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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

IF4 in Eugene - come support the Fly Fishing Collaborative

Fish Well, Do Good!
Join True West Custom Fly Rods for the International Fly Fishing Film Festival April 17th at the Wildish Theater. The IF4 is a wonderful collection of professionally made fly fishing films from around the globe that highlight the beauty and culture of fly fishing. The IF4 is an exciting night of films and raffling off over $4000 in great fishing gear, art, and trips all for a great cause!
The film festival is a fundraiser for Fly Fishing Collaborative, a Portland based non-profit working to provide sustainable solutions to human trafficking. By partnering with the fly fishing community and local leaders in high trafficking areas, FFC fights for freedom and recovery for children affected by human trafficking each year.
Watch the trailer, and then hit the link and get your tickets. Every ticket purchased helps to put power in the hands of the powerless!

The Run Down:

  • April 17th @7pm- Doors open at 615 to view raffle prizes
  • Wildish Theater in Springfield, OR
  • Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at Homewaters and Caddis Fly Shops or online below

2019 IF4 Trailer
Buy Tickets
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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Surface Steelhead Tips

Surface steelhead addict Adrian Cortes chasing the ghost.  His motto:  #surfaceattacksarecrack

Without a doubt, seeing an aggressive steelhead attacking a fly on the surface is the ultimate thrill in my experience as an angler.  Nothing else comes close to the rush of those sudden explosions, boils, and giant surges at my fly that create visions that never go away.   My initial success with raising steelhead to the surface took place in the fall of 1995 on a famous BC river.  Those initial surface steelhead encounters left a profound impression on me to the extent that I have been known to be rather single-minded in the pursuit of encountering my next surface steelhead fix.  Having the good fortune of meeting with willing surface steelhead early in my journey could have led to my unshakable passion and perseverance with surface methods.  For better or for worse, I have evolved into an angler who is hopelessly impassioned with the whole process of getting steelhead to rise. 

Like many anglers, my early attempts with surface methods was met with uncertainty and being unsure of what I was doing.  My humble beginnings were also hampered by living as far from steelhead country as one could imagine (Hawaii is not paradise for a steelheader).  While I was mentored from a distance by Bill McMillan through Dry Line Steelhead, I had no one around my Kauai home who could provide any personal stories or instruction on fishing for steelhead on the surface.

In our current steelheading age, many newer anglers are experiencing their first surface steelhead episodes thanks to the knowledge and excitement that is generated through the broad, instantaneous sharing that is afforded by various online resources including social media, forums, blogs, youtube, etc.  Through the advances of modern technology, the learning curve for the current generation of anglers is thus, much shorter.   However, for many, the road leading up to that initial surface steelhead encounter can be long and hard.  Diminished steelhead returns in recent years has tested the patience and faith of even a die hard such as myself, with rises from surface oriented steelhead often few and far between.

I sometimes think to myself that being a beginning steelheader trying find surface friendly steelhead with the recent low return years we have had could be really tough.  It is often the case that the only thing that has kept me going is being able to draw from prior experiences of raising steelhead to the surface.  For those that are new to this game, I encourage you to keep the faith and continue believing in the reality that if you stick with surface methods long enough, success will come.

Having been a newcomer to this pursuit at some point myself (hard to imagine that was almost three decades ago),  I can relate to some of the questions that have been posed by newer anglers.  Most questions have been about tackle, technique, and water type that suits surface methods.  In this article, I hope to provide some advice that may help anglers confidently  persevere in this endeavor.

The classic down and across or cross stream/greased line swing with a fly designed to wake either by it's own design or through the use of a riffle hitch are the most commonly used surface methods today.  A common addition to the tight line swing presentations is to impart action to the fly with twitches.  This method was popularized by legendary steelhead guide Tony Wratney and friends (including Mark Stangeland) on the North Umpqua in 80's.  The twitched swing is the method I employ most often.  I tend towards a more gentle, pulsating twitch while others may prefer a more aggresstive twitch.  The twitched presentation is typically utilized with foam lipped flies but hair flies such as Muddlers and Greaseliners can be twitched as well.

Steelhead can also be taken with a dead drift dry fly and in the right conditions, it is possible to find success with the method.  The technique is the same one used in presenting dry flies upstrem to trout.  The dead drift lends itself to fishing over known steelhead holding lies and when one is able to encounter unpressured steelhead.  While getting a steelhead using this method is quite the accomplishment, the tight line swing presentations are most commonly employed because they cover the most water in a methodical way.

The common term for the surface methods we commonly utilize to fish for steelhead these days is often referred to as "skating" and we tend to refer to the flies we fish with while using this method as "skaters".  In a recent correspondence with Bill McMillan I was reminded of his description of the method of skating (as was noted in Dry Line Steelhead).  Bill referred to skating as a method that utilizes a tight line swing and flies tied with stiff hackles (either feathers or hair) that ride on Top of the surface rather than IN the surface as riffle hitched or other waking flies do.  Therefore, most of the surface flies we use to swing for steelhead today (Bombers, Greaseliners, Ska-oppers, Foam Domes, Muddlers, Little Wangs, etc) are what Bill refers to as waking flies.  Utilizing actual skating flies such as the MacIntosh or stiff hackled Steelhead Bees is relatively uncommon today, but Bill described that those high-riding skaters tended to elicit exciting rises, but fewer hookings as compared to waking flies.

