June 18, 2012
By Karl Weixlmann
The first steelhead I ever saw eat a dry fly was in a Lani Waller video shot during 1986 in British Columbia. It wasn't the gentle sipping rise most often associated with dry-fly fishing for trout. It was more like a bomb going off along the bottom of the river. I was shocked and awed, and played the scene over again and again, watching the giant steelhead taking a waking surface fly. I could only dream of West Coast rain forests, and the emerald arteries that fed the Pacific Ocean. Never did I think that I would one day experience the thrill of watching a steelhead eat my dry fly.
Twenty-two years have passed, and I'm now a fly-fishing guide working "Steelhead Alley" along Lake Erie's south shore. I had occasionally heard of steelhead being caught with dry flies, and gave it a half-hearted effort every now and then, but believed it was nearly impossible until my steelhead world turned upside down in the spring of 2008.
That year, more than one of my fishing buddies reported taking steelies with a dry fly. Not wanting to be left out of that circle of success, I gave dry flies an honest effort the following fall. It became a new and exciting learning experience for me. I discovered that fishing dry flies or dry flies with a nymph dropper was more than a long shot—it could actually help me land more steelhead in the adverse conditions of a low and clear stream.
Scouting around Conneaut Creek one September day, I purposefully set out to hook my first steelhead on a dry. The water was low and clear, and I hiked downstream to a pool the size of a football field. The bottom of the pool was mostly flat shale, but I spotted a pod of steelhead holding in the only deep water available—the bottom end of the tailout. A depression formed where the creek bottom was scoured by ice and high water, and broken chunks of shale made a hump at the lip of the tailout. Dark, wavering shapes hovered in front of this hump, suspended just below the surface. It was exactly what I was looking for. There had to be 20 of them.
I tied a size 12 yellow Stimulator onto 4 feet of 3X tippet, crouched up and across from the fish, and stripped off line for a long cast. I shot the line down and across, and dropped the fly upstream and on the far side of the group of fish. The Stimulator was in the perfect place, but there wasn't enough current to push a belly in the line and wake the fly, so I instinctively drew the rod up and toward me to produce a noticeable V-wake on the surface.
The fly swung in front of the pack and a steelhead broke ranks, chasing the fly and the wake it produced. The fish followed the fly for more than 30 feet until I could no longer lean back and bring the tip of the rod past my right shoulder, which by this time was almost to the 12 o'clock position.
The fly slowed, then stopped, and the steelhead dropped back to the pack, taking a holding position closer to my side of the stream, and less than a foot below the surface. I targeted this individual fish with the next cast, and it immediately bolted from the group and took the fly in a surge of water. It might not have been the underwater explosion I was hoping for, but I was still grinning from ear to ear. I'd finally gotten over the hump.
Now, three years later, I believe that dry-fly and dry-dropper techniques are the most important tricks I have up my sleeve during the tough low-water conditions that sometimes persist for long periods during the fall and spring. I've learned out of necessity, because if I can't produce fish during these periods, the rent doesn't get paid. These techniques have saved the day many times when I've been faced with the toughest water conditions you could possibly want to encounter on any Great Lakes tributary.
When it Works
During the fall and spring, precipitation raises water levels and brings in runs of steelhead, but optimal fishing conditions may last for only a short time. As water levels drop, the fish find their environment shrinking, and they become vulnerable and exposed. They now find themselves in confined spaces after living for several years in the expanses of a Great Lake. They become extremely skittish—spooky and alarmed by any movement. Cast an indicator or split-shot near them, even in small sizes, and the splash or surface disturbance can send them scurrying.
Even the splash of a streamer can spook the fish. A dry fly fished alone or with a lightly weighted dropper nymph is the least obtrusive presentation you can make to steelhead in these conditions.
Think of it as big-game hunting with a fly rod. Stealth is imperative. Wear muted colors, slow down your casting strokes and movement, and wade slowly into position when needed. Sometimes, staying out of the water and kneeling on a gravel bar is the best approach.
Steelhead in low water are often suspended in the water, sometimes just inches beneath the surface. This is the primary behavior that I look for while dry-fly fishing. I've even seen fish with their dorsal fins and tails exposed when hovering over water 4 feet deep. My theory is that because there is very little current near the bottom in these deeper pools, there is also very little oxygen down deep. Perhaps there is more oxygen near the surface, where there is more current and the water is exposed to air.
Whatever the fish's motives, dry-fly fishing works best when the steelhead are suspended rather than hugging the bottom. This happens most often when the water is warmer during the first half of the fall season (mid-September through October), and the second half of the spring season (mid-April through early May).
Last year, one of my guests landed a fish on a Stimulator as late as November 22, so dry flies are not necessarily bound to these time ranges. You have to let the fish and their position tell you when they can be taken on a dry.
When I see suspended fish anywhere between the surface and halfway down, I rarely waste my time with other techniques. I now know that a dry fly alone or with a dropper will probably take them.
