A Typical Winter
Steelhead Fishing Day, Start to Finish
First of all, the title of this chapter is a little misleading. I don’t have too many “typical” fishing days. Too many mix and match combinations of variables to have many “typical” days. We will consider some of these variables in any given time frame throughout an entire steelhead fishing year, and how they affect my thought processes and strategies as I fish. I will be talking to you in this chapter and the next almost exclusively from my role as a fly fishing guide, boating down a river with my clients or guests. There are definitely parallel strategies if I am fishing on foot by myself. With clients, I am always in a boat when steelhead are the quarry.
For starters, some variables include time of year, water temperature, and river flows. Assume water temperatures less than 45 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and 45 degrees or greater in the summer season. Further, I will arbitrarily define “summer” (loosely the migration of summer-run steelhead in the Pacific Northwest) as the late fall through early spring time frame. “Winter” (generally the migration of our winter-run steelhead) refers to the late spring through mid fall seasons when water temperatures, with some exceptions, are colder.
Water temperature is a key element defining the general comfort, “aggression” and activity level of the steelhead. As I talked about previously, the “ideal” temperature range for a steelhead --- an oversize rainbow trout --- is upper 40’s through the lower 60’s Fahrenheit.
Here are six water conditions that I encounter with these three variables of season, flows and water temperatures:
Winter, High Water
Winter, “Normal” water
Winter Low Water
Summer High Water
Summer, “Normal” Water
Slings and Arrows
Every day on the river I am not just a fishing guide, but, also, a counselor, a psychologist, a competitive strategist, a puzzle solver, and a cheerleader.
Besides counseling my fishermen, I am counseling and encouraging myself. Clients are giving me trust and money in advance of --- hopefully --- catching a fish or two. It’s pressure on several levels. I want them to feel as if they got their money’s worth. I want them to know I did my very best as a fishing guide to maximize their fishing opportunities in light of the fact that they have chosen to pursue winter steelhead with the most demanding of all fishing methods. I want them back to fish with me (and help me pay my mortgage) in the future. Lastly, as I reflect on the day’s fishing during my drive home, I want to know that no one could have tried harder or fished better with a fly rod today than we did. I need to KNOW I was as good as I could be whether the steelhead confirmed my efforts or not; whether my clients appreciated my skills and efforts, or not. I need to KNOW I “left it all on the playing field” today.
I counsel myself that there are attitudes, events and circumstances out of my control. This is hard for a control freak, which I tend to be, because of all the little details I must oversee that will result in a steelhead in the net. Even while I am micro-managing, orchestrating every fishing moment, I must remind myself to relax, have fun, and not be overbearing. I try, as best I can, to determine how much firm instruction and its repetition my guys can take. When my assessment is off the mark, I need to “make amends” in subtle ways by being more encouraging, and gentler. This is always a fine line I walk. Interestingly, I find beginners and women to be the most attentive and accepting of my instructions. They tend to be pleasers who want to learn and do well. My most difficult clients are men who think they are skilled fly anglers but actually they are not. In this latter case, my best ally and illustrator is a cooperative fishing partner who hooks fish by following my directions while the obstinate “know-it-all” does his own thing. I cannot help those who refuse to be helped. This is a circumstance beyond my control. Such an angler will still receive my best efforts, but this may include me just keeping my mouth shut so I don’t upset him with fishing instructions. Hopefully, he will pick up the details he wants as he listens to me teach his cooperative fishing partner who continues to hook fish as he follows my suggestions to the smallest detail.
In light of all these, I’ll take you on six simulated fishing trip days. Three in the winter; three in the summer. The summer situations will be discussed in the next chapter, while I discuss winter situations in this one.
Common Elements of Every Fishing Day
As the fishing day starts, I assess how many other anglers may be on the river today. If it’s a weekend or holiday, I expect many. But, I also know that many good fishing guides try to avoid the weekends, if possible, for this reason. So the caliber of the fishing competition may not be as great on busy fishing days. A trade off. I don’t worry about being the first boat to launch on winter mornings because this is a losing game on popular rivers. And, my ace is that there are some fish that will not be harassed because they are spread out from bank to bank. My goal is to be thorough, but quick, in covering likely water as we progress down the river.
