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How To Catch Lethargic Salmon and Steelhead

Catching anadromous fish that seem in moods to grab the fly only out of aggression, frustration, hate, annoyance, or curiosity.

How To Catch Lethargic Salmon and Steelhead
Steelhead can become dormant if low water levels cause them to sit in the same spots for extended periods of time. You can wake them up with flies like the Collie Dog, or modern West Coast equivalents like the Pick ’yer Pocket. Photo by Matt Harris

I have long been fascinated by a subset of the fish population called "anadromous." By definition, anadromous means "migrating from saltwater to spawn in freshwater, as salmon," and the derivation of the word is Greek, meaning "running upward." The main species in this eclectic group are salmon, steelhead, and the various species of sea-run trout, such as browns, brookies, and other char, and cutthroat trout.

Being lucky enough to have had fly fishing as my passion, my work, and my hobby for more than 35 years, I have pursued anadromous fish in the rivers of Scotland, England, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Tierra del Fuego, Canada, and the U.S., and whether I'm chasing salmon, steelhead, or trout, I remain totally -addicted.

What particularly interests me about these types of fish is their general reluctance to eat once they enter fresh water. Unlike the resident fish, these vagrants of oceans and rivers can rarely be fooled by "matching the hatch." Instead, we cast our flies with the hope only to find a fish in a mood to grab the fly out of aggression, frustration, hate, annoyance, or curiosity.

This works well for fly fishers when the fish are newly arrived from salt water, have just entered the pool, and are first setting down into their resting place. At this point, the fish are pretty active, with the fish equivalent of adrenaline coursing through them, and they are restless. These fish are the easy ones to catch, and it rarely matters what you swing in front of their noses. Whoever is lucky enough to swing a fly through the pool first probably gets the bite.

Things become more difficult when the river levels drop, the fish pause their upriver migration, and they settle down to await spawning season, which could be months away. As these fish sit and wait to the changing of the season or a change in water levels, they become dormant, lose their urge to grab flies, and in general become a lot harder to catch. This seems to be accepted as simply "tough fishing" by the majority of fly fishers who suffer through it using the same tired flies and tactics, when just a little more understanding of fish behavior could turn things around for them.

Kirby & Bess

When I was growing up in Devon fishing the rivers Taw and Torridge for salmon and sea trout, I had as many blank days as everyone—more so probably, as I was new to the area and didn't know the water or the fickle nature of fish. I would start at the head of a pool, fish my way to the tail, and then move to the next pool. If I caught a salmon it was great, if I didn't that was just what it was.

As I ticked off the seasons of fishing I came to know a man named Kirby. I don't think I ever found out where Kirby lived, or what he did for a living, but I'd often see him on the water with his black Labrador retriever. I fished a lot more days than anyone I knew, save perhaps Kirby, and bumping into him so often resulted in us becoming acquaintances.

Kirby was Devon born and raised, and knew the rivers well. He caught far more salmon then I did, and I often saw him walking home with a freshly killed fish in hand when I had nary a pull. I put it down to local knowledge, and remained confident that with enough hours and days on the water I would get this too.

angler kneeling in a stream, smiling at the camera, holding a dripping Atlantic salmon; Simon Gawesworth
When Atlantic salmon first arrive from the ocean they are aggressive and likely to grab the first fly that passes. (Simon Gawesworth photo)

One day in August, 1979, I saw Kirby walking toward me with another salmon in hand. It had been a long, dry summer and the river was deathly low and clear and every salmon in the river had their noses tight to the bottom. There was no way anyone should be catching fish in such conditions, so I stopped him to ask how he had managed to catch anything. Kirby was in a garrulous mood, and had probably drunk a bottle of his favorite scrumpy on the riverbank, as I am sure he would never have let on normally, but he said it was all because of Bess (his dog).

Kirby told me that he knew the water so well that he knew were the fish would be laid up—whatever the conditions, and all he had to do was get them agitated. He said a stale fish would never take the fly in such conditions, but if you could somehow get them upset or uneasy, you would get them in a state of excitement that would make them briefly switch on. Kirby's tactic was to swim Bess through the pool where he knew fish were to be lying.

According to Kirby, the sight of Bess swimming around made the fish bolt from their lies thinking it was an otter chasing them. Once he called Bess out of the river, the pool would settle down, and the fish would return to their places, but in a more alert, agitated state. Kirby would then swim the fly though the pool, and the stirred-up fish would grab his fly.

I was pretty intrigued by this, because I'd always assumed that frightening a fish was the worst thing you could do. Kirby said this was a common, yet false assumption. He said sometimes he would just "stone" a pool—throwing in the biggest rocks he could find all around the area where he thought the fish would be laid up, and that this would also get the fish moving with a similar result. It didn't matter how you did it, he said, you just needed to get them fired up.


