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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Journey To Surface Steelhead Obsession - Inspirations by Bill McMillan

Promising Steelhead Water.  Photo by Todd Hirano
 You arrive at the final pool of the day as dusk approaches.  The river's brilliance overwhelms you in the glow of this mid September evening.  You've fished this pool many times and it has been the most consistent producer of steelhead rises for you over the course of time that you have fished this famous summer steelhead river.  As you approach the lower part of the run, you recognize the subtle break in the current that marks the hold where steelhead rises have come in the past.  You are comfortable in a nice casting rhythm where your skater is consistently reaching and swinging through the zone.

Your anticipation is high and when you reach the point where your skater swings over the familiar dimple of current, it happens:  a large explosion of water overtakes your fly and unbelievably, you feel nothing except a sudden rush of adrenaline.  You manage to keep your cool and allow the skater to continue swinging as you maintain a subtle twitch on the fly.  As your skater continues to swing a few more feet, another eruption at your fly occurs as it approaches the dangle.  Again, you are in total disbelief that your fly is not lodged in the mouth of the chrome attacker.   You allow the skater to settle to the dangle just in case a take might occur on the hang down.  After a few seconds go by, you are satisfied that the steelhead has returned to it's lie.

You take a breath to allow your nerves to settle and then you strip in as you prepare for your next cast.  You pray that you can maintain your calm to be be able to make another clean delivery back to the zone. The reverse snap T goes out briskly and turns over nicely in the dimming evening light.  The skater swings through the grid and again, a large rise occurs at the fly in the same location, yet there is no tactile indication following the violent encounter.  Likewise, the follow up lunge comes a second later and your skater bobs back to the surface and continues through the swing, unscathed.  By now your nerves are a tangled mess as you can't imagine how it is possible that you have not connected with the majestic creature after those massive, aggressive attacks at your fly.

You tell yourself to pull it together as you gather your senses and make your next cast, again praying for a clean turnover.  As hoped, the reverse snap T goes out with the loop of line unfolding nicely over the evening flow and the skater is back over the lie.  A couple seconds into the swing the fly suddenly disappears in a massive rise that somehow seems even more definitive than those that preceded it and then all !@#$% breaks loose.  The line comes tight in an instant and your reel is making a high pitched scream.  The next thing you know, backing is flying out through the guides of your little vintage 8' 7wt glass rod.  It seems like the steelhead will not be stopping anytime soon and just when it appears that it will be breaking over into the pool below, the steelhead stops and allows you to slowly gather the backing and running line.  You get part of the Ambush head back in the guides and then the steelhead takes off on another blistering run as hot and long as the first one.  The steelhead again appears to stop just short of the break and you manage to methodically regain your backing and most the the fly line.  The steelhead briefly holds out from you then it takes off on a third, shorter run.  You sense the steelhead tiring and as you slowly gain ground on this powerful prize, the bright glow of the steelhead can be seen, not 10-15 feet off the bank.  You feel a sense of awe and fear as you catch a glimpse of what appears to be a large, bright hen steelhead in the mid teens range.

This is a steelhead much larger than you are typically used to seeing and you are in sensory overload as you take it all in.  The movements of the steelhead start to slow and you begin to feel like you might actually have a chance of landing the beast.  Just as you begin visualizing how you will bring this steelhead to hand, it makes a quick flip and turns.  As you brace for another run, your skater pulls out of the mouth of the grand fish.  The sting of disappointment comes over you, but you somehow start laughing as you find humor in the irony in losing something you wanted so badly.  All you can do is pause as time seems to be standing still and you realize you can feel your heart beating in your chest.  Finally, you gather yourself and look up at the grandeur of this beautiful place set against the evening sky.  As you gaze up at the heavens, you are taken by feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being so blessed to experience such an incredible thrill that gives all meaning to your life as an angler.

The quest for surface steel tends to draw me to beautiful places.  Todd Hirano photo
Experiences such as the one just described are what I live for in my pursuit of steelhead on the surface.  I have to admit that the joys of surface steelhead have become an obsession for me.   The word obsession has been defined as "an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind" (thanks Google). When it comes to seeking steelhead rising to surface flies, you could say the term obsession fits me to a T. I find myself fishing surface flies just about exclusively from late spring through late fall. I even fish surface flies for the great majority of the season during winter and early spring.  I daydream about steelhead surface attacks at work, at home, while driving, while waiting in line at WalMart and sometimes even when my wife Wendi is talking to me about something important (like things I should get done around the house).

I've been under the grip of surface steelheading for the past twenty eight years or so.  My fascination with steelhead dry fly fishing started when I began reading Bill McMillan's famous book Dry Line Steelhead in the late 80's/early 90's and when I viewed footage of steelhead taking surface flies in Lani Waller's famous 3M videos.  Watching Lani Waller skate up steelhead on the Dean and Babine got me excited about trying for steelhead on the surface, but it was Bill McMillan, through his writing in Dry Line Steelhead that gave a much deeper meaning to pursing steelhead with surface methods.

