In the summer and fall when swinging for steelhead we get a lot of first takes from fish that can be lackluster and tentative at best. We often watch steelhead mouth a fly during the swing so softly the fisherman won’t even feel a thing. Its amazing how delicate they can be at times. Everyone has their own techniques for a fish like this. Some count to 50 and re-cast, others take 5 steps up river and go through again.
However if you are going to properly play the “game” their is a traditional protocol to uphold. You will switch to a smaller profile fly. Look into anyones comeback fly box and you will see a lot of similarities. You will see skunks, freight trains, perils, buggy dries, lady carolines.
Obviously the same thing happens winter steelheading. A sleepy fish is the equivalent to ones wife saying “not tonight honey, I have a headache”. This isn’t a cue to roll over and go to sleep, it just means you have to dig a little deeper. Winter steelhead can be apprehensive about leaving their lie or coming up off the bottom of the river to attach to your fly. A slight grab or a pull means you got this fishes attention once and with the right moves you should be able to get it again.
In our small coastal rainforest rivers I have a strategy that has worked quite well. After the grab I try two more swings to the exact spot altering the mends to present the fly deeper, slower and faster. Than standing in the same spot I start to lengthen the line casting further 1 foot at a time until I reach my max casting distance. At this point it is time to change flies and start short again.
When selecting a comeback fly in the winter I look for two things. I want a simple subtle pattern with no frills, and I want it to sink like a rock. The chances of this fish moving again for your fly have greatly diminished. At this point you want to go under cover as a pizza delivery service laying down a pie right in front of your prey. Who can resist that.
For years I used the simple pattern the comet as my comebacker with decent success. I tied it with pink, or green butts. Its has a sleek profile and little resistance against the water which allows it to drop fast.
Recently I have switched to a pattern called the deep 6 salmon by solitude. For winter I like to tie it in bright pink, cerise, or peach. Its is a very effective comeback fly if you know where a fish is laying. With the right set up cast, and mend you can put this fly right on the bottom before swinging it up.
The key to getting a tentative winter steelhead to comeback is depth and accuracy of the swing. If you still can’t get that fish back, rest if for a few hours and try again. Winter steelhead are too few and far between to walk away from a take. If the fish didn’t feel the hook, and you are tenacious in working it over you should increase your return by following these tips.