Bill McMillan had described in his book Dry Line Steelhead, another surface method that involves simply hanging a surface fly in pocket water holds such buckets in the midst of rapids and cushions in front of and behind boulders.  I have utilized this method in summer conditions in areas where pocket water became the most likely areas to search for steelhead due to the confines imposed by low water.  I have had success with this method by mimicking Bill's example of using a size 6 riffle hitched Steelhead Caddis with just the leader and maybe 5 feet of fly line outside the tip of my 9' 4wt rod and simply hanging the fly in miniature buckets in the midst of fast water.  When fishing in this way, it feels like Tenkara fishing, but when the surface steelhead attack comes at such close range, you will have a hard time shaking the images from your memory.

A few years ago, I had watched some YouTube videos of large Atlantic Salmon taking dead-drifted Bombers.  Watching these videos created some excitement within me and I soon found myself thinking about tying some Bombers and dead drifting them for steelhead.  A few size 6 natural colored Bombers quickly emerged from my vise and I anxiously awaited my next trip to the North Umpqua that August.

As I stood perched along one of the North Umpqua's famous pools, I recalled an article that I read in Amato's Flyfishing magazine in the early/mid 90's.  It was an article written by Bill McMillan about surface fishing.  At the time, Bill was conducting seminars on surface methods for Little Creek outfitters on the Grande Ronde.  In that article, I remembered Bill referring to using a turle knot "in reverse orientation" on his Moose Turd bomber so that it would wake without the use of a riffle hitch.  Tying the turle knot in reverse caused the leader to come out of the bottom of the down eyed hook, giving the effect of using a riffle hitch, but without the wear and tear that a riffle hitch can cause to a fly.

Back to that North Umpqua pool: I tied my Bomber to my tippet with that "reverse turle" knot, figuring that I would dead drift the fly in areas that suited that method and then I would allow the fly to come around and wake on the bottom half of the presentation when the fly came tight on the swing.  I managed to raise a 5 to 6lb steelhead on the dead drift in an area that didn't lend well to the swung presentation and I also found that the bomber waked fairly well with the "reverse turle" knot when it came tight on the swing.

I shared my experience of utilizing the "reverse turle" knot with my friend Adrian Cortes and I also began using the knot on a foam lipped fly I often use.  I have come to realize that this knot enhances the waking ability of any fly that is tied on a down eyed hook.  I most often tie my surface flies on down eyed Mustad signature hooks (R73, S80, S82) so I utilize this knot almost exclusively.  I find that my waking flies stay on the surface more consistently with this knot compared to when I used to employ a loop knot.  Adrian has been tying his Lemire Greaseliners with Gamakatsu light wire down-eyed hooks to take advantage of the superior waking characteristics afforded by this knot.

Shortly after I began utilizing this knot, I was in a conversation with steelhead guide Marty Sheppard, (he and wife Mia are current owners of Little Creek Outiffiters).  In regards to what I was calling the "reverse turle" knot, Marty recalled the origins of the knot and mentioned that it was named after a fellow named Mike Garoutte of Elgin, OR.  Mr. Garoutte is a skilled, long-time angler on the Grand Ronde.  My recent correspondence with Bill McMillan confirmed what Marty conveyed to me.  Bill had fished with Mr. Garoutte during the timeframe in the early/mid 90's when he was conducting dry line seminars for Little Creek Outfitters.  Bill mentioned that he was simply amazed when Mr. Garoutte showed him this simple alternative to using a riffle hitch, an alternative that worked even better due to consistently getting the proper angle coming off the bottom of the fly and with the further advantage of not causing damage to the fly.  Bill began referring to the knot as the Garoutte Hitch, while noting that Mr. Garoutte was a very modest fellow who may have preferred to keep a low profile.
Begin by inserting your leader into the downeyed hook from the bottom.

Form the "slip loop" just as with the normal Turle knot.

Draw the knot tight slowly, ensuring that the loop doesn't get fouled and seats properly around the eye of the hook.

Finished Garoutte hitch showing perfect downward orientation of the leader from the fly.

Anglers who are new to surface fishing for steelhead sometimes ask me what type of leaders I use.  While many folks currently like to utilize floating poly leaders, I still prefer hand tied mono.  The floating poly leaders add mass to the line system and I find that they can slow the turn over of the head or line. I feel that mono leaders provide a brisk, positive turnover with the wind-resistant flies that I fish with, along with my chosen line systems.  I construct my leaders out of  old school Maxima Chameleon and Ultra Green.  Maxima has worked well for generations of anglers before me and up to the present day - no need to change a good thing.  Maxima possesses the right amount of stiffness and durability that make it ideally suited to steelhead fly fishing.

I tie my leaders with a perfection loop on the butt section then taper down with blood knots ending with another loop on the end of the mid section of the leader.  This allows me to loop on tippet sections and also allows me to later replace them as they wear and are cut back from fly changes.  For lines and heads from about 290grains and heavier, I tend to tie butt/mid sections tapering from 40# to #15.  For lines and heads that are lighter than 290grains, typically on single hand rods, I will tie up the butt/mid sections tapering from 30# to 15#.  These are rough guidelines and each individual may have their own preferences.  I have found either Maxima Chameleon or Ultra Green works well for the butt/mid sections of my leaders, but for the tippet sections, I always go with Ultra Green.  In summer and fall, I am typically using 8# Maxima Ultra Green for tippet.

