Matching the Flows for Winter Steelhead
January 03, 2016
In the 19th century, fly fishers learned to match the hatch, and almost overnight fly fishing became a consistently effective technique for catching trout through varying seasons and conditions. These days, most trout anglers, or at least the ones I know, find the challenge of matching the hatch among the sport's finest pleasures; not only does it result in more action, it also provides a window into a fascinating realm of trout behavior.
West Coast steelheaders rarely need to match the hatch. Our fish, according to common wisdom, are either "grabby" or they're not. And so most modern steelheaders continue to swing flies with a blunt approach, one that changes very little based on the conditions. In some ways, modern steelheading is still stuck in a 19th century mindset.
River conditions influence steelhead behavior just as profoundly as hatch dynamics influence trout behavior. In the morning, steelhead may be distributed widely in a pool and be in a grabby mood, but by midday, they may be congregated in select spots and unwilling to travel far to a fly. The best steelheaders adjust their approaches to the reality of the river. In short, they match the flows.
Lessons of Liberty Bell
If you fish for steelhead on the same stretch of river again and again, you eventually discover prime lies that regularly hold steelhead. More importantly, you'll come to discover how steelhead move between those prime lies, and develop an ability to anticipate which lies will contain fish and which won't.
As a steelhead guide, I'm privileged to find myself on the river day in and day out during prime times. One of my favorite runs during Oregon's productive winter season is called Liberty Bell.
Picture a thundering rapid and, above it, a long and wide run moving at the speed of a walk. The run stalls behind ledges, and rushes over cobbles and turns dark where the bottom gives way to troughs. Liberty Bell is a steelhead magnet. Fish congregate in about a dozen places in the run, but on any given day, they typically are holding only in two or three spots.
Most anglers who go through the run don't catch fish. They use a general approach, trying to swing their flies from the far bank to the near bank, and cover every foot of water between. At some points in the swing, the fly is fishing in that manner steelhead love—slow and broadside. But at the most important moments of the swing, when the fly is passing the most likely lies, the fly is rushing or lifeless. Hence, only exceptionally aggressive fish will take a fly.
However, those fly fishers who match their presentations to Liberty Bell's flows, by targeting likely areas with conscious presentations, often get rewarded with an arm-jolting grab. The trick, of course, is learning to spot those likely areas.
We all know that when we fish for winter steelhead, the fish are on their way to the headwaters to spawn. And most fly fishers understand that sometimes the steelhead are traveling, and sometimes they're holding. Fewer steelheaders, however, understand how river levels can affect their preferred holding water.
I've come to think of holding lies in two general categories, traveling lies and resting lies. When we look at a section of river, even on a river we've never fished, these two types of lies are usually identifiable.
Traveling lies—those places steelhead pause to recover their strength before continuing their migration—are always along the path of least resistance. Imagine yourself in a canoe traveling upstream: which line would you take to move upriver? That line is the path of least resistance. Traveling lies along that path are typically in the last place to pause before heavy water or the first place to pause after heavy water.
Resting lies, on the other hand, are used by fish that have stalled their migration for an extended period of timeâ€”often days and sometimes weeks. Resting lies are the ideal spots in the run to hold, places that offer protection from predation, light, and current.
Look for the section of the run where the current is moving at the speed of a walk (a little faster during warm water conditions and a little slower during cold), then pinpoint the deepest area within that section—and you've usually found a resting lie.
Identifying these types of lies is the first step. But when do you target the traveling lies and when do you fish the resting lies?
During rising, high, or quickly dropping flows, steelhead move between the traveling lies. Since the fish shift their lies regularly, you can spend the day cycling through eight or ten known traveling lies, and show your fly to new fish each time.
During slowly dropping, stable, or low flows, steelhead congregate in resting lies. Since the fish aren't moving around much, if you swing through a resting lie once, you've probably shown your fly to every fish in the pool.
Of course, these are general guidelines. There will be days—typically when the river level is slowly droppingâ€”when steelhead are using both types of lies. Those are usually the days when experienced and inexperienced anglers alike will be smiling at the boat ramp; those are often the days when steelheading feels easy.
Technique & Tactics
Most of the time steelheading is anything but easy. Fly fishers who target the right types of lies—and tailor their techniques to the aggressiveness of the steelhead—are the ones who get grabbed most days they fish.
When steelhead are using traveling lies, they tend to be either absolutely unmovable or incredibly aggressive. Hence, when the river levels suggest you should target traveling lies, your decisions involving technique are pretty simple.
Fly choice is always the first concern, and when fish are using travel lies, I prefer Intruder-type patterns like Steve Peter's Winter Run that are 3 to 4 inches long, and seem to strike the right balance between visibility and castability. High in the river system I tend toward dark flies. If I'm closer to the ocean, I use bright flies.
