Effectively Presenting Flies to Steelhead
February 26, 2018
A true steelhead addict enjoys the repetitive nature of swinging a fly, but you can't use the same pace and technique in all seasons. Each pool has its own moods and character—and so do the fish. Picture by Solomon Hutchinson
One of my favorite parts of guiding steelhead anglers has always been watching the glowing line swing across the blue and green currents. Fly fishers waist deep in the river rarely have a clear view of the swing, which is a shame because there's profound pleasure in watching a fly swim through fishy water. More to the point, when you're waist deep, you don't see how a fish acted before it ate or what precisely about your swing prompted the fish to chase in the first place.
Over the years, I've had the pleasure of watching from an elevated vantage point a few hundred steelhead chase and eat a fly. Those experiences have taught me a lot about how to position my own casts so as to tempt steelhead into taking, and taking well. What follows is the story of three fish and the lessons those fish revealed to me about effectively presenting flies to steelhead.
Prompting the Territorial Grab: The Slow Swing
In March I was fishing an under-the-radar coastal stream where a healthy run of big, wild steelhead returns each winter. My client, Jason, had been here with me before, and knew how to fish the run. The day was unseasonably warm, with a gentle breeze blowing upstream, and the afternoon sun was turning the river to electric green. We had to make a steep descent to get to the place, following elk trails through the salmonberry and ferns, but once there we both looked at each other and just knew a fish was about to be caught.
Slowing down the fly with several extra upstream mends can bring the fly closer to a steelhead and awaken its territorial instincts. Photo by Ken Morrish
This run is a short one immediately above and below two plunge pools where the currents work to slow steelhead on their upstream migration. The river moves quickest along the river-right bank, over basalt ledges. About midstream, the ledges end and gravel begins. Jason stepped into the head of the run and began stripping out line at once, while I moved partway downstream to watch from the high bank.
Jason fished the run as he had before, casting quartering across to the fast bank, mending once to slow the swing, and then led the line with the rod tip to help the swing cover the whole pool and eventually reach the shallows on the left bank. It all looked very fishy, and I was certain he was going to get grabbed.
About halfway through the pool, Jason reached the bucket, and we both braced for a grab. As the fly swam through the lie, the line tightened but then went slack. I asked if it was a steelhead, and Jason shook his head. "No, just a trout . . . I think. But I'll cast a couple more times just to be sure."
Three more casts did not tempt whatever had plucked at the fly the first time. So I joined Jason in the water with a smaller fly in the same color. Yet, a half dozen swings with that pattern didn't work either. So Jason moved on down the run. When he reeled in, he still hadn't hooked a fish. It was nearly time to call it a day, but neither of us was ready to give up just yet.
"Let's try the middle of the run one more time," I said, and handed Jason a fly with a little more weight. "This time, make the longest cast you can, and then throw four big mends in the first moments of the swing. Slow the fly way down."
This time, as Jason approached the bucket, he was holding his rod high and out over the water, and the fly was swinging across the current as slowly as it possibly could. The fly wasn't very deep; I could see it down about 2 feet in 5 feet of water. And then it disappeared in a swirl of rose and silver.
The great buck rolled at once, and then charged upstream and under the fast water. When that didn't work, he turned and bolted to the bottom of the pool, and Jason's old reel lit up the canyon with a roar.
The buck Jason finally landed had been in this pool for a few days; the water was low, and the steelhead weren't doing a lot of moving around. This was a fish that wasn't aggressive or curious, he was simply holding here until the rains returned and he could continue toward his preferred tributary. He was within a month or two of spawning, and by slowing the fly way down, I believe Jason was able to awaken the fish's territorial impulses.
I put that theory to the test over the next week of guiding. Each day, my clients fished each run in the traditional manner, and then we went back through the best bucket with an extra-slow swing. Of the fish we caught that week, only one ate a traditional presentation. The others were all bucks, and ate on the second pass after we slowed the fly way, way down. In the years since, I've made this variation a staple of my steelhead presentations. It often proves the difference between a day of catching and a day of casting.
Provoking a Chase: The Broadside Getaway
A number of years ago, I was fishing on the North Umpqua River with my friend David. Both of us were eager to catch a fish on this challenging river, and so we awoke early that October day and fished hard until late in the evening, stopping only for a lunch of crackers and meat on the tailgate around noon. There were forest fires burning some mountains away, and in the evenings the light glowed red on the surrounding mountains and cast dazzling reflections on the pools we were fishing.
We were testing new skating patterns—deer- and moose-hair versions mostly—and neither of us was very interested in fishing subsurface patterns. Winter was coming, and we wanted to find just one or two more surface fish before the cold winter rains drove us back to sinking-tip lines and conehead flies.
One evening, my legs were sore from days spent climbing over boulders, and I took a seat in the trees overlooking the pool over which David was sending tight little loops. His casts were long and accurate, and I quickly lost track of the time watching the currents bend and flex his fly line. As David approached a boulder that often produced fish, I stood for a better view.