Examples of leader formulas that I use -

14' leader for Switch and two handed rods:
Butt/mid section:
40# - 4'
30# - 3'
25# - 1'
20# - 1'
15' - 1'
(Loops on both ends)
Tippet section (Ultra Green):
(loop) 12# - 6"
10# - 6"
8# - 3'

12' leader for light switch or single hand rods:
Butt/mid section
30#  - 4'
25# - 3'
20# - 1'
15# - 6"
(loops on both ends)
Tippet Section
(loop) 12# - 6"
10# - 6"
8# - 30"

The formulas above are roughly based on the 60/20/20 ratio of butt/mid/tippet.  My formulas are not an exact science and they can be tweaked and altered to suit an individual's style.  If one desires a longer or shorter leader, all that needs done is to change section lengths to suit one's preferences.  The butt/mid sections tend to last multiple seasons for me unless I damage them on rocks or have to pull them through bankside foliage on too many bad casts.  The tippet sections can be tied to suit current conditions and are easily replaced as they wear and get cut back from multiple fly changes as you are trying to get that player to come back.

I have come to accept that when fishing bulky surface flies, they often spin on the cast - even more so when using a riffle-hitch or Garoutte hitch.  I had accepted twisted leaders and running lines as the price I had to pay to fish the surface flies that I had confidence in.  I would periodically spin my rod in a direction counter to the twists in my line or I would cutoff my fly and strip out my head and running line to untwist in the flow of large runs.  These processes took up precious fishing time and I simply lived with having to go through these rituals so I could have some relief from the frustrations of fouled running lines and leaders.  A couple years ago, I found a solution that alleviated the hassle of twists in my line system to a good extent. While not for everyone, especially those with traditional tendencies, I have taken to using tiny high quality swivels - one in my tippet section (between the 10# and 12#) and I have been making my own "spey swivels" that utilize braided loops to place the swivel between my head and running lines.  I have found #10 SPRO brand swivels at my local Cabela's that work very well.  These spey swivels are constructed out of Rio braided loops drawn through the swivel at each end and pulled back into itself.  They provide a cheaper and less bulky alternative to the commercially available version.

Keep in mind that this setup my not be in compliance with fishing regulations if you frequent the North Umpqua river during the summer season as the swivel in the leader may be considered an additional "attachment" or "attractor".  I suppose the tiny swivel could be considered an attractor as on at least one occasion, I have had steelhead take a swipe at something in front of my fly - probably the swivel as it was seen erratically  moving as I twitched the fly.

In my time spent fishing surface methods for steelhead, I have used everything from a 9 foot 4 weight trout rod to my old Sage 9140 "browinie' (14 foot 9weight) two hander.  I tend to be an equipment junkie so I own way too many rods and reels to the point that I can have an anxiety attack just trying to pick a single rod and reel for a day's fishing.  I sometimes carry multiple rod/reel combos with me to the river and unless I am in a boat, this can add too much complexity to something that should be fun and relaxing.  Lugging multiple setups tends to hamper my mobility when I am bank bound, which is the case most of the time I get out.
32" surface rising buck that was subdued by my trusty Sage 9140.

Vintage Sage 9' 4wt RPL had no problems fighting this 31" hen (hatchery version, thus not kept wet) that was holding in a bathtub sized pocket water lie in low summer conditions.  The steelhead took a #6 McMillan Steelhead caddis (riffle hitched) hanging in the current.
In an overall sense, I tend to be very "blue collar" with my tackle purchases.  I don't own very many top name equipment items and the high end brand items that I do own tend to be very well used to the point of being barely recognizable as top drawer gear.  My rods run the gamut of old fiberglass single handers from a bygone era to a few well used Sages from the early/mid 90s, to a large array of entry level switch and single handers purchased over the past few years from a big box retailer (some were on sale for $59.95).  There are no current generation top grade rods in my collection that cost more than my fishing rig, a beat up 1995 Geo Tracker.

As to fly reels, I have completely gone to vintage click/pawl models since 2011.  Again, all were relatively inexpensive purchases, many off the big auction site.  I have several Hardys: Marquis models in various sizes, a 3 7/8" Perfect, and a beater St. John.  The remainder of my reel collection is made up of those made by JW Young, the ultimate poor man's clickers.

As to fly lines, I have used the Wulff Ambush for the vast majority of my surface fishing over the past several years.  The Ambush lines make single hand spey casting a pleasure and they work very well in tight quarters with switch rods.  I sometimes use traditional WF lines like the peach Cortland 444 or SA steelhead taper with my single handers, especially in situations when I have enough room to form larger D Loops.  I have also utilized Scandi heads such as Airflo Rages and Scandi compacts and the old RIO AFS on my switch rods and shorter two handers.  I like "longer" lines like the Rio Windcutter, Airflo Delta Spey, or Beulah Aerohead on my 13.5'+ two handers.

In general, I tend to choose setups that match the size of the water I will be fishing.  Small streams call for single hand rods or a light switch rod.  Medium sized water usually calls for switch rods or shorter two handers.  Big water has me getting my biggest two handers out.  This logic of matching your setups to the size of the water works well most of the time.  However there are always exceptions, like those runs on big rivers with the fishy seam running close to shore that call for shorter casts that the big rod is overkill for, or those broad runs in smaller streams where the small rods just never have enough reach.  It's these exceptions that tempt me to burden myself with lugging an extra setup or two with me, but in the end, I usually find the benefits of keeping things simple and being mobile outweighs trying to impersonate a tournament bass fisherman with a full arsenal of rod/reel combos.