To thoroughly and quickly cover good steelhead-holding locations, I must be able to precisely instruct my inexperienced anglers on how to make the right cast, get the proper drift of the fly, and detect and respond to a strike. Some pick it up faster than others. Here I walk a fine line and must be an attentive psychologist and cheerleader. I have to be demanding in a friendly way, and encouraging so as to reinforce the casting and fishing techniques I am trying to convey. I constantly emphasize that success is in the details. Blind luck can account for the occasional landed steelhead, but I can’t count on luck. I never know when it’s coming our way. I have to assume it won’t. We need to depend on getting the details right, so that when the fish strike comes, we can take full advantage.
first cast of the day I usually drop down the river a ways, bypassing a few good
fishing locations with the hope that boating anglers who follow me will stop and
fish the water I have ignored. This takes a little pressure from me as I set up
the fishing rods, fine tune leaders and flies, and begin initial casting and
fishing instructions. We make a few practice casts to get warmed up and preview
our angling routine. Then, it’s Show Time! Here we go.
I used to hate high, but fishable, water flows. There are usually fewer places that are well defined fish-holding locations. The water can be a bit murky. It is harder to hold the boat in perfect position for my clients, or hold on anchor. To see the beneficial opportunities to these conditions I had to overcome my mental barriers to success.
I now actually like high water. On rivers that get a lot of anglers, it’s helpful for me and my clients that the steelhead are spread out, not confined to obvious holding areas which fishermen can focus on and pound relentlessly. Even good anglers who precede me through a particularly good location cannot find all the fish, hook, or startle all the fish. Additionally, bank anglers have less access to fishable water when the river is high. And, because the water can be off-color --- but still very fishable --- I can get much closer to the fish without sending them fleeing for cover. My clients can make short, accurate casts to likely areas, better control the drift of their flies, and react more quickly when setting the hook.
After making a few practice casts, it’s time to roll. At high water, my inclination is to run a long section of river, eight to ten miles. I may anchor at a few select spots, but most often we stay on the move. I row the boat from bank, to bank depending on where I suspect a steelhead might hold. I position the boat as close as I dare without alarming the steelhead. There’s rarely a need for distance casting, thankfully. We are nymphing most of the time. In the right locations, I may have the angler in the front of the boat swing a wet fly where the water is slow and shallow, three to six feet deep with a broad even current.
When the water has a bit of color to it, I use flies that are a bit larger and heavier than at normal or low flows. My Gorman Bead Egg in a size 6 in orange, pink, or New Age hot pink, and my Hot Bead Veiled Assassin are my top choices.
Where I can, I “backferry” the driftboat, holding it in place, stationary against the current while my guests methodically cover the area where fish may be resting. Short casts first, then a foot or two farther on subsequent casts. If the area is not too broad, I will hold the boat in the same spot. If the area is wide enough to demand long casts, I will opt instead to move my boat over as the water is covered. I study the drift of every cast. If something isn’t quite right with the location or proper drift of the fly, I have the angler repeat the cast until they get it right, unless they have indicated they can’t or won’t deal with my constant instruction. Again, I can always count on women and beginners to give it their best try.
In locations where fish may rest, but near which the currents are too strong for me to keep the boat stationary, I slow the boat as best I can. I have my anglers “stab it in the heart”, meaning they cast to what I assess to be the location for the single best opportunity to find a waiting fish: the drift line that gives their flies the highest probability of finding a willing steelhead. Then we’re gone, swept downstream by the current to the next fishing spot. I am constantly looking ahead to move the boat left or right, from one bank to the other when necessary, to put the anglers in the proximity of steelhead. This is why I need miles and miles of river. Being pushed along, unable to hold and anchor in many locations, there’s a chance we will run out of river before our eight-hour fishing day is completed.
