(This article was featured in the 2019 Oct-Nov-Dec issue of Fly-Fisherman.)
Pursuing steelhead with a fly is in many ways an anomaly. We are trying to entice a fish, which ostensibly has no appetite, to hunt down and attack an artificial object that often looks nothing like anything swimming in the river. At least, I have yet to see any real purple leeches swimming around sucking on chartreuse eggs. While there is no way of ever really knowing what goes through the brain of a steelhead as it rages on a 5-inch-long string leech, through on-the-water observations, and more than one whiskey-fueled campfire discussion with fishing buddies, a few theories have emerged that may explain why steelhead eat our offerings. “Theory” IS the operative word here . . . After all, we are talking about the mystical steelhead.
When a steelhead eats a fly, I believe there is a trigger, and in some cases multiple triggers, that cause the fish to react. While many additional factors like fly choice, swing speed, fly attitude, and depth are all part of the equation for success, understanding the motivation of the fish and why they respond to a fly should be a critical piece of how you approach a river with a two-handed rod.
Predator Chase Response
Steelhead are predators by nature. Their long, lean bodies are built for speed and for blitzing their prey with scary efficiency. When you hold steelhead you can feel their incredible power—every muscle seems to vibrate with electricity. While I’ve never seen a steelhead feeding in the ocean, I can only imagine they’re like ghost torpedoes on a search-and-destroy mission, terrorizing squid, prawns, and the occasional baitfish. Given how fast their prey can swim, steelhead need to make split-second decisions when hunting. Once they make the choice to chase, they have the ability to put the pedal down.
Steelhead are a lot like grizzly bears—or any predator for that matter. If a potential meal starts running away, they often feel compelled to chase it. It’s a primal instinct programmed into an animal’s brain. This predator chase response plays into our hands when steelhead react to a fly swinging across the river.
Imagine a summer steelhead resting in a beautiful boulder-strewn pool on a coastal river. Suspended in an emerald ribbon, the fish has positioned himself in front of a large rock, using the hydraulics to conserve his energy. Everything in his world is coming straight at it: nymphs, leaves, sticks, and air bubbles all go racing by. Now your fly enters the steelhead’s field of vision. The skater lands and begins its graceful arc across the pool, leaving a soft V-wake on the surface. Immediately the fish knows this is something different. Everything else has been entering its world straight on, going with the current. This new object is going perpendicular to the current, completely contrary to everything else. As the fly swings past, something deep inside its internal wiring urges the steelhead to follow. The predator flares its fins and begins to hunt.
With a hint of apprehension, the fish rises through the water column, positioning itself within easy striking distance. It’s decision time. Without effort the fish triples its speed and locks onto the fly. Fly fishers—while filled with hope—are typically unaware of the impending chaos. In the blink of an eye the fish turns on a dime and slams your reel into overdrive. All you see is the hole in the river’s surface left by the fish’s tail as it grabs and turns. You are startled and invigorated all at once.
The scene is like something out of a National Geographic special on big cats. The steelhead is the lion . . . your fly is the gazelle. I believe this predator chase instinct is the most common reason steelhead take a swung fly. However, other triggers in concert with the predator chase response more than likely have some bearing on the fish’s decision to actually go for the kill shot.
Remembered Food Response
A friend of mine loves to fish small prawn patterns for summer steelhead. General Practitioners tied on #8 or #10 hooks are his favorite flies for Idaho’s Clearwater River.
Why would a fish that has traveled hundreds of miles up the Columbia drainage, eat a fly that looks like something it ate in the ocean three months prior? One thing is for sure, there are no prawns cruising around in Idaho.
When a fish eats a prawn fly, it’s probably due to a combination of a chase response and a remembered food response. At a distance, the fish probably doesn’t recognize the thing it’s chasing is a prawn, it just knows it’s an orange critter trying to get away. But as the fish gets closer to the target, the silhouette becomes apparent and the secondary trigger seals the deal.
The larger Intruders and marabou flies steelheaders use near the ocean for winter and summer-run fish often imitate prawns and squid. There’s no denying the effectiveness of these types of flies, especially when fishing over new fish in a system. Given how well these flies work, it’s easy to conclude steelhead do respond to a fly that represents previous meals.
Steelhead, especially summer-runs, do feed during their time in the river. I have watched summer steelhead on numerous rivers sipping Blue-winged Olive mayflies in soft tailouts. Skaters that represent October Caddis are a sure bet in the late fall. In addition, steelhead love to gorge on salmon eggs.
Steelhead are not constantly feeding like tailwater trout. However, I do believe summer fish go on feeding binges. This is especially true if they have been in fresh water a long time. These sexually immature fish enter the rivers as early as late March, though the peak of the run for most drainages is from July through September.
As the season transitions into fall, and the fish move higher in the river systems, their pace slows down and they hold in the same pools for long periods of time. During this part of the season, steelhead seem to respond to more naturally colored patterns with little or no flash. Olive, black, and purple flies definitely outshine the brighter, flashier patterns that worked before the trees began to show signs of autumn. It’s my belief this transition happens because the fish begin feeding (on occasion) to sustain their bodies and they respond better to patterns that look like trout flies.