Another exception to the "matching your setup to the water logic" is when your mood just dictates what you feel like fishing with, regardless of where you are fishing.  This "mood logic" has often manifested when I have purchased a new toy.  An example is when I was just getting into the inexpensive Cabela's TLr switch rods:  I just loved that 11 foot 6 weight with a 350grain Ambush head, paired with my Hardy 3 7/8 Perfect.  I was having so much fun with that particular setup at the time, that I wanted to fish it everywhere, no matter what the size of the rivers I fished seemed to dictate.  In fact, I took that setup with me to a large BC river that fall and I got into most of my surface steelhead using it there.  I made the compact setup work on big water by fishing seams that I could reach.  There have been other times where I have made small rods work in big water, just because I felt like it, so sometimes it's best to just fish with what your mood leads.
My 11' 6wt Cabela's TLr did the job with this 33" surface grabbing  BC buck.

I have had some fellow anglers tell me that they only fish surface flies under "ideal" conditions such as in smooth tailouts in the shade of mornings and evenings.  While success with surface flies can certainly come in such places during low light periods, there are many other places and times where surface flies can produce.  I have fished with friends who are less obsessed with surface fishing than me, who have asked if I would fish on the surface on various pieces of water we came upon throughout a given day.  What I realized is that there is relatively little water that I would NOT fish a surface fly through!  Water types I tend to avoid include deep pools with little to no current, heavy rapids, and very shallow riffles with no cover or depth that could hold a steelhead.  I tend to look for water with a moderate current speed with some surface texture and some structure.  Having the sun on the water is not necessarily a deal breaker either, especially on water with a broken surface, so don't give up fishing on top just because conditions have brightened up.

One of my favorite places to fish surface flies is at the very top or head of  runs.  As a rapid or riffle begins to spread out to form a run, a narrow seam begins to form up high.  I have come to nickname that uppermost corner the "armpit" of the run.  I often position myself in the bottom of the rapid above the run so I can begin fishing short casts that swing into the armpit.  I have had steelhead sitting in water so shallow in that upper section that it seemed these steelhead  have had to turn sideways to come after my waker!
Fishing the "armpit"/upper corner of a run.  Photo by Todd Hirano
As I continue through a typical run, I always concentrate on the seam between the main current and the cushion of softer water on the inside.  The fishy seam generally widens while progressing down stream.  Sometimes the softer water on the inside of the main current can form a wide flat that can hold steelhead in multiple locations, especially if there are boulders that break up the flow.
Fishing the seam along the main flow.  Photo by Todd Hiirano

I generally cast into the main current and allow the fly to swing into the soft water on the near side.  I tend to make my casts as broadside or square to the current as possible, depending on current speed.  This results in swings that covers the most water and adds some speed to the fly.  In certain runs, especially on small water (as pictured above), I may even cast completely over the main flow and to the far side.  This causes the fly to briefly pause, then come speeding downstream until it begins coming across in the lower part of the swing.  I often find myself drawn to faster swings because they tend to elicit the most violent and aggressive rises from steelhead.  The hair-trigger response of a steelhead launching itself across the surface to crush your fly tends to leave a lasting impression!

On some pieces of water, the productive zone will continue until it culminates in a well defined tailout.  I tend to keep fishing deep into the tailout as steelhead sometimes hold in slots in the very bottom which is often assumed to be to shallow.  Some runs just continue to widen and slow until a big slow pool is formed.  In that case, I will fish down until the water gets too deep and slows to the point where the main current is no longer discernable.
Lower section of a run where the water deepens on the far side as noted by the darker green color and with boulders providing cover, this looks fishy to me.  Todd Hirano photo.
As noted above, I also fish surface flies in pocket water, especially in low water conditions on small rivers.  These types of places include the cushion in front of boulders, the convergence behind boulders, depressions that slow the current in heavy water, and the heads of miniature pools.  The technique of simply positioning yourself above suspected holding water and hanging your waking fly in the zone on a short line is often the only way to fish these compressed lies.  Allow your fly to weave with the current for several seconds in each spot and brace yourself for lightning fast takes at close range.
The whitewater convergence behind a boulder can sometimes hold small water steelhead.  Todd Hirano photo.

The head of a miniature pool where steelhead could be tucked right in the white water.  Todd Hirano photo.
So there you have it, a few tips and confessions from an everyday steelheader with an extreme passion for surface steelhead.  I hope that these simple suggestions can help those who are new to  chasing after the surface steelhead dream.  The rewards can be hard to come by and the catch 22 is that it is difficult to develop confidence in a method where feedback from steelhead is typically infrequent.  I suggest putting your subsurface gear away (at least temporarily) and fully commit to fishing the surface fly, especially during late summer and fall.  You may be pleasantly surprised.  You may even be lucky enough to find yourself on a "loaded run" where multiple surface friendly steelhead repeatedly  rise to your flies, giving you a glimpse of heaven.  Once you experience those initial surface steelhead encounters, your life may never be the same.  Those visions of surface steelhead attacks have a way of intruding in your everyday life for good.  Beware: friends and family may no longer recognize you when the surface steelhead affliction takes hold.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dry Fly Winter Steelhead

With all the fun I was having experiencing surface steelhead into early December,  I just couldn't get myself to stop fishing on top, even as winter steelhead season was definitely upon us.

