Best tip for a steelhead virgin... [Archive] - Fly Fishing Forum

: Best tip for a steelhead virgin...

10-30-2001, 06:19 PM
If you could offer one piece of advice to a person who has never caught a steelhead on a fly, what would it be?

10-30-2001, 07:01 PM
I am sure there will be many good fishing tips to come out of this thread but I think I will go in another direction. If I could impart one bit of "wisdom" it would be, don't go into this to catch fish. If you do, you will be much more often than not, disappointed.

Take up the sport with the goal of learning a process. As great as hooking a fish is, and believe me, there are times when few things in life equal it, the real reward comes in learning a river, mastering a presentation, becoming part of the family of steelheaders, soaking in the lore of those that went before us and finally becoming proficient enough to "do things right". I have hooked and landed fish on bad or lucky presentations and I have briefly hooked and quickly lost fish where I knew I did everything right. Believe me, the latter are much more rewarding than the former.

We often refer to steelheading as a sport but it is really a way of life. To adopt it, or more specifically have it adopt you, you need to learn to fish for the the incidental rewards it gives you: the pink of the sunrise, the murmur of the river, the knowledge of how rivers change constantly and the satisfaction of knowing how to fish a run the right way whether it be at low water and gin clear or high and turbid. Once you can drag yourself out of the rack at 0'dark-thirty knowing that the odds are against hooking a fish but you can't wait to get to the river anyway. Then you have found the true allure of steelheading. Catching fish is simply the frosting on the cake.

Of course, maybe I am just overly sentimental?


Fred Evans
10-30-2001, 09:15 PM
Ok, one simple bit of advice is to go deep, stay deep, and mend like heck (to slow the drift). As a general statement I've found that as the water gets deeper the fish will hold in slower water. As it gets shallower, look to the faster boilly (is that a 'real word?') water for the fish to hold.

Only other real question may be, and this really varies from river to river, is do the fish 'hold in the water colum, or are they bottom huggers?' With a fly rod the answer to this is the question "de sure". Russian River in Northern Calif. they hold above the bottom in most areas; on the Rogue their noses are stuck behind a rock. Fish 'high' and forget it. Think your fly is heavy enough, your very very wrong.

All that means local knowledgeable guy/gal is worth his/her weight in gold.

10-30-2001, 10:40 PM
Although no one ever caught less steelhead by going deep, I'd also add to Fred's truths that steelhead are far more focused on the upper column than most people give them credit to be. Particularly in the first hour or two of daylight and dusk, most consistently in fall, and most noticably when the fall sedge is emerging. This is not to say that the early stonefly hatch on Cascade rivers won't get those mint bright steelies to roll on a sofa pillow on the fourth of July, they will. Although a summer pink prawn pattern on a light tip may tease a few more to take over the course of a summer, the vigor by which they slam a muddler fished on top of the rapids at dawn is something to behold and surprisingly consistent.

Anyway, my advice would be:

Forget everything you've ever learned about every other fishery. Steelheading is about connecting with the psyche of a fish. Now that might sound silly, but allow me to claim that there is no more noble a fish and making this connection is not something to be taken for granted.

Other fish eat because they are hungry. Steelhead don't. Other fish are fooled by simply imitating food. Steelhead won't. Other fish are caught by average sizes and a trophy is sought through a season, sometimes for a lifetime. Every steelhead is a trophy in a trout fisher's wildest dreams.

My approach to steelhead is simply this: appeal to some hidden remnant of that jubilant parr leaping at mayflies on it's first summer in the stream; way back when the mere thought of stellar's sea lions ripping fangs and a purse seiners veil of death were as remote as Bin Laden to an infant. Yet when the babe returns as the stout and seasoned warrior of thousands of sea miles wearing it's hard-won chrome armor on it's broad flanks decorated with the brilliance of the north pacific streaking through every fin ray - there is still something of that smolt's joy left, to which I work incessantly to appeal to with a fly.

When I hook a steelhead, I've found that something in it's psyche that is still care-free and not at all different from the boyhood joy that remains in me, and will for life. In that sense I've connected with the most noble of fishes by the most honorable means - an honestly swung fly.