My pace downstream is somewhat dictated by my watch, but also by the river traffic. If I am being swarmed by other boating anglers, I have three choices: I can choose to ignore them; I can lay back to let them pass; or, I can push down the river ahead of them . . . maybe. Each choice has its own risks. The choice I make here can determine our fish-catching success or failure for the remainder of the day. How do I decide?
Are the anglers and/or guides in our vicinity fishing effectively? Some will be. Some won’t. I always prefer those who don’t. Do I sense that any of the boaters are determined to be the first boat down the river? If I get involved with trying to beat this character down the river, we may run out of river before we run out of fishing day as he relentlessly pursues me. How has our fishing day gone to this point? If we’ve hooked and landed a couple of fish, I don’t feel the pressure to be the first boat down the river at all costs. I rest assured that my guys have some confidence in me, in themselves, in the fishing techniques we’re using, and the flies. Do I sense that the other boats are not concerned about being the first down the river? If not, then maybe I will push ahead a little ways, bypassing the next spot to create a little more distance. Do I have a particularly good fishing spot where I want to make sure we get an opportunity to fish without being disturbed? If so, I will push downstream to lock up that spot, then let others pass me if they choose to. One of the things, again, that I like about high, off-color conditions is that my choices to run, stay, or fall back are not as critical because the fish are spread out and no angler or anglers can fish them all.
good thing about a boat downstream ahead of us, particularly with poor or
mediocre anglers in it, is that they can “stir up” the fish a little. When the
water is cold, some steelhead may be a little “comatose”. These individuals are
very reluctant to budge from the exact spot at which they have remained
stationary for hours. Even if a fly drifts near them they may refuse to move.
However, I think there are instances when a fish is disturbed to the point that
it moves around a little and “wakes up”. We may actually have a better chance
of catching that fish. I think this gambit works best if there is sufficient
time --- let’s say more than thirty minutes --- for the fish to calm down, and
ease out of the “danger / red alert” mode.
Being behind schedule or being ahead of schedule each has its advantages. If I’m behind, we can cherry pick. If I’m ahead of schedule we are fishing every remaining bit of likely water I can find. It is in this situation where I make new discoveries. Spots that I thought were marginal or mediocre, can turn out to be a hidden gems.
A recent story comes to mind. It was a cold January day when I first caught up with a boat holding two anglers about 9 a.m. Because I wanted a particular fishing spot where we had hooked five steelhead the day before, I decided to push by them. The testosterone was flowing in both boats, and I soon discovered the other boat was determined not to let me pass. I got close enough though for a verbal exchange. The passenger in the other boat was holding up a bottle of liquor with half its contents gone. Yes, it’s 9 a.m. I don’t know if the oarsman was drinking or not. He spoke (shouted!) more coherently, while the passenger bragged about his drinking prowess. I was constantly gaining on the boat in question, and eventually they surrendered and pulled over to fish. We passed and went down to my target spot where one of my passengers immediately caught a steelhead. Because I was determined to very thoroughly fish this particular run in light of the previous day’s success, I let the drunk boat pass.
Later in the day I caught up with my new best friends again. They saw me coming as I determined to pass them for another spot that had recently been kind to my anglers. As we approached a little island, these characters chose the wrong channel. They got momentarily delayed by a big rock that met them head on whereby they lost all their downstream momentum. They saw us laughing as we sped down the other channel to easily take the lead. When we stopped to fish my next sweet spot I allowed them to pass again. More drunken blather from them; more laughter from us. After fishing a few more locations without catching them, plus a lengthy, but necessary, bathroom stop, my friends in the other boat could be seen way down the river. They watched constantly for our approach. They were 200 yards below us, determined not to let us pass no matter what. I had one more killer spot I wanted to fish. My hope was to push these guys hard so that they would blow right by my last chosen sweet spot. It didn’t work out that way.