It was a chilly 38 degree morning on December 14, 2018, but my homewater was still running at summer levels so I stayed with my summer gear and summer approach with a surface fly.  I started at the top of a favorite run and I was pleasantly surprised with a sudden aggressive rise to my green-butt yellow stimuwaker.   The steelhead was instantly hooked and taking off on it's first run.  I was anticipating that I hooked into another late hatchery summer run, but this steelhead seemed to fight with more determination than I'd expect from a tired hatchery brat.  As the steelhead drew closer I was able to see that it was not a large fish but that it seemed quite bright.  I  was then determined to land this steelhead so I could get a better look.  I wondered if it might even be late running wild steelhead.

I fought the steelhead carefully,  but with steady pressure.   I was eventually able to lead the steelhead into a shallow bay.  It was a bright hatchery hen in perfect form.   I took a few photos and rejoiced in the blessing of getting a second dry fly steelhead in December.  Water temperature was 44 degrees.

I later emailed a picture of the steelhead and the story of it's capture to Bill McMillan. Bill responded that he felt like the steelhead looked like a winter run which must have strayed up my way possibly from the Clackamas. At the time of encountering this steelhead, there were 3 non-finclipped winter steelhead counted that ascended Willamette falls.  Catching this steelhead on a dry fly was definitely like finding a needle in a massive haystack!

On December 30, 2018 I found myself on river that is better known for it's hatchery winter steelhead run and parades of sidedrifters that pursue them.  This is not among the popular winter steelhead fly swinging rivers, but as an extra opportunity to fish coincided with my better half's plans, I went for it.

I drove into a little town along the river and managed to find some river access up and down from a popular boat launch.   The water above the boat launch looked and fished well, but it was no surprise that I didn't find a steelhead that was willing to rise in the 44 degree water that was also showing some color.

I made my way to the water downstream of the boat launch and noted it to be running fairly briskly as it came out of the rapids below a long pool.  As I surveyed this run, I saw that there were two rocky outcrops on my bank that broke up the current and formed soft cushions downstream as the current evened out.   I fished the first bay and felt that it swung my surface fly nicely,  providing a miniture flat where a winter steelhead would have a break from the main flow.

I felt a fair amount of confidence and anticipation,  even in this unlikely location and under atypical surface steelhead conditions. There was a high water event the week before and the river was on a steady drop, so at least I had that on my side.

That first piece of water below the rock break didn't produce any excitement  so I proceeded down to the second outcrop to swing through the soft water below.

I had just recently purchased a 11' 3wt Vector trout spey that was on sale from my local Cabelas and balaced with a 200gr OPST Commando head and 50gr 10' floating trout tip. I was enjoying casting my purple and black Bivisiwang with this light setup.

I remembered that there are folks who are concerned with overplaying and tiring steelhead out with such a light rod.   I knew that as long as I was staying with my typical 8# or 10# maxima for tippet,  that I would still be able to fight steelhead aggressively with a low rod position and clamping down on my click/pawl reel.

As I settled into fishing the flows below that second break, I noted that the rock structure extended diagonally underwater towards mid river.   This made for cover and soft cushions where steelhead could hold.  As I fished through this juicy stuff I was imagining what it would be like to put the light rod to the test with a legit winter steelhead pulling on the other end. 

I made a cast across the break formed by the diagonal rock structure and as my Bivisiwang came past the bump of current, I suddenly saw the boadside form of a steelhead launching itself across the surface as it took my fly.  My line drew tight and the fight was on.

My chance to confirm my ability to quickly land a winter steelhead on a light trout spey presented itself quicker than expected! I lowered the rod as I tightened into the steelhead with my little 3 5/8 Perfect.  The steelhead made several short but powerful runs, but I kept as much preesure as possible on the reel to slow and tire the steelhead without breaking the 10# maxima tippet.

Within about 5 minutes, I had the steelhead near shore in a convenient shallow area. I was able to get a few photos while noticing that the steelhead was still very strong and fresh.

Getting 3 steelhead on surface flies in December has never happened to me before.   This has given me enough encouragement to fish on the surface full time through the rest of winter and beyond!  I hope to have more dry fly winter steelhead stories to tell in the coming weeks.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

December Dry Fly Steelhead

Dry Fly Steelhead in December, a first!  Photo by Todd Hirano
I have so much fun with pursuing steelhead on the surface that I have a hard time putting my surface flies away when winter steelhead season comes.  I generally switch gears to subsurface fishing with big irons swung on a dry line by the time December 1 arrives.  This is also when many winter steelhead rivers open for the season.

By this time, I generally stop fishing my homewater as winter rainstorms typically keep the middle fork Willamette running high and dirty.  This year has been an unusual exception.   Dry conditions have allowed my local ditch to stay at summer levels, so of course,  I have continued to fish it with summer methods, despite the cooler water.   Obviously, I am not always in touch with reality, but it's too late to change.

On this day (Sunday,  December 9, 2018), I was able to negotiate an extra day of fishing since my normal friday fishing day was cut short.  To make appearances of being a decent husband,  I came home early from fishing on Friday to drag the brand new 500lb hot tub my wife purchased from the garage where it was delivered,  to the back of the house where project management wanted it.  I felt like I earned some extra credit.

I elected to hit a coastal drainage in pursuit of winter steelhead like normal people do.  I fished hard from about 8:30am til about 2pm.  I readily got back into the flow of swinging my favorite Winter's Hopes on a full floating Beaulah Aerohead cast with my vintage Sage 7136.  I had an enjoyable time fishing through the overcast and light drizzles through the day.