Bill McMillan's descriptions of the exhilaration and excitement that comes from the experience of raising steelhead to the surface resonated deeply in me even as a novice steelhead fly fisher who was yet to even hook a steelhead by any fly fishing method.  As I read and re-read Dry Line Steelhead, I came away with the realization that fishing for steelhead with a fly was about much more than trying to catch the maximum number of steelhead by whatever means it took.  Coming to such a realization early in my steelheading life was of great benefit as I would come to experience for myself that fishing for steelhead with a swung fly is rarely a game that yields big numbers and non-stop action. The fishing ethic instilled in me through Dry Line Steelhead had prepared me for a game of persistence and perseverance in a pursuit that can yield random, yet rare and often scarce rewards.

Just as my early interest in surface steelheading began to peak, my family and I moved from Oregon back to my childhood home of Kauai, Hawaii in July 1990 and we remained in Hawaii until 2009, with a brief move to Bozeman, Montana from  1993-1994.  This meant a nearly twenty year time frame living far away from steelhead country with at most two trips per year in pursuit of steelhead.
Desert steelhead that took my skater in a large broadside rise.  Todd Hirano photo
In 1995, a trip to BC was planned where I met up with my father in law Jim Jones and his friend Toby on a famous Skeena tributary.  During that trip, I experienced my first steelhead caught on a fly, which was also my first steelhead taken on a surface fly, which was also my first steelhead taken on a two handed rod (Sage 9140).  I was able to land the next 5 consecutive steelhead that I hooked on the surface during the course of that trip, along with raising many others.  The thrills I experienced in getting into those inaugural surface steelhead was indescribable and my fate was sealed as an obsessive surface steelheader at that point.

During that initial trip to BC, my readings of Dry Line Steelhead replayed in my mind and gave me confidence through my unsure beginnings in trying to get steelhead on the surface.  I was able to manage not ripping the fly away when steelhead would suddenly appear with a massive explosion to my waking fly and I persisted with the surface fly even during spells involving many unanswered casts and swings.

Misty Morning on a BC river where surface steelhead await.
Upon returning to home to Hawaii from my trip to Steelhead Paradise, I was brimming with excitement from those initial surface steelhead encounters.  I felt a strong connection to the images of surface fishing as conveyed by Bill McMillan through his chapters in Dry Line Steelhead and to have been blessed with my own experiences of what Bill had written about forged deep emotions within me.

I mustered up the courage to write to Bill, care of Amato Publications, to thank him for the inspiration he had provided me through his writing and to share stories of my initial surface steelhead experiences in BC.  To my surprise, I received a letter back from Bill about two weeks later!  I was impressed by the humble and unassuming words of a man that I look up to and so dearly respect.  There was not even a hint of any kind of celebrity tone in Bill's letter.  It was evident that Bill took the time to write a thoughtful response full of encouragement and appreciation.  Bill's warmth and kindness came through in that letter, which made my regard for him run even deeper.

In subsequent steelhead trips from my former Hawaii home to BC, Oregon, and Washington, I still persisted with the surface fly even in spite of those trips being infrequent and involving long distance travel and financial expense.  I managed to get into several more steelhead on surface flies during those long distance trips to steelhead country, but I was occasionally questioned about my sanity with remaining committed to a generally lower percentage method under circumstances where most normal folks would want to maximize their chances of encountering the chrome prize.  The only possible answer to such questions........obsession.

I returned to live in Oregon in 2009 when our family settled in Springfield.  Just prior to moving back to Oregon, I was able to re-establish contact with Bill and we have regularly stayed in touch.  We have become good friends and I feel ever so blessed to have a connection with my surface steelheading mentor.  We have communications about steelhead conservation issues and of course we also share stories about surface fishing for steelhed.  It is so great to see and hear from Bill today, the same level of excitement about steelhead rises, just as he conveyed back in the day when he wrote his famous articles on the subject.  My friends Adrian Cortes, Steve Turner and I have also been able to visit Bill at his home for the past few years as we travel north to BC each fall.  Our visits with Bill are always enriching and memorable, where a few hours can pass by as we thoroughly enjoy Bill's company.
My Mentor and Steelheading Icon.  Photo by Steve Turner

Bill McMillan in his study that he refers to as the "Inner Sanctum"  Photo By Steve Turner

Since returning to live in Oregon, I have since had regular access to steelhead rivers and my commitment to fishing surface flies continues to be unwavering.  I can go through significant periods of searching and waiting, punctuated only by the occasional interruption from an aggressive surface steelhead, but I find those rare interruptions more than worth waiting for!  I just can't get those images of surface steelhead attacks out of my mind.

Over the years, I have communicated the thrills of surface steelheading through some of my posts on fly fishing forums like Spey Pages, on my blog "Dry Line Steelhead - Oregon", and of course through conversations with my fishing friends and acquaintances.  There seems to be a rising interest is surface steelheading in recent years which has been so great to see as I have felt like a lone ranger in the past with my unusual commitment to fishing surface flies.  I was accustomed to getting puzzled or even unbelieving looks from fellow steelheaders as I talked of the thrills I was experiencing with bringing steelhead to the surface.  At other times, I have even gotten some angry responses or been accused of feeling "superior" when I have spoken of my surface steelhead passion.  I am glad that in the current steelheading culture, with surface steelheading being more in the mainstream, I am more frequently seen as a harmless eccentric who is just stubborn and single-minded.