It seems my sweet spot was also theirs. They anchored up in the hole, hooting and hollering about how they were to catch fish here and that they had “won” the race. I laughed but was disappointed. My plans for a glorious finale didn’t exactly play out as I’d hoped. So, I opted to fish a marginal run just around the corner and out of sight of the other boat. I had always ignored this spot, but today it was our last hope. Nothing to lose.
The angler in the front of my boat hooked a steelhead on her first cast. It jumped immediately for all to see, then threw the hook. I rowed back upstream along the quiet water on the near bank, then, swung the boat back into the current to fish through this innocuous looking run again. The first cast by the angler in the rear of the boat hooked a fish on our second pass. The battle was a lengthy one, but he eventually brought the chrome-bright native hen to the boat. Our fishing day finished in fine fashion. A spot I had always bypassed was discovered to be a new sweet spot. I found it because I was forced to. You can safely wager I will never ignore this little gem of a fishing hole in the future.
Trying to be the first boat down the river can be a tedious, frustrating ploy. Too often I’ve pushed ahead of everyone else only to be thwarted by a client who throws a cast into stream side tree branches too high to be rescued. It may take me ten to twelve minutes to tie on new tippet, flies and weights. I must pull into quiet water and sit on anchor to re-rig. In the meantime boaters determined to lead the parade will pass us. If you choose to lead, be psychologically prepared for such possibilities. It’s not easy to deal with after reminding your guests constantly to watch for overhanging limbs in a constantly changing environment created by a drifting boat.
The other circumstance that will cost you the lead in The Great Boat Race is when someone has to answer Nature’s Call. A streamside bathroom break cannot be postponed for long when someone tells you they have to go. I must, of course, be accommodating. This is a circumstance beyond my control. Those of us with unhealthy competitive drives must temper our emotions to maintain, as best we can, our pleasant demeanor. We must put aside the intense effort and clever strategies we employed to FINALLY get down the river first, only to give it up when someone in the boat has to water the bushes. With cold fingers, waders, and layers of clothing to deal with on cold days, a simple procedure becomes a laborious and lengthy ordeal. I do my best to be cheery as boats pass us by. I may wave and smile as a boat passes, but if they look closely they might see my lips move a little as I mutter softly, “You bastards . . . “
As for changing flies if we are not catching fish, I will change the fly color, but usually not the size. I am not a BIG fly aficionado for winter fish, though I have caught them on large flies. I know some good fly anglers who only use large flies and are successful. On my heavily fished winter steelhead streams I think the fish have frequent opportunities to strike big lures and big baits. My philosophy is to give those steelhead who have wisely refused to eat big things --- and end up dead in an ice chest --- a chance to sample a smaller, non-threatening morsel. It’s just a harmless little piece of pretty fluff drifting into their proximity that almost appears friendly. My faith lies with smaller fare. I landed a steelhead on a size 20 hook while fishing for trout on the Deschutes River. Experiences like this reinforce my notions that steelhead will see and eat small things, and that they can be landed on tiny hooks.
If the water is extremely clear, I may go to a smaller egg pattern, most likely size 8, and a standard Veiled Assassin, no bead. Small flies in black, metallic green, or metallic purple can be excellent choices for the second fly. To mix it up further, I may use flies tied on a gold or silver hook. I have a psychological barrier to flies tied on hooks anodized “gunmetal blue”. No faith, because I’ve had poor results, especially on egg patterns. My bias.
I am convinced that fly color can be important, but more so in the summer time than in the winter. My theory is that in the warmer months many, many more aquatic insects are active and hatching. Most steelhead rivers in the northwest have a great variety of aquatic insect species, with a broad spectrum of colors shapes and sizes. Because of this, I use a much wider range of fly sizes and colors, and change flies more often in pursuit of summer steelhead.
Remember. I am fishing two flies on the leader most of the time. When I change flies, winter or summer, I leave “an old reliable” on virtually all the time --- as determined by time of year, particular river, and my experience ---but will switch up the second fly. It is rare that I will experiment with both flies.