So forget everything you know about every other fishery, including steelheading with gear. There is a whole 'nuther dimension to steelhead that you can only discover with a fly, and it will only become apparent after you work it out. Some give up before they do, but it's there for those who persevere, you can be sure of that. It's there hidden in the mystery of the river. You can sense that a steelheader has found it by talking to him, watching him work a stream, and see it in the flies he ties.

I think Duggan said it best, it's a way of life.

Fred Evans
10-31-2001, 06:47 AM
Juro, that was one of the most eloquent things I've ever read about the sport.

10-31-2001, 10:04 AM
Whoa there!!! You feed a steelhead virgin that line and he'll think he/she is signing up for the piscatorial equivalent of Jedi Knight-hood. <g>

While I agree with both ST and Juro, that's a feeling for steelheading I developed only after much time on the water. You have to become confortable, and confident, in the techniques you employ (IMNSHO) before you can experience this in your own fishing.

My advice is much simpler - either learn on your own or -ideally-from a tutor the wet fly swing (and variations) until you can fish with confidence. And, especially important, learn to recognise good fly water.

When I first started steelhead fly fishing, there were many times when I quit early because I wasn't sure I was "doing it right". It can be a long time till you hit your first steelhead on a fly, so as a beginner you especially need to have confidence in the water you're fishing and your techniques and flies because you don't have past memories of success to draw upon for support.

When the rain's pounding down on you and you're standing out in the middle of a river feeling a bit lost, that (and a flask filled with your favorite Scotch) are sometimes all you have.

10-31-2001, 10:54 AM
I am sorry I cannot limit myself to one tip..

1. fish rivers that actually still has fish!!
2. start off in the summer.
3. start off with very few flies. Skunk,muddler,brads brat. 3 flies thats it.
4. fish hard and cover lots of water.

10-31-2001, 11:22 AM
Another thing: go with a good guide. You can learn more in a day, gain more confidence in your technique, and know pretty much for sure where the fish are and what they're responding to, than you can in a whole season of stumbling around by yourself. A patient and expert friend can be as good as a guide, but, when you're fishing with said patient and expert friend, you're distracting that person from his or her fishing. Guides -- good ones, that is-- are often a shortcut to success and the the acquisition of skill. At least consider the proposition.

For the most part, I learned on my own and made a mess of it. Reading all the books on steelheading can be rewarding, but, in terms of really learning what to do and how to do it, nothing beats an expert teacher working with you on the water.

10-31-2001, 12:30 PM
I agree with Eric. A good guide can teach, in one day, more than you would learn on your own in a year. One more thing. Hang with steelheaders. Ask them questions and listen, listen, listen.

10-31-2001, 06:47 PM
Doublespey (10-31-2001 11:04 a.m.):
Whoa there!!! You feed a steelhead virgin that line and he'll think he/she is signing up for the piscatorial equivalent of Jedi Knight-hood. <g>

Although the words may have gotten a bit carried away, the arrival of winter always does this to me - but the message is really simple:

To unlock the stubborn resolve of a steelhead, and we all agree (regardless of any degree of wordsmithing) that they are stubborn... relate to the memories and instincts (i.e.: behavioral traits) that haven't faded out completely regardless of how bent on reaching the spawn they are. There's always that little bit left in them. In fact, IMNSHO - that's all we've got to work with anyway!

If anyone has a pet theory on why they take the fly, I'd love to hear them.

11-01-2001, 09:37 AM
Don't make big plans. Steelhead hate to be caught on your schedual,and the weather gods are on the fishes side. A steelhead trip planed a month in advance will surely be blown out. The best way to get around this law of the steelhead is to either stage a seige ,or use the cut and run aproach. The siege is an audatious show of determination. A two week window should yeild a few good days. Or you can cut and run. Blast up to the river whenever you can, and you might get lucky. In either case persistance is the key.

11-01-2001, 11:26 AM
Why do they take a fly?

The steelhead, being the noblest of creatures takes pity upon the poor fisherman and decides to reward him with a brief contact with nirvana.

Since this theory means it makes little difference what fly you use, it can only be inferred that these noble fish also decide on occasion to reward creativity. How else can you explain the Popsicle. That or maybe the fish have a silent business relationship with the fly shops ;)

October Caddis
11-01-2001, 11:53 AM
Boy Eddie your right about planing too far ahead. Had a guy out in Wyoming this week ask if he could come out and go steelhead fishing with me this winter. I hesitated for a second and he mistook it that maybe I didn't want him to come out to fish. But how do you plan a weekend of steelhead fishing for a guy driving winter roads from Wyoming to Washington four months ahead. To winter steelhead fish one must be in a job that you can get off when the river is right. Or just except the fact that if you can't get the time when it's right your just gonna luck it out from time to time.

