As I write this chapter I am wondering how many readers have skipped all that precedes and gone directly to this section of the book. I myself might be tempted to do the same.
Flies are fun. Flies are fascinating. Once an experienced angler has settled into the equipment and methods they prefer for steelhead the one variable left that can be constantly changed is the fly on the end of the line.
It cracks me up when I hear “knowledgeable” steelheaders tell me the fly pattern is not of paramount importance, insisting that as long as the fly is convincingly presented a willing steelhead will eat it. And, in some cases, that may very well be true. The single most important element in this case is a willing steelhead in the mood to attack anything. I pray for these fish but they do not seem very abundant in our heavily-fished steelhead rivers. If these happen to be hatchery fish they are quickly extracted from the population by the angling hordes.
So, as a steelhead addict and fishing guide who spends more than a hundred days in a calendar year in pursuit of steelhead, I gather much empirical data about these fish and their willingness to bite particular flies. I am motivated on two fronts: I, personally, want to catch fish when I put in my time, and my clients must have an excellent chance to hook a steelhead or two (or ten) if they will happily pony up my guide fee again and again. Simple math. No steelhead caught = No guiding business.
So, if a steelhead fly rodder insists to me that the fly doesn’t matter much, then I would only ask them to let me select the fly pattern for them to use, and invite them to a little contest. I’d select something silly for them, like a Foam Ant. In fact, they can tie on a classic Green Butt Skunk or the fashionable Egg Sucking Leech, and we’ll go head to head for a day’s fishing. Let the games begin!
Two anglers enter the arena. One angler leaves.
As stated before, steelhead do not have to eat during their spawning migration, able to live comfortably utilizing the fat reserves created by the ocean’s bounty. But, as the glutton at the buffet will testify, if a culinary temptation is placed in its path a steelhead will sometimes eat it. Some are more easily enticed than others. This leads me to classify steelhead into three arbitrary groups: Suicidals, No Way/No Hows and Fence Riders.
Suicidals will eat anything, including that “Yellow & Purple Thing” tied on a rusty hook that’s been hanging around in your fly box for years waiting for you to throw it in the trash. Suicidals are determined to make someone catch them, no matter what. Unfortunately for most anglers, these individuals are in the extreme minority. Maybe one in fifty. Maybe one in a hundred. This rare breed does not swim for long. Someone soon invites them home to be the “guest of honor” at a backyard BBQ.
While I crave suicidal steelhead, especially for my clients, these fish can lead an angler astray. For a beginner or unthinking veteran catching a few suicidal steelhead can lead the angler (or guide) to believe that fly pattern and precise presentation are not so important. This prompts me to remember my guide friend Glenn who referred to steelhead as “stupid”. (Yikes! I’m concerned about the classification of my intellect when I fail to catch a steelhead when I know they are obstinately resting in the water I’m fishing.) Suicidal fish can reinforce mediocre fishing behavior as the angler is lead to underestimate the attention to detail that is necessary to catch steelhead consistently. Be aware of this trap.
The No Way/No Hows are very common. With no imperative to eat, they don’t. These fish are experts in discouragement. Maybe you know a few women like this, guys. Dream-makers & Heartbreakers. This group of picky steelhead return many fly fishers angling exclusively for gullible trout for the remainder of their natural lives.
Fence Riders are the intriguing lot, and have much to teach the attentive and persistent. These are a much larger minority than the Suicidals. Fence Riders may grab a fly, but only after being coaxed and cajoled, courted and convinced. Stealth is important, as is presentation. The third key element is the fly pattern.
Because the migrating steelhead does not need to eat we must appeal to or arouse something else in the fish. Without trying to ascribe human characteristics to the fish --- anthropomorphism --- it is helpful, I think, to speak of curiosity, territoriality, and defensive aggression. A steelhead may (just an educated guess) have these traits. These might explain why a Fence Rider may be enticed to take a fly.
