DRY FLY STEELHEADING… THE NATURAL WAY
by Mike Maxwell
YOU ARE STANDING ANKLE DEEP IN YOUR FAVOURITE STEELHEAD RIVER, surrounded by all the sights, sounds and colours of Indian summer, anywhere in the coastal mountains of beautiful British Columbia. Suddenly – ‘right before your eyes‘ – a huge steelhead rises to the surface, pops its head out and takes your carefully controlled dry fly into an open mouth. Before you regain your composure, the fish takes off upstream with a maneuver half way between a depth charge and a freight train, and hooks itself. You then proceed to land and release your prize in an intelligent and effective method, to assist in its survival after release. This dream can come true, providing you have the patience to learn a few basic facts about the habits and life cycle of steelhead, have the ability to make the necessary fly presentations and the self discipline to cover all the reachable water thoroughly.
Many ‘would be’ steelheaders are discouraged by what they see on some rivers. The typical scene is an angler standing up to his armpits in near freezing water, casting a rod strong enough to vault across the river, a sinking line heavy enough to tow an oil tanker, and a fly that is a cross between a cruise missile and a Christmas tree ornament, heavy enough to dredge the bottom of the river and rearrange the gravel. He is firmly convinced that the fish are on the other side of the river and that they will be impressed with the depth he can wade and the distance he can cast. His concept of steelheading is that he is doing what everyone else does, has little idea what fly he uses or why the steelhead takes it. This style of angling seems to be based on the size and number of fish caught, and is in direct contrast to the concept of fly fishing in its literal definition.
Summer steelhead spend their adult life in the ocean and return to their parent river to spawn. On entering the fresh water, they become dominated by the urge to reach their natal spawning areas and it is generally believed that they cease to feed once they have adapted to fresh water. A recent hypothesis suggests that this anorexic effect is not complete in all steelhead. Although steelhead do take food into their mouths, it is rarely found in their stomachs. This phenomenon may be due to rapid digestion or as the old timers would say – ‘the fish just sucks the juice out of it’ – and spits it out.
What makes summer steelheading so fascinating, is that you can induce a migrating, non-feeding steelhead to take a fly and what is even more astonishing, is that you can get them to rise to a dry fly. In order to understand their curious behavior, it is useful to examine the life cycle of the fish and its food during the juvenile period.
Steelhead are spawned and spend their juvenile years in the upper reaches of the river where they feed on the many forms of underwater and surface insect life. To escape predation, their habitat is usually under or around rocks or large gravel, close to a food supply and with well-oxygenated water. By a happy coincidence, large stonefly nymphs have exactly the same habitat and form a major portion of the juvenile steelhead’s diet. This symbiotic relationship of large gravel, juvenile steelhead and stonefly nymphs is extremely important when locating the resting or holding stations of the upward migrating steelhead and is now known as the ‘juvenile habitat imprint‘. Large steelhead can sometimes be seen holding adjacent to large gravel beds, in water that scarcely covers them, for no apparent reason.
Although the nymphal stage of the stonefly is significant to the maturing steelhead smolt, it is the effect of the flying stonefly adult that is important to the angler. The stonefly completes its life cycle by crawling out of the water, splitting its nymphal case and emerging as a large stonefly adult. After mating, the female flies upstream and deposits her eggs, by fluttering down and dipping her egg sack into the water. Some stoneflies are swept or blown sideways across the surface as they attempt to take off and fly upstream again. This process is repeated many times and is so clumsy, that it creates a large disturbance above and on the water, and proves to be irresistible to any nearby fish. Unlike many other insects, stoneflies do not swarm and cause feeding periods, as mayflies or caddis do and are most often seen singly or in small groups, following each other intermittently. The fact that steelhead smolts will rise to an isolated fly, is extremely important in understanding its adult behavior and can be called ‘the single fly feeding response‘. The steelhead smolt must compete for food with many other species of fish and as one adult stonefly has an enormous food value, its appearance will trigger an immediate ‘competitive feeding response’, with some of the juvenile fish not much bigger than the fly. It is important to note, that in most cases, stoneflies have completed their egg laying and are not present during the upward migration of steelhead.