As for a tip for a new winter steelhead fisherperson. I'd say fish a short line through the run. I see too many folks making long casts and not being able to mend their line properly and get a good slow drift near the bottom where steelhead hold.

11-01-2001, 05:15 PM
Why do they take a fly??? I think in the case of Summers they regain their trouty tendencies and ~do~ actively feed while in the rivers waiting to spawn. There's also a case to be made for their defending their territory (as in the case where a rabbit matuka or other large pattern gets too close to a resting steelie).

And finally, I think that many steelhead just grab flies just for the hell of it!! Not having hands, the only way they can 'touch' something is to grab it in their mouths. I think this also accounts for many of the false rises and "playing" i've seen steelhead do with surface flies.

Just my .02


11-01-2001, 07:28 PM
I don't think any of the philosophical stuff is necessary for a beginner. Although I feel the same way as has been described above (quite well I'll add), I think that either comes or it doesn't, and if it doesn't they'll probably not be an avid steelheader. Seems that there is something about steelhead and steelheading that triggers something (character deficiency?) that is already in us -and it's not just fly fisherman.

I have to agree with whoever it is that said to fish where there are still good numbers of fish. And I'd add to that to have them be native fish. Their aggressive nature will get the newcomer a grab much sooner than if they pursue those dour hatchery mutants.

Confidence is all so important to steelheading and nothing will get a beginners confidence up like getting a grab or two. All the accolades from a guide or experienced angler about how well their technique is,etc. pale to the confidence boost that comes from that first grab!

Fred Evans
11-01-2001, 10:13 PM
"Pesa" nailed it. Looong time ago a mentor in Steelhead fishing told me the 'reason why' 90% of the fish are hooked by 10% of the fishermen/women. It's attitude. If you go 'fishing' you're basicly looking for a fish to commit hari kari. If you go "catching" you're a hunter.

Sounds simplistic, but I'll guarantee you'll double the number of hook-ups. I come home surprised when I blank; and I do have fishless days. But looking back at them coldly in most cases my mind just wasn't in it; I'm on the river in body, but not in spirit. When I hit that 'mental nerve' I reel in and go home .... all be it I may come back later in the day when the 'hunter' is back in control. Zip days, you bet, but I'm very surprised when it happens. (But that's why they call it 'fishing' not 'catching') Still all in all it's a mind set.

11-01-2001, 10:44 PM
Well if you were a steelhead and a big glob of juicy salmon eggs came rolling downstream into your face, you would much them would'nt 'ya???...oops wrong forum. ;)

But I will agree that confidence is a major factor in getting hookups with the elusive steelhead. To be honest with you, if I do not think I have a chance at a fish with a certain fly, I will change it. If I dont have confidence with a piece of water and if for some reason, I do not have confidence in just hooking a steelhead that day, I will head off to go scout out new water for future adventures, go grab a bite to eat or just sit down on a rock and enjoy the river.

Fred Evans
11-02-2001, 07:32 AM
Ah Ryan, Ryan, Ryan
I see we have a long way to go with you yet (yes, I've seen you on the "other Board"). With a fly rod is mono-o-mono with Mr. Fish. With lead and eggs it's ... it's ...
Words fail me.


11-02-2001, 10:09 AM
Ah yes . . . our Ryan is a bit of a Cross-Dresser.

He's got a nice fly vest, but every so often you see the stained Bait Towel creeping out from beneath it. <g>

Hey, now there's a thread! I'm Serious - how many Forum members are Switch-Hitters (still fish spinning and or bait-casting gear as conditions warrant)??

This isn't a rant about the supposed "purity" of flyfishing as I count myself among those who will fish with other techniques when conditions demand.


11-02-2001, 10:17 AM
I must admit this year I dusted off the bait caster and harvested a few silvers from the Skagit. It was almost laughable. I hadn't cast my old bait caster for a number of years and had a difficult time of it at first.

