We were on a coastal steelhead river the day after a monster cold front dumped two inches of rain in six hours, and the water was just settling back into shape—milky green and debris-free. My buddy Nate—whom we call Bomber for his ability to drop feathery ordnance with laser-guided precision—was working his way down one of the most consistent runs while I warmed up on shore. Water dripped from the mossy limbs, and the ferns were glazed with moisture. Everything felt right.
“You’ll get one,” I called.
“Don’t jinx me,” he said without taking his eyes off the water.
The run—like so many winter steelhead runs—is deep and boulder-strewn, and crowded by overhanging alders. To present a fly effectively here, fly fishers have to break all the “rules” of fishing sinking tips, rules that were written largely by fly fishers who fished broad and shallow rivers without the aid of Skagit lines and the associated heavy tips.
Only 15 years ago, fly anglers had to pick their winter steelhead rivers with care. Because of the rods and lines available then, only those streams with a wide floodplain and a slow gradient readily accepted a swung fly. With the current wholesale adoption of compact Skagit heads, fly anglers have discovered a new world of options: heavily timbered, fast rivers in mountainous terrain—places where fish tend to be big, chrome, and aggressive.
Fishing these rivers, however, requires you to think outside the box. No longer does the standard “cast quartering downstream” advice make sense in every situation. Neither does the habit of using a “pull-back mend” immediately after the fly lands.
If Bomber had been placing his casts quartering downstream and using a pull-back mend, his fly would never have sunk to within striking distance of the fish holding in that run.
Choosing Your Tackle
Most broad, shallow rivers are best fished with long-belly lines that allow you to cast, step down, and cast again, without the inefficiency of stripping in 30 or 40 feet of running line between each presentation.
Fast, deep rivers, on the other hand, require compact Skagit lines with 18- to 24-foot heads, and a short, fast-sinking tip. Airflo, RIO, Scientific Anglers, and Beulah all make compact Skagit heads that allow you to cast in tight quarters, achieve controlled presentations, and fish deep holding lies.
These lines can be fished with either single- or two-handed rods, but they require “sustained-anchor” casting techniques, meaning the water—not the momentum of the airborne line—loads the rod. (To learn more about sustained-anchor casting, see the DVD SkagitMaster Volume 1.)
My personal quiver contains three rods for Skagit lines. My shortest, an 11′ 8-weight Beulah switch rod, casts a 420-grain line and perfectly matches those smaller streams with low-hanging limbs. I also like an 11’7″ 7-weight Burkheimer, which casts a 510-grain line; this rod pitches a heavy fly all the way to the far bank on medium-size rivers, and yet remains short enough to load under low limbs. For large rivers, I use a 12’8″ 8-weight Burkheimer to cast a 600-grain line all the way to the backing if I need to, and allow precise mending over long distances. Most major rod manufacturers have similar rods that will match your casting preferences.
To these lines, I loop sinking tips that range from 10 feet (with the short rods) to 15 feet (with the long rod), and consist of floating line melded to RIO’s T-14 or T-17 sinking-tip line. (RIO commercially produces these tips, called MOWs, so you don’t have to splice your own.) Matching the length of the tip to the water is crucial. I use 5 feet of T-14 when the water is shallow, the substrate contains large boulders, or the lies I’m targeting are exceptionally small. I use a 10-foot tip just about everywhere else.
Picture this: a run 200 feet long with waist- to head-deep water, and a series of car-size boulders running down its center. Add a rapid downstream and another upstream, and you’ve found some ideal holding water.
Except that water like this, which is so common on fast rivers in mountainous terrain, demands that you break old habits.
First, pinpoint the places where steelhead are likely to hold. Most advice offered on fishing sinking tips assumes the run will hold steelhead throughout its course. Most real-world runs, however, especially ones with large boulders, hold fish in specific and predictable places, like in front of large rocks or at the tail of a bouldery pool.
Second, think of the fly line differently. You aren’t casting and mending an entire line—you’re casting the Skagit head and mending the running line. Moreover, you aren’t casting to place the fly; you’re casting to place the Skagit head. Think of your presentation as consisting of three sections: the landing part, the sinking part, and the swimming part.
So, you’re on a beautifully bouldered run. You’ve pinpointed some likely lies. But the water is moving so fast! How will you ever get your fly down? The answer is, you’ll use the pockets of slack water to give your sinking tip and the fly time to sink. Once they’re both down, you’ll allow the current to bring the entire Skagit head slowly into position.
After the initial cast, the Skagit head remains undisturbed. You’ll make frequent adjustments to the running line to keep the head from coming under tension, but these adjustments shouldn’t bring the head taut (A). Think of the head as dead-drifting, as you might allow an indicator and weighted nymph to drift, naturally and undisturbed (B). Then, as the fly reaches the proper depth, bring the line into a slow, controlled swing, causing the fly to swim through the targeted lie (C).
By lowering the rod at the precise moment the fly enters the lie, you’ll be able to slow the swing of the fly and increase the likelihood of a take. The longer the rod, the more you’ll be able to slow the presentation.
On many fast mountainous rivers, the fish prefer “armpit lies,” or those inside seams at the head of a run. These lies often produce arm-jolting takes, but they can be extremely difficult to fish, especially with swung flies. For this reason, they often go under-plied, even on busy weekend days.