Spring hatches of mayflies such as Blue-winged Olives or Hendricksons, and early black stoneflies can also get fish looking up. The south shore of Lake Erie produces prolific Hexagenia mayfly hatches on the lake itself, and several tributaries have good enough habitat to produce Golden Stones—one of the reasons I think a yellow Stimulator works so well in my neck of the woods.
I've spent years watching steelhead in tributary environments, and certain steelhead behaviors can give you clues about when a dry fly will be effective—most notably when fish are suspended as previously mentioned.
Another clue is when fish come up and eat your indicator—sometimes becoming briefly "hooked" on the plastic peg or toothpick holding the indicator in place.
Anyone who has spent time fishing indicators on Great Lakes tributaries has probably seen a steelhead come to the surface and gulp their indicator. Some fly fishers think this is an imprinted response from hatchery-raised steelhead, which are fed pellets when they are young. It also could be a natural curiosity, or instinctive feeding. Whatever the reason, they do it. I've even had steelhead come up for an indicator in February.
If a steelhead eats your indicator, it's an obvious indication (pun intended) that they are willing to come to the top, and will eat a dry fly. This behavior spurred the birth of Erie-Sistable dry flies, which are tied to imitate an indicator and to use as an indicator when fishing heavy beadhead nymph droppers. The buoyancy of these flies—tied with spun and clipped deer-hair bodies—allows you to effectively fish various sizes of weighted nymphs and soft-hackles as droppers, while still giving fish the opportunity to take the dry fly.
Even if you don't see fish suspended and don't have a fish eat your indicator, you can always "test the waters" for an hour or so and see if it works. If it's a warm early fall or late spring day and the water is low, it's always worth a shot. If I get a positive response from a single fish, I target that steelhead right away because it has already showed interest. More important, it's a good sign that other fish through the day may also be in a similar mood.
I've even watched one steelhead bullrush over the backs of other, more dormant fish to get at a dry and eat it. This behavior tells me that within a specific group of fish, only a small number will react positively to a dry. Your job is to search the water and find a fish that will commit to eating your dry fly.
Tackle & Technique
You probably already have the tackle needed to catch steelhead on drys. Any soft-tip 6- or 7-weight with enough shock absorption for 4X or 5X tippet will work; I often go down to a 9-foot, 5-weight (trout tackle) on tiny tributaries. Use weight-forward floating lines in drab colors, like olive or buckskin.
Three basic techniques have worked for me on tributaries as large as the Grand River in Ohio and the Cattaraugus in New York, and as small as tiny tributaries like Walnut Creek in Pennsylvania: a down-and-across waking or moving dry fly, a dead-drift dry fly, and a dead-drifting dry fly with a dropper. I use a long 12- to 14-foot nylon monofilament leader tapered to 3X on medium to large tributaries, and varying lengths of fluorocarbon (because it sinks) for attaching the dropper nymph to the hook bend. You can get by with a 10-foot leader (total) on small tributaries, where casts are relatively short.
Down and Across
A steelhead's reaction to a moving, waking dry fly is one of the most exciting angling experiences on the planet. Sometimes they push a bow wake from the other side of the pool like Jaws rushing the Orca. Often they miss, leaving your nerves frazzled as the residual hump of water bobs the fly up and down. Repeat the cast, and hopefully the steelhead will eventually lock onto the fly.
Other times, steelhead will just quietly sneak up behind the fly and sip it in with a classic and gentle head-and-tail rise.
This is the traditional technique used on West Coast rivers, and the original Lani Waller technique I discussed at the start of this article. This is the first presentation I use before resorting to other techniques like dead-drifting and dropper attachments.
The technique is much the same as swinging a wet fly or streamer. You cast down and across at a 45-degree angle in places where the current is fast enough to create a downstream belly in the fly line; this drags the fly across the surface of the water, and creates the classic V-wake that excites steelhead. In slower water, cast straight across to create a belly in the line and wake the fly. On larger rivers, you may cast up and across to execute a dead-drift presentation before the belly develops and the fly begins to skate.
Mend the line upstream to slow the fly and diminish the wake. Mend the line downstream to create or accentuate the belly and move the fly more aggressively.
The West Coast steelhead mantra is that the fly should move and wake at about half the speed of the current, and slower is better for keeping the fly in front of the fish longer.
Tailouts and the gut of a pool, where the flow from the head of the pool slows down, often have the best combination of depth and flow, and are the most comfortable for fish.
If you get a chaser, be sure to keep the fly moving with a slow, steady wake. Don't ever strike like you would when a trout eats your dry fly. Continue waking the fly until the steelhead takes it and turns away, hooking itself in the corner of the mouth in the process.
If the fly stops during the swing, steelhead usually turn away from it. To avoid coming up short, you can lengthen the wake, and continue moving the dry by sweeping the rod to the side (toward the near shore) and retrieving fly line with your line hand in even strips to keep the fly moving. I've had steelhead charge the fly three times before taking it on this final extended sweep.