Make no mistake. Fly pattern --- design, color, and size --- is extremely important. I have a lot of confidence in the flies I use. They’ve been time-tested, and I always try to tweak and fine tune effective fly designs when I create subtle variations of them at my fly tying vise. Rather than devote much time to changing flies, I focus on keeping the flies in the water, drifting relentlessly through areas that might hold a fish. When I reflect on many steelhead fishing days I realize that my clients (or me) were two casts away from getting skunked. Make a thousand casts in a day, maybe only one or two will find a biting steelhead. And you never know when lightning will strike. So, above all else, keep your flies in the water.
I had a father and adult son team from Minnesota on a high water January day on Oregon’s Siletz River. We had drifted almost ten miles of river. When we were within 100 yards of our take out point, the son hooked a steelhead. After the battle and release of the fish, they resumed casting. We were almost on the boat ramp --- the last cast of the day when Dad tied into a big bulldog of a fish. The steelhead wanted to run hard down the river. I could have followed it but there was no way I could fight the current to make my way back upstream to the ramp. We would be committed to another hour and a half on the river as I would have to push hard on the oars --- no fishing --- to get to the next take out. We would make our last stand --- win or lose --- at our current location.
Because the water was high and the current swift, we had no place to go. And, it was not feasible, because of brush and nature of the shoreline, to fight the big steelhead from any place other than in the boat. My novice fly fishing Dad refused to put forceful resistance on the fish, and I was reluctant to tell him to do so. If he broke the line as a result of my suggestion, I would definitely get the blame for the loss. The day would end on a disappointing note. No matter what other good fishing memories had been created earlier in the day, these would be psychologically overwhelmed by these final minutes. I was going to let him fight his own battle, though I did offer cheerleader support and little reminders to keep the rod bent hard against the fish.
As the struggle continued, I realized other boaters were anchoring upstream on the far bank waiting for us to clear the way for them to eventually row to the take out. With the position of my boat and the taut path of the fly line, the ramp was perfectly blocked. Three boaters and their passengers impatiently watched from a distance, waiting for the fish to be lost or netted. How do I know they were impatient? Because when my guy landed the fish after 20 minutes the boaters who rowed across the river to trailer up their boats didn’t have a congratulatory word to say. Only silent scowls about the inconvenience that had been caused by a 10 lb. native buck that stubbornly refused to be caught in a reasonable amount of time. However, I had happy clients and photos to commemorate the fish and the moment.
fly in the water.
At “normal” water levels, most of my steelhead rivers can be negotiated without problems, assuming the oarsman is skilled. Even with two oversized clients I can usually make a clean run the entire day, negotiating rapids and hazards without incident. Additionally, I can backferry my driftboat in many locations, holding the boat stationary near productive steelhead water for as long as I choose without risking a torn rotator cuff. There are more holes to fish, than at high water or low water. And, finally, the fish-holding locations are better defined, more readable. They can be more easily pinpointed as to their exact location.
As for the downside, normal, good water conditions encourage the highest number of anglers to go fishing. The decisions made throughout the course of the day to linger in any one fishing spot, letting other boaters pass to fish in front of us, or pick up the anchor and stay ahead of most other boats, are critical. These high angling pressure days can also be high anxiety days for a guide wanting to maximize steelhead opportunities for his guests. The river is my chessboard, and across from me are a dozen players all conspiring to beat me, competing without consciences to catch the steelhead we might catch.
I will start out by moving down the river, bypassing the first holes, knowing they’ve already been fished. Perhaps by good anglers; perhaps by mediocre ones. I’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter. Many boat ramps are at state or county parks so there is often access for anglers on foot. They will command many of the first prime fishing runs. I usually opt not to invade their domain. Most are a surly lot, with no love for boaters who disturb their fishing water. They are a competitive nuisance to me. I am the same to them. Hasta la vista!
