By Doug Rose
Taking a steelhead on a fly rod is one of angling’s most celebrated achievements, and especially so when targeting winter-run fish.
While summer-run fish in desert and southern rivers tend to respond eagerly to floating flies on dry lines, winter steelhead are more than likely hugging the bottoms of rivers and loathe to feed in high-flowing, cold waters. They’ve long been one of the most challenging of fly-fishing targets.
“You can’t catch them on flies,” was a constant refrain when I began prowling winter rivers 20 years ago. Of course such a statement then was absent truth just as it would be today.
Fly patterns have been used to catch steelhead for as long as West Coast anglers have pursued them. Long before the days of monofilament line, graphite casting rods and spinning reels, California fly anglers took winter steelhead from the Eel and Russian rivers. Early winter steelhead fly fishers also took fish on Oregon’s North Umpqua River and Washington’s Kalama.
Syd Glasso, the legendary Olympic Peninsula flyfishermen who created the celebrated Spey flies that transformed winter steelhead fly design, regularly filled a punch card each winter before the end of February and used a fly rod to entice every one of his catches.
While experts such as Glasso made it look easy, enticing, playing and ultimately landing a winter steelhead on a fly rod is a major achievement that usually requires an incomparable commitment of time and effort. Fortunately, it is neither as impossible nor as daunting as some would portray such an endeavor.
One way to illustrate that fact is that guides put fly-fishing clients, who presumably possess widely varying levels of skill, onto winter fish on a regular basis. How? The guides put them into areas where there are fish, then provide the right tackle and teach their clients how to fish for winter steelhead.
While booking a trip with a winter steelhead fly-fishing guide is an excellent way to obtain an introduction to the sport, anglers who would rather fish independently can also increase their catch potential by adopting the techniques used by guides and veteran anglers.
Late winter and early spring is also when many wild winter steelhead return to the rivers, and their metabolisms are often stimulated by warming water temperatures.
The tactic consists of casting the fly at an angle downstream and letting it swing across the face of the current. When fished in conjunction with upstream mends, sink-tip lines and heavy flies, the wet fly swing lets an angler get the fly quickly down to bottom-hugging winter fish and work it slowly across the steelhead’s field of vision.
Although many specialists have embraced long, two-handed Spey rods in recent years, a 9- to 10-foot single-handed 8-weight remains the classic winter steelhead fly rod. With it, an angler can cast the heavy lines and flies employed in winter and mend line to control the drift of the fly.
Sink-tips for winter steelheaders come in two basic categories. The shorter, lighter tips are designated by numbers such as Type III or Type 5, and sink at roughly the number of inches per second of the number (i.e., a Type 5 would drop at a rate of five inches per second). Heavier, longer tips, such as the popular Teeny Lines and Rio’s Dredgers, are indicated by their weight-per-foot in grains, such as 225 or 350. Type III through Type 6 lines are usually most suitable for waist-deep runs, pocket water and tail-outs, while anglers who fish heavy water and deep pools favor longer tips. Leaders are short for winter steelhead, typically between 3 and 6 feet, and they are usually around 12-pound-test, without taper.
Fewer fly patterns exist for winter steelheaders than, say, for trout, but there are enough of them to confuse a beginner. As with steelhead lines, however, the novice steelheader can simplify fly selection by separating them into broad categories: traditional patterns such as the Skykomish Sunrise, marabou spiders, rabbit strip leeches and egg patterns.
Traditional patterns are effective over a broad range of water conditions, and their compact design and heavy hooks allow them to sink quickly and remain upright in heavy water. But marabou spiders and rabbit strip leeches have overtaken traditional patterns because of durability and their motion in the water. They are also easy to tie with inexpensive materials. Egg patterns, such as Glo-Bugs, are effective in cold, clear water.
Tail-outs on the downstream end of pools are classic steelhead-holding areas and are easy to work on a wet fly swing. But pocket water, especially boulder-strewn riffles between rapids, is also often productive. So are the cushions of “soft” water upstream and downstream of large boulders and snags, especially those shadowed by overhanging trees.
The goal in swinging a fly is to present it in front of the fish, preferably broadside to the current. To do this, you usually need to take up position upstream of the lie and cast at a downstream angle to the holding water. The angle of presentation will vary, but 45 degrees downstream of your position is a good place to begin.
Feed the sink-tip along with a few feet of running line through the guides and let it hang downstream. Determine the amount of line you want to shoot with your cast, and gather that much line in loose coils in your non-casting hand. Roll cast to bring the tip to the surface, lift it off the water, execute a conventional backcast and shoot the slack on your forward cast. (Flyfishers most familiar with floating lines often forget that sink-tips must be brought to the surface with a roll cast before they can be cast conventionally.)
The moment your line lands on the water, toss a large upstream mend. This creates slack that allows the fly to sink. Mend only once; it isn’t easy to change the course of a sink-tip after it sinks.
Follow the line downstream with your r
od held high until you feel the tug of the line, and then lower the rod. The leader and fly should now be deeply sunk and in line with the rod. Then slowly lead or swing the line through the holding water.
Sometimes it is effective to pause briefly to let the fly “hang” in the water above a promising slot or depression, and it is a good idea to let the fly swing around for a moment at the conclusion of the swing. Then strip the line back upstream and roll cast to bring it to the surface.
A steelhead may intercept your fly at any point during the swing, but most strikes occur near the end of the drift, as the fly rises and picks up speed. Steelhead often jump early in the battle, and when that happens you need to throw slack into the line by lowering the rod tip to prevent the fish from breaking the leader.
Once the steelhead begins to run or thrash, it is critical to get slack line back on the reel. Steelhead are much too strong to be stripped in as trout and bass often are, and flyfishers need the assistance of the reel’s drag to wear the fish down. It is also important not to horse a steelhead on fly rod. The safest way to fight it is by letting the weight of the rod and line wear it down. It is important to maintain constant pressure, and it is also often necessary to move with the fish, especially if they make long runs upstream or downstream.
It may take a while for everything to come together for a novice winter steelhead flyfishermen. It took me most of two winters before I landed my first fish with a fly rod. Intrepid anglers will eventually hook and land their first winter steelhead. And if that’s you, slow days and frustrations will be replaced by a glow displayed only by those who have accomplished one of fly-fishing’s most celebrated achievements.
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