The natural habitat of the steelhead is the ocean. It uses the river as an incubator and nursery. Most adults return to the sea after spawning. The juvenile steelhead will return to the sea to feed and mature when strong enough to withstand the rigors of the downward migration. Little is known about the ocean life of steelhead, however, one important fact is that they do not school when entering the river and sexually mature. Even though some fish may enter the river together, congregating or pairing, does not usually take place until reaching the spawning area.
When attempting to read the water and locate steelhead holding areas, it is useful to assume that the upward migrating fish are using the river as a highway and the natural scent of their native rivers as road signs. Anadromous salmonids – or Onchorincus if you accept the latest ‘scientific’ mumbo jumbo – appear to be able to detect the scent of their spawning beds when diluted by one part in over one hundred million. The rate of travel of fish varies according to the speed of current, natural obstacles and the ability to detect a strong enough scent. Once in the river, the upward progress of the migrating steelhead can be interrupted by many factors. Steelhead seem to travel in the fastest water, perhaps because it contains the strongest scent. They can sometimes be seen bypassing fish ladders and swimming up horrendous cataracts. Any interference with the road sign scent, such as low water, which does not carry a strong enough scent or floodwater which dilutes the scent, will cause the fish to stay put until water conditions improve. It is interesting to note that wild, non-hatchery fish, will not travel in rising floodwater and will start to move as the level drops. Many fish will become confused when dilution of the scent occurs, due to a side stream or channel entering the main flow and will hold below this point until they can separate the correct signal. This hesitation of the fish, is very useful when attempting to locate those elusive steelhead.
Once it is known that steelhead are in the river – just watch for the glazed look on the faces of the non-resident anglers and the tight lips of the locals – it is relatively easy to locate them. Remember, that the fish are using the river as a highway and are looking for a rest area or motel room, with protection from the current and easy access to the highway. Holding areas can be at any point on a river, close to large rocks, close to the bank, in shallow water, at the edge of drop offs or at the seam between fast and slow current. In long shallow pools or runs with no apparent cover, they can often be found adjacent to the larger gravel, found in their spawning beds. This is the ‘juvenile habitat imprint‘ mentioned earlier and is the most productive location on many rivers. Discarded, bleached stonefly nymph cases, found on the river bank will usually confirm that you are at the right place. Don’t get too excited when you observe steelhead rolling in fast water, they are just moving on upstream. Many hours can be wasted casting to a fish that is ‘long gone’.
Apart from the mindless ‘chuck it and chance it’, heavy sunk fly mentioned earlier, there are various other styles of steelheading, which have varying degrees of success in hooking fish, however, they also have varying degrees of dissatisfaction for the intelligent angler. These other methods are based on making a down-and-across stream cast, with a floating or sink tip line. The fly used is usually some form of highly visible attractor wet fly, or a highly imaginative dry fly. A recent dry fly creation is really a huge bass bug, which seems to be based on insulting the steelhead into striking. Many anglers, having progressed to using a dry fly, are using exactly the same down-and-across and swing presentation, as they do with a wet fly, which in most cases sinks the fly. These self-styled ‘dry fly men’ then resort to various mechanical methods of keeping the fly above the water, varying from, riffle hitching, glued planing disks or about half a pound of Gink. None of these methods or flies appear to be based on using an imitation of anything the juvenile or adult steelhead encounters in fresh water and could be described as molesting the fish. This is fly fishing of a very ‘low order’, does not always excite skilled and accomplished steelheaders, and is especially frustrating to beginner steelheaders, coming from their usual trout fishing and well versed in ‘matching the hatch’ or‘ fishing the fly as a living insect‘.
Fly fishing in its purest form, relies on motivating a fish to take an artificial fly, which represents its natural food, and presented to imitate the natural behavior of that food. Steelhead dry fly fishing for returning non-feeding fish depends on triggering the adult’s single fly and competitive feeding responses imprinted during its juvenile period and can be described as ‘Dry Fly Steelheading – the Natural Way‘.
When an adult steelhead observes a well presented stonefly imitation floating straight down the river towards it, sometimes splashing and struggling, it will leave its resting hold and drift down behind to check it out. This close inspection can continue as the fly finally swings into shore and is stripped in for the next cast. Remember, that this represents the natural female stonefly, fluttering straight downstream, being blown across the current as she tries to take off upstream again. If the fish is sufficiently motivated, it sill make a closer inspection by taking the fly into its mouth. As the fish is not really feeding, it does not completely close its mouth or swallow the fly. Providing the angler can restrain his acquired trout fishing habit, of setting the hook or striking, the fish will return to its hold and hook itself, by pulling the fly into the corner of its jaw. Steelhead may take the fly at any point in the presentation… on the activated downstream drift, the across stream swing and the upstream strip. Setting the hook – or striking – will usually pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth or result in an insecure lip hold, with the subsequent loss of the fish. This is the nemesis of the inexperienced dry fly steelheader.
