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Locating Steelhead

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Locating Productive Steelhead  Water and How to Fish It Mike Frey steelhead battle / Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River Fishing Guidewith a Fly

by Michael Gorman, copyright (c) 2006.  All rights reserved.

                Let me state the obvious: you can’t catch steelhead where they aren’t.  Identifying specific locations in a river where steelhead hold to rest on their upstream spawning journey is absolutely crucial to angling success. 

            Though most steelhead must traverse miles and miles of a river’s course, it is not until the fish actually stops to linger for a time --- minutes to days --- that a fisherman has a reasonable hope of enticing the steelhead to strike.  There is little or no interest from a fish on the move. 

            As for choosing specific resting stations, steelhead are picky.  They don’t linger just anywhere.  It’s kind of like a hiker walking through forested mountains.  When it’s time to pitch a tent for the night, the location is picked with great care.  For this reason, it is my assessment that more than 99% of the area in a typical river does not hold resting steelhead.  Most of any given river may be too shallow, too fast, too slow, too exposed, too warm, too cold for steelhead to linger for long.  The astute angler must discover the “Sweet 1%”. 

            For locating my “Sweet 1%”, I give thought to the three following considerations:

1)      Adequate depth to protect the fish from inordinate exposure to predators and continued disturbance from boaters and anglers.  As a fly fisherman, I focus on water depths of three to seven feet.

2)      Reasonable current velocity, best described vaguely as “walking speed”.

3)      Streamside or river bottom structure, including boulders, ledges, depressions, and channels.

 The Search Begins

            Every steelhead river has named fishing “holes”.  The Powerline Hole; the Meat Hole; Dead Man’s Hole; the Ace-in-the-Hole Hole.  “Hole” is too generic for me, and is probably not helpful to the inexperienced angler trying to recognize productive steelhead water.  The same goes for a river “pool”.  Too general.  I arbitrarily classify worthy water into five general types: tailouts, runs, channels, pockets, and seams.  My definitions / descriptions of these are my own. Know that I am not looking to engage in nitpicking with someone having a different definition for these terms.  I realize that some good fish-holding areas could be classified as some sort of hybrid of the five water types I will be describing.


            Think of running uphill against the wind.  Migrating steelhead coursing their way upstream against the swift currents of a rapid may be inclined to rest a bit once they’ve reached quiet water.  The smooth, tamer water immediately upstream of a rapid is a tailout.  Using round numbers, the tailout may extend from fifty to a hundred feet, or more, upstream of a rapid. Though no two are exactly alike, the typical tailout will range from a few inches to two to three feet deep across its breadth, from bank to bank.  Factoring in the combination of current velocity, depth, and stream bottom structure, a steelhead may linger just above the rapid for awhile if left undisturbed.  Because the typical tailout has flat, unriffled surface currents, and is rather shallow, the fish is exposed.  Observant predators and anglers will often be able to visually locate a steelhead parked in a tailout.  You can bet the steelhead is on high alert for danger.  It has not survived to this point in its life by being careless.  So, stealth is of extreme importance to the would-be successful fisherman.

Typical Tailout / Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            The fly angler has two viable fishing options in the typical tailout: the skated dry fly and the swinging wet fly.

            Most steelhead fly anglers, novice and veteran alike, are probably most familiar with the wet fly presentation.  If the ambient light is dim due to time of day, an overcast sky, or the fish is in water shaded by tall trees or high terrain, a floating fly line is typically used.  Unless the current is very swift, the wet fly drifts from a few inches to a few feet below the surface.  The strategy is to have the fly swing across the current in a broad arc in front of the fish, close enough to stir its striking interest.  The angler is positioned upstream and off to the side of the fish, as opposed to directly upstream of the quarry.  The fly is presented at an angle slightly downstream from across the current.  Successive casts are about two feet longer than the preceding one until the fishable area has been completely covered.
              Soon after each wet fly cast is made the fly line is mended.  A mend is a lifting and repositioning of the fly line upstream of the fly so as to slow the fly a bit as it arcs across the river.  Multiple mends may be necessary.  A slow-moving wet fly has been repeatedly proven to be most provocative to willing steelhead.   Should the fish refuse the fly, consider changing to a smaller pattern, and maybe a different color, too.

            For a steelhead holding in direct sunlight, it may be necessary to utilize a full-sinking or sink-tip fly line.  In bright light a fish may need to have the fly presented at its holding level near the stream bottom, unwilling to move upward to a fly drifting overhead.  An alternative to the sinking line would be a weighted wet fly that will swim deep as it approaches the steelhead.  Lead wire wrapped underneath the body of the fly as it is created, or lead eyes tied near the hook eye will work to this end.

            If the light is dim, or the water in shade, and you are willing to risk a heart attack, consider skating a dry fly over a tailout steelhead.  Using a floating fly line, of course, the fly fisherman casts the fly down and across the current at the same angle as the wet fly.   A mend to the line may or may not be necessary.  The angler must watch the progress of the fly.  To be most effective the skating fly should create a wake as it progresses through its arc near the fish.  Though this does not work on every tailout fish, the wake of the floating fly, for some reason, will excite the right steelhead.

            When the strike, slash or sip of the dry comes, do nothing!  Wait until the fish has submerged with the hook in its mouth AND begins to pull line off your fly reel.  Set the hook too quickly, which is our natural instinct, and the fly will be pulled from the fish’s mouth.  This is a hard lesson, but necessary.  You need nerves of steel for this technique.  Welcome and enjoy the challenge.


