March 5th, 2001
The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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By Thomas C. Duncan, Sr.
The Quest for Northern California Winter Steelhead
Like the miners in days of yore headed for the river with tools, a steady
hand, and a peeled eye, you see them come out every year when the water
is ready. These idealists are not carrying dredging equipment and pans
looking for the odd nugget of gold, though. Instead, they are toting heavy
fly rods, boxes of unseemly-sized flies, and they seek the elusive prize of
chrome. Winter-run Steelhead, that is.
The Steelhead is the anadromous form of the Rainbow Trout, oncorynchus
mykiss, and is one of the most pursued fish in the Pacific Northwest.
California is blessed with a substantial number of fisheries that support the
ocean-going salmonid, and each winter, a mass of flyfishers head to their favourite
spots to try to bring the creatures to the fly. Bundled under layers of wool and
toasty synthetics with heavy neoprene waders and overloaded vests, they rig up
their heavy rods with stout tippets and drag their flies through the water hoping
for the reward of a weighty tug and the sight of a silvery opponent coming to hand.
The task is not an easy one, but the Steelheader doesn't mind. Many laugh,
but the dedicated flyfisher does not let it daunt him. Nevertheless, perhaps
we can simplify the effort, and make it a bit more productive. Let's break
down the hunt for the salty sojourners to see if we can make the reward
as sweet as the toil.
Finding the Fish
The first task we must tackle is to determine where the Steelhead are. The
simplest way to make this determination is to consider the travails of the fish.
Coming from the ocean, the Steelhead must fight its way upstream, battling
against the current to find its way to its birthplace to spawn. Thus, much
energy is expended in its travels home, and along the way it must stop to
rest. This is where we will find the quarry.
Look for slack water just below heavy, rushing water where the fish will have
a chance to stop and rest. Often they will wait there until they deem the time
correct to move up. Good places to look include typical pools and runs just
below riffles, but be careful not to let your attention be solely focused on those
spots. A riffle or a fast run may include an area of slow water behind a large
obstruction where a Steelhead will prepare itself for the task at hand, so don't
be afraid to throw a fly in those slack areas as well.
It is sometimes possible to see larger fish milling about in the water, but this
is not always the case. Either way, a pair of good polarized glasses is invaluable
to the Steelheader. When you think you see movement or a flash of silver, cast
to it! It may be nothing, but often it is our peripheral vision catching the sight
of a moving fish. If not, there is no loss.
While one can catch Steelhead on minimalist equipment, it is far easier and more
advantageous to both the fish and the flyfisher to "size up" for the fight. A
7- or 8-weight rod is the best way to go, in my opinion. This enables you
to cast larger and heavier flies more easily, to cast farther with less effort,
and is less taxing on the fish when they are hooked.
Most of the flies we are going to use are going to be in the #2 through #8 size
range, and while we may reach down to a #12, we are more likely to size up
to a #1/0 or #2/0. It is far easier to cast these with a rod that is equipped to
handle heavy flies such as the rod weights I have suggested. It is also more
advantageous to the presentation of the flies as it gives you more control
during the cast.
As well, there is more casting in the pursuit of Steelhead than there might be
in the average Trout excursion due to the nature of the Steelhead's "take ratio."
It is also likely that casts will average farther than most other types of flyfishing,
Saltwater excluded. For myself, a long cast when fishing for trout may take
55-60 feet of line off the tip of the rod. In Steelheading, though, it may be
necessary to extend that to 75 or 80 feet! I know some who regularly use
the entire length of their line, but at that length it is hard to control the line
and the fly. Regardless, when you make a few dozen 75-foot casts in a
day, it is certainly much easier to coax the line out of an 8-wt. than a 6-wt.!
Finally, when fighting the fish, the heavier line weights give you more power to
subdue the fish more quickly. A long fight is hard on the fish, as we will discuss
later. A high line-weight rod will have the strength in the butt section to bring
the fish to the angler in an expeditious manner while still being sensitive enough
to feel what the fish is doing.
As far as recommendations go, I like the Sage RPLxi for its high line speed.
I like to do the minimum of extra casting, and the quick stroke of the RPLxi
allows for long casts with minimal effort. The Lamiglas Ti2000 is a new rod
on the market that has the advantage of a Titanium butt. This not only makes
the rod lighter to the hand, it makes you more aware of your casting stroke
by virtue of its increased sensitivity, and in turn, this leads to better attention
to accuracy. I have a rod built up from a Coyote Rod Co. blank that is a
powerful rod as well, and handles the fighting aspect like a heavyweight in
the ring. Pick a rod that is comfortable for you to cast, and will fill out each
of these needs. Test-casting as many as you can will help you to determine
which is right for you. Remember -- we each have our own styles and
preferences, so as long as they are technically correct, don't get caught
into thinking any rod is the best.