If I approach boats as they linger to fish I try to gauge if they will stay or run. If they don’t see or hear me approaching, I’ll usually try to blow on by. If they hurriedly pull anchor to chase me I know I have a horsefly I’ll have swat at some point during the day. I’ll either seriously outdistance them, or I’ll game them into giving me plenty of room if they are determined to lead the way down the river. I know the psychology. If they are determined to lead I’ll make sure they will be forever looking over their shoulders looking for me. They are torn between wanting to linger and fish at a good location, or fish it hurriedly or bypass it altogether to be the first to the next fishing hole downriver. It’s always a chess game. If I’ve encountered inexperienced or unknowledgeable anglers, they can do whatever they want with little concern from me. But if they are competent and knowledgeable about my waters, I will need to deal with them. If I’m lucky, they will be a short term problem. If I am unlucky it will be cat and mouse all day, like with my loud drunken(?) friends mentioned earlier.
Once I’ve created separation between the boats in front of me and the boats behind me, we can focus on serious fishing. I will tend to linger in those good steelhead runs where I can see back up the river for a long ways above us, sometimes a quarter of a mile or more. If a boat comes into view I have the option, with plenty of time, to decide to stay or go; to linger, or pick up the pace. And, this is done in light of how our fishing success has gone to this point. I am not so anxious if we’ve hooked some fish. If I have a Honey Hole I am determined to fish, I’ll push down the river long before the boat behind gets near. The greater the distance between me and a following boat, the less the likelihood they will try to overtake me. When I get beyond the next bend in the river and out of view, they won’t know if I pulled up to fish or if I kept pushing. Should they try to chase me for such a long distance, they know that they will be passing up a lot of fishable water. They have no idea if this water was fished well, or even fished at all. More chess moves. Linger to fish, or run.
The best thing that can happen to a boat that is chasing me or whom I am trying to pass, is that they hook a fish. Now, they must take time to fish the fish. If they photo the fish and or kill it for the BBQ, all these activities take time. Additionally, where one fish is caught there can be another in the same hole that will bite, too. So, more time is consumed as the anglers stay in an attempt to hook a second or third steelhead. Good for them! Ciao, Baby!
On the other hand, it can be us who are delayed by fighting, landing and photographing fish. This is a problem . . . but a good one. If boats in front of us missed this biting fish, they will miss others. The guide’s anxiety level subsides a little, and confidence grows a bit. I make sure that such happy moments are duly digitally recorded. The guests will be able to view and re-live them as often as they want once the images are sent to their computer, if they don’t have a record on their own camera. I’m always happy to use a client’s camera to save the memories. (It’s utterly amazing, though, how often client camera batteries have gone dead with no replacements at hand.)
Winter, Low Water
Low water, for me, is defined as flows that do not allow for easy passage of a driftboat down the river. It’s not necessarily unsafe (though it can be on some rivers), it’s just that there will be plenty of shallow water in which to hit rocks or get stuck where the best passage through an area is only a couple of inches deep. When I get stuck, I usually have to get out of the boat and push it through to deeper water. Sometimes it will, also, require my guests to exit the boat. This is not boating for sissies. If you have a wooden boat, forget low water. The abrasion and rock-kissing will take a serious toll on the beauty and structural integrity in a short time period.
My aluminum boat will take a pounding in low water. I may get some dents and scratches, but I won’t puncture it. No scars, no glory. This is my very favorite aspect of extremely low water: many boaters will not float these sections of the river. It’s work, and it’s hard on your boat. Many times the clients must get out of the boat so the oarsman can bang through a riffle or rapid. Sometimes I request that my guests help me push the boat through a shallow stretch. We literally plow the river. Many boaters and their passengers do not wear boots or waders. They will not make it down the river at crash-and-boom flows. Now that’s just too bad. Auf Wiedersehn, mein herrs!
In addition to banging and clanging my boat down the river, low is virtually always clear water. Clear and low demands special weapons and tactics: light fluorocarbon tippets, smaller flies, longer casts, neutral-color clothing, and minimal boat noise. Stealth is of paramount importance.