            I define a steelhead run as a wide and long expanse of river where the aggregate of current velocity, depth and structure to a resting steelhead’s liking is abundant throughout.  Submerged boulders often abound in such areas.  The steelhead are happy to rest just about anywhere in a good run, so an angler must very systematically cover the this type of prime water throughout its entire width and length, though there may be a few special boulders or pockets within the run that are especially attractive to traveling steelhead.  Think of these as the best “homes’ in an excellent neighborhood.

            Runs lend themselves to being fished with wet flies for sure, as described previously.  For those portions of a run where the surface flows are relatively smooth, not too riffled, the skating dry fly can be effective.  Where the run is three to seven feet deep, nymph fly fishing can be deadly. (For more a more in-depth discussion of the nuances of steelhead nymph fishing, see Salmon & Steelhead Journal magazine, Summer, 2004)    

Typical steelhead run / Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            Most nymph fly patterns are imitations of immature aquatic insects.  However, egg flies and colorful concoctions, generally referred to as attractor flies, are also fished using the nymphing technique.  The fly is cast upstream, roughly at an angle of 45 – 60 degrees from straight across the river’s current.  The flies are allowed to sink on a slack line.  Most, but not all, of the slack is gathered by the fly fisherman as it drifts back toward him with the current.  If a steelhead intercepts the fly, the line will hesitate or tighten.  The angler Gorman's Veiled Assassin / Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River Fishing Guideshould not expect to feel the strike.  Since an artificial fly has no agreeable, taste, smell or texture, the steelhead holds it only briefly before expelling it.  From interception to expulsion may be a second or less.  This is a game of quick draw.  The angler must be alert and respond quickly to have any hope of hooking the fish.  A strike indicator made of cork, foam or synthetic yarn secured on the leader at a distance above the fly equal to the water depth plus two feet, serves as a great visual aid in detecting a grab.

            A fourth fly fishing method that can be employed in covering a steelhead run involves the use of my Hybrid Line System. (See Salmon & Steelhead Journal magazine, Fall 2004)  Using interchangeable sinking-tips attached to a running line, the angler casts upstream at approximately a 45 degree angle.  The fly is allowed to sink on a slack line, just as in nymph fishing.  The nymphing method is employed during the drift until the system is approximately 45 degrees downstream of your position.  Then, after the line is mended upstream of the fly, it arcs across the current on a tight line, fished just as a wet fly would be.  Two fly fishing methods --- nymphing and wet fly --- are employed on a single drift of the fly.     

ChannelsBankside channel/ Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River Fishing Guide

            A channel is a well defined narrow band of deep water bounded by shallow water.  These are often found near the river’s edge, close to the bank.  In pointing them out to my fishing clients I refer to them as “dark green highways”.  Where a run is broad, a channel is narrow.  They are literally used as highways for traveling steelhead. Where the fish find depth, cover, and suitable structure in the course of a channel, they are prompted to linger. 

            All four fly fishing methods used for prospecting runs, can, potentially, be used in channels.  Your options will be driven by the usual factors: depth, current velocity, choppy or smooth surface conditions, direct sunlight or shade, and overhanging tree limbs if near the river bank.


            Pockets are small fish-holding locations usually associated with swift water and structure.  In a boulder-strewn rapid, there are areas of quieter (not dead-still) water that may be found in front of, behind, or beside large rocks.  If a boulder is submerged, the pocket immediately downstream of it may be fishable.  If the rock is exposed above the river’s surface, the pocket behind it may have slack “dead” water or an eddy which does not hold a steelhead, or makes it impossible to present a fly in a convincing manner.  So don’t maintain the notion that the pocket immediately behind a boulder is always a good fishing-holding spot.  Be discriminating.  Seek a uni-directional current, not a swirling eddy.

            Though most pockets are associated with a rapid, there are solitary steelhead pockets near a solitary boulder, or a scour in the stream bottom where the river’s currents have carved out an obvious deeper water depression surrounded entirely by shallower water. These are like little oases in the desert.  A migrating steelhead may have traveled a considerable distance through unsuitable holding water when it finally happens upon a pocket where a pause is in order.

Depending on the specific characteristics of a pocket, dry flies, wet flies or nymphs may be employed.  Because they are usually small, pockets do not take long to cover.  Fish them thoroughly and quickly; then, move on.  Pocket steelhead, if interested at all, are usually aggressive as they respond to the fly.


            The boundary between fast water and slow water is referred to as a seam.        It is a transition zone where the water may be to the liking of a resting steelhead, typically a band two to six feet wide.  The swift currents on one side of the seam are too fast for a fish to comfortably hold.  The slower-moving, or slack water, on the other side of the seam is too quiet to be attractive or secure for the steelhead, so it travels and holds on the seam.

           Seam Fishing / Michael Gorman photo / McKnzie river fishing guide I prefer to use either the wet fly method or nymphing to fish seams.  I cast the wet fly into the faster water, then, swing it into and across the seam.  I start at the upstream end of the target area and systematically work my way downstream until I have covered its entire length.  If I choose to probe the water with nymphs --- usually my first choice --- I can start at either the upstream or downstream terminus of the productive water, working until I’ve covered the entire length of the seam.  The nymph is dropped right into the seam and allowed to drift naturally with the current through the heart of the prime water.