Your reel should be sturdy, be able to hold a substantial amount of backing,
and have a dependable disc drag. When Steelheading, the main purpose
of the reel ceases to be simply to hold line, and becomes a part of the
"fighting apparatus." A fish with the feistiness of a fresh Steelhead can
wreak havoc on a poorly made reel, so make sure the reel you use will
not let you down! I have been using a Galvan 3.5 Wide-Arbor, and
have been very happy with its smooth action, ability to hold miles of
backing, and tough drag. Teton and Redington are now making reels
that are rather inexpensive, yet have qualities of high-priced equipment
for the budget-minded angler. Abel and Tibor have great reputations
and a price tag to reflect them.
A shooting head system is helpful to be able to change the depth of
water you will be fishing quickly and easily. When you consider that
you can keep 7 different densities of line in one wallet system, it makes
keeping six spare spools with you practically unthinkable. Casting
shooting heads requires the ability to double-haul well, which may
be a drawback to the beginning angler. I like a full-line approach
when I am fishing narrower waters as the shooting heads can cause
some strange positioning for casting a short ways.
Your tippet should be stout with no nicks, knots, or abrasions. Most
Steelhead leaders have a butt section diametre of .026 to be able to
turn over large flies, and taper to no less than a 3x tippet. More than
likely, a 2x or stronger will be used, especially where the massive King
Salmon are present, and a potential taker of your fly. Adjust the length
of the leader to the depth you intend to fish, much as you would when
Concerning clothes, warmth is of the essence. Heavy neoprene waders
under which are long johns, sweats, or commercially produced wading
liners will keep lower joints from freezing. A Polypropylene undershirt
will help keep the upper body warm, and wick away moisture from the
body. Be sure to keep that natural heat outlet called your head covered,
and don't lace your boots too tight -- lack of circulation will freeze your feet!
The fly is the aspect of the hunt on which we concentrate the most, and rightly so.
There are two major problems we encounter when picking flies to go into our
boxes in the shop and on the bench, and which come out on the water:
First, we don't know what really makes a Steelhead strike. It is one of
the great mysteries of nature which may never be solved, and it frustrates
the best of the fly anglers. There are those who claim to know exactly
what it is, but they do not. I have witnessed some of the few who dare
to profess such knowledge go fishless on select days, which negates their
own claims. As an old man of the river once told me, "They may think
they know now, but by the time they're my age they'll know better."
The second problem is that there are more patterns than you can shake a
stick at, so narrowing down the selection is critical. Most rivers have patterns
which are the standards to use. The famed Klamath, for example can be fished
using the Brindle Bug and Assassin almost exclusively during certain periods of
the winter. Often, things are not so simple, though, so we must sift through the
wealth of patterns available to us and determine what the best fly to use in
which situation is.
The most popular colours for Steelhead flies are Black, Orange, Purple, Red,
and Chartreuse. The overwhelming majority of flies will sport one of these
colours as its main shade, or combine some of them to contribute to its look.
Pink colours such as Magenta, Cerise, Shrimp Pink, and other similar hues
also find their ways into the schemes of many patterns. There is no problem
with having these colours dominating the Steelhead fly market, but we must
be careful how we become dependent on fly patterns rather than fly styles.
The Steelhead will not be selective to the take of a fly as a landlocked Trout
will. Thus, it befits us to carry flies with a different intent than on a Trout trip.
I recommend the following system:
Carry flies in three different shades, dark, medium, and light. Instead of having
a lot of, say, black flies, or red flies, pick a couple patterns that are on the dark
end of the colour spectrum, a couple patterns on the other end that are
light-coloured, and some to fill in the middle ground. A box full of Skunks,
Silver Hiltons, Black Diamonds, Undertakers, and Green Butt Skunks
doesn't give you many more options than would a box filled with Purple
Perils, Freight Trains, Spawning Purples, Ferry Canyons, and Street
Walkers! Each of these are effective flies, but they are mainly black
and purple, respectively. This doesn't allow for much flexibility, but a
box that contains Skunks and Silver Hiltons to round out the dark end,
Comets and Polar Shrimp for the light end, and some Purple Perils,
Spruce Flies, Burlaps and Royal Coachman Bucktails for the middle
would allow you to choose from several different shades. More often
than not, switching from a Skykomish Sunrise to a Polar Shrimp won't
make that much of a difference, but tying on a contrasting fly such as a
Signal Light might. Light conditions and environmental colour schemes
might make the difference in how the Steelhead views the fly.
