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Summer Steelhead don't Hit Surface Flies???

2809 Views 13 Replies 6 Participants Last post by  juro
I read in another topic that a fly shop joker told Gregg that summer run steelies dont take flies off the surface. That is complete BS. 3 of the fish I hooked last thursday morning (21 sept) certainly do not believe in that notion - these 3 hit wakers. Here is a picture of one of them scanned with the fly that got it. Water temp: 53deg F

One has to be damned careful about what you believe when it comes to advice on steelheading!



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Nice hen Tony! Seems you're right, some females do like it on top. dOh! If you'll forgive the bad humor, I see you're still very much tuned into the action. Sounds like you are having a banner year.

As far as the Washington fish not being into surface flies... I guess I must have walked through a space portal on my way down the trail when I hooked three summer runs (landed two) in four hours of fishing on riffle hitched caddis surface flies that year right after you told us the run was hot in that stretch.

I guess the time I over-mended a sedge pattern on a dry line with a new Spey rod and it got torpedoed while it was still skipping upstream from the mondo-mend I did - was a fluke.

All those muddler-crazy summer runs hiding in the pocket water on the upper Snoqualmie must be delusional too.

If you ask me this guy just hasn't tried it or doesn't have faith enough to work on it. Heck I even rose a steelhead to the surface in front of my mother once!

I wonder what the guys down on the Wind, Washougal, Kalama, etc have to say about their experiences "on top". Guys like McMillan, Bakke, etc.

Oh well, his loss I guess - you can't raise 'em if you aren't trying. The other factor is time of day, clearly a difference in the way they come to the fly at first light verses when the flyshop opens.

Hope we hook up next month!

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Not that I'm hungry, but would you forward or post the recipe for the fly in your pic? Looks good!


I just whipped it up from trial and error to get one that wakes well. There are lots of similar flies and they are all probably just as good. I hooked a fish on the fly below and it straightened the hook, when I bent it back it broke. Here is my best guess at a formula...

<b>HOOK:</b> Light Wire hook like a Partridge Wilson dry 0, Tiemco 7989 or Alec Jackson spey - probably works in sizes 10-?
<b>THREAD:</b> Tan 6/0 or 8/0 Uni Thread
<b>TAG:</b> Small oval silver tinsel
<b>TAIL:</b> Blonde elk
<b>BODY:</b> Dubbed golden seal's fur - sometimes I palmer stiff grizzly hackle up the body.
<b>RIB:</b> Small oval silver tinsel
<b>THROAT:</b> Dark Hungarian partridge or guinea
<b>UNDERWING:</b> Dark mottled brown turkey
<b>WING:</b> Dark elk topped with light elk
<b>HEAD:</b> Leave the butts of the light elk and trim to about 1/8" long or so. I like to stiffen the trimmed ends with some flexcement or something similar

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Some observations as of late on Steelhead taking flies on the surface in Western Washington Rivers. Also would love some comment back if other folks out here have noticed anything similiar.
Last week of August and 1st week of September we had lots of action on the surface with even a five fish to the fly in an hour one day. In this 2 week period there were lots of wild steelhead smolts feeding on the surface, Caddis & small mayflies, Water temp 56 and river low and clear. After the 1st week in September we had lots of rain and river rose almost to flood stage for a couple of days then went down to low water again. Noticed that the Steelhead smolts were few and more than likely went down river to the estuaries. The water temp was still in fifties but surface action slowed way down. You could put 3 people fishing surface though a run and no takes. As soon as I'd put a sinktip on fish on. Just wondering if anyone like me thinks that mature Steelhead react to a surface fly because their younger brethern feed on the surface and stimulate that old habit in them.
We don't have the insect hatch that the eastern part of the state has and over there there are all types of fish feeding on the surface day and night so maybe thats why those steelhead come to the surface so easily.
I've noticed in other years as well that when the surface action of other fish stopped that Steelhead on top was less so also.
Anyone else notice this in Western Washington.
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Excellent food for thought Steve. Personally I think that it has more to do with me leading through the run. Once you stopped following me through the run, you stopped hooking fish. Since I wasn't hooking them at all, I', not sure if that speaks more to my poor fishing or your evident skill.

All kidding aside, good hypothesis. I'm curious to see what the other members have to say. One other variable might be the relative percentage of wild v. hatchery fish in the river. It has always seemed that the nates were more inclined to look up.
I've never let you see, let alone use my fish pellet waker fly have I? Hey, what about the 99% of fish you catch on the Snake, they are all hatchery fish and they look up. Why?
In my opinion, I think 2 things are important about this.

1) Water temperature is SUPER important. I've noticed that on rivers that during mornings, when water tends to be in mid 40's, surface takers are not so common but as the morning/afternoon progresses and the water warms the surface action turns on. I really believe that 50+ degrees F is optimum.
2) Cloud cover and/or water level. Low water is fine but then only morning/evening or all day with cloud cover. Higher water seems to be OK all day.

As an example, Last week I got 4 steelhead one day before noon, 3 on the surface and it was nice cloudy day/drizzly and water temp was 53-54degrees F due to overnight cloud cover. The next morning the water was down to low 40's and I ran through without a touch dry, then put on a wet fly on the dry line and fished it just below the surface and got this fish below. My first fish on a 4wt - note the sz 3/4 battenkill.