In those situations where I am fishing to a reluctant Fence Rider steelhead I can actually observe, and the only variable I have changed is my fly pattern, it tells me much about the appeal of that fly when the fish finally bites it. Or, if I fish through a proven stretch of productive steelhead water, getting no strikes, then go through again with a different fly and hook a fish, I have been granted an important clue. If you gather enough such clues over a span of more than twenty years you cannot help but formulate about what Fence Riders might want, and what they don’t care about. It is with this broad experience and experimentation that an astute steelhead angler can develop a stable of fly patterns that have proven themselves capable of knocking some reluctant steelhead off the fence.
In my experience there are two very significant characteristics of a properly-presented fly that can prompt a moody steelhead to bite: size and color.
Sorry, fellas. Size IS important. And, when in doubt, smaller is better. Steelhead have tremendous eyesight, having little trouble spying your tiny fly in clear water when it’s five or six feet from them. They might not eat it, but they see it. Where a big fly may startle or alarm a fish, a small fly can often intrigue it. This is one of the reasons I suspect egg patterns are so effective. Not so much that they imitate edible fish eggs, but because they are small. Size can have inhibition-overriding appeal.
Strange Steelhead Eye Candy
Fish can distinguish color. They might not see green exactly as we see green but they can perceive color differences. Steelhead can definitely show preferences for a certain color or colors in fly patterns. I have caught steelhead on flies that are predominantly black, brown, pink, red, orange, green, purple, chartreuse, tan, straw, and colors I have forgotten. A Fence Rider may show a willingness to strike at one, several, or none of these colors.
At this point let me say that I know well that an angler tends to catch more steelhead with fly colors he favors. If you never fish a purple pattern you may assume that purple is not a worthy color. If you only fish pink, then pink is the best fish-catching color in your universe. This is one of the reasons I usually fish two flies of different colors simultaneously when steelheading. One of the colors is a proven favorite in which I have high confidence, while the other may be an unproven or unlikely color that I am granting another trial to prove its worth.
For me the strangest color for appeal to my eye that ever caught a steelhead is tan/straw. Jim Teeny of Gresham, Oregon, and originator of the Teeny Nymph, invited me to fish the Sandy River, east of Portland. Though he has a garage full of flies which he wholesales to retail stores, Jim had not a single fly in his vest when we arrived at our fishing destination. Not having ever caught a steelhead on a Teeny Nymph I was hoping to do so. I had plenty of my own ties but it wouldn’t quite be the same.
Lady Luck smiled. Jim ran into one of his fishing friends on the river who gladly shared some of the Teeny Nymphs he had personally created. Teeny picked through some sizes and colors he surmised might work, and we were on our way.
Of all the colors he had to select from, Jim handed me a size 4 straw colored nymph to tie on my leader. His first choice would have been my last choice, but he was the “guide” and I was the obliging guest.
Besides knowing the Sandy River intimately, Jim also has excellent eyesight. He has a knack for sporting fish. As we got into position at the chosen spot Jim climbed onto a huge rock to peer into the river’s depths. Soon he spied three holding fish near the far side of the river. Joining him atop his stony perch I was unable to make out the quarry, even as he pointed to the precise area with his rod tip. No matter. I jumped from the rock, waded into the river, and positioned myself where Jim directed.
After a couple of false casts, I slung the heavy sink-tip fly line upstream of the intended target, allowing the fly to sink near the bottom as it approached the area where the steelhead lay. After less than a dozen casts my line stopped in the current. Setting the hook I was fast into a sprinting steelhead that had eaten the straw colored Teeny Nymph. I was pleasantly surprised.
After a photo session with the native buck, I released it from frozen hands. Though I would have loved to cast for a second fish, I invited my host to step into the run and try his luck. As I recall Jim had tied on a black fly. Repeatedly he put it out into the same current line where I had found my fish. Shortly he hooked a fish. He played it skillfully, put it on the beach, and we had a second photo session.
My turn once more. Sparing you more dramatic descriptive prose here, I hooked and landed another steelhead on the straw Teeny Nymph. Incredible. Unless my two fish were both Suicidals willing to hit anything, I learned that whether or not a fly color has eye appeal for me may be totally irrelevant to the appeal found in a steelhead’s eye. Be willing to experiment.
A Guide Story: Steelhead Sudden Suicidal Syndrome, or SSSS
Clients Ken and Dave were fishing with me on the Santiam River. This was a trout fishing trip for two old school chums who had not seen each other since the elementary grades decades ago. Fishing was good and the weather perfect. The reunion would pleasant and memorable.