            As I said earlier, there are steelhead-holding locations that do not easily fall into any one single category as described above.  Don’t fret about it.  Rather than worrying about how to specifically define the water where you are trying to find a willing steelhead, try to discern if the water in front of you has the characteristics that would encourage a fish to hold there: current velocity, depth and structure.  Match the fly fishing methods to the nature of your chosen piece of water and your skills.

Think you know where the fish are, now that you’ve “put in your time”?  Then get ready to deal with the reality that the even when you do finally locate prime holding water, you will eventually discover that any given Sweet Spot can shift or disappear as water levels and time change them.  That’s right.  The “Sweet 1%” is a moving target.  Last week’s or last year’s “can’t miss” fishing hole, may no longer hold fish today.

Let me jump into a story to illustrate focusing on the Sweet Spot, assuming you’ve found it today.

Bull’s Eye

I love Robin Hood movies. Even as a boy I had a fascination with sword play and long bows.  Every single one of these movies has an archery contest sponsored by the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.  Hood always shows up in some lame peasant’s disguise to claim the prize on the very last shot of the tournament.  This final shot is always dramatic.  The preceding effort by another bowman has struck the bull’s eye dead center on the distant, distant target.  How can Sir Robin (King Richard the Lionhearted, ending his frolics at the Crusades, returns in some movies to bestow knighthood) top this?  Of course he does so by evenly splitting the tiny, tiny shaft of the preceding arrow.  He wins the day, the hearts of the oppressed, and the beautiful Maid Marion.  This reminds of steelhead fishing.

The upper reaches of Oregon’s Alsea River are twenty-five minutes from my home.  Late December through early February is prime time for the mix of hatchery and native winter steelhead on their spawning migration.  I may spend a few hours two or three days a week here if the flows are fishable.

On any steelhead river it has been my experience that more water appears fishable and productive than actually is.  In virtually every good looking run that holds fish there is a “Sweet Spot”.  One of my goals is to precisely position myself --- we might be talking, literally, about a few steps upstream or downstream --- to get the fly to drift perfectly through the small Target Area.  If slightly too far upstream, the line pulls tight in the current lifting the fly off the bottom.  Two steps too far downstream you discover the fly has not had sufficient time to sink to the fishes’ holding level.  Casting position, like desirable real estate, can be everything.

On a frozen January morning I found the river low and clear. These conditions were ideal for fishing The Distant Bedrock Nook.  I moved into perfect position to discover if there might be a biting steelhead in this tiny sweet spot.  The cast would be a long one considering I was under a canopy of trees whose limbs reached out from all directions attempting to grab my leader and flies.  I have very little backcast room and must keep the forward cast relatively low to safely get to the target.  Once the flies hit the water I must mend the line to create necessary slack for the flies to sink.  A pull on the line to adjust the line of drift is imperative.  Only one in ten casts, sometimes one in twenty, is just right.  The steelhead holding area here is both narrow and short.  I am speculating when I say six feet long by three or four feet wide. 

I watch many anglers fish this little spot.  Occasionally I see a fish caught that isn’t on my hook.  Most anglers are unsuccessful during my observations.  Most of the time it is because their bait, lure or fly is not fished deep enough or slow enough.  Sometimes it is because their standing position is not right, so a proper drift in the fish’s holding zone is not possible.  And, I’m certain many don’t know the exact location of the Sweet Spot.Winter Steelhead Tail with Reel / Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River guide

On the morning of my story it took me more than two dozen casts to finally put all the necessary elements of the perfect drift together.  Experienced anglers “sense” the Perfect Drift.  My strike indicator was coursing as slowly as the current would allow dead center in the line of drift that would allow the flies to drift lazily through the Spot.  I expected the strike indicator to go down.  It did.

The native hen attached to my line sprinted around the river in front of me for four or five minutes before I finally got a good look at her.  As her fight slowed I coaxed the steelhead downstream to a suitable shallow area where I could slide her onto her side for the release.  I backed out the size 6 egg pattern and watched her sprint into the depths.

It both fascinates and teaches me that getting the Perfect Drift requires repeated effort.  The first twenty (or so) casts to this steelhead’s zone were not good enough to entice it to bite, drifting either too high or low; drifting too far left, too far right; drifting, perhaps, unnaturally fast.

I frequently tell my clients, “Where there can be one fish there may be two”.  Taking my own adage to heart I returned to my original position and made subsequent attempts at a second Perfect Drift.  This time it took me less than a dozen tries.  It was de'javu all over again.

If you are a believer in reincarnation, and you come back to this world as a fish, remember that one of the best escape moves you can make is to immediately swim directly at the angler.  Slack line is instantly created.  With little tension on the line the hook can often be thrown before it penetrates deeply. 

This steelhead knew this evasive maneuver.  I frantically swung my rod tip in many different directions while reeling line trying to tighten against the charging fish.  It doesn’t always work but I was able to finally make contact with my quarry.  I set the hook to, as best I could, bury the point in its jaw.  My efforts were successful.  I eventually slid this naughty hatchery buck into the shallows I had visited earlier with the hen. 