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What a beautiful fish!
Would agree on temps and 50 degrees does seem like the point where fish will come to the surface. What I need to do this year is notice hatch activity below 50 degrees and above. Last October when the Rhonde dropped below 50, about 46 dergrees not much if any surface action, did not notice to much insect activity. But in the same time frame the Snake at 54 and plenty of hatches and rising chinook smolts, plus lots of trash fish rising and action was hot. So maybe the temp is one of the ingrediants that stimulates hatches and make smolts feed on the surface. Are there many hatches on the great floating line rivers of BC? I remember when I lived in the interior of Yellowstone Park the Firehole R. in the middle of winter, 30 below out and size 20 blue wing olive duns floating down river. Water temp 55 degrees at muleshoe bend because of thermal activity.
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I haven't seen much in the way of surface activity from smolts around here. Up in BC, we camped on a big long dry fly pool for several days this year. Smooth water and I don't recall seeing smolts and I didn't hook any smolts. I did hook a few sea-run cutts up there and lately I've been hooking about 1 dolly per trip. I have to say that I am a little skeptical about any direct correlation between steelhead surface activity and insect hatches/smolt activity but I could easily be wrong...

One fish that boiled on a waker this year came up and grabbed something off the surface while I was changing flies - clearly this fish was actively looking at the surface. I later hooked the fish on a small spade fly just subsurface.

Below is a picture of that fish and behind me is that awesome pool. This year has been very good to me!


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Tony -

What can I say... I am drooling over the "waking pool" and the fish you rose this season. I'm trying hard to finalize my schedule, just found out I will be in Cal third week in Oct.
I'll know soon what my schedule will be.

Anyway - my theory on surface flies.

My experience has been that summer fish are most prone to torpedo a surface fly at first light or last light once the caddis pupae line the shoreline stones. This is why each fall I shiver at the thought of skating my caddis patterns through the heads of holding pools, where the most aggresive fish are at first light, and where the antsy ones push to at dusk. Steelhead distinctly move to the shoreline for the night. I have flashlighted steelhead so close to the shore while walking at night that it was astounding and they did not always scream for deep water (depending on how calmly you lit the water). In the morning, when I jump on overhanging rocks to reach the middle of the river steelhead scurry out from under the rocks where I am sure they spent the night.

The first summer I moved out to PNW I drove to the Washougal. It was early summer and the springers were in. Talk about getting a newbie in heat! Also learned they are nearly impossible on a fly, but went upriver and crashed in the car. Woke up at first light near the bridge pool with the one car slot. The entire pool lit up like a springer pool down river but they were all bright steelhead! I will never forget that morning.

It took me a while to get the confidence to fish surface flies but it soon became apparent that (a) these fish are fully aware of what's overhead at all times (b) there is something to the surface fly that reaches down into the fish' psyche and triggers a lunge (c) fall caddis make them drop their guard (d) nothing stains the shorts like a placid steelhead pool when a big steelhead charges your surface fly.

All that being said I once rose a big steelhead from over 6 feet of water at 2 pm on a sunny day, go figure. I also read of guys raising BC steelhead in near freezing temps too. The time of year I do well on top is fall when the caddis are active.

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Myth debunked once again.

After a brutal day at the office yesterday I thought I would spend a little time on the Deschutes for the evening. By the time everything was I reconsidered the drive and switched gears to one of those SW WA rivers. I only had enough time for one pass through the run in mind. I parked in the lot and a gear angler was talking with a someone at the back of a trunk. I proceeded throught the ritual of wader dance, strung my rod and was off. I said hello to the angler, who began asking questions about my two hander. Not wanting to be a "snob FFer" I stopped and answered his questions and spoke a while. Turned out the guy in the trunk had been FFing and was just speaking to the gear angler. Doug the FF had just taken two 8-10 fish out of the run I was going to fish. It had been rested about an hour, I thought casting practice (I always need practice). I laced on a purple muddler and began the swing. 20 casts in I got a strong pull near the hang down, I didn't see the head just my fly getting sucked down in a swirl. I went back twice with no results. Being a traditionalist, I laced on a smaller darker fly, a size 6 low water black bear. First pass through the water erupted as buck crushed the BB. 10 minutes later I released a 33x 15 1/2 lightly hued hatchery buck. His crimson cheeks blushing slightly from his error in judgment but alive to be caught again.

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Thought I would attempt to verify my findings last week. I had an afternoon meeting cancelled in our Vancouver Wa HQ. I had a couple of hours to waist and my gear was in my car and the rivers close. I laced up the 7136 with a blaze orange DT and knotted on the brown bomber. I swam the fly over some outstanding looking water with no results other than rising smolt.

The resent rains had thickened the flows and brought enough color to change the way the run fished. I went back through for a second pass to pass time or for fishing over those sunken boulder again? I am not sure. Third cast and I felt a "smolty" bump, then another, and another, suddenly the great white mouth appeared to take my bomber to the depths. I the buck for a couple of seconds before he cartwheeled to freedom, leaving me with the feeling he enjoyed it as much as I had.


Still thinking of the Thompson
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Hey Tony -

Are you going to be around Thursday PM or Sunday AM? I'd love to hit the Sky with you. If there's any interest, I'd also like to hit the Cow on Wednesday PM and Thursday AM.

Let me know, and thanks for keeping me all fired up through the season!

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