By early afternoon, I had not received any chrome feedback so my mind wandered towards heading back towards home and trying for one last dry fly steelhead for the year on my homewater.  At the end of the last run, my line drew tight and the lively pulse of a fish was felt. Just as I thought that my plans to head homeward was being joyfully interrupted, I realized that my fishy encounter was smaller in scale than hoped for.  I stripped in the scrappy fighter and found it to be a perfect male cutthroat of about 15 inches. A respectable prize, but when a guy's mind runs on one track, expectations can become distorted.

After releasing  the hardy cutthroat, my focus returned to getting in some time on familiar runs close to home.  I made the drive back through overcast and intermittent drizzles.  As I rounded the bend to a favorite run,  I noticed a drift boat with gear fisherman anchored low in the water that I typically fish through.   I wondered "what could those guys be thinking fishing here today?"  Then I thought of what those gear guys might be thinking about a fly angler fishing through there in hopes of getting a steelhead on a surface fly today..

I figured to start fishing at the top of the run in spite the unexpected company on this unlikely day.  As I set up and began walking to the top of the run, the gear guys pulled anchor and of course,  they also fished through the lower run that I intended to fish as well.  I guess solitude is not a guarantee, even when one might assume folks would be focussing their attention elsewhere so late in the season.

I fished through until my swings were overlapping the area where my gear chucking friends were achored.  With less than 30 minutes left before dark,  I left for the lower run, never mind that the gear boat just fished through.  I was fishing the my usual foam waker with a couple tweaks:  two forward facing indicator posts - one black and one white,  tied on a #4 gamakatsu octopus hook.

Purple and Black "Bivisiwang" tied on #4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.  Photo by Todd Hirano
With the overcast and silvery/greyish glare on the water, the black post on my fly showed up best.  As I approached the bottom of the run, I could only occasionally pick out the black post of my fly in the rapidly dimming light.  With the cooler water,  I fished at a slower pace and strived for swings that lingered over likely water longer.  I was near the lower limit of the run when I saw and heard a splash in the distance and then I  felt a pull.  I realized that I raised a fish, but was it a steelhead and would it come back after feeling resistance?  The next cast went out cleanly and as I desperately sought to spot my fly in the near darkness, I faintly saw and heard another splashy rise in the same area.  I didn't feel any resistance as I continued to gently twitch my fly into the dangle.  I continued to be hopeful for the opportunity to confirm the identity of the rising fish and also that it might be the December dry fly steelhead I was after.

The third cast to this fish went out cleanly as my vintage Sage 7136 and Beaulah Aerohead did their job in executing a smooth double spey.  I twitched my waker through the swing and in the familiar location,  the same rise came, this time followed by solid resistance.   I instinctively swept the rod towards the bank and came tight to something that was definitely more substantial than the cutthroat I hooked a couple hours ago.  The creature fought doggedly and powerfully. It had enough authority to be immovable at times, but it eventually succumbed to steady side pressure and when it came closer to the bank, I was able to positively identify it as a steelhead. I was eventually able to pull the steelhead to the bank and contained it by kneeling down in the river to keep the steelhead between me and the bank as I took photos. (Water temp: 45.3 degrees)

What a unique surface steelhead season it has been!  I have gotten steelhead on the surface every month since May.  I am truly blessed by God beyond mere existence,  but blessed in exuberant abundance!

Bivisiwang cannot be seen as it is hooked in the tongue of this December Buck.  Tying my waker on the Gami Octopus hook proves to hold steelhead solidly.  Todd Hirano photo.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Best Laid Plans

A Peaceful Place.  Photo by Todd Hirano

Sometimes the best laid plans take unexpected turns.  After recently surviving a week in Disneyworld,  I was anxious to get back into the swing of things. As the weekend neared, another roadtrip was schemed.  Plans included meeting up with a new friend made through social media (Surface Steelhead tends to bring fanatics together).  This kind fellow recently discovered the thrills of surface steelhead and he was offering to show me around his homewater, a difficult offer to refuse.  As the weekend approached, I  was reminded of an appointment on my end which had me leaving town at midday rather than at the pre butt crack of dawn.  It also turned out that my new friend had prior commitments that he had forgotten about so this became a solo venture.

I hit the road,  but as I got a ways into my multi hour drive, traffic became an issue as well. Thoughts of arriving on the river by mid afternoon were reduced to the possibility of getting to a run just before dusk.  With the traffic delays, I thought of just getting settled in for the evening and setting my sights on fishing the following day, but the voices in my head never stop, saying things like "you might as well drive up there anyway, get the lay of the land, maybe even wet a line if there is a bit of daylight left".  Upon arrival at the river, it turned out that I was left with about a half hour of daylight to select a run to fish on a river I had only once briefly fished in 1997.  I had no real memory of the layout of this river so I was largely dependent on intel messaged from my new friend.

In the dimming light, I managed to scope a run that seemed to look fishable, but I had no sense of it's possibilities. I was not even sure I had arrived in an area my new friend had described.   I quickly fished a riffle leading into a bend pool and found as supected, that the flow quickly eddied out due to swirls formed by the inside of the bend.  I reeled up and surveyed the flows upstream.

With light quickly fading,  I jumped in my rig made a quick run a couple hundred yards upstream.   There appeared to be a narrow run with the main flow pushing along the far side.   The upper section seemed fast so I fished through quickly until I arrived in the lower half of the run.  The river widened and the flow spread out.  I was barely able to discern that there was good depth until the bottom began to rise near shore.  I saw some potential with this water but I felt the urgency of my time running out.