So, there were two steelhead in the little pocket of my interest.  Both were very discriminating about the presentation of my fly.  The bull’s eye can be quite small, and a slow, deep drift of the fly through the target is mandatory. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Sweet Spot can move or disappear.  At higher, yet fishable, river levels, my Bedrock Nook does not hold steelhead.  Apparently the increased hydraulics make make it too uncomfortable for a fish to linger here.  The preferred holding area has moved a short cast upstream to the inside corner of a riffled run.  An astute, experienced angler will soon figure it out. 

Expanding on Desirable Traits

Previously, I have given a curt overview of the good steelhead holding water, concerning depth, current velocity, and stream bottom structure.  Let me expand the descriptions a bit.

If I might generalize, I would state that good rainbow trout water in a river is also good steelhead water.  For, after all, a steelhead IS a rainbow trout that, because of its genetics, goes to sea for part of its life.  That said, I seek out specific locations in the stream where there is perceptible current.  I would describe the pace of the current to be, roughly, “walking speed”.  I understand this is a nebulous term.  Not everyone walks at the same speed.  On the other hand, steelhead do not always linger in currents of exactly the same velocity.  When the water is very cold --- let’s say 35 – 42 degrees Fahrenheit --- steelhead hold in slower currents than they would typically sit at warm water temperatures in the 55 – 60 degree range.  So “walking speed” is descriptive of a general range, something between a slow saunter and jogging.  Think reasonably here.

The second characteristic of the water I consider prime for prospecting for steelhead with a fly is the correct depth.  I seek out flows that are 2 ½ - 7 feet deep.  Can steelhead be found in shallower water?  Yes.  Will they hold in deeper water?  Most definitely.  However, I focus on areas where the water is a minimum of 2 ½’ because such depths will hold steelhead and I can usually approach stealthily to get quite near without alarming them, especially if the water’s surface is riffly or choppy.  If the water does not exceed 7’ I have a chance, with polarized glasses, to see specific boulders, slots, ledges, and depressions that give me visual clues as to where exactly a steelhead may be positioned.  I may be able to actually see the fish if the light and clarity are right.  Additionally, it is in this depth range that I can most effectively present my fly from top to bottom, maintaining excellent line control and being able to instantly detect a strike. 

A fish in 7’ of water or less is often willing to come all the way to the surface to intercept a dry fly or shallow-running wet fly.  If it is sitting on the bottom at 8 – 15 feet, that’s a significantly greater distance to see the fly in riffly water and be willing to swim that far to intercept it.  Other anglers may differ here, so know that I am relating my own observations and biases. 

Lastly, my favorite steelhead lies will have some interesting structure or physical feature the fish finds appealing: boulders, a ledge, a scoured depression, or a deeper slot between structures.  These have the possibility of offering the steelhead comfort from the swift current or bright sun and some degree of protection from predators, including anglers.  If fish are found lying in an exposed position, such as a shallow tailout preceding rapids, they will usually not linger for long as the sun gets high or something or someone disturbs them.  Sheltered locations are quickly sought.

Steelhead can be located in water that is shallower and deeper than my specified depth range.  They can be caught where the water seems faster than my “walking speed” pace.  And, certainly, steelhead can  be taken from water that has little or no structure.  However, I am always looking to maximize my fishing efforts.  This means focusing my fishing time, and that of my clients, where we have the BEST chance of closely approaching resting steelhead in maximum numbers.  Making an accurate cast, getting a very controlled and effective drift of the fly, and having the ability to instantly detect and react to the strike of  the fish are best accommodated by staying within my recommended parameters. 

Visual Aids

Polarized glasses are a great visual aid in seeing holding steelhead.  The polarization cuts the reflected glare on the water.  Virtually any pair of polarized glasses has a tag or sticker on it stating that they are, indeed, polarized.  If you are not sure, ask the clerk before you buy them.  To double check you can superimpose your selected lenses over a lens known for sure to be polarized.  As you rotate the lenses relative to each other as you look through them you will see them “go black”, blocking out all light attempting to pass through them.

A variety of polarized lens tints are available: yellow, for very dim light; dark grey, for extremely bright settings; and, brown or copper for “medium” light and all-round general use.  If you ask, polarized prescription glasses are readily available.

From an eye safety standpoint, glasses are necessary to protect your eyes from an errant hook.  Your sloppy cast or that from a beginner in your proximity can cause serious ocular harm.  It’s troubling to count the number of times I’ve had clients bounce a weighted nymph off my lenses.  Wear those glasses, even on a rainy morning or evening.

Protect Your Eyes From Your Flies

I have two angling acquaintances that each had the misfortune of hooking themselves in the eye. Though these were totally unrelated instances, there are some eerie similarities.  They both had worn glasses during the bright part of the day.  Both fished into the evening, and removed their glasses as evening progressed so they could see better in the failing light.  Both fishermen barely had the hook point penetrate an eyeball, so it was extracted with little fanfare.  Both camped out overnight, planning to seek medical in the morning.  Both woke up blind in the infected eye.  One of the characters almost lost the vision in the injured eye permanently when he postponed medical help until late afternoon of the day following his accident!

Personally, I’ve had numerous occasions where clients have inadvertently bounced flies off the lenses of my glasses while casting in my proximity.  I shudder to think what could have happened had I not been wearing them.  I insist, as a safety measure, that clients and guests fishing in my boat wear glasses at all times for eye protection.

More About Polarization

Be choosy about your polarized lens selection in order to protect the retinas of your eyes. 