11-02-2001, 10:26 AM
hey Kerry no worries I did worse than that I plunked for spring chinook in the columbia. They sure like them spin-glos. Stupid fish. at least steelhead are smart enough not to hit theoes things:O)

11-02-2001, 11:48 AM
roballen (11-02-2001 11:26 a.m.):
hey Kerry no worries I did worse than that I plunked for spring chinook in the columbia. They sure like them spin-glos. Stupid fish. at least steelhead are smart enough not to hit theoes things:O)

I'm not sure I dare admit this... but long long ago (>20yrs now) before my enlightening, I used to plunk for steelhead with spin-n-glows (big No.2s at that!) and er, uh, hmmm, eh, eggs or sand shrimp. It was always sort of a (pagan?) tradition to go plunking on Christmas morning with my cousins on the Snohomish. Used to use not just one either, we'd rig up with an upper and a lower spin-n-glow (double baits).

Well folks, it's been nice. This truly is a great board. I imagine my access will now be denied when I try to log in again to banish me for my past sins.


11-02-2001, 12:41 PM
I have never slung gear per say. I have what I call the transvestite approach. I fish a bit down in SW Washington as my aunt owns property on the kalama and I have tied a dick nite onto the old fly line when the silvers are not taking the usual flies. I consider it not one fishing one way or the other but a happy medium if the situation calls for it.

I have also been tying propellers on my leech patterns(pistol petes) and pull those out in dire situations. Still don't know how I feel about it but sometimes I don't like to go home skunked.

Now going off to cry in the corner as i feel ashamed...

11-02-2001, 01:10 PM

It's like that quarter that's painted red, keeps popping up everywhere you go.

Now why would you go there Brian? Hmmm... aha! It doesn't take a Sigmund Freud to figure out you're just covering your butt for that week of muskie fishing with foot long wooden dowels with propellers on each end and treble hooks coming out of every orifice }> ;-)

All kidding aside, sure there are times when you can't flyfish. For halibut I use a Penn Senator and a boatrod you could pole vault with if it were longer loaded with 100# dacron that I dangle 32 ounce lead balls down 300 ft deep. That reel has got those little eyelets on the spool edge so you can hookup a strap around the back of your neck to help fight bluewater gamefish. The rod barely bends with a 40 pound halibut on. But that's not steelheading.

I fish only with flies for steelhead (and stripers, bonefish, trout, etc) because of the fundamental reason I fish in the first place - satisfaction. Sure I could go throw a gob of roe and catch more fish consistently but I would get zero satisfaction from that. I started out with drift gear and caught ridiculous numbers of steelhead per year. Obviously I wasn't satisfied with it or I'd still be doing it. Others are fully satisfied in catching steelhead with a gob of roe, power to 'em as long as it's legal. They won't snag though - that's over the line for them. Yet others will snag fish in a heartbeat. Still others will gillnet natives and sell them for cash value. Poachers are commonplace. These guys are satisfied with bringing that fish home or to market for cash regardless of the method of pursuit. The only difference between all these guys is where they draw the line.

To the contrary, when I drop a spreader bar down at Swiftshure I am fishing for a big slab of meat. It's not about satisfaction. I'm not out there to C&R. I'm no purist then.

But when I swing a steelhead fly in a glacial river I am fishing for something that borders on religious to me. I just don't get that from gear, and I know I'm not alone. I'm there to be enlightened with the experience of the steelhead on a fly. Gear doesn't do anything for me, frankly. Been there, done that. To each his/her own.

Besides they aren't so hard to hook on flies that I have any desire to use gear. Since moving to the east coast I've hooked steelhead on every trip I've made. Sometimes it's a close call, conditions and run timing being what it is - but I've made the chromer connection on an honestly swung fly every single trip for several years. Maybe when I am old and unable to manage a flyrod, if I get that desperate, I might consider gear. Even then if I play my cards right with the Spey rods I shouldn't even need to do that.

I guess I could be called a purist when it comes to my favorite gamefish - steelhead, stripers, bonefish, etc...

