There’s no finer moment in autumn fly fishing than the near-surface take of a wild steelhead. While some gush about the visual excitement of the waking dry fly, for me that’s a distant second to the instant my line tightens without warning and I draw a quick breath waiting for my reel to scream. That’s as good as it gets in fly fishing, and that’s why I fish fall steelhead with a dry line.
Back when I started steelheading in 1994 and the local fly shop guys tossed around expressions like “greased line” and “dry line” I could never tell if they were talking about their tackle or the specific techniques they were using to catch steelhead. So I nodded and smiled a lot. I was a trout guy, used to talking about presentation strategies with other trout guys, and we assumed that everything we discussed involved floating lines, except of course when it didn’t.
But steelheaders spoke a different language, and I was largely mystified until I got my hands on Bill McMillan’s Dry Line Steelhead, the now classic exploration of near-surface steelhead fly fishing. McMillan’s book collected over a decade’s worth of his writing about the dry line, and shone a bright light into the shadowy and often arcane world of steelhead fly fishing, revealing its beauty and grace. Dry Line Steelhead became my bible.
According to McMillan, “dry line” was an expression commonly used by his steelheading acquaintances in the 1970s and 1980s, and he chose it as the title of his book because it encompassed all of the steelhead fly-fishing techniques employing a floating line. Dry-fly and wet-fly strategies for summer and fall steelhead were included, as were strategies for winter fish. (McMillan would later largely abandon the dead-drift dry line strategies known today as “bobber fishing,” believing they were far too effective for both winter and summer fish, preferring the challenge of near-surface presentations with a swimming, moving fly.) For me, the dry line became exclusive to summer and fall steelhead. Five particular wet-fly methods remain my favorites.
The Wet-Fly Swing
The wet-fly swing is the classic and easiest dry line strategy. You simply make a quartering downstream cast with a wet fly and swing it. I mend the line once if necessary to straighten the line, then simply allow it to tighten and swing the fly around until it stops below me. I follow my line with the rod tip as it swings.
This “sling-it-and-swing-it” approach has taken countless steelhead, and many dry line anglers favor it because there isn’t much else to do but hang on and wait for the pull. If you’re the contemplative sort, this approach allows you to effectively cover a lot of water while staring at trees or watching the heron pick among the rocks downriver. Late in the day when fatigue sets in, and hours of casting have me thinking about a cold beer and a handful of ibuprofen, I often switch to the wet-fly swing.
The wet-fly swing presents the fly “tail first” to the fish. Some anglers believe this is an inferior approach. However, since the fly swims high in the water column—just under the surface—the steelhead sees not only the tail but also the entire underside of the fly. Additionally, any steelhead holding between the initial point where the fly enters the water and the shore will see the side of the fly as it swings around.
The Greased Line
A.H.E. (Arthur) Wood developed the greased line method for U.K. salmon rivers, and “Jock Scott” detailed his approach in Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, originally published in 1935. At the time, polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane floating fly lines were not available, and the silk fly lines of the day eventually absorbed water and sank. To remedy this, Wood dressed his lines with Hardy Cerolene, the “grease” in the greased line method.
The greased line is the most challenging dry line strategy, and it can take years to perfect. I’ve been using this method since the 1990s, and I’m still learning new things. I doubt I’ll ever really master it, but I’ll remain a keen student, because there’s something quite satisfying about taking steelhead with this classic technique.
Here’s my approach: In water of slow-to-moderate speed, I cast 90 degrees to the current, causing the fly to land broadside to the suspected holding position of the fish. As the fly drifts downstream I move my rod tip downstream as well, gently mending the line upstream as necessary to keep it as straight as possible. When I’ve moved the rod tip as far downstream as I can I begin to gently pull the fly toward my bank, remembering that the objective is to keep the fly moving slowly and broadside rather than speeding it up. Once my rod is pointing straight downstream I allow the line to tighten, and as it does, the fly will turn and finish the drift tail first, just as it does in the classic wet-fly swing.
The Fleeing Prey
E.M. (Ernest) Crosfield was a contemporary of Arthur Wood, and developed the Crosfield method. Crosfield cast square to the current and used his line hand to pull the fly throughout the presentation. The fly traveled rapidly across the current just under the surface.
The late Northwest steelheading legend Harry Lemire preferred a variation of this known as the “fleeing prey” method. Lemire presented his fly under tension and used his rod tip to pull on the line. As he swung his fly it traveled across the current, mimicking the flight of a baitfish or other escaping critter. Lemire reasoned that this method gave the fish a quick look at the fly and evoked a chase response.
I normally fish this method using a 60- to 90-degree cast followed by a downstream mend. This mend puts a little knuckle in the line between the rod tip and the leader, allowing the current to catch the line and speed up the fly. Once the line tightens, I begin to move the rod tip toward the bank, effectively pulling the fly across the current. I often retrieve line as well if I believe it advantageous to add even more speed to the fly.
The Lemire Lift
Harry Lemire described a technique in Sean Gallagher’s recent book Wild Steelhead (Wild River Press, 2013) that I’ll call the Lemire Lift. Lemire—who passed away in 2012—used his Caddis Nymph wet fly on a dry line to mimic the pre-emergence behavior of caddisfly nymphs. Lemire allowed his nymph to sink a on a slack line and leader, then tightened the line so that the current lifted the fly toward the surface (this approach is reminiscent of the classic Leisenring Lift, a bread-and-butter technique from trout fishing). Lemire used this as a follow-up strategy when steelhead had showed themselves but not taken a dry fly, or when they had refused a wet fly presented on a dry line.
