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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 ones 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
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, Id
rather try to be helpful and attempt to clarify the utterly
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.
Lets 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 fishermans 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. Its versatile and effective and if youre 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 bellys 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 its out of the steelies zone.
If the sinking portion of
your line wants to belly before the 40 degree angle youre 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.
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
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.
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.
steelies on a fly require work. Each one taken on hook and hackle is a gift
and likely should be treated as one. You cant catch em sittin in your easy
chair so get on the water and have a go at em.
Submitted By: Rick Stahl