I have known Jason (FR) now for over a year through the blogwaves. He has been a great inspiration and a wealth of knowledge for me over at Fontinalis Rising. It's hard not to appreciate talented writing and fly fishing skills to match! I thank him for being a "guest writer" here on The River Damsel, today. It looks like there are a few more lessons to be learned for RD! So, without further ado... I bring you my kayaking, fly fishing friend, Mr. Fontinalis himself, Jason Tucker.
Uuugghhh…. The River Damsel wants pointers on steelhead fishing, and what do I know? I can tell you about brook trout, and about browns at night. I can take you for a day of fishing here in late May and catch you fish. Steelhead? It’s a problem.
Here’s what I know- steelhead fishing is one of the most exasperating forms of fishing period, surpassed only by musky, and maybe carp. Steelhead are not only seasonal, finicky, large and gear destroying, but being migratory, they can be thick in the river and ferocious, or non-existent. Out where our dear Damsel fishes in Utah and Idaho, they have traveled over a thousand miles, and have seen more than one hook. But never mind the distance and travel patterns, your river can be chock full of fish and you can go home fishless, nay, bite-less. Steelhead set their own rules, their own schedule. I’ve fished the same hole for 45 minutes very thoroughly, only to have me and my friends hook up on three big fish in ten minutes, our own three fish circus, and then have the bite end just like that. I can tell you what weather patterns and times of day are best for this kind of thing, but I could never guarantee it. I can only keep going.
Here’s where I’m going to tick some people off and make a departure. Forget “swinging”. Forget any purism. Learn chuck’n’duck, get some good egg patterns, and catch some fish. Steelhead are egg hunters. Pay close attention to that Metalhead video- sure they tie lots of pretty streamers for spey casting, but a lot of the fish in that video are punctuated with bright pink or orange dots in the corners of their mouths- those guys were ducking eggs big-time.
Okay, you want my ultimate scenario? Mind you, this is the Great Lakes, but who knows, maybe it translates. It is late March, 40 degrees, with moderate run-off and a light stain to the water, and here’s what you need- eggs. My top pattern, size ten, is the Creamsicle, a steelhead orange egg with a Peachy King colored veil- veiled eggs are the ultimate. After that is the orange/chartreuse, chartreuse being the veil. Then an orange estaz egg, again veiled with peachy king. Then clown eggs, though clown eggs may be the best pattern ever, producing when nothing else does. This joke may be getting tired, but keep your clown eggs in the fridge- you don’t want them to hatch.
There’s some other things not to forget. You need an 8 weight rod and matched reel with a good drag. You do NOT need a net, only wool gloves with which to tail and grab- since dropping the net and wearing the gloves, my landing rate has gone up. Grab the knuckle at the base of their tail and hold tight, then cup their belly just behind the gills and lift- it’s over. I hope your grip is as tight as mine. If not, hold on anyways, you’ll probably be okay.
Steelhead fishing is about time and persistence. You need to be out there. You need to know the bends in the river. I went to one of my local streams today, and it was low, and some of the deepest holes had filled with sand. This was very alarming. There were no steelhead. I went to another stream and found a couple of decent fish in the first 30 minutes. This is your dilemma. Fish can be there one day and gone the next, active one day and sulking the next.
RD- in the end steelhead fishing is not about the usual, but about putting in your time, braving the cold, trying new techniques, accepting defeat knowing that victory is imminent. It took me a long time for me to get my first fish, but once I cracked the code it seemed I could do no wrong.
Okay, on to some particulars. For instance, you can’t over-fish a hole or run. I’m typically a four cast fisherman when I’m fly fishing for trout. Each lie gets four casts and I move on. Not so with steelhead. I’ll stand and chuck the same run for half an hour or more. The key is not to make the same cast over and over. Start by working the inside of the run ( closest to you) and methodically work your way across it. If nothing happens, take a step or two upstream and work it all over again. Repeat until you’ve worked the whole run thoroughly and so that the fish have seen your fly from every angle. This has worked for me so often, that I firmly believe in it. Sometimes that one step upstream, changing the angle of the presentation in the current, has resulted in an instant hook-up.
One thing I will say for steelhead, is that one fish can make up for multiple fishless days. One chrome bullet dancing and body planing across the water’s surface will make your heart pound and turn your nerves to mush. Steelhead are the ultimate salmonid, the ultimate fish on a fly. They have it all- beauty, charisma, a romantic life story, power, speed and acrobatics. Despite what I said earlier, once you’ve caught a few, you’ll find yourself dreaming of swinging flies on a spey rod. No matter how you choose to chase them, steelhead become an obsession, the ultimate prize in this goofy world of fly fishing.
Jason Tucker is a fly fisherman, tier, and writer from Northern Michigan. He runs the ship over at Fontinalis Rising, his blog about his fly fishing adventures. Any day during the cold weather months that it gets above 30 degrees you can usually find him out fishing for steelhead.