Oregon coastal summer steelhead on the move

By Rob Russell

Entering the coast range Friday evening, I left the sun behind and drove into an impressive mass of clouds. Rain came down in sheets for the next two hours. Later, as I pulled into the little coastal fishing village, Mishler was cruising the boat ramps looking for rolling fish. We met on the outskirts of town at the lowest landing. The bay was choppy and a strong incoming tide was bringing in mats of debris. Not ideal for flyfishing. We decided to get a burger and beer at the Sportsman’s Bar and Grill.

The little pub was packed, but we found a corner table. I went to the bar to order. When I returned we had a visitor. A spry codger named Noel had sat down next to Mish, talking to the folks at the next table. Soon we were all talking, and Noel held court. He was a retired teacher and commercial salmon fisherman. Most everyone in that bar was somehow related to Noel. The bar owner had Noel to thank for getting him into his first salmon, for getting him to move to the Oregon coast, and for getting him to open the bar. The locals at the next table were Noel’s kids, fun people, full of smiles and laughs. Then Noel’s grand-daughters showed up, along with a bunch of their girlfriends. We were surrounded by some fine young ladies, all of whom were getting their drink on.

Jack Harrell and his son John walked in, and I waved them over. Jack is one of the North Coast’s flyfishing gurus, so we were grateful to hear his report and share what little we knew. The word, according to Jack, was that the fish had migrated. “They left Monday or Tuesday,” Jack said. “The bay went dead.” His story was easy to believe, especially given all the rain that had fallen over the prior 24 hours. But it was not what I wanted to hear. I could easily focus my efforts in the river instead of the bay. But I knew the rain would bring out a lot of drift boats, so competition in the river could be intense. I also doubted Jack’s assertion, not because I thought he was lying, but because time has taught me to trust my intuition. And my intuition told me the bay was full of fish.

We camped under a calm night sky, sipping micro brews until midnight, telling old fishing stories and irritating the poor tourists in the next camp. Sorry, campers! We were having too much fun to retire early.

The next morning we launched into the bay at first light. The bay and the sky overhead were serene. Fog rose from the hills and puffy clouds hung low over the valley. As soon as we were situated we noticed salmon entering the pool. They pushed big wakes as they shot through shallow sand flats. Most wakes disappeared as the fish entered deeper water. A few stayed suspended just under the surface and waked all the way through the pool and into the next shallow flat. It was a fly fisher’s dream, and the stage was set. Three of us worked the water, stripping our flies at varied depths and speeds. The fish kept coming, and they kept going by. After a couple of hours, I finally hooked up. I set the hook, felt the fish pumping, and struggled to strip more line in. The fish came at me and I was too slow to strip tight to him. A few seconds later he was gone. Strike one!

The tide set ended without any further action, so we pulled out and headed up river for a float. The river looked great, with just a hint of color. It was still extremely low, and there were several boats ahead of us, so our chances of hooking salmon were not great. Thankfully, a prime spot had been neglected by the other boats, and we hooked a perfect chinook. I pulled away from the nasty snags at the head of the pool, and the fish followed obediently. It came to the boat easily in spite of its size and freshness. Then the shiny beast made a quick roll and threw the hook. Strike two!

We fished diligently all the way down river without a bite. Finally, we anchored at reach of tide. High tide had just passed, so there was a good chance there was a salmon in the pool ahead. Mish stripped flies for a while, but the fly wasn’t getting down into the zone. I backed a little plug down and whammo! Fish on–a heavy one. Shake, shake, shake, gone. I checked the hook and it was still sticky sharp. Strike three, outta there! Just one of those days.

Sunday I was joined by my buddy Tim and his son Mitch. We ran the same routine: bay in the morning, river in the mid-day, back to the bay for the evening. This time only two wakes came up the bay. There was a light breeze and good cloud cover. No grabs, and very few fish showing themselves. We bailed early for the river.

As we launched, a bank angler walked away with a steelhead. Just down river Tim got a small steelhead, covered in sea lice. Below there we saw a pod of three fresh steelhead moving through a tailout. Then a few more. There were a lot of steelies on the move. As we approached reach of tide, we saw two more groups of fish coming up. I kept hoping we would intercept one of those pods in a good spot, and as I was thinking that, Mitch hooked up. The little rod flattened out and Mitch set the hook. There was a moment of silence, then a big steelhead flew into the air just a few feet fom the boat. “Oooooh!” we all yelled in unison. The fish was HOT! Up the river, down the river, jump, jump, back up river. It just wouldn’t quit, and it was a couple of pounds over the average size.

Rob Russell megachrome steelhead

Finally Mitch pulled the mint-bright fish to the beach and pounced on it. His father, Tim, looked on with pride. Not a bad way to celebrate Father’s Day. And a great kick-off to coastal summer steelhead season! Time to tie up a dozen muddlers and dust off the summer gear…

This entry was posted in Coastal Steelhead Fishing, Summer Steelhead. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Oregon coastal summer steelhead on the move

  1. Ira says:

    How is the steelhead fishing in the willamette in town?

  2. Rob R says:


    The town run has been slow for me, but there are plenty of fish in the river. Saw a guy pack one out this morning…

  3. jay nicholas says:

    Rob: it is so heart-warming to 1) share your time on the water, 2) see these rivers and fish antics through your eyes when i have been home mowing the lawn or organizing my fly boxes, and 3) think about the many, many young people you have generously introduced to fishing here in Oregon. This latter thought is one more reflection of your character — your freely given gift of knowledge, river perspective, and good memory-material. I salute you, dude!

Leave a Reply

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