Summer Steelhead are Suckers for the Right Spinner
By Gary Lewis
It was already warm when I stepped from the truck at 7:00 in the morning. Heavy clouds kept the warmth of the previous day from escaping in the night. I was wearing camouflage, all gray, to help me pass for a rock. The water was low and the rip-rapped channel provided no cover to hide me from the fish. As long as I could blend in to my surroundings I had a chance to catch a fish.
There wasn't anything special about this place other than that it held fish. It wasn't particularly pretty, no white water, no long smooth pool - just a few boulders and some fast water giving way to a short bend hole.
The steelhead would hold in the riffles behind the boulders early in the morning, retiring to the deeper pool in the day or running upriver.
From up above I could usually get a pretty good idea of what was in store for me. Today, the water was about four foot deep and I could see three fish holding in the riffles. There were probably a few more.
I backed up out of sight and headed downstream. As long as I came up behind them I'd be able to cast without spooking fish. The first few casts always hold the most promise.
I would use a small spinner first, nickel plated to throw minimum flash. Low water steelhead are easily spooked and I like to start with something that won't send them running.
The first cast was a searching shot into the pool. Downstream fish can run upstream and scare the others. I moved upstream casting as I went, picking my way from boulder to boulder, careful not to put my weight where it might tip one, sending shock waves through the water.
Finally in position, I sent my spinner upstream of the closest fish and let it tumble with the current, reeling as it approached to within ten feet. I brought the spinner across in front of the fish and it made a false charge then backed off.
I changed lures repeatedly. Unwilling to bite or move, the fish held in the riffle, sometimes chasing the spinners I threw at them, other times outright ignoring them. Out of frustration, I chose the biggest, flashiest spinner in my box. It was a number 4 silver-plated blade with red and green beads, one I'd assembled myself for deep, dark holes or big river fish. This would be the last I'd try.
I swung the lure halfway across the narrow channel to land with a splash on the other side of a boulder. As the current swept it behind the rock I started to reel and a nine pound steelhead hammered it.
The fish took to the air jumping twice, head shaking to throw the lure and line peeled off the reel as it bolted downstream for deeper water.
That was early in the season. What I learned that year was that there is no magic to enticing a steelhead to take a spinner. Rather, a steelhead will hit a spinner for one reason. Big fish like their space. Let a flashy interloper into their living room and they will react in one of three ways. One, pretend it doesn't exist. Two, run away from it. Or, three, destroy it. The only way a big fish can kill a smaller creature is to crush it in their mouth. This is the response the fisherman wants to provoke.
The fisherman's job is to elicit a strike before the fish are spooked and run away. I believe that any fish that can be spotted can be caught. That's why I almost always use polarized glasses to cut the glare on the water. If I can see the fish before they see me then I can plan a stalk.
There should be a variety of spinners in your box. Start with the minimum flash that you believe is necessary to move a fish into striking. In low water that might be a tarnished brass or black bladed lure. In deeper water that might mean a shiny brass blade or even a silver-plated lure in a muddy river. It is a fine line between enough shine to make them chase it and so much that it spooks them.
I believe you can aggravate fish into striking. That is why you can cast to holding fish for an hour, then switch to something flashy and one will streak from across the run to slam it.
Maximize the time that the spinner is in front of the fish. That means a tantalizingly slow retrieve. Just fast enough that the blade spins, rarely will a fish take a spinner that doesn't spin. In the case of fish holding in a riffle - cast from downstream and bring the spinner straight toward them, just above the speed of the water. They will have no choice but to hit it or get out of the way.
Treat it as a logical process, understand the reasons why a fish will hit one spinner when nothing else will work. There's nothing mystical about enticing a steelhead to bite, but there is magic in what happens after you set the hook.