This has been an interesting summer steelhead season so far in the southern end of the Willamette Valley. We have had the best return of summer steelhead since 2004, but because the Army Corps of Engineers has been draining all the reservoirs in the southern Willamette basin in order to work on the dams, the river has been running about a foot higher than normal most of the season. To the uninitiated, a foot of water doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it makes a dramatic difference in the fishing. Very few of the spots that I would fish given normal summer or fall flows are producing. The fish I am finding are still sitting in classic, walking-paced, relatively shallow lies. These lies are just in different spots than they normally would be this time of year.
Because of the high water, I am still having most of my success with various leech patterns and tube flies with a bulky profile fished on a sink tip. Today, however, I was disappointed that I didn’t have a rod rigged with a floating line in the boat. I was fishing with my buddy Kyle, and while sitting on anchor in a tail-out, we observed a steelhead rising to Pale Morning Duns. It is likely that a fish this frisky would have pounced on a skater, but Kyle settled for catching it on a sink tip. I have certainly made worse compromises.
By the end of August, flows on the Willamette and its tribs are projected to drop to a normal summer level and stay there through the end of the season. In years past, the fall fly fishing on the Willamette for steelhead has been very good at times, but variable day to day because the flows typically change unpredictably with the whim of the Army Corps of engineers. This year, having already drawn reservoir levels down to service the dams, it is likely that the Corps will keep river levels low and steady throughout September and October. These will be perfect conditions for fly anglers.
This time of year, the sun is up early and high in the sky. Unless your are fishing a canyon river or one with high banks, the window of opportunity for morning shade is limited. While I have caught steelhead in the grey dawn of morning recently, I have seen a lot more come to the fly in bright, hot, sunny, and sometimes windy conditions. Conventional steelhead theory has it that the fish chase swung flies better in the shade of morning or evening, which I believe is certainly the case. It is just that there is so much more sunshine than shade this time of year. Many fly anglers under estimate their chances for success in sunny conditions. My experience is that sun on the water is certainly not a deal-breaker, and that perserverence is usually rewarded.
If anyone is interested in flyfishing the McKenzie or Willamette for summer steelhead, please let me know. I have a good deal of availability throughout August, September, and parts of October. This type of fishing is one of my areas of expertise. If you are a trout angler and are looking to learn steelhead techniques and tactics, a guided fishing trip is a great way to get a jump-start on success. Many fly anglers spend their first few seasons of steelhead fishing in a protracted, misguided and aimless hunt for the silver unicorn. This is not always a fish of a thousand casts, and learning how and where to focus your efforts will dramatically improve your cast to steelhead ratio.