In early after noon the sun was high in a cloudless sky. Our short shadows were directly downstream of us as my anchor found purchase on the river bottom, holding us securely in place to fish a section of water replete with boulders and fish-holding scours. After but a few casts from our new fishing position I watched in amazement as a bright steelhead of about 28” darted to and tracked Dave’s swinging soft hackle trout fly. As the fly swept a large arc from 45 degrees across to straight downstream this incredible fish kept its nose within a few inches of the fly. Though obviously intrigued, the steelhead refused to bite the fly. When it lost interest the fish settled into a resting position about two rod lengths directly downstream of the boat, nestled among some large boulders. Though the fish was quite near us and the boat, we were in direct line with the sun as the fish looked in our direction. The sun’s glare, I surmise, masked our presence to some degree. The fish acted as if it could not see us. All of us could watch the fish and it’s every move.
After repeated futile casts with the soft hackle, the finning steelhead showed only faint interest. I suggested to Dave that he put down the soft hackle rod and pick up one with a Prince nymph tied on it which was laying along our sides within the boat. As he started to strip line into the current with the nymph rod I was busy giving him a few simple instructions to present the Prince to the steelhead. Foremost among these was to set the hook gently since the size 14 nymph was secured to a 5X (!) tippet. If the fish should be hooked, he must let it run with a minimum of tension, lest the leader be parted. I was concerned that if I took the necessary time to change the leader or tippet the fish would eventually see us and move on. Time, I assumed, was of the essence.
Swinging the Prince on a tight line above the steelhead’s face garnered only a slight change in the steelhead’s activity. Several times it turned its head slightly to study the nymphs journey as it swam overhead. Interest soon waned.
New strategy. With a couple of removable split shot a foot above the Prince to sink it more deeply, I suggested to Dave that he flip the fly into the current beside the boat, pull it slightly as it sank to get it to drift almost underneath the boat, in a direct current line with the fish’s position. This is a clumsy maneuver even for a skilled nymph fisher, but Dave managed the feat as well as it could be done. Because it was impossible to watch the drift of the small fly in its journey I stayed focused on the steelhead, watching its movements.
During one drift I watched the large fish open its mouth as it turned its head slightly to one side. Certain that the steelhead had taken the nymph I yelled politely for Dave to set the hook. There is always a reaction delay when one angler screams to elicit a response from another. Dave was too late. As he lifted the rod tip smartly to the vertical I could see the fly being drawn from the water right at the fish’s location. There was no doubt that the fish had, indeed, taken the fly. Unbelievably, the steelhead held its position in spite of all the commotion in the boat. This foolish individual was determined to be hooked!
After all adrenalin-high parties settled down, including the guide, one more instruction was given Dave. “Be prepared to set the hook”, if the guide yells softly “Set the hook!” Another dozen casts or so I watched the steelhead open its mouth twice in very quick succession, revealing its very visible white interior. The order went out and Dave responded perfectly. The rod came up solidly and stayed bent. We all watched as the steelhead began to swing its head left and right, left and right, trying to shake the tiny hook from its jaw.
I am sure the sentiment in the boat was unanimous at this time. Dave was not going to land this large steelhead on a 5X tippet secured on a 5-weight trout rod. The odds were long, but this was a suicidal steelhead.
We were anchored at the boundary of very fast shallow water and slower deep water on our left and directly below us. The game would quickly end if the steelhead would zoom out a short distance into mid stream and turn down the river with current, headed for a swift rapids that would carry the fish to certain freedom. The fish bolted to mid stream, just as anyone would suppose the fish would instinctively do. But, instead of turning downstream with the flow, the determined-to-be-caught steelhead turned to run upstream. I could not have scripted the events better. The fish would expend much of its precious energy by swimming against the strong current. As long as the fish did not strip off more than the entire length of the fly line plus 50 yards of braided Dacron backing, Dave merely needed to keep a little tension on the line and let the steelhead go where it willed to go.
