Steelhead have a very stressful life from the moment they are hatched. Immediately, they become food for all kinds of river predators. From Sculpins and char to kingfishers and otters, steelhead must always be on high alert. At no point in their life do things get any easier or more relaxed for them. When steelhead finally make it back to our rivers, they have a very different attitude from when they left. It is that same feeling when you go back to your primary school after graduating from high school. Suddenly, you are confident and cool with serious swagger. Despite all the changes, however, many things feel familiar. Seeing the principal’s office triggers a knot in the stomach, and the group of mean girls staring at you burns through the phony façade faster than a Pamela Anderson marriage. Everything feels a lot smaller than what you remember.
Steelhead go through similar feelings back in their home waters. With all these factors at play, it is important to consider your approach when you first step into a run. Let’s say you are lucky enough to be the first person through a run that is currently holding fish. Conditions are average, and fish are on medium alert. When a group of fairly tentative fish lie in a run, they are still very catchable. Despite their awareness of everything going on in their water, they will only be fully trigged to spook if you give undeniable proof that you are there.
Many times, I have witnessed someone fishing a run horribly, and the fish becoming completely put off for hours and hours. If you froth up the water like a sudsy IPA, pay no attention to where you stand, and constantly snag the bottom of the river, you aren’t just ruining your chances of hooking one, you are destroying the run for the rest of the day. Is it really possible to fish a run so poorly that no one will be able to catch a fish in it? It absolutely is.
I have been able to watch steelhead habits intimately in crystal clear waters. These fish are communicating with each other often. Most pools with pods of fish will have a wily, dark buck who has logged many months in the river. He has seen the comings and goings of many an angler, both accomplished and complete newbies. He has certainly been fished, and he’s most likely been hooked before.
The second you storm out into the river like a water buffalo, he perks up and slides onto the edge of his seat. Now you unleash a massive snap-T followed by a tsunami of a white mouse. Unfortunately, you miss the timing on your anchor and have to apply 400% power to rip the rope-like Skagit line off the water, sending Nagasaki-like sound waves throughout the watershed. The 12 feet of T17 attached to your intermediate F.I.S.T line swings two feet before plummeting to the bottom of the river, where it begins to intertwine with rocks and logs. In fact, it continues sinking, eventually penetrating the rocky bottom before it travels underground into the Vadose soil zone. You begin to throw enormous roll casts and pull as hard as you can, but that 20-lb maxima is stuck on an ore deposit 20 feet beneath the subsurface of the earth.
Needless to say, you have notified this pod of fish that you are indeed in their water. The weary buck will instantly begin cycling through the pool in big, wide swaths. This alerts the rest of the crew that danger is at their doorstep. Usually the pod will blow up at this point, scattering in many directions before reconnecting in the deepest part of the pool. They generally get into a very tight, close formation. At this point you have ruined all your chances of catching a fish. However, what has come to surprise me is that after an 8.8 rector scale earthquake—like the one you just triggered—occurs, the fish will rarely bite again for a very long time. Many times it will ruin the pool for everyone for that entire day.
Therefore, for the sake of everyone who is fishing, you must bring some stealth into your game. Start by learning how to walk softly and quietly into a run. Stay off the shoreline at all times unless you are actually fishing. When you start off with your first cast, with just the sink tip, you can softly cast a single spey, allowing the fly to gently slide into the run. There is nothing wrong with a snap-T, but try and wait until you are starting to gain some length. In soft water tail outs, try not to make too many splashes with your line. If you fish quietly through a run, you will have a much better chance of hooking up, but you will also leave the possibility available for other anglers. Get out there and practice your single spey casts so you can fish the first 5 or 6 pulls with it. This will keep that wily buck in check and give you many more opportunities to catch fish. More importantly, it will let everyone around you have just as many opportunities.