The iris of the eye expands or contract with light intensity, increasing or decreasing the amount of light allowed entering the eye.  In bright light the pupil is quite small.  This serves to diminish the amount of harmful ultraviolet (UV) light admitted.  UV rays can have a long term deleterious affect on the retina, the “movie screen” on the back of the eyeball.

By artificially blocking the visible light intensity in bright sunlight by wearing sunglasses, the pupil is dilated (enlarged) to some degree.  This can allow the harmful UV rays to enter the eye through an enlarged target area.  You need to select lenses that screen out UV rays.  Look for a label or tag on new glasses before you purchase them to insure that 98 – 99% of UV light is filtered out.

A variety of polarized lens colors are available.  Besides the standard brown or dark grey for bright sun, consider getting a second pair of glasses with yellow or light amber lenses.  These will brighten the what you view, to see and protect your eyes from flies in the dim light of early morning, late evening, and overcast conditions.

Time is required to discover excellent steelhead holding water.  Sometimes such locations are obvious.  The smaller, overlooked gems are not.  Small Sweet Spots are harder to find, but persistence and experimentation will reveal them.  One simple shortcut is to watch other anglers, especially if you see them hook a steelhead.  Make a precise mental note of where they are casting.

If you carefully observe the river bottom --- using polarized glasses --- at low water times, you can discern little pockets where fish will hold when the water is higher.  I make mental notes so that on subsequent trips I will remember these.  Too, there may be portions of a proven run that I overestimate or underestimate at higher water.  Observation at low water may enable me to fine-tune my approach in fishing this spot when high water returns.  Logs and clumps of wood debris in a hole are fly grabbers.  Low water allows me to chart and memorize their exact position.  Wood snags cost you money and fishing time, the latter being a particularly precious commodity.

When I mine little gems --- small, not-so-obvious locations --- I may very well forgo fishing them if another boat or foot angler is in view.  Just as I watch others, others watch me.  Any fisherman with even a quarter of the normal grey matter between his ears will see where I or my clients have hooked a steelhead.  They will find a way to get to that spot.  In turn, other anglers will see them who will, then, see them . . . . And so it goes ad infinitum

This segues perfectly into another couple of stories, of course.

Hey, Everybody.  Fish Here!

There is a very wadeable steelhead run near a large county park.  Once upon a time when the world was as it should be, all anglers fished the run, which stretched for more than a hundred yards, from the shallow park-side of the river.  Day after day I would watch them cast toward what I knew to be the productive water on the far side of the current.  Delightfully, their success was dismal.  Their problem wasn’t reaching the water where steelhead lay.  Unknown to them, I suspect, was that they could not get a controlled, deep, strike-inducing drift.  The flies moved too fast in the flow, and did not get deep enough to interest the fish.  As I drifted my boat through this area I would float tight against the far bank, away from the anglers on the opposite side.  Since we were almost on top of the steelhead, I would have my clients cast short and hold their rods high to get a deep, slow drift.  Most of the time someone in my boat would hook a fish, to the astonishment and, often, the dismay of the onlookers.  Sometimes we’d hook two fish.  This was pride before the inevitable fall.

In this ever-present group of park fisherman was a retired senior citizen who spent just about every day on the river.  He was astute, and he was determined.  For an older man Mr. Astute was also an able wader.  Though he had to walk quite a distance up my side of the river, and the currents were faster and the water deeper on my side, he eventually found his way to the sweet spot which I could not resist fishing in spite of an audience.  Astute fashioned a wading staff, and doggedly plowed his way into the correct position to effectively present his fly just as I had been doing for years without competition.  To my dismay others eventually followed him.  My observant competitor shared his bounty with his friends who shared it with their friends.  Additionally, other observant anglers stationed themselves on my side of the river to catch the steelhead which I had little opportunity to fish for on subsequent trips.  Because of my lack of discipline, in the throes of Steelhead Fever, I educated the fishing public.  In turn, they locked me out of this particular fishing sweet spot.  Most days on the river I do not get to fish here because someone is already standing where I want/need to be.  Why must the best lessons always be difficult lessons? 

Many would take exception to my hard-line view that fishing, especially for steelhead, can be a zero sum game: there is a finite number of fish and too many anglers wanting to catch them.  If I could I’d catch every biting fish in the river knowing very well that it may mean others would catch none.  I would feel no remorse.  It is with this attitude that I approach the river every day, every minute on the river.  My paying clients know this.  They can rest assured, without the slightest doubt, that I will do whatever it takes to put them on steelhead before someone else has a chance to hook THEIR fish.  I need not be rude, but I will always play hard, and play to win.  That means --- given the chance --- me or my guys (or gals) will be catching YOUR fish.  Think of it as a game of chess.  I am looking for checkmate on every move.  I can wave, and smile sincerely on the river, but I’m looking to knock your king off the board, just as if we were playing a friendly game of chess.

A Guide Story: I Spy You Spying

Dear reader, I know you would not do this, but every now and then someone tries to “go to school” on me.  I spy a boat that anchors upstream of me in a location I know is not a fish-producer.  Maybe they pretend to fish a little but mostly they watch.  They loiter.  I know what they are looking for: my fishing spots.  They are playing the game that I have refined.  It can be difficult spying on a spy.  One eye is always in my rearview mirror.

There is any number of thwarting strategies, but I used a new one at one of my favorite steelhead fishing spots.