The longer the fish persisted in fighting the current the more tired, and manageable, it would become. Each passing minute would decrease the odds a bit that the fish would escape. When the eventual downstream move by the fish was made, Dave was ready. The plan was to increase the tension in the line if the fish came back downstream, leading it gently in our direction into quieter water. If the fish could be coaxed to us without breaking the line, I would lift the anchor, then row the boat to the left bank and down into the backwater “lake” below our position, well inside the rapids on the right side of the river.
The script played out just as I would have written it. The exhausted fish finally turned down river, Dave steered it toward the boat, and I moved the boat to quiet water. Liking walking a dog on a leash
Dave masterfully led the steelhead into the quiet. If we had a chance to net the fish Dave and I would need to get out of the boat. We managed to do so with out the fish parting company. Several tense times the steelhead ran away to the very edge of the swift water, but the angler was up to the task. Taking the rod tip low and applying good tension Dave was able to bring the fish back from the brink twice. He exhibited great patience and a willingness to take directions. These paid great dividends as I slid the 28” 9-pound steelhead into the net!
What a great memory. None of us will ever forget that tremendous, foolish steelhead that was determined to be caught. And, yes, Dave flew that hatchery fish from Oregon to his home in New Mexico where it was the “honored guest” at a BBQ party where the Great Battle was, no doubt, recounted several times for the dining guests.
Simply put, a wet fly is a pattern fished subsurface, at a depth ranging from a couple of inches beneath the surface all the way down to the river’s bottom. Generally, the fly is cast slightly upstream or slightly downstream from straight across the current flow. The fly line is mended to slow the drift of the fly. Inevitably, the fly is allowed to swing on a tight line across the current. I prefer to let it swing to a point directly below me, letting the fly hold stationary in the current for a count of ten. I, then, lengthen my line, or move my position downstream slightly, to cast again.
Depending on the light intensity, water temperature, and mood of the steelhead, I make a determination of the size, color and design of the wet fly. In dim light, summer temperatures, I gravitate toward black and purple wet flies. In summer and fall’s mid-day light I like various combinations of red, orange and white. In the cold water of winter and spring, I prefer brighter colors, especially pink and chartreuse green. Any time the water is murky, I want a larger hook --- one or two sizes --- and often add a bit more flash and, perhaps, an orange bead at the head.
The prototypical, modern steelhead wet fly has a tail of feather fibers, a rather slim body of one or two colors, ribbing spiraled over the body, a hair wing, and a soft feather hackle. There are, literally, thousands of mix and match combinations of colors and materials used in the tying of the modern “standard” steelhead fly. Well-known examples of this design include the Skunk, Purple Peril, Green-Butt Skunk, and Thor.
The use of feather tips as wet fly wings instead of calf tail, arctic fox, bucktail or elk hair makes for an effective pattern. The Silver Hilton is probably the best known example. This barred grey wing, hackle and tail, with a predominantly black body looks drab compared to many of the glitzy, colorful designs. But this plain sister without makeup is a steelhead kill.
Another wet fly design that has served me well is the spey. Spey flies incorporate very long, soft feather fibers wound around a portion or all of the fly’s body. These flowing fibers often extend way beyond (behind) the bend of the hook. Made from heron, pheasant, guinea or marabou feathers, these hackles create a large, delicate and lively silhouette in the water. Steelhead like them.
For the most part, commonly-used wet flies seem to fall into one of the above designs, or a hybrid combining features and materials from several types. As examples, you may find a Silver Hilton spey fly, or a Skunk with feather tip wings. Colorful mylar strands to complement the fly have been popular additions to many, many patterns since the 1980’s. Glitzy strands are usually added to the tail or the wing, or both, as the fly is tied.
When in doubt, select a wet fly, especially the classic standards, that is thinner rather that fatter, anorexic rather than overweight. I can’t always separate aesthetics from effectiveness, but I, also, prefer natural or synthetic furs for the body instead of yarn or chenille. However, I do like the mylar highlights and multicolor mixes of glitter chenille and New Age chenille. The halo and sparkle of furs seem to hold greater appeal to the steelhead.
I continue to be baffled. Every time I see an adult steelhead, a fish that does not need to eat during its spawning migration, surface to inhale a skating dry fly, I watch in disbelief. What was that fish thinking! Why would it rise from the bottom in six feet of water to intercept a waking tidbit the fish may not have an appetite for, and certainly does not need to consume for its survival?