Most often I will use a 3X fluorocarbon tippet testing 8lb. I’ll fish almost exclusively egg patterns, sizes 8 or 10. Casts up to 40 feet may be necessary, which is a long distance for nymph fishing methods.
has shown that even though the water may be in the upper 30’s to lower 40’s,
steelhead, especially in heavily fished rivers, will tuck up into foamy
whitewater pockets to escape detection. When the water is cold, slower currents
are preferred by the fish. But constant harassment from boats and anglers may
force them to the only cover they may be able to find in shallow areas:
whitewater pockets where flows are definitely quicker. Once-deep holding runs
at normal water flows may be only four or five feet deep. This does not afford
enough cover when the current is minimal, the water is as clear as gin, and
angling pressure is high.
If you use a strike indicator, make sure you adjust the distance between it and your flies. Shorten it to no more than three feet; sometimes as short as two. You want the strike instantly telegraphed. Be careful not to use too much weight on your leader or fly. If you snag your fly and must disturb the pocket to retrieve it you may have lost a great opportunity. I’ll fish with just a little weight to begin, then, add more if I never bounce the stream bottom, and feel I am not getting the flies down to the fish’s eye level.
Returning home from fishing farther up the Oregon coast one February Monday, I traveled the highway that parallels the Alsea River. Initially, I had no plans to stop to fish. The water was extremely low, and I figured even a few fishermen would have already harassed the steelhead in the area I traditionally fish on foot. But the weather was beautiful and I had no pressing appointments in Corvallis, so I decided to enjoy a few hours of practicing my casting, with little hope of success. I had my MP3 player with some great music to keep me company as I tracked along the river.
My usual favorite holes were deadly low, with little of their normal depth and current speed. With no one in sight, I got into my casting rhythm and sang along to some of my favorite tunes. Heaven help me if I was discovered singing by one of my students or friends. No doubt they would have rushed to my assistance, thinking I was in pain or screeching for help, not singing. I made some wonderful casts and drifts for a couple of uninterrupted hours as evening approached. I had but a couple of runs to fish before I had worked my way back to my 4-Runner. Before me was a deep chute where most of the river coursed quickly towards the far bank. The depth was good --- maybe four feet --- but the current was too fast to get a good drift down the heart. So, I put my first cast along the far current seam, where the fast current edge met slack water. Much to my startled surprise, my line stopped in mid-drift. As I came up tight I felt the throb of a fish on my hook. “If God was one of us . . . Just a slob like one of us . . . Just a stranger on a bus . . . “. I was singing along with Joan Osbourne as I battled the big steelhead buck in a fast current. “Tryin’ to make His way home, back to heaven all alone . . . “ Now I’m starting to think about the crappy knot I’d tied in the egg pattern I had just recently tied when I’d broken my tippet. It was the kind of knot I always warned my students and clients about; the kind of clinch knot that does not have enough turns as it is being created. The knot had slipped a bit too much when I’d pulled it tight. It had pulled so far down the tippet that there was no tag end remaining for me to trim. Soon I may be staring at the dreaded curly-cue tippet end sans fly. I hadn’t seen one on my own line for many years, but I expected the fish and I to part company any moment, and there would be the sad evidence of my carelessness held by my wet fingers before my sad eyes.
Fortunately, God helped me a little before he got on the bus to make his way home. Through a miracle (a minor one in the Big Scheme) I slid the 30-inch hatchery buck onto the beach before my knot parted.
No need to make another cast. I sang myself back to my truck, and all the way home, too, with Billy Idol, Radio Head, Ray Charles, and The Eagles. Rock on!
Low water provides the best opportunity you will have to see steelhead in their environment and observe their behavior. This is more easily accomplished on foot than it is from a boat. Standing in a boat above the water the only fish behavior you will usually observe is flight, as the steelhead dashes for cover. On foot, you can approach from downstream, coming up from behind the fish facing upstream into the current. A would-be observer stands too high in a boat and is drifting from upstream, too easily seen by wary fish. Boat noise can also prematurely announce your arrival.