Since my early experiences with the thrills of surface steelhead, I find it difficult to fish subsurface if there is even remote chance that I could bring a steelhead to the top.  My reasoning is that one's chances of getting a steelhead on the surface are greatly reduced if one is fishing a wet fly.  This may sound snobbish to some, but it is just a matter of a guy doing what he likes, never mind that being more versatile will result in more steelhead encounters.  Another bit of my skewed logic:  Many people adapt their methods to suit prevailing conditions, but I prevail until conditions suit my method.  Another question to ponder:  Would you rather experience the subtle hesitation of a strike indicator or the surface explosion to a waker??

I also realize that experiencing some success with getting steelhead on surface methods doesn't push every one over the top like it has with me.  I actually know of people who have experienced some surface steelhead success, think it's great, then happily go back to fishing wets/tips if the fishing is slow or if they just feel like it.  Of course there's nothing wrong with that, but in my mind I may be thinking things like "what do you mean you are giving up on the waker, the river's not frozen over yet and there's at least 6 inches of vis".

My original battered copy of Dry Line Steelhead, held together with packing tape and binding glue.  Todd Hirano photo
It is great thing when a person's hero or mentor lives up to the vision we have of them - this has certainly been the case with Bill McMillan.  Bill continues to be the humble, unassuming person I was impressed with in that letter I received in 1995.  When speaking to Bill you would immediately feel comfortable and welcome while being greeted with warm, sincere conversation.  Bill and I continue to have spirited discussions about our respective fishing experiences and of course we also talk about current issues impacting our beloved wild steelhead.  Bill has even accepted some of my crude flies (even some tied with foam), fished them, and caught steelhead on them - a great honor for a purely functional tyer such as myself!

The surface methods that Bill inspired form the fabric of who I have become as an angler.  However, I am thankful that Bill's passion for steelhead fly fishing birthed  possibly his greater passion: the protection and conservation of wild salmonids.  Through those influential chapters in Dry Line Steelhead, Bill taught me about significant conservation issues.  In those early years in my steelheading life, Bill's writing opened my eyes to the negative impacts of intensive hatchery management on most of our steelhead rivers.  Up to that time, a steelhead was a steelhead to me, whether wild or hatchery, and I didn't realize that hatchery steelhead could be harmful to native stocks.  Bill was ahead of his time when he brought this controversial information to light to the fishing public in the early 70s.

Bill has spent most of his adult life working tirelessly in scientific study in the name of protecting wild steelhead.  Even though Bill retired as the president of the board of the Wild Fish Conservancy in 2011, he continued, up until just recently, to be actively involved in ongoing studies on wild salmonids, especially in the Skagit basin. He has conducted extensive spawning surveys in the local spawning tributaries near his home and the data he has compiled have been showing signs of wild steelhead recovery with the cessation of  hatchery plants in the Skagit, beginning 2014.   Bill has generously shared his scientific documents with me and he has kept me informed of current issues with steelhead conservation.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Bill as my fishing life is truly inspired by his writing, methods, and conservation work.  My fishing style and ethics can be primarily traced to Bill as a singular source.  As a result, I fish a dry line pretty exclusively.  I primarily fish surface flies in the summer and fall and continue with the dry line throughout the winter and spring, using heavy irons or lightly weighted patterns.

I must extend many thanks to Bill for all he has contributed to the sport of steelhead fly fishing and for his years of conservation activism and dedicated scientific study aimed at educating fisheries managers and the public alike in the name of protecting wild steelhead.  His influence has had a profound impact on me and my generation of steelhead fly fisherman and we are all better protectors and stewards of our resources because of him.  Most of all, I am so thankful to have Bill as a friend and mentor who has far exceeded the visions and expectations any student of steelhead fly fishing could have - for this I am ever grateful.

Visiting with Bill on the Skagit beach fronting his home.  Steve Turner photo.

A chunky North Umpqua hatchery hen that took my skater as it ripped across a riffle on a broadside cast that I erringly cast "too far upstream".  The beauty of the steelhead surface rise just never gets old.  There is no greater thrill for me than when my waking fly suddenly disappears in a massive explosion of water, during a broadside shark attack, in a big gulp, or in a toilet flush.  The riseforms are always unpredictable and unforgettable.  I have my favorites and in general, the more aggressive the rise, the better I like it.  Although I would never pass on those quieter gulps, I tend to fish my surface flies on relatively fast swings with casts made as broadside to the flow as the currents allow and these brisk swings seem to elicit the most viscous surface attacks.  Sometimes a casting error or the wind may even blow my cast a bit in an upstream orientation, causing my fly to whip down and across stream at a frightening pace.  I have had some exciting rises on these fast swings where steelhead have literally launched themselves across the surface to keep my little hair and foam intrusion from escaping.  The take home:  don't worry about mending!  Todd Hirano photo

Multiple fly changes eventually brought a stubborn BC steelhead back.  It ate a black/blue little wang.
 Perhaps the greatest surface steelheading thrills come when one encounters a "player".  In this scenario, an agitated steelhead may boil at your surface fly and miss.  As long as the angler does not react with a bassmaster hook set, this angry steelhead my come back and miss multiple times as the fly continues to track to the dangle on the swing.  Subsequent casts may bring the steelhead back with continued "misses".  The angler's nerves will typically be in tatters by this point, but if Mr. Steelhead stops rising, changing to a different surface fly (maybe smaller, darker) will sometimes bring a player back for more.  The mantra for any beginner at chasing surface steelhead should be "do nothing" when a steelhead rises to the fly.  This cat and mouse game often ends up with the steelhead determined enough to come back to the fly with a rise that leaves no doubt of what will happen next - the line snaps tight, your reel is screaming and a leaping chrome form appears with your heart beating in your throat! Adrian Cortes photo.

