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A Steelhead Lesson

If at first you don't succeed, move or mend or change flies and cast again.

A Steelhead Lesson

(Al Hassal art)

It was the Snake roll that did it—and one of the better casts of the morning. The slight downstream wind ensured the setup stroke was anchored in the right place, and the Spey rod flexed against the D loop. I could feel the power in the rod aching to launch a cast out to midriver and, as I completed the forward stroke, I knew that the timing was just right.

The Skagit head left the water with a silent whisper, forming a tight loop and picking up the sunken tip with ease, and I watched with satisfaction as the shooting line fled through the rod guides, depositing the large tube fly in the water across the distant seam. A quick lift to set up the swing, followed by a pace downstream to give the line some slack, and the fly started its cross-current journey. Once again I asked myself the question “Would this be the cast?”

I had been fishing the river for three days without a grab, which is nothing new to a steelhead angler. “The fish of a thousand casts” is one of the nicknames for this species, and by my calculation I had made fewer than 500 of them—nearly halfway there!

The run I was fishing looked good. Medium pace, good depth, and numerous eddies and swirls indicated structure below, and therefore potential holding water for elusive chromers. I watched the path of the orange line as it swung in the current, paying particular attention as it passed through a patch of slightly broken water. I knew a boulder had created this change in water shape, and maybe a fish was resting in the rock’s protection.

For a brief second my heart twitched with excitement as I felt a slight “check” in the line, but quickly realized that it was only caused by the hook lightly brushing the submerged rock. The fly continued its traversing path, the long stacks of Arctic fox in the wing fluttering and seducing a seemingly empty river.

I was about to take a step downstream when I replayed that slight “touch” in my mind. If the line tip had passed through the nervous water, how did the fly touch the rock? After all, the swirl was downstream of the rock and the fly at least fifteen feet below that. Could that have been a fish? I thought I may as well have another cast, just in case.

One thing experienced steelhead and Atlantic salmon anglers learn over the course of their fishing lives is the knowledge that a fish that lightly grabs the fly, but doesn’t actually get “pricked,” can still be tempted to strike again, and it is always worth trying that fish again (and again, and again), especially when there is nothing else going on.

I once watched a good friend of mine, Jim, work such a fish on the Ponoi River in Russia for more than half an hour, with six changes of fly, before he found the perfect formula and nailed the fish. It is a lesson worth learning.

Remembering Jim’s fish, instead of moving downstream I made another cast and threw a mend in the line. As the line got close to where I had touched something, I held my breath and got ready to lift into the fish. It is this anticipation and expectancy that to me is the drug of steelheading.

Like most fly fishers, I enjoy the capture of big anadromous fish. Of course I love the fight—the splashing jumps, screaming reels, and the ankle-twisting chases over boulders and through troughs of deep water—but the anticipation of an expected steelhead gets into my veins and courses the blood through my body.

The line and fly passed untouched through the spot where I had felt the rock (fish?), and my shoulders sagged in disappointment. Not the first time, and surely not the last time, that nothing came of a repeated cast. It must have been a rock after all.

Again, I replayed the previous cast in my mind. The only difference was that on the previous cast I had taken a couple of paces as soon as my fly had landed (to put slack in the line and allow the tip to sink). The following cast I had stood still. Hmmm.


I backed up two paces and tried the cast again, this time giving the line slack as I measured two steps downstream. As the line tip swung over the bit of raggedy water, there was the same subtle check in the line’s progress, followed by the continuation of the swing. No grab, no pull, no searing run. Just a frustrating, anonymous check in the line.

Maybe the two steps I had taken had given the sinking tip and fly too much slack, and they had sunk deep enough to touch another rock? One more cast to see. No steps, just cast, mend and swing. The fly completed its swing untroubled—as it had so many times already during the last three days of hard fishing.

A nagging suspicion (or hope) still lingered in the back of my mind. Two casts with slack, two checks. Two taut casts, nothing. One more cast; with slack, with two paces, with a good mend, the whole enchilada. I hadn’t had this much fun in any other spot.

Maybe I would try a change of fly after the next cast? Maybe I should rest the water for ten minutes, take a wee dram in recognition of the elusiveness of steelhead, and then fish through the spot again.

I backed up two paces and made another Snake roll. The fly landed where it should and I threw a quick mend in the line and took my two paces downstream. This time, however, I pointed my rod toward the near bank, changing the angle of the line in the current and making the fly swing a touch faster.

As the line and fly approached the edgy water I thought about the hookset. “Should I lift? Should I give the fish a loop of slack? Should I strike and set the hook instantly?”

The decision was made for me. One moment the line was swinging smoothly across the current, and the next instant it was ripped downstream by a leaping, cartwheeling fury of chrome.

A Steelhead Lesson
(Al Hassal art)

Instinct took over and I held my rod high and started to wade back toward the shore. The yowling reel was spewing out yards and yards of backing, and I knew I had to get to shore quickly and follow the charging beast before it could empty the quickly draining spool.

I managed to get ashore safely and quickly started to chase the fish, recovering my lost line. Every wind of the reel handle gave me the illusion of being more in control. Soon, I was several hundred yards downstream of where I had hooked the fish, but at last I was level with the fish and on better terms.

No sooner had that thought popped into my mind when the fish started swimming toward me at high speed. I couldn’t wind fast enough, and soon I was stripping in line trying to catch up with the rapidly developing slack. I never got back in touch with the fish, as it somehow shed the hook during its rapid charge towards me. The gut-wrenching feeling of a lost opportunity sat heavily on my shoulders.

Peace returned to the river, with only the gurgling of the river’s passage over half-exposed rocks, and a couple of crows mocking me from their lofty heights, to be heard. I braced my Spey rod against a tree, found a large log to sit on, and took out my hip flask.

As I toasted the magnificence of these incredible fish, and the beautiful rivers they swim in I felt both relaxed and satisfied. I knew the fish had won the day, but I had achieved a small victory with my perseverance, and we had both played our hands to the best of our abilities. I had one last toast, and smiled wryly to myself. Five hundred more casts and maybe I’d have another grab.

Simon Gawesworth is the marketing manager of RIO Products in Idaho Falls.

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