The bulk of the fly is also a matter to be considered. Not only does it
affect the sink rate of a fly, it makes a difference in how much fly the fish
sees! Five-parter flies are the most popular style of Steelhead flies
available to the angler today, but there are many patterns which give
fish the view of a more subtle silhouette and body. The Fall Favorite,
for example, has colours which are found in many other patterns, but
has a very slim profile in contrast to the five-parter. On the other hand,
John Shewey's Spawning Purple is intended to have a very broad profile
to be picked up very easily by the fish. George Cook's "Alaskabou"
patterns are generally tied on size 1/0 hooks, and cannot be missed by
any fish within the remote area. On a clear day, when casting to a
skittish fish, though, this may work to your disadvantage. A slim fly
presented under the opposite conditions, however, may be completely
lost in murky water to lethargic fish.
Don't underestimate little-used colours as a change-of-pace to stimulate
fish that have been fished over a great deal. I have developed flies such
as the Icy Blue Spey and Spag L#&233;omann that cover the colours
blue in the former, and yellow in the latter. I also use a bear hair-winged
variation of the traditional Claret and Black wet fly, and Dec Hogan's Olive
Garden which are also seldom applied shades. Presenting something a fish
might not expect might be a good way to catch the picky ones off guard,
and incite them to take the fly. On the other hand, sometimes a fish that
just doesn't want to move can be excited by a fly with a great deal of flash
such as a Flash Fly, bright, vivid colours like a Popsicle, or a fly that uses
some of the new holographic mylar products. Anger can sometimes cause
the fish to strike at the fly and capture it in their mouth resulting in the
Nymphing for Steelhead is becoming more popular with each passing season,
and it is a technique all of its own. Having a few Stoneflies, Mossbacks,
Assassins, and other big nymph patterns along with an indicator setup might
just save the day. Don't be afraid to put beads on your nymphs, or any
other Steelhead fly for that matter! In the 1980's Eureka guide Mike
Kuczynski began putting beads on standard Steelhead patterns, and it
has become a standard way of fishing on the North Coast. Patterns such
as Silver Hiltons, Brindle Bugs, and really just about any pattern improves
its success rate when a bright, shiny bead is added. Not only does it get
down where the fish are, it is highly visible, and stimulates the aggressiveness
of the Steelhead. What more can a person ask? As with Trout nymphs,
it is not the panacea for all aspects of Steelheading, but it can make a huge
difference in your success rate.
Much has been written about the presentation of the fly to Steelhead, so
I'll not go into it in great detail here. A simple wet fly swing will take care
of most situations quite adequately. When you have established your spot
in the river, work every square inch you think might produce a Steelhead
for you, then move down and continue presenting. Stay alert as your fly
passes about 2/3 of the way through the drift. The excitable Steelhead
will often take the fly as it begins to "drag" when the line tightens and the
Be sure to mend often to keep the fly as visible as possible to the fish.
It is not always easy, but it is really necessary. Keep the running line
upstream of the fly!
The key to fighting the fish is to walk the fine line between getting the fish
to hand as quickly as possible, and not being in such a hurry that you lose
a fish that is not tired enough to quit yet. Often a fish will die if played too
long, and as a result, California law requires the rapid retrieval of Salmon
and Steelhead. We should not need this law if we are informed sportsmen,
however. It is ultimately unsportsmanlike to extend the struggle of a fish
beyond reasonable means.
The keys to fighting the fish start when you feel the take. When the hook
has been set, just let the drag on your reel do the initial work for you.
Keep your hands away from the rapidly spinning reel handle and let the
tightness of the drag, as adjusted by you, hold the fish close enough to
retrieve. When you can begin the process of reeling, take the handle
firmly, let the rod bend far into the butt to get the maximum power and
reduce chance of breakage, and start cranking! If the fish takes off
again, try to keep it close, but don't put your fingers in danger of injury.
When the fish has been netted or landed, get it back in the water as
soon as possible. If pictures are to be taken, have the photographer
ready before the fish is out of the water, get the shot, and return the fish.
Never just drop a Steelhead back into the water. Instead, revive it as
you would any other fish, holding its head into the current and gently
moving it back and forth, forcing oxygen into its gills. When it is ready
to go you will feel strength return to its body, and it will work its way
back to its resting spot. Give thanks for that experience, and move
to the next holding spot.
Most of all, have fun with Steelheading! It can be incredibly frustrating,
but the rewards are incalculable. If we go out with the intent of having a
good time and being safe, we can leave happily, and may actually have
the memory of a big fish or so to take with us. Keep a level head, a
tight line, good footing, and have fun on the Chrome Rush!
Thomas C. Duncan, Sr.
Credits: Thomas's article originally appeared on the Fly Fish
Northern California website
http://flyfishnorcal.org/ We thank them for sharing it
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