Adrian Cortes raises a steelhead multiple times in a pocketwater hold and briefly hooks it on the fifth rise.  Todd Hirano photo.

Little Wang skater.  Todd Hirano photo.

I have been honored that a waking/skating fly that I developed in the name of pure function  has been enjoyed and utilized by others.  My unusual fly got the name "Little Wang" when an early prototype was shown to steelhead guide Jeff Hickman by my friend Steve Turner.  Jeff apparently commented about the foam "visibilty post" that I utilize on my pattern saying "it looks like a little wang".  Like it or not, the name has stuck.  I feel most confident with surface fishing when I can see my fly and when my fly stays on top through most surface currents that I may encounter.  My fly was designed with these needs in mind, I just should have came up with a name sooner!

Spreading the Gospel:  Adrian Cortes tying a greaseliner in hand along the banks of a BC river.  Photo by Steve Turner

There are times where I have felt pretty extreme with my passion for surface steelhead.  Thankfully, I have found some like-minded company in recent years with my good friend Adrian Cortes.  Adrian and I became friends through online fishing forums including Speypages and of course Adrian is well known for his outrageous talent in tying beautiful classic Atlantic Salmon flies in-hand, in the way of old school ghillies of days gone by.   Adrian is a prolific donor to the Fly Fishing Collaborative, where his museum quality classics help in the FFC's mission in saving children from human trafficking.

When I first started fishing with and regularly communicating with Adrian sometime around 2012, he was happily tying and fishing his classics and finding much satisfaction in getting into steelhead with patterns developed in prior centuries.  As I posted up stories of my surface steelhead experiences and talked of the possibilities of surface fishing with Adrian, his enthusiasm and curiosity began to grow.  Adrian even experienced some surface hookups on a famous Oregon summer steelhead river in  the summers of 2013 and 2014, but it wasn't until our trip to a famous BC river in fall 2014 that his obsession began take firm hold of his entire being.

Adrian, Steve Turner and I traveled to Skeena country in September 2014 and we were greatly blessed that our destination river was fishing well with some runs producing multiple rises and surface hookups for each of us over the course of the week we were there.  I had mentioned to Adrian of seeing Harry Lemire fishing this famous river during my first visit there in 1995.  With Mr. Lemire being a primary inspiration of Adrian's in hand tying of classics, Adrian thought to honor Mr. Lemire's legacy by tying up a greaseliner in hand to try out.

On the first day of our trip, Adrian encountered his first hookup on the greaseliner on a slow moving pool. In rhythm with the flow, the rise was slow and Adrian thought he missed the fish, until a few seconds later, when his line came tight and his reel was screaming! Over the remaining course of the week, Adrian encountered many more rises and hookups on the classic Lemire fly and his fate as an obsessed surface steelheader was sealed.  It was great to witness such a transformation!!

Even with the beautiful classics that Adrian ties, he consistently fishes, with great success, classic Lemire surface flies like the Greaseliner, Thompson River Caddis, or Fall Caddis.  Adrian has been known to refuse tying on a wet fly, even when he knows that the subsurface presentation would be a sure fire method to hook the steelhead he knows are present in the local lies he knows so well on his homewater.  In summer and fall, Adrian has gotten to the point where if he can't get them on top, then he doesn't want them at all.  Snobbish guy??  Nah, I think he is just obsessed.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Manic Muddler by Keith Tymchuck (Skater Of The Month - March 2018)

The idea for the Manic Muddler was born during one evening of tying with Todd, in front of a Coleman lantern, at a camp table in the Susan Creek campground on the NU.  That camp table session resulted in a prototype tied with red Cactus Chenille and dyed black deer hair, material I pilfered from Todd's box.  I lost the original fly first thing the next morning but the idea was set in my head.  Once home,  I ordered some blue and hot orange Cactus Chenille and some purple deer hair.  My next efforts resulted in the pattern you see now and a blue/purple one which seemed way too gaudy and was never fished.  A week later, on the first morning of my next sojourn to the NU, I tied on the orange version, promising myself that I would swing it all morning and then through the evening.  About 9:30, fishing the Swamp Creek run in bright light, a spunky little hen made an aggressive grab just as the fly was nearly swung out. She took off dead down stream but soon enough she was brought to my hand. My love affair with the MM was born.  The hottest NU fish I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know came to the Manic Muddler two summers ago.  You had to be there, my descriptions do that amazing fish no justice.  I hope you can duplicate the good luck I have had this pattern.  Tail:  4 strands of hot orange Krystal Flash.  Body: Silver tinsel (oval or flat) then 3 or 4 wraps of hot orange Cactus Chenille.  Make sure you leave plenty of room for the deer hair which is spun on then. The head is clipped.  I always fish the MM with a hitch.  By the way, the flies in the photo sit atop a fly box my daughter Blair gave my for Christmas.  It was custom made, with a map of the North Umpqua laser-engraved on the top.  A very cool gift!