Though I can’t understand the reasons why it entices steelhead to act foolish, I relish raising them on dry flies. Many other fly anglers do too. I know a few who dedicate themselves almost exclusively to surface flies for steelhead, putting aside or even disdaining the use of wet flies or nymphs.
There are exceptions to every rule, but I’ve found that surface-striking steelhead can be best enticed when the sun is not directly on their water. This means early or late in the day, areas shaded by trees or high banks, or overcast sky conditions. Water temperatures that range from 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit produce the biggest numbers of fish willing to come to the top. Holding locations where the water’s moving surface is smooth, unriffled --- like tailouts --- allow for a steady, even presentation of the fly without sinking it. The point here is be selective about the where and when you fish dry flies.
It is not unheard of to hook steelhead with a dead-drifted dry fly. I know of a former guide on Oregon’s North Umpqua River who made this method his specialty. It’s what he personally took great pleasure in, and so it was this dark art that he schooled his fishing clients. I had the pleasure of fishing with this man for part of a day in mid summer years ago. At that time he had quit guiding for hire.
Experienced steelhead anglers and guides know that these fish do not always strike. In fact, it’s amazing that steelhead bite as often as they do. So, every guide knows that there will be days where he will do his best but his clients will not land a fish. The paying customers may not even hook a fish. These tend to be long, emotionally-draining days for a guide. Too often a good steelhead guide will get all the blame on a fishless day, even when he has done his best and fished overtime. So it goes.
A worse scenario for the guide is when he gets the blame when the fault of a no-fish-landed day lays squarely on the client. The guide enables his guest to make contact with a striking steelhead only to have the angler miss the strike, pull the fly away from the fish, set the hook too late, or break the line during the battle. A guided client through inexperience, impatience, or bad luck may lose one or several steelhead, AND, at day’s end, blame the guide! For me this will be a one-time client . . . one way or another. Such people usually do not book another trip with me. If they try, there will never be any open dates on my calendar. For them I am perpetually fully booked the rest of my life.
Nick the Guide in this story told me about his last day as a guide. He worked hard all day with a client of mediocre skills and unappreciative attitude. Nick put the guy in position twice during their outing in which a steelhead engulfed a dead-drifting Humpy dry fly. From my perspective as a steelhead guide and angler this is an amazing feat. Dead-drift dry fly! The client biffed both opportunities --- his fault, not the guide’s. But, at the end of the fishing day the client let it be known that he was not pleased because he had not landed a single fish. The rare opportunity to watch two steelhead in the same day rise to a naturally-floating dry fly was totally lost on him. Not only was he unappreciative, he was unhappy. Nick was already on the brink of quitting guiding. This day pushed him over the edge.
Most steelhead dry fly specialists skate their flies. Common sense says that a fly that creates a surface-disturbing wake will draw the attention of more steelhead than a natural-drifting floating fly. The number one problem the angler will encounter is keeping the fly from sinking, especially if the water’s surface is choppy. So, the fly tying materials and design are critical to keep the artificial afloat.
As an artificial fly is skated on the river’s current, it is usually the tail and hackle, or beard, of fly that support it.
In the more “classic” style of modern steelhead dry fly, the Humpy is a good example. The tail is moose hair. The body is mostly deer or elk. Elk or calftail makeup the wing. The hackle is composed of very stiff, high quality dry fly rooster feathers. Two or three hackles feathers are used to maximize floatability.
In fly patterns like the Bomber, the hackle feathers are palmered over the length of the body, rather than being spiraled tightly in a grouping at the front of the fly. This design relies heavily on having the body of the fly support it on the water. Deer or caribou hair which is spun and trimmed are usually employed. Because this design tends to ride lower in the water, a single, forward-leaning “wing” assists in floating the fly, and enhances the wake created by the fly as it tracks across the current on a tight line.
For steelhead dry flies in general, the body and wing should be tied of water resistant materials, the construction of the tail and hackle or beard is most critical to sustained floatability and “skateability”. Moose body hair has proven to be the best material for these. In addition to being fairly water resistant, it is stiff. This stiffness allows the fly to plane on the surface as it is pulled tight against the current.