After I've fished a pool down with a waking dry fly, I often turn around and fish the dry fly back up the pool, facing upstream and using a dead-drift presentation. Dead-drifting—the classic trout technique of casting up and across with the dry fly floating back downstream toward you—is seldom used on West Coast summer- and fall-run rivers, mostly because the fish are spread out, and a skating fly helps you cover the water more quickly.
Dead-drifting can be deadly on highly pressured Great Lakes fish, however, because you don't need to "cover the water." In low, clear situations when you can see exactly where the steelhead are holding, the dead-drift is a stealthy presentation from below that won't alarm a group of nervous steelhead like indicators and nymphs.
When dead-drifting dry flies from a downstream position, I frequently use a midair reach cast in order to place the fly line to the side of the fish while the leader and fly float directly over them. After the forward stroke of the cast, move the rod either left or right (the reach) horizontally while the line shoots forward through the guides.
Dead-drifting also works for me in deeper riffles and runs with depressions or ledges, which provide current breaks for the fish. These don't seem like the places where a dry would be effective, but dead-drifting here has surprised me enough times to try it before resorting to other techniques. High-stick nymphing in pocketwater and riffles using a dry fly and a small egg dropper is one of the deadliest tactics you can use in spring.
Even though dry flies can work where other presentations fail, there are days when steelhead will show absolutely no interest in surface patterns, even after repeated presentations from different positions. However, you don't need to go straight to an indicator and nymph rig.
Where it's legal, try adding a dropper below the dry fly. Drys with nymph or egg droppers are deadly on steelhead in low, clear water. Think of the dry as a "stealth" indicator. It also forces you to use less weight on your nymph and a shorter length of fluorocarbon between the dry and the nymph for better contact and fewer missed strikes. I use 4X fluorocarbon tippet for the dropper most of the time, but occasionally drop down to 5X on super-spooky fish in clear water.
The length of the dropper is determined by where you see fish in the water column. I've caught a lot of steelhead with the dropper fly set only 6 to 12 inches beneath the dry, even though the fish have shown no interest in the surface fly itself. Deeper sets for fish suspended 2 to 4 feet down may require a heavier or larger beaded nymph, or tiny split-shot between the dry and dropper flies.
When you're using this method, the dry fly may not always slam-dunk the way an indicator does in deeper, faster water. Sometimes there is simply a hesitation in the drift when a fish takes the dropper. I've watched a lot of steelhead swoop underneath the dry, open that white mouth, and eat the dropperâ€”causing the dry fly only to hesitate briefly. They often spit out the dropper, and the dry fly merrily continues its drift downstream.
To defeat this quick rejection you must set the hook quickly. Don't wait for the fish to hook itself as you do when fishing a waking fly.
I almost always use weighted or beadhead nymphs as droppers—mostly hook sizes 14 through 18â€”to keep a tight line from the dry to the dropper and transmit the take to the dry. I like beadhead Pheasant Tails or various soft-hackles for fishing in slower current, but there are times when I use a large beadhead Prince Nymph or stonefly nymph to get down in deeper, faster water at the head of a pool.
Small egg-fly droppers work best in the spring when steelhead and suckers are spawning, but are always good flies when nymphs and soft-hackles are not working. Beadless egg flies like Sucker Spawns, Glo-Bugs, and Blood Dots require micro split-shot between the dry and dropper. Even when they are thoroughly wet, the sink rate of egg patterns is much slower than a compact beadhead nymph, and you may need an upstream mend to get the egg under the dry so that it doesn't drag.
Drys that imitate local hatches like October Caddis and spring Hendricksons are proven, but I think that if steelhead are at all interested in coming up top, just about any dry fly has a chance of working. A Bomber looks like nothing found in nature—and steelhead will eat an indicator, after all.
I most often fish size 8 to 12 yellow Stimulators because they are versatile and reasonable imitations of Hexagenia mayflies that hatch on Lake Erie. They also match the smaller populations of Golden Stones found in the tributaries. In slightly stained or fast water, larger patterns are easier to spot on the water. Orange Stimulators also work, as do Bombers. These patterns produce a nice wake, and have a lot of hackle and hollow hair for holding up weighted and beadheaded flies. Friends of mine have taken fish on Bivisables and foam flies like Amy's Ants and Chubby Chernobyls.
Remember that you have to make sacrifices to catch a Great Lakes steelhead on a dry fly. Some days you may catch fewer fish, but one steelhead on the surface is worth quite a few dredged up from the bottom.
As with anything else in life, you have to put your time in if you want to succeed. You have to fish at the right times, when a certain set of conditions and the fish themselves tell you that dry-fly fishing will work.
Most of all, you have to have confidence. It took me years to develop that confidence and discover the pleasure of catching Great Lakes steelhead on the surface. I hope you get there much sooner.
Karl Weixlmann is a longtime Lake Erie steelhead guide and author of Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon, & Trout: Essential Techniques for Fly Fishing the Tributaries (Stackpole Books, 2009).