(Thanks to my good friend Keith Tymchuck for sharing this piece.  Keith and I are regular fishing companions during winter and summer.  Keith is also one of my fishiest friends - he somehow gets steelhead when no one else can.  Keith and I met through the Speypages forum and he is a regular contributor there.  Lookup him up as "Moethedog", you will see more of his fishy creations in the fly tying forum there.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dad's Rod by Rick Fielder

Dad's Rod

It's been a year and a half since my dad passed away and I was lucky enough to inherit his steelhead fly rod: a beautiful 9 foot 3 inch Orvis Advantage 7 wt. with a walnut reel seat spacer.  He paired it with a Hardy Zenith and a Scientific Angler's 8 weight steelhead taper line.  The rod casts like a dream and the one weight heavier line helps the rod load perfectly and turn over bushy steelhead dries that my dad loved to fish.  At his death, I brought the rod home and placed it, in its tube, on pegs over my fly tying bench.  The reel was placed in its leather pouch in an open cubby just in front of my tying vice. These two cherished objects haunt me in both a wonderful and bitter-sweet way.

Each time I sit down to tie I see the rod and reel and am immediately flooded with memories. Steelhead on the Umpqua, warm summer days swinging small wets on the Roque River in Southern Oregon, casting in the wind on Deschutes riffles with the August sun pounding down on us. What great times we shared.  The camp food, the lazy days, the beauty of it all were made better as we shared the fellowship of a cold beer and talked of our dreams and the events of the world.  We spoke of baseball, of philosophy and art, of teaching children, and of our mutual love for fly fishing. The world didn't seem so harsh when I was with him and we were on the river. These events are forever etched in my mind.

Sometimes, when I see dad's rod I flash back to my boyhood and my dad teaching me to drift Velveeta cheese baited gold treble hooks on hand cut willow rods with 10 foot of 4 pound leader in small streams.  I remember crouching down and putting the "sneak" on a 20 foot long current seam as it split a boulder.  Dad showed me how to drop my offering in at the head of the current, dead drift it around the rock into the middle of the run, and lift it toward the surface at the tail out. It was a sure fire method in those mountain creeks of Northern California in Humboldt County back in the 1960's. The native rainbows were feisty fighters and willing to "take the bait" enough to keep an 8 year old "Huck Finn in the making" looking to fish-up a big one.

Those simpler "willow rod" days, and listening to dad as he taught me life lessons while sunning on a remote stream bank taught me to love "river time" and nature and I've held fast to these guide posts throughout my lifetime. These experiences have influenced my existence and have been the foundation from what I've built my fly fishing life and have forged my values. Clean water, fresh air, honesty and truth, along with quiet reflective times are what I'm all about.

That Orvis rod has a life of fishing memories within it and those memories live in my mind and guide me each day. They live as I hope the man who lived them does in some alternate place- in the spiritual world. Dad's rod is a spiritual totem from which I draw energy to face life's challenges. It guides me to excitement, exploration, pursuit of beauty, and happiness. It emanates pleasure, security, and fun. I am blessed to have it resting above me as I tie flies. It transports me to a place so innocent and wonderful that I'm brought to tears of eternal gratitude.

Thanks Dad, thanks for sharing the spirituality and grace one receives when fishing. You may be gone, but your rod is here. It and the memories it holds within its cork and slender graphite help me live. Dad, I remember, and since I do- you will always live. Your rod is my hope and your reel is my song. I only hope I can pay your gifts forward. I look to the day we can talk and exist together in the alternate space-the spiritual place-I have so much to say and share.

Rod Fielder's Inspiration Was Zane Grey 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Skater Of The Month: February 2018 - The Copper Top

This month's featured skater is yet another variation of my surface pattern. I utilized copper Krystal Flash, copper Ice Dub, copper Lagartun flat braid, and black foam.  When I viewed the finished fly, I thought of the famous copper/black Duracell batteries we all use and named it the Copper Top.   I will surely test this version when spring us upon us and surely into summer and fall.

CONTRIBUTORS WANTED:  If you have a favorite surface steelhead fly and a story to go with it, please contact me at   I always love posting up other folks' flies and stories since continued pics of my fly has got to get old.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Dry Line Swing in Winter

Casting a Winter's Hope on a dry line.  Photo by Steve Turner 
Bright winter buck taken on a 5/0 Winter's Hope swung on a dry line.  Todd Hirano photo

When I first took up fly fishing for steelhead in the late 80's, the common wisdom for pursuing winter steelhead was to use a sinking shooting head or sink tip line.  I bought into the hype and purchased some of the sinking lines available at the time and found them a pain to cast, but accepted that as part of the winter steelhead game: this game is supposed to difficult, afterall.

It was during those early days as a novice steelhead fly fisher that I began peeking at a copy of Bill McMillan's classic book Dry Line Steelhead sitting on the bookshelf of the Kaufmann's Streamborn fly shop in Tigard, Oregon in 1989.  I was working a minimum wage job at the time so I put off purchasing  the book so I could afford the bare essentials with tackle and fly tying materials to keep me on the water.  A few years later, my dear wife Wendi purchased a copy of Dry Line Steelhead for me as a Christmas gift.