Despite David's perfect presentations, he didn't move a fish. He too knew this spot's reputation, and so he tried a few more presentations, including slowing the swing way down (as I described above) but still no fish.
When nothing else works, a "broadside getaway" where the fly moves away from the fish at a frenetic pace can trigger a chase and a strike. Photo by John Larison
Then a branch nicked one of David's casts, and the fly line came forward in a disorganized loop. The fly landed too far upstream of the boulder and with a strange downstream curl in the line. As a result, the fly didn't face upstream as it started to skate—it was facing our bank, perpendicular to the flow of the river.
David is no stranger to steelheading. It was a bad cast, no doubt, but anything can happen. He let the fly swing, and I'm so glad he did. The fly went skittering toward midriver at four or five times the speed of the current. At once I saw a flash of chrome in front of the boulder, then a wake bulging the surface. As the fly reached the middle of the pool, still swimming perpendicular to the current, the bright hen crushed it. From my vantage, the swirl looked as big as a Jacuzzi.
We compared notes afterward: That hen had seen the same fly at least eight times. She had seen it in a traditional presentation, and in a hyper-slow presentation. But the first time the fly was presented broadside—and swimming away from her at great speed—she was provoked to give chase.
In the years since, I have caught many steelhead using the same presentation, using both dry flies and wetsâ€”even leeches on sink-tips. In fact, I've come to rely on the "broadside getaway" almost exclusively in pools and runs where the current moves slower than a comfortable walk. Think of the old wisdom about a grizzly bear; if you walk away, he'll watch you go, but if you run, he'll chase you down and take a bite.
Waking the Dour: The Broadside Rise
One day in July, I was guiding an accomplished angler named Mike on his first trip for West Coast steelhead. The fish were around; the only problem was everybody knew it. Every run had anglers in it, and the only way to find water was to park the boat at the head of the pool and wait for the other guys on the water to finish up.
To make matters more challenging, the water was low and the fish weren't inclined to move around very much during the night, meaning that most pools contained stale steelhead that had been holding in the same general vicinity for a week or more. In all those hours, they had seen just about every fly in the book. The fly fishers we talked to weren't having much luck, and neither were we.Even when the water is clear, dark ledges and fishy boulder gardens hold many secret. Photo by Ross Purnell
I saved our best pool for last, and as the evening sun dipped behind the trees and threw long shadows over the water, Mike sent his best casts toward the middle of the run. The pool was a big one, broad and long and riffling most the way, but in its middle were many large boulders, which lent the surface a boiled texture. No surprise, most of the fish I had caught or seen caught in the run had come from those boulders.
I watched from a high bank as Mike attentively fished through those boulders, then walked down to join him at the bottom of the pool. It seemed to me that we should try those boulders with a few different flies, and even a sink-tip presentation, just to see if we might spark a dour fish back to life. So while Mike fished through the water, I readied the next rod. Each time he finished, I handed him the newly rigged outfit, and he went back to the top of the boulders to try again. Nonetheless, after three passes, no fish had budged.
I thought back to fish I had seen caught over the years under similar circumstances—there weren't many. Low water with high fishing pressure rarely proves a productive time to be on the water. But then I remembered one fish I had caught on a day like this maybe 20 years before using a weighted fly with a floating line.
"Do you have one more pass in you, Mike?"
"If you think one more will make a difference," he answered with a warm smile.
"I doubt it, but all we can do is try."
I tied a long 12-foot leader to a floating line and knotted on a weighted fly. I suggested making short casts directly perpendicular from his position to place the fly precisely on the boulders. After the fly landed, Mike gave a quick upstream mend and then let the fly sink and drift for about three seconds before bringing the fly into swing.
From underwater, the presentation must've looked enticing. The fly sank to the bouldery bottom and was tumbling along, then abruptly came to attention and returned toward the surface. A lot of fly fishers had showed their flies to these fish in the last week, but I'm guessing no one had presented a fly like this.
On his second cast, Mike's reel began to scream, and a nice summer steelhead cartwheeled through the air. The fish had eaten the fly just as it transitioned from drifting to swinging.
I think that steelhead on popular rivers see so many flies that even the most unique fly pattern becomes a routine disturbance. But a fly that acts differently—in this case rising instead of moving laterally catches the fish's attention. He comes awake to this new disturbance, and maybe he remembers all the rising caddis he ate as a juvenile, and the old reflex to strike takes over.
Over the years, I have used the "broadside rise" to move fish in summer and winter when the river traffic is highly competitive. It can be a real game changer anytime the fish are less than inclined to chase conventional presentations.
The best part about steelheading, I think, is how much there is to learn about our quarry and its moods. The years I've spent watching from the bank have convinced me that steelhead eat flies for many reasons, and sometimes we need to experiment with our presentations to find that day's winning combination.
John Larison is the author of three books on the sport of steelheading. His last story in Fly Fisherman was "Match the Flows" in the Oct-Nov 2012 issue. That story is now on flyfisherman.com.