Late morning I watched a drift boat lingering above us more than a hundred yards upriver.  He did not strike me as a man on a fishing mission.  Too much time on the oars; not enough time fishing.  I pushed down the river to see if he would follow us.  My suspicions were aroused when the man in question bypassed a lot of water at which any other angler would be tempted to stop to make a few casts.  He had not seen us earlier to know where we had and had not fished, so it is only logical the angler should have fished, if even briefly.

When we rounded a sharp bend in the river he lost sight of us.  He had several hundred yards of slow water to traverse so it would be five minutes or more before he reached the same bend.  I pushed the oars very forcefully so that we would be around the next bend and out of sight before he reached the first.   The thought here is that Spy Boy may halt the chase so as not bypass some very good steelhead water which I had left untouched, and he would not know for sure how far downriver we would drift before anchoring to resume fishing.

As it turns out my strategy bought us about twenty minutes of privacy.  Shortly after one of my clients landed, photographed, and released a magnificent steelhead, the lone boatman came into view.  He snugged into the upper end of the run we were fishing, anchoring on the other side of the river in some frog water.  He began to cast, making it obvious our spy either did not know he was fishing unproductive water or he was merely positioning himself to watch us fish.  I assumed the latter.

To disappoint him we did not go back out into the main river to resume fishing, but instead watched him from the shallows near the shore where the fish had been landed.  After a few minutes and no indication he was going to move on in the near future, I rowed my boat to the very top of the run so that we were directly across the river from the onlooker.  I suggested to my crew that they not even pick up their fishing rods.  It was close enough to the mid day hour that I advised we use our waiting time productively, so we ate lunch.  While he watched us eat we watched him make more futile casts.  I wanted to fish this particular run more thoroughly before we departed so we were in the midst of a standoff.  I would let time wear on our uninvited guest.

If this guy was a typical, undisciplined spy I knew it would not take long before his urge to fish better water --- if he thought he could recognize it --- would far outweigh the necessary patience to wait us out.  We were only half way through a leisurely lunch before Spy Boy pulled his anchor and drifted downriver never to be seen again the rest of the day.  To this end I lingered to thoroughly cover every location we fished the rest of the day, wanting to ensure we did not catch up with the spy who, then, might be prompted to study our activities again.

Another simple ploy, most easily used when I am anchored in the middle of the river, is to have my guests cast to the "wrong" side of the boat.  If we spend a significant amount of time “killing time”, I assure my guests I’ll extend our fishing day a comparable amount so they get are not shorted fishing time.   

Sometimes I may stop the boat slightly above or drop a short distance below the actual position from which I want to fish.  The exact position from which an angler casts can be extremely important.  Upstream too far, or downstream too far, can make a significant difference in the effective drift of the fly to the fish.  Discovering the exact coordinates of where to be anchored or stand to fish a particular piece of water may be the difference between hooking a fish and not getting a strike.  So if angler approaches we are, often, not quite positioned in the sweet spot.  And, we may actually fish 180 degrees from our true target. 

My neck muscles are always stretched and loose from constantly looking over my shoulder.  I'm always gathering information, trying to be aware of my surroundings.  If someone catches me it may be because I wanted it.

If you are wondering . . . . Yes, I do carry binoculars.  And, yes, I use them often.  I’m even contemplating rearview mirrors. 

Sometimes, when I can overcome my Steelhead Fever I look for and fish spots I have not fished before, or I will fish unproven areas I have fished before but approach them from a different position in the stream. For instance, I may discover I get a better presentation and drift of the fly if I position myself on the left side of the suspected lie instead of the right side.  Or, I may position myself farther upstream or farther downstream than I normally would.

As the water flows decrease in mid to late summer, the sweet spots change.  An old reliable spot may no longer hold fish, or steelhead may prefer a different portion of the run.  Areas where the water had been too deep or too swift may become prime holding locations at lower water.  The same holds true when the water rises in the fall, winter or spring.  Areas that were too shallow and slow in low water become prime as the river rises.  If you realize these changes are the natural courses of events you will make appropriate changes about where you fish at any given water level.

Walking speed current, 2 ½ - 7 feet deep, and structure.  Focus, find ‘em, and fish well.

Let me share a final couple of tidbits in finding steelhead holding water.  One is to seek out spots where the water’s surface is choppy or riffled, rather than glassy and flat.  You are able to get closer to the fish for a more accurate and controlled presentation of your fly.  Fish cannot easily see out through riffled water, so, within reason, an angler does not have to rely so heavily on stealth.  Do be conscious of the color of the jacket or shirt you wear.  Though I have caught steelhead wearing bright red, white and yellow, these are colors I now avoid.   I do not want to look back on my fishing day and wonder if we could have caught a steelhead, or more steelhead, if a guest had not insisted on wearing that bright yellow rain jacket.  This is a potential “problem” that is easily remedied before it will even become an issue.

Preparing for the capture / Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River guideIf there is a long expanse of shallow, exposed water which the steelhead have to traverse as they migrate upstream, look for an oasis in the desert.  Seek an area, often just a small pocket, of slightly deeper water where a fish will rest, feeling less exposed and threatened.  Remember, the fish that have survived predators for their entire lives have done so because they are wary.  They naturally seek safety.  If they’ve had to swim through a substantial stretch of water that is two feet deep from bank to bank, a wary steelhead will often linger in that little depression that is four feet deep.