Along with the chapters on surface methods for steelhead, the chapters on utilizing the dry line throughout winter captured my attention.  I was fascinated with the prospect of fishing all winter with a floating line!  Bill's descriptions of using the "deep wet fly swing" with his graceful and elegant Winter's Hopes tied on big irons filled my mind with romantic images of fishing winter rivers with the fluid grace of the dry line and hooking into winter steelhead in such a gentlemanly manner.

Some Hope.  Photo by Todd Hirano
The only problem with my perfect fantasy of dry line winter swinging was that I had moved from Oregon back to my childhood home of Kauai, HI from 1990 to 2009, which provided a minor 19 year interruption in my plans!  Upon arriving back in Oregon in 2009, I began hitting winter rivers with regularity and subsequently became fully committed to fishing the dry line swing throughout the coming winter steelhead seasons.

I have been extremely blessed to have been able to regularly communicate with Bill McMillan directly over the years and even more blessed that we have become friends.  Bill had mentioned to me that when the old Partridge code M hooks that he tied his Winter's Hopes on were discontinued, he began fishing other non-traditional flies for his dry line winter fishing.  Speaking of non-traditional flies, I began experimenting with tying bead headed MOALs (leech pattern) in 2009 and offered some to Bill and he actually accepted some of my crude ties.  It wasn't long before I heard back from Bill that he began hooking into his local winter steelhead on them!  I figured if MOALs were good enough for my mentor, then they were good enough for me.

Hefty winter buck taken on a red/orange MOAL dwarfs single hand 7wt.
Despite my initial doubts, uncertainties, and second guessing while utilizing the method, I got my first few dry line winter steelhead on MOALs tied with a 1/4" bead and about 3.5" in overall length.  I was thrilled with my hard won dry line winter successes and with each dry line steelhead encounter came more confidence.    My next goal was to get winter steelhead on the traditional Winter's Hope and in subsequent seasons I have been able to attain that goal of getting winter steelhead on the famous pattern from size 5/0 down to 2/0.  I was able to luck into some old stock Partidge code Ms in the large sizes and have been carefully rationing their use since they are no longer produced.   I have also taken dry line winter steelhead on simple, sparse, marabou intruder style patterns and a simple marabou/rabbit strip pattern called the Samurai as well.

Bright Winter Hen taken on Black Friday 2013 on a simple rabbit/marabou fly named the Samurai.  Photo by Todd Hirano
Bill McMillan was utilizing a traditional double taper line and single hand rods up to 10' in length in the days his articles on the method were written in the early 70's.  Bill has since been using two handed rods and windcutter style lines in recent years for the winter dry line swing.  I initially used two handed rods and double taper or windcutter lines in my early winter dry line attempts as well.  The longer rods and lines made setting up the dry line swing a breeze with easy back mending and line control advantages as well.

I most often fish winter rivers in the medium to small range so in 2011, I began a passion with utilizing vintage single hand glass rods in the 8-9' range.  I had also discovered the ease and utility of Wulff Ambush lines during that time.  The short, heavy head on the Ambush lines make single hand spey casting a delight and they match old glass rods especially well.  Of course using a short head line on shorter single hand rods eliminated the ability to set up the dry line swing with back mends so I adapted the Ambush line to the dry line swing by using what Dec Hogan has referred to as a "pull back" mend.  The cast is made cross stream and as soon the the line lands, the rod is lifted and the rear of the head is pulled back in a diagonal, upstream orientation.  Some additional line can be fed into the drift to allow the fly to sink, and/or the angler can take steps downstream during the swing to allow the fly to stay deep for the greatest portion of the presentation as possible.

As Bill McMillan noted in his writing on the subject, the method does require "editing" water one chooses to fish.  In other words, the winter dry line swing will not fish all the water that guys with indicators or swinging sinktips will be able to cover.  The method works best in runs with a moderate current speed where the fly is able to gain some depth and maintain that depth for the maximum amount of the time during the swing before currents pull the fly to the surface towards the dangle.  This is the primary reason that the winter dry line swing will rarely net as many hookups as indi fishing or sinktip swinging:  your fly is simply in the zone for a smaller proportion of the time compared to other methods.

On the flip side, there are times and places where the winter dry line swing has advantages over the sinktip equipped angler.  An example is were a soft cushion forms close to the near shore.  A guy with a tip will swing his setup through the heavier main current and be fine, but when the sinktip comes into the softer water, the angler may have to strip in before hanging up on the bottom.  In this situation, the dry line angler is able to allow his fly to safely swing all the way to the dangle without fear of hanging up and sometimes winter steelhead like to hang out in that soft water close to shore.

An example of the above scenario comes to mind when I fished with my good friend Craig Coover a few years ago.  We hit a local coastal river for a quick afternoon session and we found ourselves on a nice run there the main flow pushed hard towards the far bank which was lined with a rock wall.  I started at the upper section and found it a bit fast for the dry line.  Craig was fishing the mid section of the run from a small clearing he found through the bankside brush.  I looked longingly at the water Craig was fishing as I noted how the flow transitioned very nicely from the main flow to a soft inside cushion.