To fish an armpit lie effectively, especially a deep one, consider adjusting your casting position. Traditional thinking tells you to stand on the inside (the slow side) of the run and to cast to the outside, bringing your fly from the faster water into the slower holding water near shore. This strategy doesn’t work well when targeting armpit lies, however, as it ensures the fly is high in the water column and pointed directly upstream when it reaches the prime holding water. Whenever possible, I prefer to stand on the other side of the river, quartering upstream from the armpit lie on the other side.
As with the bouldered run, think of the presentation as having three parts: landing, sinking, and swimming. Cast the line across the seam to the slack water on the far side (A), allow it to sink (B), and then swim the fly into position (C) by positioning the running line in the current and creating a small belly that will travel down the running line into the Skagit head, and eventually to the fly itself. Continue making this presentation as you walk down the far bank until the seam diffuses, which is often the entire length of the run.
To effectively fish the top ten feet or so of the seam, adjust the presentation by casting so the sinking-tip lands in the slack, and then hold the Skagit head high out of the current. This presentation doesn’t sink the fly as well, but often the top of the armpit lie is shallow anyway.
Some of the most consistent lies on the rivers I fish are the narrow trenches that form just upstream from the tailout. These spots are often tough to see during normal winter conditions, so I scout for them during low water, and mark them mentally or with a cairn on shore.
The trouble with these places is that a conventional presentation doesn’t allow the fly to sink deep enough—or stay in the lie long enough—to provoke a strike. Over years of trial and error, I’ve learned that to fish these places effectively, I have to adjust my leader, fly, and casting angle.
Normally, I run 3 to 4 feet of 10-pound-test Maxima between my sinking-tip and my fly, but for trench lies, I add another 4 to 6 feet of 12-pound-test butt section.
I also use flies that are underdressed and weighted with heavy barbell eyes near their hook, allowing for a more hydrodynamic sink.
Instead of standing quartering upstream from the fish, I step down until I’m only slightly upstream from where I expect the fish to hold. This change is important, as otherwise the fly is too high in the water column when it reaches the fish.
As with any other lie, think of the presentation as having three parts. Cast the head quartering upstream from your position (A). Instead of letting the fly line sink unabated, make a crisp stack mend that lifts as much of the Skagit head as possible and repositions it in a pile on top of the fly (B); this mend limits the tension applied to the line by the current and allows the sink-tip and the fly to sink much more quickly. Finally, once the fly is near the bottom—but not dragging on the bottom—bring the line into swing (C), which causes the fly to turn broadside and swim slowly through the trench. The take often occurs at the moment the fly begins to swim.
Some of my friends use a similar presentation with a floating tip and a 12- to 14-foot leader. The advantage is that the fly is easier to control and less likely to snag. The disadvantage, I believe, is that the fly rises more quickly from the strike zone than it does when fished with a sinking tip.
With either option, this presentation requires you to fine-tune the fly weight and drift length to ensure the fly doesn’t simply drag along the bottom. On a new piece of water, start with a heavy fly. If it snags, try shortening the length of the drift; if it still snags, try a lighter fly. If on that first presentation the fly doesn’t snag, try lengthening the drift until it does, and then taper back until you’re confident the fly is swimming 1 to 2 feet above the bottom. The next time you fish that run, you’ll know which fly to use and how long to let it drift.
There’s no place winter steelhead like more than the deep gut of a run, which usually forms in the middle of the pool where the water is moving at the speed of a slow walk. (At high water, the gut is lower in the pool; at low water, it is higher.)
I target these lies with heightened awareness. However, deep guts can be a challenge to fish because they are typically the run’s deepest sections, and the fish can be spread out within them, requiring that the fly sink quickly and then swim well for a large section of the swing.
My buddy Bomber was fishing a deep gut that morning, one of our favorite pools we call “Buckets” for the half-dozen bucket-sized declivities in its gut that commonly hold steelhead.
Buckets is about 8 feet deep in the center, with a solid walking-speed current. Getting a fly down and keeping it down can be difficult, especially given the alder limbs and the treacherous wading.
Bomber was fishing the run exactly as I would. He had lengthened his leader to 8 or 9 feet and knotted on a heavy fly. His first cast was barely downstream from directly across the river (A), and he was careful to land his fly in the same speed current as the Skagit head so that a problematic downstream belly didn’t form in the leader (which would cause tension in the line and prohibit sinking). He then fed running line into the swing, allowing the head and fly to sink as they drifted downstream (B). Finally, just when the fly was reaching the stones, he brought the line into a swing, leading the line with a slowly lowered rod (C). As the fly neared shore, he stopped leading the line and gradually pointed the rod back toward quartering downstream, which caused the fly to rise up through the water column, paralleling the contour of the bottom.
It all felt right, and sure enough, he was only a few casts into the pool when I saw his running line tighten, and then his rod forked to the cork and his reel squealed a burst of line. He turned to me, a wide smile on his face, and grunted, “I love fishing deep.”
John Larison (johnlarisonsteelheading.com) is an Oregon steelhead guide and the author of three books: The Complete Steelheader, Northwest of Normal, and Holding Lies.