I am thinking of such a place on the North Santiam River.  For almost one hundred yards (meters, if you must) the steelhead have to migrate through water that varies from six inches to two feet deep.  The flow is gin clear and the surface is glassy.  Maximum exposure.  On the right bank is a scoured depression near a ledge.  Here’s the oasis, a “deepwater” haven where the fish feel a bit more secure.  When I position my boat just right --- not too far, not too close --- I can stand on my rower’s seat and see a resting fish without being seen.  Because the pocket is small, I may quickly scan the spot to locate a holding steelhead.  An adequate fly caster can reach this pocket.  You can imagine how exciting it is to watch a big fish move to strike the fly!  Beware of Buck Fever --- pulling the fly away from the fish as it approaches, or breaking it off with an overly-enthusiastic set of the hook.

I am thinking of another desert oasis on the South Santiam River where the lower reaches of the desert extends, again, at least the length of a football field.  Flat, shallow water offers no hiding opportunities . . . until the steelhead approach The Rock.  A very prominent midstream rock has a 3’-4’ scour (depending on the water level) downstream and to each side of the big nugget.  Above the rock the desert continues to stretch upstream.  So, The Rock acts as a fish magnet, prompting wary steelhead to rest and hide out for awhile.  Astute anglers stay far enough away to remain unseen, but close enough to cast into the deeper water.

I do not have very many “almost guaranteed” steelhead holes, but I have one on the Rogue that is very close to being guaranteed.  It’s ideally, located, too.  I can see for hundreds of yards upriver to watch for approaching boats.  I can see the same downriver if a boat has dropped below me.  Should someone be able to observe me if I fish my little nook, I will, instead, drift by as if it wasn’t there.   Or, if I’m already in position, I will pull anchor when someone comes into view.  This spot is w-a-a-a-a-y too sweet to give up.  The Nook is surrounded by fast, shallow water, while the flow in the heart of this fish magnet is a perfect walking speed.  The depth is at least one foot more than its turbulent surroundings.  Ten well-placed casts will cover this precious real estate to reveal the presence of a biting fish.  So another big plus of this location is that in can be quickly covered.  If a steelhead is hooked I usually lift the anchor to play the fish downstream, away from our original location.  It’s just like a hit-and-run covert operation, save for the camouflage face paint: Get in.  Complete the mission.  Get out.  All without being discovered.

Right or wrong, I view steelhead fishing --- most of the time --- as a Zero Sum game, as I said earlier.  This means there are winners and losers.  In an ideal world, there would be lots and lots of biting steelhead for all worthy anglers on the river.  But, my cats will do housework before that happens!  If competent anglers fish my little sweet spots before I get there, I have VERY little chance of hooking a steelhead.  Another fish will eventually take up residence, but maybe not until tomorrow, or two days from now.  The redundant lesson here, again, is if little nooks you discover turn out to be more precious than gold, consider not giving away the map to your silver mine.  Every other angler is a potential claim jumper. 

If you are wondering . . . . Yes, I do carry binoculars.  And, yes, I use them often.

A Zero Sum Maneuver

            A zero sum game is best thought of as twenty guys all wanting a full piece of a pie cut into 6 small slices . . . .

A father and son team in my boat had just about finished covering the deep channel that held some biting steelhead for us that morning, including the first steelhead the boy had ever landed.  God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world.  Things were just about to get even better. As a boat dropped through the rapid above us, it was just about time for us to move.  But, ooops!  Dad hooked another fish.  Decision time.

            Rather than stay put to fight the fish to exhaustion land it in our current location, I pulled the anchor.  My guy fighting the fish was experienced and smart.  He knew how much pressure he could put on a steelhead to bend the fish to his will without breaking the line.  This skill would be a requirement for what we were to do.  A spunky steelhead can easily take ten to fifteen minutes to bring to net.  We had about ninety seconds before the boat above us passed below to stop at the next run I wanted to fish.  It was time to “walk the dog”.  I pushed us into the main current to do some multi-tasking.  As my guest played his steelhead, I moved the boat toward our next destination, comfortably ahead of the charging boat in our pursuit.

            A few minutes later I dropped anchor at the periphery of the water we would fish.  Everything went according to plan.  (It doesn’t always.)  As we stopped I slipped out of the boat, landing net in hand.  Just as the foreign boat passed I gently cradled the bright buck before its release. 

            The gamble was worth it.  A few casts later Dad hooked another steelhead in the new water.  This was a fish, I believe, an angler in the other boat would have hooked if we had not taken a calculated chance to scoot down the river with the hooked steelhead in tow.

            This all prompts me to wax on a bit about river etiquette.

Most everyone has their set of rules on steelhead rivers, a code of behavior and “good” manners.  If you are going to race someone to the next fishing hole you have to do it with a comfortable cushion, a certain degree of nonchalance.  It’s a rare occasion that I would pull out in front of another boat, making it too obvious that I was pushing hard to beat them to the next piece of water.  That would be like cutting off someone in highway traffic.  You must pull out with plenty of room to spare.  Be casual, yet purposeful.  I try to be cordial, but I will always seek to give my guests the advantage, without being rude in the process.  A fine line, but doable. 

