In the multiverse of fly fishing, is there any other venue where anglers so obsess over the way a fish responds to their fly than in the world of swinging flies for steelhead?
It must be one of the only categories of fishing where the “take” or its nearly ubiquitous synonym, the “grab” is so much a part of the act itself. We say it all the time along the banks of our favorite steelhead rivers and beside the campfires or bar rooms after a good days outing when replying to that often asked question;
How was it? Any luck?
Not much, but I did get a great grab!
Or perhaps even more common these days,
No, nothing yet.
And through all the corridors of our collective angling memories from the first steelhead angler to the last, what might be remembered most of all and cherished is not really the fish we caught, but the grab we felt when that fish decided to eat our swung fly.
What follows is a series of ruminations on the different eats I’ve encountered as an angler and have witnessed as a guide over the seasons spent on the water.
It’s about the time when you start to hear talk of football on the radio that the summer steelhead have begun to make an appearance in the Trinity River. I cannot remember if it was late August or early September when I carefully made sure no one was paying too close of attention to me before wading my way across the final tail-out to one of my favorite runs on the river.
It was getting on towards evening, and the warm air of the high country always reminds me of summer. A mixture of wet stone and pine drifting aloft on a near constant upriver wind. I had just received a new rod specifically for the Trinity River. A small glass switch rod perfectly suited to the frequent half pounders caught with regularity during this time of year.
Rigged up was my standard Trinity River “gettin em” setup; A light sinking tip with a healthy length of leader in tow and a small buggy fly with some natural grizzly hackle and pearlescent flash for a wing. It was a lethal bug when fished well in good water.
The run I walked towards now with eager anticipation had been a generous one to me. Long ago it offered up my very first steelhead on a swung fly, albeit it was a half pounder, I had become a faithful devotee of it ever since. It’s features are as follows:
A fast riffle running along a steep bank on river right giving way to a deep drop off as it runs smack dab into a rock wall on river left. It’s most unique characteristic is what can only be described as a bay on it’s far left side. Along the seam where the fast water meets the back eddy of the bay is the first obvious place to find a holding fish. As the riffle dumps into the pool along the rock wall and gives way to a deep drop off you find the second bucket. The hard part is keeping your footing in the fast water of the riffle while trying to launch a worthy cast into the seam of the bay, or along the far side of the run as it drops off into the hole at the bottom. All of the cobble in the run is grapefruit sized or larger. Good for the fish, sporty for the angler.
After a few half pounders to hand towards the top of the feature I picked my way down towards the drop-off at the tail end of the run. A decent cast. A big mend up stream. The hard pull of the current at my knees as everything straightened out and setup to swing.
Right as the fly began to stall out in the deeper water I got a small pluck. That’s exactly what it felt like in the hand that held the rod. A sharp little pluck. In my mind I immediately told myself I had just hooked another half pounder. I began to raise the rod to come tight to the fish, but something was not right. There was no tension upon lifting the rod, this fish was on, but it was coming directly towards me. I frantically started stripping in running line as the fish gained more and more ground on me, swimming against the hard current of the riffle towards my feet. This was no half pounder. It nearly made it to where I stood and then did an about face and ran head long back into the cover of the pool. Finally I felt the full weight of it on the line and thought to myself in that moment,
Oh shit, I hooked a King.
But it was not a King Salmon. It was a near perfect Trinity River adult steelhead who had eaten my little fly with the delicacy of a small stream resident trout ascending through the water column to sip an emerging nymph. A beautiful buck fully dressed in his spawning colors, I admired him for the last few moments of good light before letting him slip back into the pool. After that, I seldom brought my little glass switch rod with me to the Trinity.
Lift and lose em.
Everyone has this story tucked away somewhere in the background of their steelheading career. I might have a few of my own, but for me the most memorable is that of a client’s folly.
We were on a coastal river nearly one year ago from this writing, searching every good feature we could find for a grabby fish. The water was low and clear and the day had turned into an exceptionally nice one for a late outing in February. Warm and sunny. Not especially what one wants as a winter steelhead angler, but in this business you always have to play with the cards you’re dealt.
We walked into some good water for the current conditions. A hard riffle with good diamond chop peaking in its center with beautiful soft pillow water on the far and near side of the riffle. The wading was difficult, as the bank dropped off quickly and the current was just pushy enough to keep you off balance between steps. Making everything even more challenging was the blockade of willows hugging the near bank, creating a considerable obstacle. Only an off shoulder Snap T cast would suffice here.
I had two guys with me, and put the stronger caster of the two into the run.
This is Varsity Water, I warned him before setting him up in the top of the run and watching him get started. He got dialed in quickly, cranking out the cast that needed to be made. Good, I thought.
I took his companion up the bar with me to take a look at another feature. Too pushy. We started making our way back down to where we had left our friend. I watched him make his next cast. Perfect. He was fishing a moderately heavy setup. 12 feet of T14 but for this low and clear water an unweighted naturally colored bug. Something with a little marabou and a few orange grizzly hackles dangling out the back, simple and effective.