- Sketch No. 1 – Path of Fly for Typical Presentation
Presenting and activating the fly – ‘the natural way’ – is a departure from typical steelhead methods, however, many trout techniques are remarkably similar. Imagine… you are standing ankle deep and are going to cover an area of water, starting about thirty feet directly across stream and extending straight downstream. Strip off enough line to reach the thirty foot target area directly in front of you and trap line under the rod hand. Now strip another twenty feet of line off the reel, let it fall onto the water and hold this line in the other hand. Make a cast directly across stream, making an upstream reach cast, so that the line has its initial mend before it falls to the water. The moment the line starts to drag the fly towards shore, mend it back out again, simultaneously feeding some of the slack line retained under the other hand.
Repeat this process until all the feeding line has gone. The fly should now be directly downstream from its original position and will start to swing in towards the bank. The speed of the swing can be controlled by mending upstream, or downstream, during the swing. When the fly is directly downstream, slowly strip in the twenty feet of feeding line, to prepare for the next cast. Mending should be as gentle as possible and the small amount of movement imparted to the fly, is all that is needed to activate it in order to imitate the struggling adult stonefly… see sketch #1.
Don’t worry about sinking your fly when mending, as well-designed flies will pop up again even after a severe dunking. During the entire presentation, the rod should be held in an almost vertical position, to assist in mending and controlling the fly, even though this is absolute heresy to most dry fly trout anglers. If your beautiful presentation is ignored by the fish, repeat the same cast with the same length of line, two or three times. If you don’t find any takers, strip off another fifteen feet of line, cast out to the forty five foot distance and repeat the twenty foot feed and mend, the controlled swing and the upstream strip. Once again, make another set of casts at this distance and if still no takers, repeat the process at sixty feet and so on, until you reach your own level of casting competence.
This procedure covers all the reachable water equally, without concentrating on what you perceive to be a hot spot and has never held a fish in living memory. A glance at sketch #2 shows, that one complete set of casts covers an enormous area thoroughly, with the fly travelling over one hundred and twenty feet on the final stage, after only casting sixty feet. This points out the golden rule of dry fly steelhead… the natural way. Your ability to catch fish is in direct proportion to your ability to control line, not how far you cast.
- Sketch No. 2 – Path of Fly for One Set of Casts
Steelhead may come to a dry fly in many ways without getting hooked. This can vary, from pushing the fly upstream with its nose, to slapping it with its tail. They have even been seen taking the fly into a wide open mouth and then backing off without touching the fly. This sort of behaviour infuriates many steelheaders, however, veteran anglers seem to agree, that this is the very essence of dry fly angling and that they would sooner spend hours trying to hook the innovative ‘player’, than one that hits without warning. The question always arises, if you must fish with your rod nearly vertical and you must not set or strike, what do you do to hook the fish? The answer is… nothing. If properly motivated the fish will hook itself, as it swims back upstream to its hold. A further advantage of the high rod position is that it creates a lot of slack line, makes striking difficult for the beginner, and gives the fish the idea that it is a living insect and not connected to a tight line. It follows that the further away from its hold you can lure the fish, the greater the chance of hooking itself on its home run. As steelhead can show themselves at any time during the presentation, it is difficult to determine where it was originally holding and many an unwary angler has wasted time casting to where the fish showed, not realizing that it has already gone back to its lie… seesketch #3. Keep making the identical presentation, until either you or the fish gives up. Remember that it is better to work on a ‘known fish’, than to move on to where you hope there will be one.
- Sketch No. 3 – Typical Movement of Motivated Fish
The question that is most asked… “Where about in the presentation are fish most likely to take the fly?” A glance at sketch #4 will show that they will take just about anywhere, with a slight preference for the beginning of the swing. Many anglers get a fixation on this point and miss the fish, by not fishing the whole presentation through. Making one complete set of casts from the same position – up to nine casts – takes about ten minutes, seems to make slow progress down the pool and does not conform to the etiquette of step casting, to give the following angler a chance to fish down. A glance at sketch #2 shows that the angler could move down thirty feet to the next station and not miss any fishable water, without holding up the following step caster. It is a good idea to explain what you are doing if the angler is not familiar with your procedure.