As I hurriedly fished down,  I could periodically make out the white foam post on my fly.  At dusk with my fly no longer visible,  I heard a splash near the end of a swing followed by a pull.  I was barely able to make out the surface disturbance in the near darkness.   After a second, it registered that I had encountered a steelhead, but I also know that often, when a steelhead feels unusual resistance from a tiny object waking in the surface, suspicions are raised and the game is over.  Never mind logic, another cast was made and in the same nearshore locale, another surface splash was heard and barely seen, followed by another firm pull.  My fly continued to the dangle as my system tensed with excitement and anxiety over whether this steelhead's second unusual encounter with a unmovable purple and black bug would have surely taught a cautionary lesson about going after weird flies.  The next cast went unanswered by Mr. Steelhead and I thought that my chances for a hookup went down the tubes.  I pondered my next move and figured a fly change would be difficult at best in the near darkness, so I decided to shorten up my cast by one strip, or about 3 feet.  The next cast went out with diminished hopes, but as my notorious foam fly swung from the deeper main flow towards the nearshore rise, the steelhead came back with another splashy rise, followed by a firm pull, but this time, what followed was a screaming 3 5/8" Perfect.

The steelhead took off on a series of runs and I initially thought it was a typical sized fish, but when it seemed to be able to do whatever it wanted, I realized it might be above average in size.   At one point the steelhead came toward me and my line totally went slack.  As I was recovering line, I resigned to feeling the sting of a lost fish, then the line suddenly came tight again and the fight resumed.   Consistent side pressure with my 10'6"  5wt switch ultimately got this beautiful steelhead to hand.

I was in awe at the sight of the broad shoulders and length of this steelhead that was larger than those that I normally encounter.  I was extremely happy to find success in such a small window in unlikely circumstances. Some days, I am surpremely blessed by these kinds of incidents and never take them for granted!

(I had fished the river the following day at a more leisurely pace with no success but had a chance to take water temperature readings.  My thermometer read 44 degrees in the morning and 45 degrees in early afternoon.  This was a warmer day than the day before, so the steelhead encounter described above would have occurred in water temperature no warmer than 45 degrees, considered relatively cool for surface fishing.  Sometimes steelhead like to break rules and persistence with the surface fly pays off.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Player

Solo camp.  Todd Hirano photo
For those that visit my blog from time to time, I must apologize for being  remiss in posting for over 6 months! I actually have a good "excuse" for being absent from my own blog - I've been fishing like a maniac (what's new, right).  The long days of summer put me into a frenzied state where I was fishing before and after work, not to mention on my days off and weekends.  My determination has been further fueled by the fact that this summer and fall have been producing some decent dry fly steelhead action.  However, not to complain, but all of my surface steelhead success has occurred on my homewater. I am ever so blessed and thankful to have dry fly steelhead opportunities 10 minutes from my home or work, but as is often the case with steelheaders, the grass always seems greener if I drive at least two hours away from home.

Now, being in the middle of fall and looking back on my road games, I have recalled perhaps raising a couple steelhead to the surface and very briefly feeling a pull on one of those rises.  I also hooked and lost what appeared to be a small one salt steelhead/large half pounder that I mistook as a trout so mostly stripped in until the hook pulled out.  All this amounts to a dismal record for all the hours driven and gas burned in my crazy pursuit of dry fly steelhead.

In spite of my poor road game record, I recently decided to make the multi-hour drive to one of those fall dry fly friendly rivers that flow east of Portland and west of Montana.  It was to be a solo overnight trip which would involve putting more miles on my faithful Geo Tracker (286,000+miles on the odometer and a leaking front crankshaft oil seal) and the risk of freezing my gonads off while sleeping on my cot in my thin walled tent.  The weather forecast only called for lows in the 40s at night so I hoped to have a chance at staying toasty as a marshmallow as I slept

Upon my arrival in mid afternoon,  the day was warm and bright so I decided to leisurely set up camp and ate a late lunch consisting of a tuna sandwich,  crackers, pepperoni and cheese (non keto, right?).  I then wadered up and pondered my game plan for the afternoon/eve.  Three runs are near camp so I would start at one where I found success before and then hit the others.

The first run fished well, but no steelhead made their appearance on the surface.   I fished the second run, again with no excitement provided by the steelhead.   By the time I finished fishing the second run, there was still ample daylight remaining.   I thought of taking a second pass through the run to fill the remaining 45 minutes of daylight in my typical never give up, diehard style, then I remembered that in my rushed packing routine, I forgot to bring my headlamp and lantern. I decided to go back to camp, eat more of the same junk food for dinner and then get situated for bed before darkness set in.

With the short days of fall, I had a long, lonely night ahead.  I turned in early and decided to trust the walls of my tent to protect me against any cougars, bears, or psycho deer or elk that might want to harass a lone Asian. Sleeping on a cot is nicer than sleeping on the ground,  but it is still not the same as my bed at home.  I tossed and turned,  periodically woke up and checked my watch.  All the while I kept thinking it felt cold for being in the 40s.  I also noted weird noises being made by critters outside during the night, but I tried not to think too much of what was causing them.  Hopefully, the racket was being made by harmless birds or overactive trolls, rather than some apex predator plotting my demise.

Morning came and I found that I didn't feel as rested as expected,  probably due to the cold and freaky noises I tried not to think too much about.  When I rolled out of the tent, I realized why the night seemed cold for being forecast to be in the 40s.  My waders were frozen solid as they were perched from the roof rack of the Geo and the Geo's windows were frosted over.

Since there was no point in rushing to the river under the frozen conditions, I leisurely broke camp and ate more junk food for breakfast.  In the meantime, I pried my waders off the roof rack and let them thaw while I blasted the Geo's heater on them.