Craig is a very good fisherman and he is literally a "vacuum cleaner" with his sinktip setups that he fishes with much skill.  Craig had thoroughly fished the middle water from his casting station and came up empty.  However, despite Craig's "barometer" indicating there were no fish there, I decided to try fishing the same water anyway after Craig moved to fish the bottom of the run.  I wanted to see how the water fished with the dry line for future reference on return trips to this run.  
I found Craig's water to fish the dry line extremely well.  This flow was basically a "self mender".  All I had to do was cast cross stream and the current did the rest.  This water had the perfect feel for the dry line: moderate speed, even flow, and decent depth.  One of the indications of the "feel" I like is when the current is just lightly pulling against the head during the swing, which translates to a soft tension on my index finger as I lightly hold the running line against the cork.  After several casts where the Ambush head and a few strips of running line were out, my 4/0 Winter's Hope came towards the dangle on a nice slow swing.  A quick yank came next and I was fast to a bright hen that I eventually managed to get to the bank in spite of the cramped quarters of the jungle behind me.  

I was surprised at hooking into a steelhead in water Craig had just fished, but it later dawned on me that I likely was able to swing my fly closer to the near shore with the dry line presentation and had actually fished water that Craig had not touched with his sinktip.  Other areas where the winter dry line swing shines is where the flow is too shallow and soft for guys with tips to fish effectively. 
Classic Dry Line water.  Photo by Todd Hirano
 Fishing without the mechanical advantage of a sinktip can seem like too much of a sacrifice to many, but for those up for a new challenge in winter steelheading, the dry line swing can bring great rewards with the rare successes giving a great sense of accomplishment.  Utilizing the dry line swing in winter is very satisfying for me because when success comes, I know I have overcome great odds.  As it is, winter steelhead are tough to come by for most of us so why make a tough game even tougher?  As Tom Hanks has said:  "It's supposed to be hard, if it were easy, everyone would do it".  Makes me wonder if Tom Hanks was a dry line winter steelheader.

My first winter steelhead taken on a classic Winter's Hope.  Todd Hirano photo

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Muddler Minnow....

The Official Skater of the South Lima Steelhead Society.
By Richard C. Harrington

Years ago (OK, years and years), the Seth Green Chapter of Trout Unlimited, in Rochester, New York, was the sponsoring organization of the New York State Trout Forum, (a clave before any of us had ever heard of a clave). Poul Jorgenson was one of the featured presenters. He sat and tied a beautiful Sir Conrad (which I snagged later at the auction), demonstrated a two-feather mayfly pattern, then answered a few questions. He had a few minutes left, and said that he had a fly he liked to use to demonstrate his emphasis on proportion and the use of squinting to check those proportions. It was a Muddler Minnow, or more accurately, a variant. It was nothing but the deer hair head and collar, spun on a hook, then trimmed to a sculpin-ish head shape, with the longer collar hairs flowing off the back, giving a pretty good impression of life.

I loved that fly. At the time I was fairly obsessed with fully dressed salmon flies, and was a big Jorgensen junkie, referring to his book constantly in my tying. But the simplicity of that fly, the emphasis on form, appealed to me. Later that week I whipped up a few and stuck them in my box. At the same event, we had Joe Humphries in attendance, and after a parking lot casting challenge/demonstration early the next morning, we were visiting, and he mentioned that when streamer fishing, one of his favorite flies was a Muddler, and he felt it fished much better if he put a few in a vial of water the night before, so the heads were pre-soaked, causing the fly to sink immediately once he was on the water. 

Oh, man. Man, oh, man, oh, man. I was gonna slay. I tied up full muddlers, sort of reduced, low water style versions and Mr Jorgenson’s super reduced variation. I had damp pockets on my verst from my presoaking vials. I fished them hard. Swinging, stripping, casting upstream, cross- stream, down and across. I tried Leisenring lifts, I pinched micro shot on the leader ahead of them. I even floated some dry ones dead drift, having read it was a grasshopper pattern in a pinch.

I caught jack shit. Not a one. Not a single trout, bass or sucker.

Eventually I dropped muddlers from my lineup all together.

About 30 years later, I sat on the bench under Lee Spencer’s tarp along Steamboat Creek. After an hour of hanging out, watching, quiet visiting, and playing gently with his pup, Lee said, So, your’e pretty serious about steelhead. I was a little startled and said, Well it is fishing, so I try and keep it in perspective. But you know how it’s really popular right now to say men can’t multi-task? Well, I figure I’m actually a pretty decent multi-tacker, as I think about steelhead, pretty much all the time, and still get other things done. He laughed, and we got to talking in earnest. And at the end of our conversation, the final point he made was that there was no reason at all, fishing to summer run fish on that hallowed river, to ever need a sunk fly. (Don’t get me wrong- if/when I get down there in the winter, I’m fishing tips- I’m not some Hirano-type purist). But, he’d said, The strain of fish in this river will come up through thirty feet of water to hit a skated fly.

So what fly do you skate? I’d asked. He said, I just tie a little, sparse whispy version of a muddler- really sparse, and then hitch it behind the head. It skates right along.

We parted ways, me off to fish. It was my first time on the river. I had no clue where to fish. I got back down to the highway and on impulse, headed upstream. A few minutes later I was stopped by a flagman. How long? I asked. 45 minutes to an hour, was the response. I thought about heading back downstream, but I’d camped quite aways up. And since I had no clue about where to fish, the river next to me seemed as good as any. I pulled off onto the shoulder, wadered up, and scrambled down to the river. I rigged my rod, sat on a boulder and pulled out my flybox.