Steelhead Purist ;-)

October Caddis
11-02-2001, 02:52 PM
What is a purist? and is it the right word to use for those who fish only with fly? After all would not a person who only fishes with lure and surf spinning gear for stripers be a purist? This spin fisherman has come to the same conclusion as you or I and has found the same kind of satisfaction in fishing with spin gear as we have with fly gear. Each fisherperson sets his or her own rules and ethics on how they will challenge themselves in the sport of fishing. Some have no reason to challenge and others set many challenges or guidelines for themselves no matter what gear they fish.
The word purist when related to fly fishing turns into an ugly or negative statement to those who do not fly fish and I don't believe that's healthy for our sport.
Maybe we should all re read Duncans,"River Why" again maybe we will see a better explanation of what a purist really stands for.

11-02-2001, 03:12 PM
That last statement brought to you by a guy who fishes a fly called the Bi-Sexual.

Just kidding Steve (about your comments not the fly :) ). Well said.


11-02-2001, 03:27 PM
I know people that say a purist is the person looking to put food on the table and the rest of us are just tormenting the fish. In a way I must agree. In the beginning of fishing I would think somebody noticed the fish were eating bugs. He then stuck a bug on his bone hook and caught fish. Maybe the same guy or his bro figured out if he tied a bunch of feathers and stuff on his bone hook and made it look like the bug, he could use it over and over again. He spent more time fishing and less time hunting for bugs to bait his hook with. More fish on the table with less effort. Fly fishing is born.

We have since elevated this to a form of recreation. Which begs the question. Is the purist the guy who figured out he could tie feathers to a bone hook, make it look like a bug and hand toose a sinew line in the water to catch fish for the purpose of feeding his family? Or is the guy with the 14 foot graphite rod using a high tech plastic coated, lazer imprinted line and a anodized, machined aluminum reel who catches fish just for recreation the purist?


October Caddis
11-02-2001, 05:40 PM
Thanks for letting my new secret fly that YOU so named out of the closet!

I think you got it right about the purist and the table. Lets face it Plunker and Larry Moe are right when they acuse us fly flingers of harassing fish. But there is nothing wrong with harassement, better than bonking wild fish. On most rivers around Washington we are at the top of the food chain and have the right to harass if we are good enough to hookup occasionally.
Then of course if we were to fall in, fill our waders and sink to the bottom of the deepest pool for eternity we become table fare for caddis larve. Hence we are food for the caddis purist.

All have a good weekend, by Sunday the rivers should be in good shape!

11-02-2001, 05:55 PM

Guilty (hanging my head in shame)

Remeber what I told you though. Maybe only 10% of the fish are of the persuasion to bite the bi-sexual but they are far more active than the others and that makes up for it.


11-02-2001, 06:25 PM
O C,

Don't get me wrong. I know we are the alpha predator. I have no problem with where I sit in the food chain. I do not necessarily agree with Plunker or Larry Moe. I merely see their side of things. I acknowledge the fact that I participate in a blood sport that most people believe is for the taking of fish for food. I truly believe I or we are in the minority when it comes to c&r. Not because people think catch and release fishing is somehow morally wrong but, because most people view fishing as a way to get food. "Eat what you catch" is an old and still popular teaching. Most people don't understand catch and release. My wife still doesn't understand c&r and believe me I have tried to explain it to her many times. She thinks fish are for eating and if you have to let them go why bother fishing.

It is when we start to attach some sort of mystique to fishing I guess I get bothered. Yea, I know catching a steelhead can be the experience of a lifetime but, jeez, it's still fishing. I remember feeling kinda like that when I was a little kid and caught my first trout. I like to fish and the next big steelhead will be the experience of my life until the next.

Sorry for the rant about this and the purist thing. It is just the way I fell about fishing.


Fred Evans
11-02-2001, 09:15 PM
Ah, Hell, we're all on a rant so I'll stick my 'nickle' in. Mr. P, in my experince is clueless as to why you're out there in the first place.

80% of the time you can take one look at a guy/gal and just roll your eyes and say "but for the Grace of God, there go I." To me the idea is still the 'hunter' not the killer. If you added up all the money you spent you'd be better off financialy going to Albertsons or Safeway.
To me it's the idea of a semblence of skill in fooling something that nature has made vary alert to it's environment. You fool it for a few minutes and let it go. (God I hate to get a 'bleeder,' he goes on the table because it's over, and I've failed)

99% of people who fish, fish for the fun of it, the enjoyment of being out there, etc., and etc. The guy who scares me is the one who says I've filled my punch card. Brag about having a good weekend/after/before work, you bet. But 99.999% of these fellows have been reintroduced back into the river. The scream of an old Hardy reel being stripped ... nothing like it. Kill the fish on the other end? Only if I've screwed up. Makes me very sad that I've done it very, very wrong. Tears on some occations. Then life is not good.