- Sketch No. 4 – Graph of Typical Distribution of Takes
Dry fly steelheading is the thinking man’s or woman’s sport and the most important phase of the whole process is locating fishable dry fly water, and then setting up a game plan on how best to fish it. This process is simple and consists of determining the head and tail of the run, the fast flow, travel lanes and possible holds, such as current seams and visible rocks. Estimate where your various casting stations are going to be and check for obstacles which will interfere with your backcast. Check the wading conditions and try not to wade out above your knees, you may be standing on the fish. Wade out to your first station and make your first set of casts. Do not concentrate on the hot spots and fish all presentations through.
Once a fish has been hooked in the corner of the jaw, it is very easy to land, providing a few common sense rules are observed. After the first run, walk to shore, maintaining a steady pressure by reeling continuously, or palming if the fish runs again. Walk down the river until you are directly opposite the fish. Keep the rod bent and lower the rod tip to the water sideways and slowly reel in. Do not pump the rod. This maneuver eliminates the useless vertical lift of the high rod position and the unnecessary upstream pull on the fish. This procedure has a dramatic effect on large fish, as it produces the maximum effective lateral force for the least pull on the fly and enables the fish to be released quickly with an excellent chance of survival.
The equipment required for the natural dry fly method is quite simple, however, there are certain criteria that must be met to give yourself every advantage available. Rods should be able to present a line with accuracy and delicacy, at the short and long casts required. They should be powerful enough – number eight line preferred – to control a steelhead – 5 to 25 pounds – yet resilient enough to act as a shock absorber for those over-active fish.
A word of warning… beware of the style of rod specifically designed to cast to the other side of the river, it won’t cast short and is tiresome to control line with. Leave this rod for Charley Chuckit and his lead weighted wet fly. As line control is of the utmost importance, a double taper or long belly line is essential and leaders must be correctly designed to turn over a large bushy dry fly. Heavy butt sections are essential – minimum 0.024 inch diameter, tippets of 8 to 10 pound are preferred. Reels should be single action with sufficient capacity to hold 150 yards of 30 pound backing plus the line with at least a 1/4 inch clearance. Although some form of mechanical drag is an advantage to a beginner, a good rim drag is essential. Heavy saltwater reels are not necessary, they are usually too heavy. Anti-reverse reels have no place on a steelhead river and have been the cause of many lost and dead fish. The problem with this type of reel is that the fish is difficult to control at the crucial landing stage which forces the angler to tighten the drag excessively or take such a long time to control the fish that it is exhausted or dies of old age.
There are many steelhead dry flies available, each designed for a specific type of presentation… Haig-Brown’s Steelhead Bee, Harry Lemire’s Greaseliner, Jimmy Wright’s Bulkley Mouse are excellent flies, however, they do not have all the characteristics required for the various stages of the natural presentation. The requirements of the fly are… it must closely resemble the predominant resident adult female stonefly, in shape, size and color… it must be visible enough to be seen 80’ away and float high in the water without excessive false casting to dry it… it should also be easy to tie and durable to withstand the munching of an aggressive fish. Hooks must be light enough to aid in floating and super sharp to assist the self hooking process.
Just a last few pointers…
- Don’t fish steelhead as you would trout.
- Hunt for the fish, don’t wait for them to swim by.
- Locate them, motivate them, lure them away from their holds and let them hook themselves.
- Play and land them quickly to assist in their survival on release.
What makes dry fly steelheading the natural way so rewarding, is that you are activating the non-feeding steelhead’s basic juvenile instincts to feed and at the same time rising above your own genetic, primitive, hunter-gatherer instincts to go out and clobber them by any crude, yet legal method. You will find the sport of dry fly steelheading the natural way is logical, absorbing and will keep you busy thinking and working, even on a slow day. Once you have located, motivated and raised your first player and eventually, hooked, landed and watched it swim away on release, you will find that you are just as hooked as the steelhead.
Dry Fly Steelheading – the Natural Way
© Mike Maxwell 1992