I was walking out to him to ask that throw away guide question;
How’s it going?
As he turned to answer I saw his Skagit head suddenly straighten out. His eyes grew wide. He was just able to get the words out;
And as he said this I was forming the sentence in my mouth, keep your rod low, but it was too late. He lifted that rod like he was trying to start a lawn mower. Hard and straight upstream. The fish was gone. He looked at me but no words were necessary. He knew just as well as I what had happened.
We’ve fished many times together since, and every time we do we talk about that fish. What was it? A hen, a buck? How big do you think it was? Damn…..
The saying goes lift and lose em because that’s usually the chain of events following a lift of the rod too soon after a fish takes the fly. Sometimes as steelhead guides teaching spey casting we can get so caught up in talking about technique that we skip over an equally important conversation. What to do when a steelhead grabs your fly. In this case it was a near perfect hang down grab. It ate it in the water you’d expect: in the soft water off the seam as the fly was quartering down towards the bank.
Mostly my client could have done nothing and would have stuck the fish. Once they turn into the current gravity and physics does the dirty work for you. I usually say wait until the reel chirps, then you have him. I usually say if you’re going to set the hook set low and towards the bank. Keep the angle of the rod consistent throughout the fight. Whatever you do, don’t set up river, never do that, please, for mercy’s sake.
The bear trap.
This one might be the rarest of all grabs in the domain of steelhead angling with traditional fly tackle. It has happened to me only once before while searching for these elusive coastal winter fish. It completely zapped my brain, like someone throwing a toaster into a bathtub. Thinking back on it today, it seems entirely inexplicable to me, but it did happen.
I was fishing on one of my favorite coastal rivers close to home. The day was nearly gone and I had spent most of it further up river. I had even had some luck on this outing, having landed a nice hen. Before throwing in the towel I decided to take a quick peek at a run in the lower river, one so close to the salt that whether or not it’s fishable is determined by the phase of the tide.
The sun was sinking low over the Pacific ocean as I made my way down towards the gravel bar. Coming through the alder thicket the run emerged before me. It was perfect! I quickly setup before some local townie came down and low holed me. I was amazed it was open at all being in such good shape.
I made my way to the water’s edge to admire the feature; A classic piece of steelhead water if there ever was one. A gently arching run with a gradual sloping descent into the riprap lined ditch that runs along the entirety of its far side. Smooth even walking speed current coursing throughout its reach. In those days it held onto it’s opaque green color even when the river was low. It was never any wonder where the fish would be. In the deep green water you can’t see into. That’s where you get em.
But as a friend told me once concerning steelhead runs you have to eat your vegetables before you have your dessert. Bearing this in mind I walked up to the very top of the run, well up stream of where I thought I had the greatest chance of success.
No need to start short, if there’s one in here it’ll be sitting all the way across on the far side where the water is fast and at its deepest. I ripped off the necessary amount of running line, set my anchor, and let one rip out across the breadth of the run. The heavy lead eyed fly landed with a satisfying splat just off the far bank.
I was mid way through lifting my rod to throw a big upstream mend into the line when suddenly I noticed that something strange was happening. All of the downstream belly of the line was quickly moving up river, and as it did so it was making a ripping sound as it peeled off the water.
Before I could even make sense of the escalating chaos a very bright silver fish was leaping well upstream of where I stood. Tail walking, jaw dropping acrobatics unfolding before my very eyes and I could barely process all of what had transpired within the space of mere seconds. Now suddenly there was no more tension on the line. This wily critter was headed straight for me. I stripped in everything as fast as I could to regain tension on the fish, backpedaling, almost falling on my ass. My rod was lifted up over my head in my last desperate attempt to rein in this wild animal. It came right up to me, nearly to my boots and commenced to crocodile roll in fits of rage before me. And then, just as quickly as it had been there, it was gone.
I was stunned. What the hell just happened to me. What was that thing? You often hear the expression “hot fish.” This was surely one of them I thought. Too hot. It had eaten the fly like a bass eats a jig thrown under a lily pad. It detonated on that thing right as it hit the water. Not even enough time to mend. It’s only happened to me just that once, but if you lived for a thousand years you would never forget a grab like that.
Tap tap tap
A few winters ago I started to fish a river that is within walking distance of my house, yet one I seldom ever bother to spend much time on. It’s what I would call the town river. Being centered close to where most folks live in the county, it gets a healthy dose of bank pressure. I stayed away for a long time, but after considering that I had never caught a fish on the river closest to my home, I began to reconsider my bias, and made plans to remedy that situation.
This river is of a fairly typical coastal size, on the small side, yet it runs especially shallow for a river of its kind. I had found what was after some exploration the only decent swing run that I could easily access close to home. A somewhat nondescript run that one could just as easily pass up. It’s main feature being a moderately deep trough running though it’s center, but when I say deep I mean maybe three feet at most. All the other ingredients are there, even current, a heavily tree lined bank on the far side, and the cherry atop the cake, a pretty good tail-out.