            If all this sounds a bit too aggressive, too greedy, then know that I am dedicated to do whatever it takes --- within what I consider to be competitive decency --- to give my clients and guests the very best opportunities to hook as many steelhead as possible in an eight-hour fishing day.  It’s what I would want if I was the client: maximum opportunities.  Any good guide wants the same.  It’s just that a few of us play harder.  I’m willing to run a short slant pass pattern across the middle of the football field and take a crushing hit from the linebacker as I gather in the ball, even if it means getting knocked silly.  My clients are appreciative fans.

You Can Never have Too Many

            Part of being consistently successful at steelheading is intimately knowing numerous good fish-holding locations.  One or two are not enough.  Anglers may be positioned in the heart of the water you want to fish when you arrive.  Or, the river flow has raised or dropped and the fish have no interest in resting there.  You’d better have backup plans.

            Prospecting for good fishing holes is time consuming.  Typically, anglers are too busy fishing old reliable haunts to discover new ones.  From my selfish perspective this is good.  Many times I pray that an angler in a very well known spot WILL catch a fish.  They are, then, trained to stay there, and to return to that same spot with a hundred other anglers who would be in my way fishing other spots that I want to see vacant when I arrive.  The occasional biting fish keeps them fishing, not exploring.  Right on!   “Hooked another one?  Good for you!”

            The search for quality Sweet Spots is work.  The steelhead treasure may not be in a very obvious location.  Many of the best are not.  Any given riverine “silver mine” must be approached from a variety of angles (literally), with a variety of methods, under a variety of conditions, including water temperature, light intensity, and water level.  I may fish a single steelhead run a dozen fruitless times until I unravel its mystery.  It’s very much like cracking a safe.

            Sometimes I let someone else crack the safe for me.  If I watch an angler playing a fish I make a mental note of his exact position.  I watch where they cast as they resume fishing the same spot.  How they present their lure, bait, or fly is also valuable information.

            Some silver mines never produce.  Some river runs look perfect to me: an excellent combination of current speed, depth and structure.  But, try as I might, diligent and repeated prospecting turns up nothing.  Either the fish will not hold in these locations as I think they should, or the holding fish will not bite in these spots.

            An author whose name escapes me, wrote about certain fish-holding runs on the North Umpqua River where steelhead would not bite.  He knew they held in these runs because he could see them.  As these same (apparently) fish moved upstream into other holding locations they would strike his fly.  The biting and non-biting locales appeared very similar as to their depth, current and structure.  What accounted for the difference is open to speculation.  My own experiences support Arnold’s observations.  For reasons not discernable to me some runs that appear to be prime will never give up a steelhead to my strategies.  After multiple worthy attempts to “strike silver” I will forgo spending any more fishing time here.  I will only resume digging if I should chance upon another angling “miner” who shows me that silver can indeed be found at this location.  And, occasionally, it does happen.  Until then, I’m moving on in search of the Mother Lode elsewhere.

            On the other hand, there are dependable fishing holes that don’t appear to be anything special.  In fact, these can be downright unlikely fish-holding areas.  The water depth is too shallow or too deep for my liking, the current appears too fast or too slow, and no good submerged structure is obvious, even upon intense inspection.  However, biting steelhead like it here.  These particular places remind me that the steelhead, ultimately, make the rules, and can break the rules.  It is with some degree of humility (but not too much) that I pause often to enable my clients to add to their store of steelhead-catching memories.

Old Dogs and Improved Tricks

            I am thinking about a particular once-unlikable, big steelhead hole (Mafia Eddy) that I have grown fond of after many years of avoiding it.  The water is too deep, the current too swirly.   My boat is constantly being thrown out of position by an untamable, multidirectional current.  It’s maddening to fish here.  Maddening, that is, until a client hooks a steelhead.  Then, I’m liking it.  As an added bonus we are adjacent to a wonderful quiet-water expanse to fight, net and photograph fish. 

            I knew steelhead could be caught here.  Many anglers fished it.  Occasionally I would see a fish landed, but rarely by a fly fisherman.  The successful anglers were using spinning rods in the deep swirling flows.  Their thin fishing line allowed them to keep their bait or lures near the bottom, get a reasonable deep drift of their offering, and stay in tight line contact in order to set the hook in short order. 

            I had, also, heard reliable stories of some skilled fly fishers who could coax fish out of this obnoxious water.  Spurred on by, and envious of, the success of others in this spot, I resigned / assigned myself to figure out the hydraulics of this water. 

            I learned to accept that at times my boat would be out of position, too close or too far from the fish.  There would be times that a perfect drift of the fly would be unexpectedly swept from its intended path by unpredictable currents.  I needed to accept these.  Often my anglers would miss a subtle strike in the turbulent water.  I was forced to be even more precise than usual about my leader and flies setup, using a finer tippet and heavier flies.  In short, the steelhead taught me the rules necessary to intrigue them to the point of taking the fly.  I learned to catch steelhead here, and have to enjoy the challenge.  An old dog with a little patience can always learn one more trick. 

I will: work harder on the oars; alter the leader; change the flies; keep the faith; expect the unexpected; and, remember the The Rules the steelhead teach me.   Now, roll over, Mr. G.   Good boy!

Copyright (c) by Michael Gorman 2006. All rights reserved.
Michael Gorman photo / McKenzie River guide



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Michael Gorman
330 NW Autumn Place, Corvallis OR 97330
Mckenzie River fishing guides & Rogue River fishing guides specialists

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