First-Time Steelhead Fly Fishing

First-Time Steelhead Fly Fishing

Congratulations to Willie Gilbertson for winning the Ford Outfitter Insider Adventure Giveaway Steelhead fishing trip with Ross Purnell, editor of Fly Fisherman Magazine.

Hunting for steelhead on your first ever attempt at fly fishing is a little like shooting hoops with LeBron James the first time on the basketball court. You normally just don't start out that way.

But Willie Gilbertson of Black Creek Wisconsin didn't get that memo. All he knew is that as a life-long bow hunter, conventional angler, and avid outdoorsman, he had always wanted to try fly fishing. So when he saw an advertisement for the Ford Insider Adventure Giveaway sweepstakes with the potential to win a two-day steelheading trip, he didn't hesitate to enter.

Now, I've personally taught many people how to fly fish, and through the pages of FLY FISHERMAN I've coached thousands of others how to get started. My best advice is always to get out on a warm spring or summer day, and cast small poppers to bluegill and other panfish. The casting and line control required for fly fishing are complex, so it helps to have fish that are both plentiful and willing. Warm spring weather often puts panfish on the bite but more important, it's pleasant being out there, and there's no hardship involved in taking the time to learn the mechanics.

What I don't tell new fly fishers is to take up fly fishing in November along the Lake Erie shoreline when wind, snow, and freezing temperatures can send fair-weather fishermen scurrying back to their television sets. And I don't tell prospective fly fishers to start out by catching steelhead, a highly prized gamefish that can be absent or unwilling to bite. Even when steelhead do play the game, they are penchant to break your line, break your rod, and break your heart.

Glass Half Full

But Willie was undeterred. All he knew is that he had a chance to learn how to fly fish during prime time along "Steelhead Alley" on the south shore of Lake Erie. (Funny how there's always two ways of looking at things, and obviously Willie is a "glass half full" sort of guy.)

I've fished for Lake Erie steehead numerous of times on dozens of different tributaries, but I'm still a tourist myself on many of these waters, so to help make sure we got Willie the best experience possible, I enlisted the help of two localsCarl Caylor and Jeff Blood who also happen to be the managing partners of NetStaff LLC (, a new company based in Ashtabula, Ohio. Jeff is also the creator of the popular egg imitation called the Blood Dot and actually took me on my very first Great Lakes steelhead adventure way back in 2002. Jeff and Carl both know these waters as well as anyone, and graciously agreed to help us use the NetStaff with the cooperation of Willie and (hopefully) some Lake Erie steelhead.

We arrived at the river in a new Ford FX4 pickup, and while the weather reports were discouraging, it turned out to be fantastic steelhead weather weather as the rivers were just dropping into shape after a recent snowstorm.

We walked many miles into a deep gorge, and fruitlessly fished quite a few excellent steelhead pools while Willie learned how to cast a length of line, how to mend the line upstream and then downstream to get a nice long drifts with his Blood Dot fly along the bottom, and how to set the hook when his indicator twitched. Jeff confided that Wilie was one of the quickest studies he's ever fished with, and just after lunch on day 1, everything seemed to "click" with Willie.

Here's what happens when a new fly fisher goes after his first steelhead:

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