On this day the river was running low, maybe somewhere close to 500-600 CFS at most. It was beginning to clear up considerably with only the deepest parts of the feature holding onto a translucent green stain. I started with a standard chunk of T-11 with a sparsely tied unweighted pink and blue fly.
As I neared the tail end of the run where the current stalled out to give me a slow even swing I started to make contact with the bottom. Typical I thought to myself. It is not very deep here after all. I set up another cast and sent it out. Again in the same place mid way through the swing a series of ticks and taps, bottom again I thought.
A few more steps down and another cast. Again some contact. Well, one more I thought to myself and then I’ll be through the best of it. Again the cast, the mend, the line coming under tension and now is when I should expect to make contact with the bottom. Tick, tick, and then a hard pull. Fish on. It fought well in that tail-out giving me my dose of deep and abiding satisfaction. She was a beautiful hen, and wild too. This being noteworthy because of the extensive hatchery program on the river that sees many fin clipped fish making a return during the winter season.
I sent her off and made a few more passes but the game was up. She was to be my only fish from this run.
What amazed me then, and still serves as a vital lesson to me now is this; if she had never come back and eaten the fly as she finally decided to do I would have been convinced I was just ticking rocks along the bottom the entire time. The feeling of her making contact with my fly, as it traveled through the line, down the spine of the rod and into my hand was imperceptible from the way it feels to tick a rock.
I realized after the fact that all those ticks and taps were of course her all along. She was being non committal, and typical of a trout in cold water, somewhat lazy. That wispy material hanging off the fly was just enough for her to peck at in moderate annoyance as my offering persistently appeared again and again in her holding lie. Finally, after trying to politely negotiate some truce with my bug and having been forced to slide further and further down the feature she had had enough. She decided to not be so subtle and I am thankful for that decision.
The moral of the story is don’t always assume it’s a rock you’re making contact with. Sometimes it’s a ten pound hen.
The Big Pull
This one is from a long time ago, back in the early days of my steelhead fishing. I was new to the spey game, and although I had hooked and landed a few good fish, some in winter, most in the fall, I was still green to the whole enterprise in general.
I had this rod at the time that I just could not see eye to eye with. It was a real pain in the ass to cast the thing. No matter what I tried we could never seem to get along. Back then I blamed myself for not being a good enough caster. These days I’m ready to shift partial blame onto the rod itself.
It was nearly last light, and it had been a long day of fishing with a good buddy of mine. We were up north on a river famed for the size of the fish that run up it in winter, and it’s that big fish you hold in the back of your mind every time you wet a fly in these waters. It adds an extra weight to the fishing. It’s heavy stuff.
We walked down to the run from our camp for one last go of it. It’s a big generous piece of water. There is a thumb of land that forces the river to make a sweeping oxbow bend around it. Huge super sized structures are strewn throughout its course. Some of them are piano sized chunks of rock.
On this day the river was high, but dropping fast. I remember that the hydrology was so powerful from all the water pushing through the bend that waves were lapping against the bank of the gravel bar. My buddy went up to the top and gave me the bottom. There is a magnificent tail-out down there, like something out of a text book on where to hook steelhead. But in the dimming light of evening I could barely manage a half decent cast. I flubbed one out there so bad I wrapped the tip and leader around the end of my rod. Deflated I waded back to the bank to undo my mess.
I remember thinking I could be done then. No more. But on the other hand that was a real shit cast to end it on. Better to step back in and try to get one last decent cast out before heading back up the steep bank to where we had setup our camp. And so I did.
I made an okay cast and then I made a better one. I’d waded down to the very end of the tail out and was probably three casts away from the final buzzer when I got the most arm wrenching, earth shattering series of grabs I had ever had up until that point. This was the classic winter steelhead eat; in the tail-out, the fly having come nearly to the end of it’s swing. The fish was about as far in to the inside as one could ever hope to present a swung fly. This was the epitome of the hang down grab in all of it’s terrifying glory! It was a series of brutally hard takes, like a major earthquake followed by a series of powerful tremors.
I came tight to the animal and immediately knew I was in for it. This fish felt extremely heavy, and now it shook its head violently. The rod, a stout 8136, was reduced to nothing more than a noodle with string running through it. I yelped out to my friend. I was fearful. This was the white whale, and I had angered it, at least in my mind that was the only explanation to explain the predicament I currently found myself in.
What happened over the following ten minutes has become the enduring story that has come to define those early days my buddy and I spent together fishing the coast. The fish took us for a ride neither of us will ever forget. It took us down through water no one in their right mind would go near, but we did, all in the hopes we might land it. Or at the very least get a glimpse of it. Neither of those two things happened. It remains a mystery for us to this day as to what was connected to the end of my line. It was a good fish, of that at least we are both certain.
There are moments on the river when I find myself reliving that grab in my head. It’s become one of my favorite places to return to during the times I catch myself daydreaming of chrome fish and hoping for the big pull to find me again. That is really what is at the heart of all of this, in the end, isn’t it? A few moments of sheer exhilaration to haunt you for a lifetime.