I have to say, I am a purist at heart and the idea of stoning a pool or swimming a dog through it just doesn't seem completely sporting. However Kirby's theory has been proven to me many times, and I have unintentionally benefited from some sort of coincidental "agitating" many, many times in Scotland and Norway, British Columbia, throughout the Pacific Northwest, and in Tierra del Fuego. Sometimes it's from a wild animal crossing the river, other times it's a passing power boat. Don't fret if you encounter some ignorant boater tearing through your pool without the courtesy of slowing down—it could just turn an unproductive morning into a sudden flurry of activity and grabs.

Agitator Flies

As a fishing tactic, you can often agitate a fish by choice of fly or fishing technique. If fishing conditions traditionally dictate a slowly swung size 8 fly with a low-water dressing (for example), why not strip a far bigger fly and wake up the fish that way? It is commonly done in Scotland in midsummer with flies such as the Collie Dog and Sunray Shadow, and it can work equally well on North American rivers.

One of my most vivid recollections of this technique working was on the Grande River on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. My mate Alastair and I were fishing a beautiful beat on the river, and the water was so clear that the few fish in the beat were easy to spot.

At the top of the beat we saw a large salmon lying against a ledge in about 3 feet of water. The fish was right on the bottom of the river and not moving much (not a good sign), and Al and I took it in turns to work through the pool four times with all the flies the guide recommended. We carefully cast at the guide's suggested 45-degree angle, paying careful attention to swing the fly at just the right pace, yet the fish showed absolutely zero interest. It didn't stir a fin.

illustration from overhead of an angler casting and swinging flies to dormant fish
To get dormant fish fired up, cast across-stream so the current acts quickly on the belly of the fly line and swims the fly quickly through the pool. (Joe Mahler illustration)

I've experienced this a number of times, so I decided to change my approach and switched to a large Collie Dog tube fly. I waded to the opposite side of the river, made a 90-degree cast, and then stripped the Collie Dog square across-stream and as fast as I could. The fish instantly lit up, charged across the river chasing the fly the whole way, and then smashed the fly with violence 2 feet from my rod tip. The fish turned out to be my largest Atlantic salmon to date—a cracking fish of around 25 pounds. I know that lethargic fish would not have been caught that day using conventional fly-fishing techniques, it simply was not fired up.

I have employed this same technique many times in my life, whether for salmon or more recently on the Pacific Northwest steelhead rivers near where I live, and though it doesn't work every time, it works often enough that I count it as one of my most valuable change-up tactics.

The keys are to use a much larger fly than what would be considered "normal" in low-water conditions, and that fly should have long, mobile flowing wing materials to make it swim and move in the water like Bess, the Labrador retriever.

The flies I mentioned earlier are tied using exceptionally long natural hair fibers—the Sunray Shadow fly is a Ray Brooks fly originally tied using the black and white hair from a Colobus monkey, and the Collie Dog tube fly is a similar design using the long fibers from a more accessible animal.

To really annoy and agitate fish—especially on larger, deeper West Coast rivers—you'll need to use a heavy copper tube to get the fly down to a level where the fish are more likely to react, or else you can use a weighted Intruder-style fly like the Pick 'yer Pocket.

The idea is to use a much larger fly (from 2 to 4 inches) with long flowing fibers, and speed up the pace. In the Gaspé example I mentioned, I cast directly across-stream to instantly make the line tight and get the belly of the line moving the fly as soon as possible—and I added to that movement by quickly stripping line. You may have to experiment to find out what speed is right for your fish.

fishermen sitting riverside at dusk, one shooting an apparent flame thrower over the water lighting up the nearby raft.
Sometimes fly anglers resort to unconventional means of "firing up" lethargic salmon and steelhead.

Fluffing Fish

Even if you don't deliberately agitate the fish yourself by using larger flies, most anglers who swing flies for anadromous fish remember times they "picked someone's pocket" by catching a fish right behind another angler as they moved down the pool (or had it done to them). I believe this is no more than "fluffing"—when the first fly fisher and maybe the second or third through the pool gets the fish active and moving by either wading deep enough to physically move the fish (like Bess the Labrador retriever) or else they get the fish fired up merely by swinging flies in their faces, and the following fly fisher benefits by finding the newly agitated fish. To that extent, I have never minded following anyone through a pool—especially in low-water conditions with stale fish.

There are dozens and dozens of times that I have seen following fly fishers enjoy this kind of success, so don't lose heart (or your temper) when the next jet boat roars through your run, or when your early morning arrival at the river is greeted by three anglers already in the pool in front of you. It could all work in your favor. Just don't stone the river or swim your dog through the run—leave those tactics to Kirby.

Simon Gawesworth is the marketing manager for RIO Products. He is the author of Spey Casting (Stackpole Books, second edition 2014) and of Single-Handed Spey Casting (Stackpole Books, 2009). He lives in Battleground, Washington.

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