I often use this approach as part of a two-part strategy when fishing the Thompson Stone, a wire-body tube fly I designed to suggest the stonefly and caddisfly nymphs I often find in steelhead rivers. I make my initial presentation using a basic wet-fly swing to keep the fly just below the surface. If I don’t get a grab, I sink the fly on my next cast and then allow it to rise, then swing it around before taking a few steps and working my way down the pool.
The Tube Slider
I was originally introduced to the slider concept back in 1991 when I got a copy of the 3M Scientific Anglers Lani Waller steelhead VHS tapes. Waller’s slider rig presented two flies on one leader: the “point fly” was a wet fly tied at the end of the leader, while the slider was either a wet or dry fly placed on the leader above the tippet knot and allowed to move freely—slide—along the upper leader. When used with a dry fly, the slider attracts steelhead to the waking dry but offers a wet-fly alternative to those fish reluctant to take on the surface.
In British Columbia, regulations forbid using two hooks, so I developed a hookless tube tied as a dry fly to use with this method. I tie a deer or elk hair wing to the top of a 11/4″ piece of air brake tube and flare the butt ends of the hair to form a planing surface. Then I use a heated bodkin to poke a hole in the underside about 1/8″ back from the front of the tube. I feed the leader through the front of the tube and out this hole, then tie on 24″ of tippet using a double surgeon’s knot. While fishing, the hookless dry slides down against the tippet knot and maintains its position a few feet above the point fly. The point fly is always a wet fly.
I present the tube slider using the wet-fly swing, but the hookless tube wakes on top while the point fly follows a few feet away just under the surface. I’ve found this strategy is especially effective when a river is experiencing heavy fishing pressure. The two-fly combination sometimes brings fish up when nothing else will.
You can expect a steelhead to take your fly at almost any point during these presentations. I’ve had fish take within seconds of my fly hitting the water, and I’ve had strikes halfway through the swing. It’s also common to get a pull at the end of the drift when the fly is hanging straight below you and holding steady in the current.
A dry line steelhead takes your fly in one of two ways: either it shows itself where you think your fly might be, or you feel something on the end of your line. In both situations, there’s a very simple rule to follow when it comes to securely hooking dry line steelhead: don’t do anything. When a fish shows, it’s easy not to strike, because you can never really be sure if the fish has moved to your fly until you feel something.
But when you feel life on the end of the line, and every instinct says strike, it can be almost impossible not to set the hook. But don’t do it. I’ve had dry line steelhead crush the fly and immediately hook themselves, leaping from the water before I can react. In these situations there’s no doubt that the fish is on. But I’ve also had them tap-tap-tap a fly, then pause, then tap-tap-tap it again. If I set, there’s either a quick head shake followed by slack or there’s nothing there. But if I wait, and have the discipline to slowly move the rod horizontally toward the near shore until the line tightens up, I usually hook them. Anytime you see or feel anything out there, resist the urge to strike until you see and feel the weight of the fish pull the line tight and begin to bend the rod. Then simply lift the rod and the fish will be there, often securely hooked in the corner of the jaw.
You’ll need either a 9- or 10-foot single-hand rod or a 12- to 14-foot two-hand rod to fish a dry line. McMillan generally prefers to fish smaller rivers, and rightly believes the single-hand rod is a more versatile tool for dry line methods on small, more intimate waters. I prefer two-hand rods because I normally fish the broad flats of big rivers where a longer rod gives me the reach and control I need to fish effectively at long distances. A floating line such as the RIO InTouch Long Head Spey or Scientific Anglers Distance Spey is a must. You can also use a Skagit or Scandi head with a floating tip.
Use a leader from 10 to 15 feet depending on the length of your rod (shorter leaders for single-hand rods; longer leaders for two-hand rods). Taper your leader down to 10- or 15-pound-test monofilament depending on the size of fish you expect to find. Learn to tie a no-slip loop knot (www.flyfisherman.com/no-slip) so your fly swims freely in the current. Any quality single-action reel with enough capacity for your line and 150 yards of 30-pound-test Dacron backing completes your dry line steelhead system.
The Right Waters
The fall steelhead rivers of the Northwest are among fly fishing’s sacred waters and the best places to get started or refine your dry line methods. Rivers like the Deschutes in Oregon and the Grande Ronde in Washington, or the Clearwater and the Snake in Idaho are excellent choices. In British Columbia, the Copper River near Terrace and the Bulkley near Smithers feed the mighty Skeena and are classic fall steelhead destinations.
You’ll increase your chances of success and your enjoyment of the sport if you have realistic expectations. If you’re new, it might take a few days—several even—to hook your first fish. Even the experts experience fishless days. Steelheaders accept this, part of paying their dues, and you should expect no less. To speed up the learning process, you might find it helpful to spend a few days under the watchful eyes of an experienced guide. Once you develop your skills and your confidence increases, averaging a steelhead per day during favorable conditions is a realistic expectation on some of these rivers.
Dana Sturn has chased steelhead and written about his experiences since 1994. He founded speypages.com in 2000, and his writing and photography appear regularly in the fly-fishing press. He lives with his family just outside Vancouver, British Columbia.