If the water’s surface in which you spot the fish has a bit of chop or froth to it, you have an exponentially better chance to approach and angle to the steelhead. Much can be learned as you gauge and adjust your casts, track the drift of your fly, and watch the fish’s reaction, or lack thereof. Your fly usually takes longer to sink than you assumed. The cast usually has to be a little longer than you thought to have it drift where you want it. And, usually your fly has to drift much closer to the steelhead than you realized in order to get its attention.
For those fortunate enough to operate their two eyes independently of one another, it is necessary to keep one eye on the fish at all times. When you look away to tend a tangle, adjust the weight or indicator, or change flies, the fish may disappear. You need to visually track the fish at all times. They tend to blend very nicely with their environment. Such camouflage helps them survive. So, if the steelhead changes location, you’d better be looking. Fishing with a partner who is willing to watch the fish while you are distracted by other things is of tremendous aid.
Fishing two flies on my leader enhances the chances that at least one of them will eventually drift close enough to be taken or overtly rejected by the steelhead. Once I’m convinced the fish has seen my flies up close a few times, but gotten no biting response, I will change flies. Both of them. Pink, purple, black, metallic green, chartreuse, straw and brown are the predominant colors in my winter fly box.
Be careful of using too much weight. If you snag your flies or weights on the river bottom near the fish, you are almost guaranteed to startle it when you break your tippet. If you do snag, watch the fish, not your line as you attempt to dislodge your flies. Wade slowly and approach from behind as you pursue the fish to its next holding location. You may be surprised as to where the fish will try to hide. Those foamy whitewater pockets that are only two feet deep that you have always thought too small to conceal a fish can hide some very large steelhead. This can expand your list of likely places to find steelhead, especially at low water.
I remember wading the Miami River on Oregon’s north coast at low winter water. I was carefully making my way upstream through a long stretch of river that was no more than knee deep anywhere from bank to bank. Eventually, I came upon a shallow riffle that stretched the entire width of the river. There was only one little pocket which I surmised could possibly hide a steelhead. A large fish, having made its journey up this shallow stretch of stream, exposed and vulnerable to being seen, would have only this one little foamy pocket in which to hide. Because the water was foamy and choppy, I could not see into the spot. It would only take a couple of casts to drift my fly through the heart of this tiny pocket.
I approached, crouching low, from downstream until I was a couple of rod lengths from my target. Then, I dropped to my knees before making the first cast, wanting to make sure I would not be seen, nor my waving fly rod tip. All weight had been removed from my leader because this pocket was so shallow, and I did not want to take any chance that the weight or fly would snag. The first cast was on target. My fly landed just above the pocket and drifted into its heart. I saw my bright green fly line hesitate as it coursed back toward me. I lifted the rod and was fast into a great steelhead that thrashed to the surface of its roily hiding place, then, took off downriver. There was no place the fish could run that I could not follow. Soon I propped my water-resistant camera on shoreline rocks, pushed the timed shatter release a couple of times, and took some poor, but memorable, photos of me and my steelhead before its release.
The varying river flows of the “winter” season present challenges and opportunities for the steelhead fly rodder. In light of the heavy angling competition typical on quality steelhead rivers, especially when weather and water conditions are ideal, it is at the flow extremes where the best opportunities to hook and land steelhead may be found. At high water the steelhead are spread out and some willing biters can eventually be found by the knowledgeable and persistent faith-keepers, no matter how numerous other boats and anglers may be. This assumes, also, some good, strategic “chess moves” as the fishing day unfolds. Low water chess moves are more driven by the stealth and observance, than angling competition. And, when a water craft is used, there must be a gaming willingness to take a boat where a boat shouldn’t rationally go. All on board must put up with the necessity of getting in and out of the boat when shallow water demands lifting and pushing it to force a passage downstream. Low flows are the best opportunities for sight fishing and observing fish behavior. One steelhead angler’s daunting challenge is another’s opportunity to learn, and --- maybe --- catch a steelhead. Welcome the extremes.
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