The steelhead are there... but you aren't!
Why nobody steelheads the Grande Ronde in September has perplexed me over the last handful of years. Now when I say "nobody" that doesn't mean literally zero humans in sight, because there are a few in the know down there fishing. What I mean is that the majority of anglers don't show up until October, like there is some magical date that all of a sudden October 1st hits and BAM the steelhead are here. Obviously, the bulk of steelhead coming into the Grande Ronde show up the 2nd week of October, however, there are enough fish coming in early to make it a feasible trip during mid-late September and have a realistic shot at catching chrome.
Why I think steelheading in September on the Grande Ronde is feasible - Let's think about this... steelhead start showing up on the Columbia River Steelhead Return Reports in June correct? Ok, so, we know steelhead enter the Columbia during the early summer and really start pouring in late summer. Well, those early fish are on a mission. They are going to swim until they get to their final destination which for a lot of them is the upper tribs to the Columbia like the Grande Ronde. Now, if that fish enters the Columbia during the summer months the water is pretty warm correct? Yes. So why would that fish that just swam through hundreds of miles of warm water stop before the Grande Ronde or just at the mouth of Grande Ronde where it dumps into the Snake and wait for cooler water. They don't!
Now that I went on that rant, I do agree colder areas of water do attract steelhead (ie the Clearwater), but I don't think those fish that get side tracked by the cooler water of the Clearwater are going to stay in there for very long. I also agree that a fresh shot of rain that causes the river levels to rise a little really gets the masses of fish moving around, 100% agree.
My theory is that there always are those early arrival fish that are aggressive, fast swimmers, and have a long ways to travel so they are going to go into the Grande Ronde no matter what the conditions until they get to their final stopping point.
It seems to be that lots of the early steelhead are fish that are Oregon bound, tend to be on the larger side, and are wild. They are fully of energy and highly aggressive.
The overlooked fish in September on the Grande Ronde - Now obviously the idea of the this article is to point out the fact that there is the window come September where you can catch steelhead in the Grande Ronde and the river is a ghost town. The other point of the article is to note that the "alternative" species you catch while looking for your first steelhead of season are really quite impressive.
Steelheading in September on the Grande Ronde may not be the big numbers you are going to see in October/November or later... but you will find a few here and there and you are going to catch some great smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, and steelhead smolts along the way. All of which are extremely fun to catch and can be of decent size... respectable on any river system. The smallies and trout will hit the exact same flies, whether swung or nymphed, that you will fish for steelhead so you don't even have to change gear to catch these "alternative" species. And last time I checked... A fish is better than NO fish!
Final thoughts... On my last trip down with my friend Spencer, we saw numerous herds of elk. Listened to bull elk bugling each morning and evening. Saw a variety birds, mule deer, coyote, one rattlesnake, and literally zero humans in 2 days of fishing.
Even if the amount of anglers changes in September, knowing that you have a shot at a big, early steelhead, great smallmouth bass, trout, and wildlife and maybe a few less people is good enough for me!
See you on the Grande Ronde in September. Thanks for reading.