11-02-2001, 10:28 PM
Fellow listmembers-
Do not let Juro fool 'ya!! He used to be the ultimate Blue Creek Rat :D ...and I am not talking about with the bugrod. ;)

I fish in whatever way will allow me enjoy the river and give me confidence in bringing fish to the bank. If I can do that with a dryline and a skater...WOOHOO!! If I have to fish pencil lead and sandshrimp...WOOHOO!! I just love fishing. :)

Plus every technique has its challenges and thus, in the end, every technique provides it's own satisfaction...

11-02-2001, 11:01 PM
Sink Tip hit on some good points, It's tough at first because all you want to do is catch one. But here's my $.02

1. Just go fishing, some of the most rewarding things happen through your own trial and error. Have quality gear but, keep it simple. Learn how to read water and how to approach it.

2. Become an advocate of steelhead. Take time to learn and understand steelhead and their environment, your enthusiasm and respect will grow and grow.

3. Don't be afraid to ask lots questions, I still can't believe my uncle didn't drown me when he took me has a kid, that man had patience.

4. Don't be afraid to learn something from the gear guys, Some of the finest steelhead fly fisherman started off fishing gear.

5. Don't brag and when you become proficient and confident don't become snooty or arogant.

6. Have fun, don't take every thing so seriously, be happy for your buddy if he has a great day.

11-03-2001, 02:36 AM
Must say although we have yon virgin scratchin his/her head by now, this has been a very thought-provoking thread.

One note on harrassment and C&R... once I had to explain C&R to a high society woman whom I sat next to on an airplane. I had a first class coupon and used it on a flight home from one of my steely trips. She couldn't really understand why C&R "harrassment" made sense. I was a little stumped as to how to answer her comment and gave it some thought before continuing the conversation. Finally it dawned on me that people have no problem with the habit of butchering, buying, cooking and eating cuts of meat from an animal about which they know nothing at all, in fact the less they know the better. Catch and release flyfishing is when a person spends a part of his/her life learning as much as possible about a beautiful animal and chooses not to kill and eat it. She seemed a little enlightened at that.

Another on purism: when someone has a clear idea what purism is (however subjective) and therefore sets a high standard for himself to follow it's a good thing. Conversely when someone considers themself a purist and tries to set the bar for others, he's probably an arrogant ass. Lesson learned: purism is subjective and although it may be lined with good intentions, so is the road to hell and when the topic is raised in mixed company it surely will lead to differences. In particular, when raised in a situation where anglers are trying to come together to achieve something it can degrade the vital solidarity between anglers of all gear preference. United we stand, divided we fall.

Back to the main topic: virgin notes...

Rules are meant to be broken but in general, IMHO the most important things in steelheading are:

1) presence of fish in the river - down to the stretch
2) conditions - time of day, vis, temps, etc.
3) presentation
4) fly

Where 3 and 4 are totally under your control. (Others may have a different order of priority but this is how I see it)

Funny how what most of the focus is on is the least important, although it's critical in it's own right.

11-03-2001, 08:43 PM
In a few words: "Be an explorer".
If you starting in the summer, slow down, look at the insects emerging from water. Enjoy the day, for they are few. Try that far spot by the bank, or under those trees. Try a floating line and fishing on top.
If you start in the winter, walk up to the next hole, and look at the colors that there. Try that big black fly or that #4 bright pink fly. Enjoy every moment, let the stress of the week go. Drive up to that new river and get to know its ways.
Enjoy these days for they are too few.

11-04-2001, 04:40 PM
Number 1 best tip I ever read was stated by both Hugh Falkus, and Mike Maxwell. Fish the WHOLE run. Don't think you can guess where holding water is and only fish there, like a gear guy does. Start at the head, work through the middle, and finish up the tailout. You might work faster or slower through certain sections based on their "sexiness", but skip nothing! Some of my "sweetspots" on rivers in three states were found by fishing runs thoroughly and the only way for me to find them when I visit is by working with landmarks on dry land. Looking at the water you'd never guess how consistently they produce...