I got my introduction to effective dry fly fishing on British Columbia’s Babine River. There the guides my friends and I employed for our week’s fishing showed us simple, almost crude skaters constructed solely of moose hair fashioned on a hook. There is no hackle or beard. The fly had a tail, body, wing, and stiff, semicircular “face”. The face, trimmed forward ends of the hair used to form the wings, is formed into a semicircle by applying fly tying head cement or rubber-based cement. The stiffened face creates a magnified wake that steelhead seemed to love. The single, forward-leaning wing on patterns like the Bomber may serve the same purpose.
The effectiveness of the
B.C. Stiff Upper Lip, a name I find more flattering than that used by the
guides there, indicated to me that color, shape and precision fly tying
methods were, apparently, not the most important features of a dry fly that
steelhead find most attractive. Rather, a fly that maintains its skating mode
and creates a great wake on the surface are most important.
Nymphs and Egg Patterns
Fishing a sunken fly slowly along the stream bottom for steelhead is growing in popularity as anglers discover its effectiveness. The exploding plethora of steelhead nymphs and egg patterns confirms this. When the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, a well-presented nymph or egg have the potential to seriously out-fish dries and wets.
Unlike the statement I made about how nonspecific and imprecise, in general, my dry flies may be, my nymph patterns must be much more precise. The design, color, glitter (or lack there of), and size can all be extremely important.
While I prefer to use a large hook to hold and land a big fish, I am amazed at how small flies, at times, are most attractive to steelhead. Sometimes these small hooks are bent straight as a fish escapes, but at least the steelhead was enticed to strike after refusing larger fare. When you finally land an eight-pound fish on a size 14 hook, it’s a feat to be proud of. Though I’ve seen it hundreds (yes, it’s true) of times, I always find it incredible that a big fish which does not need to eat during its spawning run finds fascination in such small flies that drift into their visual zone.
As for materials, “buggy” dubbing furs, such as hare’s ear angora goat, and “lively” feathers such as peacock, partridge and mottled hen back, have proven themselves as attractive to steelhead. Thin rubber legs, metallic beads, wire, and various pearlescent and metallic mylar strands can, at times, enhance the attractiveness of a fly pattern. My preference is to use glitter and flash sparingly, not overdressing with these materials. I definitely use them, but less is better than more.
As with my wet flies and
Victoria’s Secret models, “thin is in”. I don’t care for fat, blocky flies.
Part of this is due to my personal sense of aesthetics, while the balance
results from my observations that this seems to be the preference of many
nymph-caught steelhead. Given the exact same steelhead nymph tied on the
exact same hook model and size, I will always choose, within reason, skinny
over adipose. The dirigible-esque fly may catch steelhead, I believe
I can entice a greater number with the anorexic rendition. One man's
opinion . . .
In presenting nymphs and egg patterns I want the flies near the bottom. Incorporating weight into or onto the fly is important. Lead wire wound on the hook underneath the body as the fly is tied is a common way to add weight. Lead dumbbell eyes or metal beads placed on the hook at or near the hook eye serve to sink the fly.
Because it is not possible to tie enough weight onto or into small (sizes 10, 12, 14) nymphs, these are best fished with a larger, heavy pattern. When fishing a small fly and large fly in tandem --- like a G. G. Stonefly Nymph and Flashback Hare's Ear --- the larger, heavily-weighted fly serves to sink the smaller, lightly-weighted pattern.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, I use a floating fly line for all my nymph fishing. A standard sinking fly line and sink-tips may get my fly to the bottom, but I do not have good contact with the fly when it is cast upstream and allowed to drift naturally with the current. When a steelhead intercepts a fly it holds it a very brief time, perhaps less than a second. It is imperative that the hesitation be immediately detected in order to set the hook. The submerged curves and coils naturally created in a drifting sunken fly line delay an indication the fish has taken the fly. In fact, I am sure many strikes would go totally undetected. This hesitation in the line when the nymph is briefly intercepted by the steelhead is best revealed with a floating, brightly-colored fly line. When the fly line deviates from its normal drift in the current the hook must be immediately set. A strike indicator on the leader also serves as an excellent visual clue that a fish has grabbed the fly.
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