In contrast, winter steelhead are sexually mature (or very close to maturity) when they enter the river. Unlike their summer-run cousins, they move upriver with much greater purpose. Only when they’ve reached their natal spawning area do they put the brakes on. The consummation happens quickly, and they don’t wait long before returning to the sea. Consequently, they rarely shift into a nourishment response mode. That’s not to say they won’t eat a dead-drifted egg pattern, though in the case of winter fish I believe it’s more of a remembered food response than an act of sustaining their bodies.
Steelhead are curious animals. I say this because over thousands of hours of watching swinging flies, I’ve witnessed some interesting and often unusual behavior.
Obviously steelhead don’t have hands. Consequently, their mouths are the only way for them to feel what something is. I’ve seen steelhead rise to a variety of random flotsam, including leaves, pinecones, and even small snakes. In these cases, it seemed as though the intention was not to eat the object, as much as to explore what the object was.
I’ve also seen this same curious behavior as a fly enters their world. They simply rise off the bottom and inspect the offering. Many fish do nothing more than that; they just follow a fly for a while and never attack it. Based on my observations, for every steelhead you hook, at least three others moved to your fly and never committed to eating it.
I’m not sure at what point curiosity turns to aggression, but I’m glad it does.
Competition response, while rare, happens enough that it’s worth mentioning. When a pod of steelhead moves into a pool at the same time, there is inevitably competition for the primary holding spots. As fly fishers we call these spots “buckets” because fish seem to rest in these spots time and time again. There might be a boulder, a depression, a ledge, or something that causes steelhead to consistently stop and rest there.
A run often has multiple buckets, but there is typically one primary holding lie. In my experience, no other river defines this phenomenon like Oregon’s Deschutes. The buckets are incredibly reliable. When I was a guide, I was never surprised when one of my clients hooked a fish in a known bucket . . . after all, the fish was supposed to be there!
However, my antennae would go up when we hooked a fish outside of a bucket. A fish that has taken up a station in a run is much more likely to eat than a moving steelhead. Subsequently, when we hooked a fish outside of a known holding lie, the first thing through my mind was why wasn’t it in the bucket? More than likely the steelhead were displaced to a secondary lie because there was multiple fish in the pool.
As steelhead move upriver they often do so in groups or “pods.” This is especially true of summer steelhead. As the fish move into a new pool, there is often a hierarchy that plays out. While there may already be fish resting in the run, the most dominate fish seek out the primary bucket. Smaller, less dominant fish may jockey for position, but ultimately they are forced to find secondary holding lies or to keep moving. This competition for real estate can make steelhead extremely aggressive—so aggressive they sometimes lash out at anything in their space, including your fly.
A number of years ago I was guiding four longtime clients on the lower Deschutes. We were camped on a spectacular piece of water. As dawn broke, just about the time the coffee was kicking in, I put two of the guys in camp water and shuttled the two others in my jet boat to a run directly across the river. It was the kind of morning that just felt “fishy.”
The air was still and filled with the sound of songbirds, always a good omen when chasing steelhead. To go into the full details of that morning’s events could be an article in and of itself. I will tell you, however, that it was pure magic. The fish were coming easy . . . really easy!
At one point I noticed that one of my guys had barely moved despite the fact that I had put him in the run an hour before. I saw him land a couple of fish while I was helping one of his cohorts across the river, so I motored over to have a chat.
Profanities were the only thing he could say as I approached. He had just hooked his sixth fish of the morning and it was only 7 A.M. We both stood there with incredulous grins on our faces as he told me what happened. What really blew my mind was that he still had 20 yards of water to cover before getting to the best holding water in the pool.
Our good fortune continued well after the sun had illuminated the canyon. It was fun to hear the whoops and hollers of my clients echoing down the river. It was like the sound of boys playing in a distant schoolyard. All of them were experienced anglers, but none of them had ever seen fishing like that morning. It was a day earned. Four friends, four lifetimes of faithfully chasing anadromous fish. That day, all of the ass kickings of the past paid off. All told, the crew hooked more than 40 fish before lunch. Like I said, magic.
The lower Deschutes is notorious for pulling up big pods of fish when the water temperatures run cooler than the Columbia River. Many of these fish are destined for other Columbia tributaries upriver from the Deschutes. They pull into the Deschutes to avoid the warm water in the big river, only to turn around and head back out once the weather cools.
That day we landed on a run where a massive pod of fish decided to park. The competition response was in full effect.
Although there’s no way to ever predict when you’ll find yourself swinging through a giant pod of competing steelhead, pay attention to where you have hooked fish in the past. Make a mental or written note of the location where you got the grab. Over time, you will see a pattern evolve.
Knowing where the buckets are in a run is worth its weight in gold in the game of steelheading. It’s a small slice of clarity when trying to decipher the mysterious world of steelhead. If you’re finding fish outside of the bucket, there are likely multiple fish in the pool. Consequently, it’s almost always worth making a second pass.
I’ve always believed the best fly fishers are astute observers of the animals they pursue and the environments in which they live. The really good anglers also have a knack for using that information to develop a planned approach that goes beyond “huck and hope.”
In the end, these theories of why steelhead eat our flies are just that, observations from my time on the water. I have no scientific data to back it up, just a lot of hours watching. While these notions are wonderful educated guesses, we’ll never truly know why a steelhead eats a fly, but that’s part of the game. It’s the mystery of steelhead that captivates us as anglers.
Tom Larimer is the national sales manager for fly fishing at G.Loomis. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.