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Fly Fishing Articles

Title: Steelhead 101

Date of Article: 2008-03-16

Article: The tell tale tug of a steelie is the drug that keeps us up to our armpits in ice water, dreading going back to the warmth of the daily grind. Steelhead are only fish but they have the mystic power to take over one’s mind, soul and time. The addiction can be overwhelming. The only way to suppress it is with a hard fought slab of silver steelhead on the fly, the very notion conjures up romance and prestige -- the pinnacle of west coast fly fishing.

Many would be steelhead fly fishers become utterly lost in the maze of videos, books and magazines available, seemingly, only to confuse and discourage interested anglers. I do not wish to add to the heap; instead, I’d rather try to be helpful and attempt to clarify the utterly simple.

Steelhead rely on instinct to get them through the day, avoiding seals, birds, nets etc . . . and it is this instinct that brings them back to their native streams where they become available to hook and line. This instinct is also what feeds them and makes them aggressive. Anglers must be aware of these instincts to lure the steelhead.

Steelhead unlike humans are cold blooded. This means that they cannot control their own body temperature and therefore are very sensitive to the water temperature surrounding them. The colder the water the more sluggish the fish and the more likely it will not move for the fly.

Combine the fact that steelhead rely heavily on instinct and the fact that steelhead are cold blooded and we have the base knowledge needed to chase this silvery dream.

There are three basic techniques used to fool steelhead: the dead drift; the hang down; and escaping the prey. These are all techniques used to work on the instinct of the fish; water temperature decides which one and where to use them.

Let’s start with the dead drift. This is used mostly when the water is the coldest. Water ranging from 36 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit is what you may consider minimum temperature to chase steelhead. In these conditions the fish become very lethargic and look for slower holding water; they also are less apt to chase a lure or fly. During these conditions is when fly fishing for steelhead is the most challenging. The dead drift allows the fly to slowly drift into a steelies view and keep it there the longest-- much like a drift fisherman’s float and gear.

Look for slow water and start fishing straight across from where you suspect the fish will be holding. Cast a floating line with heavily weighted fly (split shot may help) and long leader, quartering upstream of the fish. Mend hard immediately trying to get as much line ‘above’ the fly as possible. Allow the fly to sink close to the bottom and begin to manipulate the line with mends to achieve a complete dead drift. Keep the fly close to the bottom and drifting naturally with the current, a strike indicator can help you achieve a dead drift (remember that if the indicator or line is ‘dragging’ so is the fly). As the fly passes you continue throwing slack into the line and feeding line to get the longest drag free drift possible. The take can be very light so watch the line or indicator like a hawk.

The hang down technique comes into play as the water temperature breaks 40 degrees F. The hang down is the bread and butter technique to most steelheaders. It’s versatile and effective and if you’re only going to use one technique -- this is it. Heavy sink tips (usually 200 grains or more) are required and the longer the fly rod the better. Look for slow to medium paced water, start above the sweet spot or where you suspect the fish should be. Begin by casting your fly slightly down stream and beyond the ‘lie.’ Immediately throw a hard mend upstream and out; try to get your sink tip pointed straight down stream (parallel with the current) and allow sink tip and fly to sink near the bottom. The initial mend is crucial and sets up the entire drift; this should be your hardest mend. As your fly line belly’s in the current throw small mends upstream but not hard enough to jerk the fly around. Keep tension on your line at all times. As the fly reaches a 40 degree angle downstream, your line and rod tip should be pointed directly at the fly, do not mend, just ‘follow’ the fly ‘til it’s out of the steelies zone.

If the sinking portion of your line wants to belly before the 40 degree angle you’re probably not casting downstream enough or not mending quick and/or hard enough on your initial mend. The hang down is created only when your entire sink tip is parallel with the current. This forces the fly to ‘hang’ in front of a fish and keep it in view rather than swinging from the fish.

The escaping prey works best when the water temperature is at optimum; this can be anywhere in the upper forties to sixty on the Fahrenheit scale. Summer run and post-spawn steelhead are more likely to react to the escaping prey technique than fresh winter fish. These fish have been in fresh water longer and are more aggressive and trout-like than fresh winter fish. This technique is the simplest and the most exciting. The take on the escaping prey is usually explosive and violent. Steelhead in warmer water will often move great distances to attack a fly. The need to be on the bottom is not as crucial here as with the colder situations.

Again situate yourself above the lie of the fish; cast straight out and throw a single mend upstream into the line. (When fish are active you can use a floating line but a sink tip will usually still outperform a floater). Allow the fly to sink and as the line comes under tension simply clamp down on the line and follow the fly through the swing with your rod tip. Some fishermen have been know to throw mends upstream or strip the fly during the swing to increase the speed of the fly and the ‘grab.’ This not normal procedure while using this technique.

When using the escaping prey you can cover a lot of water quickly. Remember the colder the water the slower and more thorough you should cover it. ‘Comb’ cold winter water and ‘Rake’ warmer summer waters.

A quick note on fly patterns. The dead drift requires smaller brighter patterns such as glo-bugs. The hang down usually uses larger flies but still fairly bright; any large orange or pinkish marabou patterns will be effective. The escaping prey calls for dark wispy patterns in purples and blacks in medium sizes. The colder the water the more flies you should be losing, cold water means bottom scratching.

I almost forgot the forth technique; this one is rarely if ever written about. I call it dumb luck and highly recommend it. It is a combination of all three and yet in a category all its own. To properly utilize it you have to just spend a lot of time on the water.

Face it, steelies on a fly require ‘work.’ Each one taken on hook and hackle is a gift and likely should be treated as one. You can’t catch ‘em sittin’ in your easy chair so get on the water and have a go at ‘em.

Submitted By: Rick Stahl

Lost Creek Fly Shop
2069 Highway 508, Onalaska WA 98570
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