Most travel lies offer condensed presentations: the lie is often narrow, short, and close to shore. For that reason, I tend to fish shorter rods, shorter tips, and shorter leaders. An excellent rod for targeting travel lies in winter is Sage's 11'6" 7-weight ONE. The new two-hander loads well at both close and long ranges, and provides a perfect balance between sensitivity and power, allowing accurate casts despite overhanging limbs and weighted flies. A 450-grain Airflo Skagit Switch is my preferred head for the rod, with an 8- to 10-foot tip of T-11, and a 3-foot section of 12-pound Maxima Ultragreen.
Presenting the fly to travel lies is often a matter of curbing your desire to overcast. Most travel lies require casts less than 30 feet, even on big rivers. With short casts, position is always an essential concern, because your swing is so brief that any mend to the line causes a rushed or lifeless presentation.
For that reason, I often find myself moving a few steps upstream or down after the first swing, fine-tuning my position until I achieve this effect: fly lands already swimming (no mend), a second passes as the fly sinks to the desired depth, and now the fly enters the bucket. It swings to a stop below me, and I pick it up, make a new presentation, and step just as the fly enters the bucket.
When fish are holding in resting lies, they are often less aggressive but still willing to chase a fly—if it's the right fly presented in the perfect manner.
I always carry two large compartment boxes of flies in my boat. About 90 percent of the patterns in those boxes are designed for tempting fish in resting lies. So often, yesterday's killer fly won't provoke a grab today, and I find myself digging deeper and trying more creative flies.
Most days, I start with Intruders between 2 and 3 inches long. If there are two anglers in the boat, the first angler through fishes something dark while the second fishes something bright. Usually we'll try another pass through the resting lie, this time one angler going bigger while the other angler goes smaller. Often the last pass through the run finally provokes a grab.
I'm convinced that repeated presentations to a group of resting steelhead can make an aggressive fish out of one that was only an hour before content to sit still. One time, I was fishing with an accomplished Atlantic salmon angler and his friend, a seasoned trout fisher. On a pass through a known resting lie—a real hot spot that often holds upwards of a dozen fish—the Atlantic salmon angler began working on his casting, throwing repeatedly to the same place. After a dozen casts, a steelhead demolished the fly just as it landed.
You never know what will tempt the fish, and for that reason, I rarely ever fish a resting lie with a similar fly or in a similar manner twice. Instead, I vary not only my flies between passes, but also my angle of presentation.
Most resting lies are efficiently covered with the following method, which seems to work best with rods between 13-14 feet on most rivers. The first angler starts slightly up and across from the top of the resting lie. This angler uses an 8- to 10-foot tip of T-14, a leader between 5 and 9 feet long, and a weighted fly.
The angler casts about 3 feet beyond the outer edge of the holding lie, makes an upstream mend that repositions all of the line, then steps downstream as the fly begins to swim through the bucket. He repeats this presentation through the resting lie, varying the severity of the mend and the timing of his steps to match the changing current dynamics. My preferred rod for this technique is the 13'4" 7-weight Burkheimer, which is a sensitive, easy-casting, fly cannon that throws a 540-grain compact Skagit head with authority.
The second angler starts as close to directly above the inside edge of the resting lie as is possible, at a distance that matches the angler's longest comfortable cast. I set this angler up with a Airflo Intermediate Skagit Head, which slides under the surface turbulence and allows a slower swing. I connect a 12-foot section of T-14, a 3- to 5-foot section of 12-pound-test, and a fly built from stiff materials, to look lively despite a heavy current.
Cast to the limit of your comfortable reach, placing the fly 3 feet behind the outer edge of the resting lie. To slow the presentation, make an immediate mend that straightens the entire line. Then follow the swing with the rod, stepping down as the fly enters the heart of the lie.
The first angler, using shorter casts and smaller mends, fishes through the run quickly. The second angler usually spends twice as long in the run, as he is stalling the fly during the swing. For that reason, the first angler usually has time to make a second pass through the run, coming down behind the first angler.
On the second pass, I recommend changing the size and color of the fly to offer the fish a presentation that splits the difference between the fast approach used on the first pass and the slow approach used in the second pass.
Notice how the trick to fishing resting lies successfully is to offer different flies at different angles on each presentation. You never know what will prompt a grab on any given day.
Success at Liberty Bell
One afternoon this past winter, a client named Mike and I arrived on Liberty Bell to find another angler going through. We decided to eat a snack and give this other fellow time to finish up. As we ate, we watched where the angler targeted his casts, and where he seemed to focus his best swings. Luckily for us, he was attempting to show his fly to every inch of the run—rather than matching his presentation to the flows. A half hour later, he reeled in and moved downstream.
Instead of fishing all of Liberty Bell, which because of its size would have taken until dark, Mike and I thought about the river levels and the distribution of the fish. We went right to the 30-foot-long center, where the walking-speed current deepens into a trough—Liberty Bell's resting lie.
Rather than casting to the far bank, Mike's casts landed near midriver, and after a deft mend, were swinging deep and broadside through the trough. That first pass produced nothing, so we tried again, this time with a longer, slower presentation. Near the end of the resting lie, Mike's line stretched tight, his reel sang, and a chrome winter hen went cartwheeling through the air.
John Larison (johnlarisonsteelheading.com) is a year-round steelhead guide in Oregon, and the author of three books on the sport.