I’m a packrat by nature. It’s a genetic problem, and I knew there were a couple old muddlers- old, like 30 yeas old- in the corner of my box. They were fairly fully dressed, the only real difference being a fox wing in place of the turkey quill. I pulled one out, knotted it on, and tied a hitch between the head and the collar as Lee had demonstrated. It mashed the shit out of the head, but she skated. And there, at the bottom of that long slide, I headed into the tunnel of overhanging branches, wading that slippery-assed river for the first time, rock to rock, and happy as a clam as I watched my little bug waking across the apparently bottomless, blue-black depths.

Two hours in, not a swirl, and my previous muddler experience was creeping into my mind. Lee was pretty convincing, but so was my much earlier 5 year stint of striking out with Muddlers. And I was exhausted. I sat down and pulled out some cheese and crackers, and a beer. As the beer disappeared, the slab on which I sat seemed to get flatter, more moss-covered and more inviting. And I do love a stream side nap. I propped my Meiser up out of the way, set my small pack as a pillow, and laid down, looking at the river. The beautiful deep, dark currents, the massive boulders, that big pillow of water in front of that house-sized midstream boulder. I could not sleep, not with that beautiful lie facing me.

I shook off the nap and grabbed my rod. I stepped off my bed-rock, and onto a 18 inch wide, waist-deep shelf, nothing but dark below the toes of my boots. I rolled out about 30 ft of line and leader, and started the swing. The view of my little bug waking along was great, my head only about three feet above the surface. A dozen or so casts into the run, my fly climbed onto the pillow in front of the boulder, and about half way across, it disappears into a good sized silver snout. When he felt the hook, he launched and all three jumps seemed to soar above my head.

I felt too precarious in my position to move, and I was lucky he was more interested in bulldogging than running. Eventually I had him at my perch, got him by the tail and slipped the fly free.

Two days later, after a steep hike/slide down, and a quick nap waiting for the sun to drop behind the trees and shade the run, my little bug skated through a bunch of trout rising to a light caddis hatch. The Muddler got plucked and sipped continuously, and I wondered if there was a steelhead in that bottomless dark water he’d want to complete with all these little trout. The explosion that followed answered that, and after a great tussle in the waning light, I landed the second fish in three days. 

That was my introduction to an amazing river. I’ve never wanted to fish it differently since, but I haven’t been able to keep myself from tweaking my muddler. I seem to get ever close to Mr. Jorgenson’s head-only dressing, but I do like a touch of razzle-dazzle. At this point I’ve settled on a body of diamond braid, a few strands of crystal flash as an underwing, and the deer hair wing and head. I like to mix the colors of deer hair, blue/black, purple/black, or orange/black (October Caddis). I prefer died hair, as I think the dying process leaves it stiffer. I tie the head longer and looser than what will most often be found in shop fly boxes, and trim it tight and flat on the bottom, as I’ve found it skates better for me. I think the longer loose fibers give a flexible shoe at the point of impact of the water against the head, providing more lift than the dense, tight heads normally associated with muddlers. And that is entirely an opinion, not a wisp of fact to back it up.

A few years later, back in western NY, after my third or fourth trip to that river, my buddy, Coop and I were fishing tubes on our favorite eastern river. He’d asked about the most recent western trip and I was explaining the hitched muddler. “And you hitch it behind the head? The fly is knotted at the eye, and then pulled back and half-hitched behind the head, completely mashing the crap out of the head?

Pretty obvious where this was going. We’ve been friends a long time. 

“That has got to be the most inelegant thing I’ve ever heard of you doing with a fly,” he said with mock disgust.

Well, I couldn’t argue. It did look like hell. And the solution was ridiculously simple. Just a wee neck between the head and eye, room for a double turle with a hitch behind it. I was concerned the point of impact of the water would change too much, not providing the lift I want, but it works great, with no inelegance to be humiliated by. 

To this day, about seven years in, visiting two or three times each year,  it’s the only way I’ve fished that river. It’s been good to me.

I love muddlers. I’ll take mine hitched, and skating please.

©Richard C. Harrington 2018

Monday, December 4, 2017

Skater Of The Month For December 2017 - Tweaks

For past couple months, I have experimented with "tweaks" to a couple of my existing color blends.  In the top photo, I took the all black Ninja and added a red butt and green flash and green rib.  I like how the red and green provides a nice contrast with the black fly.  I have fished this fly a few times with only trout rises thus far.  Further testing with fish present is needed.

In the middle photo, I added a green butt to the Ninja as I visioned Kaufmann's "coal car" wet fly that is all black with the green butt the only point of contrast.  This version of the Ninja accounted for the one hookup I got on my BC trip this fall, and the one local steelhead I landed in September.

In the bottom photo, I took the natural/purple/green wang that I called the Royal Green and added an orange butt and purple UV flash.  The orange butt and purple flash adds a pop factor the the natural hued fly that appeals to my eye.  No approval from steelhead yet.  Hopefully field testing next year will give this fly some much needed validation.

Winter steelhead season is now upon us and I have officially gotten  my big irons and other subsurface dry line winter flies out.  I took my first winter steelhead trip on 12/1 and while no steel like tugs were encountered, it felt good to be back in my winter playgrounds.  Of course when mild winter condtions are encountered, I will still give the floaters a try.

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and a Merry Christmas.  May chrome gifts appear when you are out on the rivers.