says. "Most of the steelhead so far have been wild, so I think there are a lot more fish than the (hatchery) counts show.
Theel says those early June steelhead seemed to be a pleasant omen for the early run now stalking the upper Rogue.
"With fish being caught at the beginning of June, I knew that July would be good as long as the hatchery counts kept going up at a decent rate," he says. "Hopefully, August will be as good as last year."