When my Simms G3s thawed enough to be manipulated without breaking into pieces, I got suited up and realized that I forgot my winter gloves and cap at home as well.   Obviously, I have not gotten fully into the cold weather fishing drill after months of tropical fishing conditions.

I did my best to stay warm with all the layers that I brought,  along with my hoodie and rain shell as a windbreaker. My first steps across a little side channel allowed my boot laces and gravel guards to fully thaw out so I was able to fully synch myself together as I walked to my campwater run.

This run is classically configured,  with a nice head and broadening seam.  I felt like a steelhead could be holding anywhere from the very top, down to where the current began to tank.  I got into an easy rhythm as the quiet morning allowed smooth cack handed single speys with my lightweight Cabelas 10'6" 5wt switch and my newest favorite 3 5/8 Hardy Perfect.  The 330grain Rage head flew out with tight loops as it pulled out 10 strips of 25lb slickshooter with a satisfying jerk at the reel arbor at the end my better casts.

By the time I reached the bottom of the run,  I realized that no steelhead interrupted the bliss I was experiencing as I exercised my favorite equipment and latest version of my foam waker.  I pulled out my thermometer to take a water temperature reading, as if that would explain my ineffectual effort.   The thermo read 51 degrees, after the freezing night, not surprisingly, down from yesterday afternoon's 57 degrees.  Of course 51 degrees is still ideal for surface steelhead activity so maybe no steelhead were in the run or they weren't awake yet.

I arrived on the second run which is one where I have encountered surface steelhead in the past.  I started in the faster water leading into the head of the run so my swings would be covering the uppermost corner or "armpit" of the run.

As I began to get past the armpit and into the upper seam of the run, I remember feeling discouraged and thinking I would probably be chalking up another empty roadtrip to my season record.  I then prayed for a steelhead rise to my green butt yellow stimuwaker.  As I contemplated feeling guilty in praying for something I wanted as a selfish indulgence rather praying for something of noble need, I noticed a surface disturbance in the periphery of my daydreaming gaze.  Before I fully realized what happened,  the steelhead made another lunge at my fly as it swung through the seam along the main current.

My selfish prayer was promptly answered, proving that sometimes God even answers prayers of the self-absorbed!  I stayed calm and allowed my fly to settle into the soft water near the bank at the end of it's swing.  I made the same cast and the steelhead came back with a playful rise, clearly short of the fly.  I made another cast with no results.

I worried about the possibility of not bringing this steelhead back to the surface so I decided to take my time in tying on a different fly for a comeback presentation.   My new friend Adam Snyder had just gifted me with some Lambroughton style wakers so I tied one on with a Garoutte hitch.   I made the cast and watched for the fly on the swing. I could not spot the fly and realized it was being pulled under the surface.  When the swing was completed,  I stripped the fly in and applied some paste floatant to it.  On the next cast the moose haired waker was still being pulled under so a change was in order.

A size 10 purple and black wang was knotted on for the next comeback attempt. The little fly was quickly spotted when it splashed down in the main flow.  As the tiny waker came through it's swing into the near seam, a head appeared making a "slurpee" kind of rise, missing the fly.  The subsequent cast brought a similar rise and miss of the fly.  The cast after that brought no response.

By now, my system is in overload with excitement while also dealing with the anxiety of whether I would get this steelhead on the hook or be given the cold shoulder after being strung along for this cruel, crazy ride.

Next on the docket was a size 10 Royal Green wang that I normally use for trout skating.   I tried shortening up, in case my steelhead moved into the armpit of the run after all the commotion I was causing.   Nothing happened until I was back to casting with 8 strips of running line behind the Rage head.  The steelhead came back to the surface in the same place and nosed at the trout sized offering,  again missing the fly.  The repeat cast brought a boil behind the fly along the inside edge of the seam.  The next two presentations drew blanks and I feared that my window of opportunity was closing.

I remained hopeful and the only thing I could think of doing at that point was to tie on the original fly that drew that steelhead to the surface to begin with. The green butt yellow stimuwaker (GBYS) went back on the line along with another selfish prayer. The fly landed on the far side of the main flow and came across broadside as I gently twitched it along during it's swing.

As the bright posted circus on a hook came into the danger zone it was aggressively intercepted by a "big gulp".  I  soon felt tension on the line and I responded with a smooth lift of my rod.  The steelhead took off on a run then made a short jump and thrashed on the surface.   A few more runs followed and my little Perfect did its job of recovering line and slowing the steelhead down as I applied pressure to the spool face.

I eventually brought the modestly sized wild hen near the bank as I tailed it in the shallow water.  I was filled with joy and gratitude as I gazed down at the answer to my selfish prayers and exclaimed to myself  - God is good!
This player made for my first victory on the road for 2018.  Todd Hirano photo
After I got a few photos of my hard earned prize, she swam off with vigor, having had enough of my harassment.   I reflected in amazement of the thrill that this steelhead provided through coming back with 7 rises through 4 fly changes and finally eating the fly she originally rose to.

I love every surface steelhead encounter I am blessed to experience,  but those players that keep coming back through multiple fly changes until getting hooked are among the most memorable. The suspense that builds as one strategizes through the excitement of getting a series of comeback rises make my connections with players the highlights of my dry fly steelhead seasons.
Evidence of the comeback routine. Todd Hirano photo

Green Butt Yellow Stimuwaker opens and closes the deal.  Todd Hirano photo